The footage for Halo 5’s multiplayer was released earlier this month and the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta will be bundled with copies of The Master Chief Collection. It looks like we’re all gearing up to welcome Halo back into the fold as one of the most honoured titles in the FPS genre. But despite the pedigree, despite the seminal nature of Halo: Combat Evolved can Halo still compete in the crowded console FPS space?
Halo: Combat evolved is not a new game. At the time of writing the game is nearly fifteen years old and with the recent release of The Master Chief Collection has now been re-released twice. As a launch title for the Xbox, Halo taught us what was possible with the console FPS with its flyaway presentation, sweeping story and frantic multiplayer. Halo was genre-defining in its day and became the go-to benchmark for console shooters, a title previously held by GoldenEye. Before Halo there was no standard laid out for how an FPS should act. If you’re unlucky enough to to have played Quake 2 on the PlayStation or GoldenEye on the N64 recently you’ll notice that the look and move controls are all over the place. It took a while for games designers to find a template that would work in the majority of cases. Games Design 101 – the user should never have to get used to something. Gamer actions must be achieved easily or intuitively. Halo introduced a great number of the FPS genre’s standards, plenty of which still stand today and a great many you can see wholesale in basically every console shooter since 2001. By the time Halo 3 came around in 2007 though, the console shooter had evolved; the game had changed significantly and Halo has been playing catchup ever since.
Halo remains arguably the most important FPS in history but the minute Call of Duty had gotten its toehold in the marketplace, the entire model shifted. Modern Warfare came out right on the heels of Halo 3 and immediately the demographic was given two products at their absolute peak. The differences between the two were painfully obvious. Call of Duty’s rapid movement, more intuitive controls and slick multiplayer put Activision’s Golden Goose right to the top of the FPS market and there is stayed until very recently. Halo 3 remained the go-to game for a while but the burgeoning professional scene along with yearly incremental updates saw CoD dominate the console shooter space.
Revolution not evolution.
Swifter melée attacks, responsive iron sights and intuitive movement mechanics trounced the floaty, old-fashioned Halo experience and modern FPS games tend to take their lead from the former rather than the latter.
Clicking the stick to toggle the zoom on the Chief’s gun, using the left trigger to throw grenades – these are hallmarks of an old-fashioned game. Call of Duty took the groundwork laid down by Halo and asked if this was the best way. Could it be improved? Sped up? Made more intuitive? The answer is a resoundin yes with more games nowadays taking control schemes from the Call of Duty model than from the Halo model. Once a superior standard is discovered it’s best to move with the times. Whilst I have never been a fan of the Call of Duty franchise I will begrudgingly admit that the first time I played Modern Warfare, I couldn’t believe that moving a few buttons around on the controller could impact my gameplay in such a positive way. Black Ops even managed to straddle iron sights alongside dual wielding. Bringing a game out every year would be an excuse for a lack of innovation but Activision have ensured that a small trickle of new features have been integrated into their incremental franchise, whereas in my opinion Halo has not introduced anything truly groundbreaking since Halo 2, despite years and years between releases. Despite their heroic efforts, 343 Industries have inherited the debt which Bungie accrued. A debt which has been compounded by great new online IPs like Titanfall, Destiny and Battlefield.
Despite my negative tone the single player narrative experience remains lots of fun. The story remains original and fresh in the face of a lot of Halo’s many contenders. Even better though is the rip-roaring split-screen couch co-op mode. Raff and I have played these games side-by-side for years and we reckon that Halo remains the pinnacle of last gen’s co-op experiences. There’s nothing in need of fixing here, provided that the writing stays on top form. The story was never the selling-point for Halo, despite it being above-par.
In 2001 it was the multiplayer in Halo that was groundbreaking. My rose-tinted nostalgia glasses remember four-player splitscreen on a 14″ CRT portable television back in student halls at university. An unfeasably small bedroom crammed with post-pubescent boys, microwave cheeseburgers and tins of supermarket lager. You know what, though? I don’t drink supermarket lager any more now I’m an adult. I don’t eat microwave anything and by the same token, I’ve moved away from Halo.
Halo may have defined the console FPS but Call of Duty refined it. Sure, my old uni pals and I could still meet up and play Halo, but it just wasn’t the same. We were like 30-year old men down the skate park showing the kids our radical tabletops. A host of new gameplay modes, features and content just couldn’t make up for that floaty, almost slow-motion gameplay compared to Battlefield or call of Duty. For me multiplayer is all about local. Online though, playing with strangers was always a gamble at best. Depending on the lobby it has always been easy to find yourself in a rude, aggressive old-boys club with map-specific unwritten rules and a generally cold gaming experience. Maybe we’re comparing apples to oranges here as it’s hard to rate each game based on the behaviour of their fans but Call of Duty is anything but cold. Sure, turn off your headset unless you like a bit of blue but the action is frenetic, non-stop and challenging. Radicals triumph because they’re better organised, better staffed and better obeyed. Once in power, the heat fades and the Thermidor becomes the Tyrant, laying the path for the cycle of revolution to begin again. Halo was the revolution and with luck one day it will be so again.
The return of the king.
Games development in the 21st Century is starting to look more and more like Hollywood. Once one game invests in an original feature, every title on the planet steals a little bit from it. Shadow of Mordor is a prime example. Let someone else put in the groundwork then either buy the code or make an attempt to recreate it. Halo suffered from everyone nicking their stuff but they never played the game and fought back. It seems 343 Industries have since learned the rules by stealing a great number of multiplayer features from Titanfall, but in a grim twist of irony Call of Duty beat them to the punch. Halo 5’s multiplayer mode looks like a bold return to form though, plugging in some tried and tested gameplay dynamics which sit perfectly within the Halo framework. Of note is the option to iron sights, but only when it’s safe. Getting shot whilst iron sighting will drop the player back into hip-shooting. Apparently the early alpha testers specifically requested this feature as a means to separate the game from its contemporaries and to keen Halo 5’s competitive edge. Fantastic, I say! Anything that can demarcate the game from its competitors whilst making sure it can compete in the crowded FPS marketplace is a boon.
I don’t doubt that Guardians will sell well. But knocking CoD off the most-played list is a tough nut to crack, even if Activision’s grasp is slipping. If Halo is your go-to game then there’s been limitless fun in the past with Forge and week-specific game modes like Grifball or Race in the official lobbies. For the gamers who like to try a bit of everything though, these features aren’t enough. Bringing the game in-line with its smoother competitors and standing toe-to-toe with them in the competitive space is clearly the fight 343 have chosen. I for one am glad not just to see another Halo game on the horizon, but to see one that looks so well-considered and thought out. This is not your grandfather’s Halo. I hope that 343 have learned from their predecessor’s misgivings and have hewn a Halo game worthy of its fanbase. Halo 5: Guardians looks truly like a next-gen Halo game and I can think of nothing more entertaining than seeing Halo reclaim its crown as King of the FPS.