CruelLEGACEY contemplates the future of Halo multiplayer.
Welcome to part 3 of “If I were making Halo 5”! This series is dedicated to examining the evolution of the Halo franchise. If you’re just tuning in, you can catch up with the rest of this article here:
While the single player campaign is the heart of the Halo franchise, it is the multiplayer and other secondary features (forge mode, theater mode) that gives the series its legs.
Too many cooks…
Halo multiplayer is in a strange state at the moment. The community is vast, and has pulled the game in several disparate directions. To their credit, 343 Industries have made a valiant effort to please everyone. Unfortunately, the results have been less than fans had hoped. Multiplayer in Halo 4 tries to be something for everyone, and ends up mastering nothing.
In my efforts to solidify my ideas for the future of Halo multiplayer, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about other games that handle multiplayer well. 343 clearly did the same thing while developing Halo 4; Call of Duty influences are rampant. But I think 343 learned the wrong lessons from the competition. Slapping a bunch of unlockable loadout customizations over your multiplayer game will not make it more enjoyable, especially when such loadouts break the fundamental balance that makes your game what it is.
I can see the train of thought that lead 343 to make some of these changes.
- We want to attract new players
- CoD is insanely popular
- CoD has features X, Y, and Z
- If we also have features X, Y, and Z, it’ll make our game easy for new players to get in to.
The problem with this train of thought is that 343 hasn’t accounted for Halo’s inherent complexity. Even stripped of all the bells and whistles (such as customized loadouts and ordinance drops), Halo is a far more complicated game than CoD. So when you take the basic Halo mechanics and add all this clutter on top of it, the results are pure chaos. Of all the Halo games, I feel Halo 4 is by far the most difficult for new players to jump in and actually learn how to play properly. Everybody is using a different weapon each time you see them, power-ups are raining down from the heavens, and players are spawning all around you all the time. The game does nothing to encourage natural teamwork or co-ordination, and map-flow is practically obliterated. New players are quickly overwhelmed, and experienced Halo veterans get frustrated by the chaotic nonsense all around them.
So, how would I fix it? What should multiplayer look like in Halo 5?
Don’t Tell me what I can’t do!
Before moving forward, I would take a step backwards.
- Remove customized loadouts (preset loadouts can stay)
- Remove ordinance drops
- Remove Tactical Packages and Support Upgrades
- Remove selectable armor abilities
Since their inclusion in Halo Reach, armor abilities have been a point of much debate. Some enjoy the expanded range of options they provide. Others feel they are too difficult to properly balance. To me, it makes sense to expand the player’s abilities beyond the basic “walk/jump/melee” that we have now. Part of the fun in playing as a cybernetic super soldier is feeling powerful. But in order to maintain balanced gameplay, these abilities need to be ubiquitous. Games like Crysis, Section 8: Prejudice, or the upcoming Titanfall have shown that enhanced sprinting, climbing, and thruster abilities can still work within a balanced and competitive environment, as long as everyone has access to the same abilities all the time.
With that in mind I would make the following enhancements to the default player abilities:
- Keep sprint as a default ability for all players.
- Add a modified thruster ability for greater mobility and jump extensions (imagine a less spazzy version of the Halo 4 thruster pack)
- Add automatic climbing and vaulting abilities that allow players to pull themselves up to ledges that are within reach.
If added as default abilities, these changes will help players feel empowered by expanding the range of available combat options. They are also somewhat self-balancing. The ability to vault and climb leaves players vulnerable and unable to return fire. Sprinting and thrusters both increase the player’s ability to move quickly around the environment, and can also be used to avoid each other (a jump/thruster maneuver could easily dodge the dreaded sprint/melee combo).
More importantly, by standardizing these abilities 343 can focus on designing maps tailored to this specific range of mobility. Sight lines, jump distances, and weapon placements can all be balanced, as long as these abilities remain ubiquitous. Which brings me to my next point:
Pick a formula, and don’t mess with it.
What game are we making?
I’m about to piss some of you off, but stick with me: the original shipping version of Halo Reach was the most balanced and well tuned Halo multiplayer has been. It wasn’t the most well suited for all gametypes (I can hear the competitive crowd shouting at me already), but that is a different issue. Let me explain.
Default Reach multiplayer was built around a very carefully tuned sandbox. Every weapon, every ability had its role, its strengths, and its weaknesses. Certain elements were not to everyone’s tastes (armor abilities, reticule bloom), but they all functioned properly within their intended design. The drawback to this sandbox is that it was only properly balanced when all elements were in play. If you removed armor lock, suddenly the sprint/melee combo became a problem. When reticule bloom was reduced or removed, most maps suddenly became plagued by cross-map spawn killing because they weren’t designed with such long range combat in mind.
By 2012, Halo Reach multiplayer was a disaster. The carefully constructed sandbox had been blown apart in a dozen different directions, all in an attempt to please various corners of the community (most of whom were not satisfied with the results). The lesson to be learned here? Commit to your designs. 343 needs to decide exactly what kind of game they are making, and make that game the best it can be.
I’ve discussed a few of my ideas for default player abilities in Halo 5, but whatever designs 343 lands on, they need to commit to that design 100%. You can’t design maps, weapons, vehicles, and damage models all around each other, and then start changing pieces of the formula without causing problems. My Spartan shouldn’t run faster in one playlist than he does in another, my pistol shouldn’t do more damage in one gametype than another. These things should be universal across the entire matchmaking experience. If changes are made, it needs to be in service of that initial design goal, not because you want to change your game in to something that it isn’t.
So, what kind of multiplayer game does Halo 5 need to be? Of course, “Halo” means many different things to different people. My idea of a classic “Halo” experience is not the same as the next person’s. I have some ideas on how to address these challenges, which I’ll get to later. But first, I think 343 needs to re-think what the “default” Halo gametype looks like. For years it has been Team Slayer; red vs blue, most kills wins. For experienced players, Team Slayer is often the most ‘pure’ form of the game, with the greatest potential for high-level competitive play.
The problem is that in order to enjoy Team Slayer, you and your team need to have a pretty good idea what you are doing. Compounding this is the fact that Team Slayer provides no guidance or feedback for the player. Newcomers are quite literally thrown to the wolves.
Is this really the best way for newcomers to learn how to play your game? Is this the best experience?
In my opinion, Halo 5 needs to offer a better way for players to learn how to play. And the way to do this is with Objective Gametypes.
Objective matches inherently direct the player. Even if I’ve never played before and nobody on my team is communicating, I still know “oh, I need to defend this thing over here”, or “my job is to go grab that thing over there”. Objective matches promote roll-playing within the team, so new players don’t need to worry about mastering the entire sandbox all at the same time. They also tend to divide the map into clear zones or territories, allowing new players to focus on learning 1 small space at a time, rather than spawning them at different points on the map every time they die.
To do this properly, Objective maps need to be designed from scratch around objective gametypes. 343 can’t just take a Slayer map and stick a few Flag capture points on it. They need to look at how games like Battlefield handle objective separation and traffic flow through maps. Or better yet, look back at previous Halo games. Asymmetrical maps like Zanzibar or Terminal offered exceptional objective-based experiences. They provide a mix of infantry and vehicle combat, with both large scale and close-quarters encounters. Above all else, they create stories. The emergent gameplay experiences that come from big-team Halo objective games are in my opinion the pinnacle of Halo multiplayer. Every single game has a sense of progression; an ebb and flow. When you consider their guided nature, combined with the range of experiences they offer, it makes perfect sense to put a strong focus on a set of objective-based maps and gametypes at the heart of Halo 5’s multiplayer experience.
Playlists: Way less is way more
With a core objective-based pillar in place, it then becomes a challenge of pleasing everybody. Easy, right? Going back to my earlier point about Halo multiplayer being pulled in too many directions, I feel the playlist system needs some serious scaling back. Rather than having a dozen half-baked playlists, I believe Halo 5 would benefit from a smaller selection of tight, polished, and refined playlists. Yes, some fans will be initially upset that their favorite niche playlist has been cut. But for the sake of a more focused online experience, some cuts need to be made.
I propose the following playlists:
- Objective (6 v 6, the primary playlist. Asymmetrical round-based objective games, maps designed specifically for this playlist).
- Big Team (8 v 8, mix of slayer and symmetrical objectives on large scale maps, lots of vehicles)
- Team Slayer (4 v 4, the primary competitive playlist. Small/mid sized symmetrical maps, little or no vehicles.)
- Lone Wolves (7 players, mix of free-for-all slayer and objective gametypes)
- Rotational Playlist (A slot for 343 to feature gametypes and modes on a temporary basis)
But wait… there’s more!
Dude, where’s my Custom Games?
Looking at my proposed playlists above, I’m sure some of you are screaming about the fairly large omissions. Don’t worry Grifballers, I haven’t forgotten about you. A matchmaking playlist system is only half of what Halo 5 needs. The other half is…
A custom server browser.
We know Halo 5 will feature dedicated servers (it’s just about the only thing that has actually been confirmed at this point). So with dedicated servers a reality, there is no longer any excuse: Halo 5 MUST have a custom server browser. Custom games have been a staple of the Halo franchise from the very beginning, but there has never been a great way to access or enjoy them without organizing playdates or community events. For the communities that thrive on customized game types, they could have direct control over the exact perimeters they play with. No more waiting for 343 to update the Grifball or MLG playlists. Each group could run their own server, and people looking to play these gametypes could join through the browser.
Let’s face it: 343 will never be able to provide the ideal playlist for Halo Tracks, MLG, or Grifball Hub. These communities know what they want, and are able to create it for themselves better than 343 ever could. So let’s pull these gametypes out from under 343 and run them ourselves. Let 343 focus on core Halo experience; the gametypes and playlists that they are truly passionate about running. This setup really could give us the best of both worlds; an exceptional AAA multiplayer matchmaking system, and the freedom that only Halo can deliver. .
I think we’re just getting started
With that, we’ve come to the end of “If I were making Halo 5”. Thank you very much for reading. If you’re tuning in late, you can catch up on Part 1 and Part 2. Please do let me know what you think in the comments below.
Here’s hoping Halo 5 is as amazing as we all know it can be!