Even having read the previews - written by colleagues we trust - we were still a little unsure about what to expect from Halo 5. As far as we're concerned, 343i are in the last chance saloon when it comes to our unflinching support. If they drop the ball with their next Halo game, we're done. Maybe not a clean break, but the love will disappear. So, for us, there's a whole lot riding on Halo 5: Guardians, and most importantly, the game's multiplayer.
It's super important for 343i to get this right then, because no doubt we're not the only ones who're feeling unsure about the series after the serious missteps taken during the launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and following the excessive tinkering in Halo 4's multiplayer.
After several hours playing on two maps in Halo 5's early access multiplayer beta, our initial fears are somewhat allayed. It's decent stuff, and there's a purity to the action that suggests 343i's claims are on the money, and that they're stripping it back to the bare essentials and focussing on the core experience. Of course, we'll know even more when the beta is in full swing next week, but this first glimpse did the trick. We're not so worried now.
There's two maps - Truth and Empire - featuring in the early access and they're both decent. Truth is a remake of Midship (which was also remade as Heretic in Halo 3) and it's a purple circuit of death, with ramps coasting around the circular arena, with platforms on the different levels at different points of the periphery. There's a sword atop a platform in the middle that still feels too powerful for this pokey little map, and it's one of those arenas where you've just got to keep moving, lapping several times, teammates in tow, like a swarm of angry wasps looking for someone to sting.
Empire, on the other hand, is all-new. We'd actually call it the superior map of the two, which is high praise indeed, although considering the fact that Truth has been remade twice already, it's obviously a favourite among many. Empire is set on the roof of a skyscraper. To the front of the map, in front of a sheer drop, is an open area where a sniper rifle spawns periodically. There's near-symmetrical buildings on either side, and a series of smaller structures to hop between in the middle, with another encolsed area at the back that houses another sniper spawn point.
However, maps are maps. They're interesting, yes, and creating great maps takes mastery, sure, but it's the Spartans and their abilities that will define Halo 5's multiplayer, not the environments in which they'll fight.
Halo fans who bemoaned the shift in Bungie's approach in Destiny with regards to the super powers may well shake their heads in disbelief at the new ground pound feature, but we liked it even if it's hard to pull off at the right moment. While it certainly gives the player a feeling of power, perhaps there's still some of you out there who'd prefer less trimmings and more focus of the core concept.
When it comes to the core mechanics most should be pleased, because there feels like a nice balance between the new abilities. They're limited, and as such nothing feels over-powered. Everyone comes to the table with the same skills, so there's no unbalancing, or crying foul that one class is more potent than another. In this respect it's a return to the roots of Halo 2 and Halo 3.
The mantle/clamber ability is nice inclusion (it can be automatic or triggered), and it means that jumping onto ledges is now a much safer proposition. It points to an increased sense of interaction and a greater grounding in the game space. Over the years, even through the lesser Halo offerings, there's been a great improvement in terms of the tactile feeling of being in the maps. Halo 5: Guardians is no different in this respect, and continues the upward curve.
Thruster packs are a great way of getting yourself out of harms way, although there's not enough boost to completely remove you from the danger zone. These multi-directional boosts can, however, make the difference in a close fight between you and an enemy. Sprinting is also a good way to evade enemy bullets, although be warned, a sprint will stop your shield from recharging. All these factors fold into a great feeling of balance and battlefield equality. Something that was missing in Halo 4, and, arguably, Halo: Reach too.
Another new thing is the aim-down-scope feature that absolutely transforms the Assault Rifle (also, if you jump while aiming, you hover in mid-air). While aiming down the sights you'll be shaken from your view by an enemy shot, but unmolested it's a great way to improve accuracy with the notoriously scatter-spray AR (it also works well with the SMG, which returns to a core series entry for the first time since Halo 3). We weren't using it at first (we forgot), but about an hour into our time with the beta an opponent downed us from range with the AR. The replay showed us how, and since then we've been using it constantly. That said, it's still no replacement for a well-placed barrage of shots from either a Battle Rifle or a DMR.
There's not much that we didn't like to be honest. The frat boy high fives after each match are going to get annoying quickly, and while the contextual dialogue between Spartans might potentially be useful among unconnected players, they feel too all-American for our European tastes. But these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, and we now keenly await the addition of more maps and modes when then full beta kicks off after Christmas. So far, so good. Halo 5: Guardians is looking like a return to form.
We know that Halo is going to be facing up against the usual suspects in 2015. Battlefield: Hardline is coming this year, and will arrive featuring a cops and robbers theme that should set it apart from the crowd. We'll have to wait until we've spent some serious time with the game before we'll know whether the tighter narrative focus fits in with Battlefield's traditionally more expansive gameplay style.
Then there's the small matter of November's inevitable Call of Duty release. Details on this front are still thin on the ground, but sure as night follows day, Activision will have a CoD game ready for the festive season. Activision are also releasing another expansion for Bungie's Destiny, so we can expect more fireworks in that direction too.
In terms of the console space, there's the impending arrival of Planetside 2, a release that should have players looking forward to some seriously large-scale battles (that's PS4 only though). And don't forget that the grandaddy of sci-fi blasters, Doom, is set to make a return at some point in 2015.