After more than two years of development, Microsoft’s 343 Industries studio is revealing details of the Halo 5: Guardian’s multiplayer beta today. It has beautiful graphics that will look great on the Xbox One video game console, but it also has new features that should make players feel like they’re getting something fresh, even though the game is just the latest in a series that has sold more than 60 million copies since 2001.
I attended a preview event for the multiplayer beta, which debuts for buyers of the Halo: Master Chief Collection game on Dec. 29. The beta is critical, since multiplayer has to be done just right to satisfy so many fans. That has put the pressure on Josh Holmes, the executive producer on Halo 5 Guardians at 343 Industries; and Tim Longo, creative director of Halo 5 Guardians at 343. We played the multiplayer beta with them, and then talked to them about it afterward.
They talked about new features such as Spartan Abilities, which means that you can pull some special moves that make your Spartan charge the enemy head-on. Or you may do another move where you jump into the air, target an enemy below, and come down on them hard with a “ground pound” attack. These are just the sort of abilities that fans are going to go crazy over in the coming months as Microsoft prepares for the 2015 launch of Halo 5: Guardians.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You gave away a big part of the story: Halo 5 has Spartans.
Josh Holmes: Yeah, that’s going to be a big shock to people when they find out.
GamesBeat: How long would you say you’ve been thinking about this kind of multiplayer? Does this go back for some years?
Tim Longo: Different aspects of it, depending on what you refer to. Breakout mode is something we were talking about midway through Halo 4. But the biggest change with the multiplayer that we’re showing today is probably the Spartan abilities. That’s something we’ve been working on for about 18 months. Almost two years.
Holmes: A lot of the production for Halo 5 has been focused on figuring those things out.
GamesBeat: It seems to continue some of that thrill of assassination, when you’re doing a big finishing move on someone. That’s satisfying. Did you get feedback that people wanted more of this?
Holmes: We started from the fantasy of what it means to be a Spartan.
Longo: Some of it’s feedback, but some of it’s just progressing that fantasy fulfillment forward and keeping on pushing on it. There are two goals. One, what does it feel like to be a Spartan? But also, how do we turn that feeling into gameplay mechanics? The charge and the ground pound are examples. Those are offensive attacks you don’t need a weapon for. Being a Spartan is your weapon. But it’s also part of gameplay. It’s not just a flourish.
The assassinations are cool to look at, but essentially it’s a finish in melee, mechanically. The other two, you have to figure out the right time to do them. They have counterbalancing mechanics in association with them.
GamesBeat: What’s the counter to a charge?
Holmes: If someone’s running toward you, you can shoot at them. You may not be able to make it, but you can also use the thrusters to dodge. When you’re initiating the charge — I saw this in the game we were playing a few minutes ago — I went for a charge and I ended up mistiming my charging attack. I went right by, and then the other person turned around and was able to cut me down.
There’s that risk-versus-reward to going for one of those big moves. You’re putting yourself out there and hoping you can pull it off. If you do, it’s incredibly satisfying. If you miss it, it hurts.
Longo: There are counters, but we’ve tried to add a lot of skill to using them as well. Even if a person doesn’t counter the charge, you have to aim right. There’s some give to being able to turn while you’re charging and all that stuff. You commit to it. With ground pound, you need to be at a certain height. There are prerequisites to these moves. You have to aim the ground pound as well. There’s extra skill involved.
GamesBeat: It looks more like a sporting event, maybe? The way they swagger at the end screen. When you’re doing some of these moves, they seem like something people would cheer for.
Holmes: There’s definitely a sports element to it, especially when you look at the Breakout arena, when we were exploring that concept. The fiction behind multiplayer in the Halo universe is all about Spartans training within a simulated combat deck, doing war games to get them prepared for battle. We started thinking about what the pageantry around that might be, the competition between different teams of Spartans, how people might even be spectating that on live feeds. It plays into e-sports in the real world and how that might translate into the Spartans’ environment.
GamesBeat: Is that also a move away from the feeling that you’re fighting for your life? It’s more like this is a game, not a life-or-death experience.
Longo: I think for Breakout specifically, we go intentionally over the top with the sports element. But we still want a grounded experience with the Slayer maps. You played Truth and Empire. Empire takes place fictionally during an insurrection battle on a planet, in a skyscraper. There’s a crashed Pelican. Things in the map make it feel rooted. We still want that fictional wrapper to always be there so you feel like you’re a Spartan in this cool universe. But we also have scoring and things that make it feel more game-ey at the same time. Breakout is our answer to that raw sports element, but we still want the classic Slayer stuff to feel like it fits in a real Halo location.
GamesBeat: It looks like there are women characters, but it’s a bit hard to tell.
Holmes: In Halo you’ve always had that choice, and you can continue to pick a male or female Spartan in Halo 5.
Longo: When you do that, in the chatter system we talked about, the dynamic system, the V/O will shift depending on what people have chosen. We have men and women providing voices for that system.
GamesBeat: The shooting felt a little different. I don’t know what I noticed there, but it seemed like, when I wasn’t aiming — just running and gunning — I could keep the crosshairs on someone a little easier.
Holmes: I wonder if that’s just a by-product of the 60 frames per second. Everything in the engine, as we made the shift to Xbox One, we’ve gone a rewritten all the systems in the engine, optimized it all for 60 frames per second. It’s not just a higher refresh rate in the engine. All the systems are running at 60. It makes a big difference in the smooth, responsive feel.