As of my writing this, I have logged over 137 hours in to Halo 5: Guardians. That is just gross. That is almost 6 complete days, and yet I know when I go home this evening, it is the first thing I am going to do when I get back. I will play at least two matches of arena, play a Big Team Battle match, and then maybe, if some friends are online, throw myself into the massive battleground that is Warzone. After some dinner, and some time with the family, I will once again be picking up my game pad and hopping right back in. My Fallout 4 character is bored, sitting under some tree in the wasteland. She wonders where I am. I dare not tell her that I am in the opium den that is Halo 5. This is an addiction to Halo that I have not experienced since Halo 3 back in 2007, and I am so happy to be back in that insane halo mindset.
What is it about this Halo iteration that has me so plugged in? On the most basic level, it is the tightest and most satisfying shooter mechanically that I have played in years. The shooting is the tightest it has ever been, and with dedicated servers, I know that more often than not, if I am dead, it is my fault. Every crunch of a headshot, every recoil from a weapon, every gameplay mechanic, system, sound, and haptic experience, has been built to create an adrenaline based reward that sends all of the chemicals within my primitive brain rushing in pure chaotic bliss.
For the last few Halo games, this rush has been sadly absent. While I have adored the single player content of Reach and Halo 4, the multiplayer was just not hooking me the way past entries had. The map design was fine, but there was something about the systems in place – whether it be the loadouts, first implemented in Reach, or the perk systems applied in 4, the entire makeup just felt hollower. 4, especially with its heavy Call of Duty-influenced system of unlockables, felt like it lacked the confidence to embrace what made Halo its own, and instead became an approximation of someone else’s game.
Where I will give these games credit, and where I feel there is a real detraction from Halo 5, is in the map design. Halo 4 especially had some beautiful maps. Halo 5, sadly, has embraced a more minimalist, less is more attitude when it comes to map design. Many of the maps are variations of other maps within the set list. Eden and Empire, Truth and Regret. I would love to see some more imagination in the assets available on these maps, the way Longbow, Haven, and Exile all felt unique in Halo 4.
That being said, with the introduction of free maps in Halo 5, currently being added at a monthly pace, the game still manages to feel fresh at a rather constant pace. Since launch, Halo 5 has seen the free inclusion of 6 Big Team Battle maps, one Arena map, one giant scale Warzone map, and the largest most fleshed out version of Forge ever to be released. Now one could argue, as many have, that Forge and BTB should have been included in the original release, but their original absence was not a painful loss as far as I was concerned, as the new introductions of game modes like Breakout and Warzone felt so fresh and unique. Their inclusion, however, shows Microsoft’s and 343 Industries’ new approach with Halo 5, that of Halo’s multiplayer being a service rather than a static release. The idea is actually rather thrilling that on a monthly basis we will be receiving content updates that keep the game loaded with content. This is made better due to the lack of a price tag, as all players receive these maps in a game update rather than being divided by paid DLC packs that only a segment of the population opt into purchasing.
Now the trade-off to the free DLC is the Req system that contains elements of micro- (and not-so micro-)transactions. When the system was first announced, poor communication made it feel like these purchaseable packs were going to be necessary to make the Warzone mode feel complete. Thankfully, as we have now had about two months of constant Warzone-ing, it is clear that they are not. I have yet to purchase a single Req pack and have amassed quite the collection of power weapons, vehicles, and other tools that make Warzone feel so chaotically fun!
Look, I get it. Halo can sometimes feel of a time and a place. It is a franchise that looks better with nostalgia than with an eye to where games are currently, and yet, to my mind Halo has never been stronger. Sure the single-player campaign’s narrative was less than stellar, but from a gameplay perspective, it had never been better and it is so hard to go back and play those classic games without its many upgraded systems. And man, that multiplayer. That Multiplayer is just so good. It is so good that MLG has brought Halo back under its fold as a serious e-sport. Last night was the North American qualifier for the Halo World Championship and I watched 2 hours of it enthralled, not only because of the sheer entertainment value of seeing such skillful players like Evil Geniuses squad on display, but also because I was learning from watching these gamers play. Learning tricks that I hope to use in my own arena sessions. I’m doing call-outs, bouncing grenades, and taking flanks in ways I have never done in Halo, and I am excelling. When I make a mistake, I hate myself for it, and when I command an opponent, there are few better feelings. I love it. I am addicted to it. I may need help…
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar