Halo 5: Guardians was just recently formally announced after being teased initially at last year’s E3. Halo 5 will be the second game developed by 343 Industries, the Microsoft owned studio formed specifically to make Halo games after Bungie left the series behind to pursue new things. The studio’s first game, Halo 4, was a competently made game that appeared faithful to the series on a surface level, but came up short in the finer details. As a big Halo fan I want to see the series return to being great without major caveats, and the following are some of the key improvements 343 will have to make going from Halo 4 to Halo 5.
Move Away From The Covenant
The campaign was, for the most part, among the stronger aspects of Halo 4. From the perspective of design, in both the levels and the individual encounters, Halo 4 was unmistakably a Halo game, which is a good thing. However, from a fictional point of view the game was a clear departure from Bungie’s Halo games. For one, the fact that much of the game was spent fighting Covenant felt like a slap in the face to the way the original trilogy concluded. Granted, there was a line or two thrown in that explained that these Covenant were a splinter group that didn’t represent the whole of the alliance, but it still felt too much like the game was treading very well worn ground.
Halo 5 will be much better off severely downplaying the Covenant as an enemy, or better yet not involving them at all. The Covenant storyline reached a fitting and natural conclusion in Halo 3, and having them be anything other than uneasy allies in these post trilogy games disrespects the original resolution to the conflict. Even removed from a narrative context, just in terms of pure game design the Covenant as enemies is played out. The Covenant were the primary enemies in 5 Halo games prior to Halo 4 and were featured heavily in that game. Going forward combat will be much more interesting if the focus is on new types of enemies and new types of encounters.
Refocus on Balance
While the campaign was mostly true the series, the multiplayer was another story altogether. While the core action of Halo 4 was very evocative of Halo, everything around the edges of the multiplayer experience was completely out of place. Almost all the issues that plagued Halo 4’s multiplayer can be traced back the COD-ification of the game, chief among them the lack of balance. In the past, Halo multiplayer has been all about balance, but Halo 4 ditched this idea in favor of chasing the Call of Duty audience.
Rather than the thoughtfully placed weapon spawns and evenly matched starting loadouts the series had featured in the past, 343 instead opted for supply drops full of randomness and create-a-class loadouts with perks. Whereas in the past controlling the map and weapon spawns was a key strategy, in Halo 4 seemingly everyone had a sniper or similar power weapon at all times. Without knowing which weapons were in play at a given time, the need for tactics and strategy evaporated in a mess of random luck.
The lack of balance was the death knell for Halo 4 as a multiplayer game, and absolutely has to be fixed in Halo 5. The loadout system needs to be either removed entirely or completely overhauled to ensure that it only reflects preferred play style and doesn’t grant a starting advantage. The weapon drops should be completely removed because they negate map control entirely, but if they stay they should also be completely retooled. Hopefully the barren wasteland that is Halo 4 multiplayer has taught 343 that people want Halo to be Halo. Emulating Call of Duty won’t attract that audience, it will only drive away the people that have already chosen Halo over Call of Duty.
Reward Skill, Not Commitment
One of the many major innovations Halo 2’s multiplayer introduced was the skill based matchmaking system. Today we see many games that use an Elo-like ranking system, notably League of Legends, but Halo 2 was among the first. Being able to actually feel your competition getting tougher as you leveled up was an amazing experience, and one of my best memories gaming was the 10 game win streak of ranked high level Team Slayer I had with a group of friends in high school. However, with Halo 4 there was no skill ranking at launch, and when it was added later, well after the community had abandoned the game, it didn’t even show in-game.
If Halo 5 is to win back the Halo competitive fanbase, the return of competitive balance must be accompanied by the return of skill based matchmaking. Halo 4’s once again very Call of Duty-like commitment based leveling system was a poor replacement for the rewarding skill based level system. When advancement is based on nothing but the amount of time you spend playing game, it isn’t even remotely rewarding to advance, in fact some would say it’s the opposite. The reason the multiplayer of Halo 2 and Halo 3 was so addicting and engaging was because the perfectly balanced gameplay was complimented by a ranking system that encouraged teamwork and skillful play. Halo 4’s multiplayer was full of lone wolves that cared more about their kill death ratio than actually winning the game, and Halo 5 absolutely needs to return the series to its team and skill oriented roots if the multiplayer is stand any chance of catching on.
There are plenty more minor areas 343 could stand to improve Halo 5 over Halo 4, but these three are the most important in my eyes. The most disappointing thing about Halo 4 is that pretty much everything wrong with it was the result of design decisions, not execution. 343 consciously made the choice to make the multiplayer more like Call of Duty, to make the Covenant the primary enemy units, and to focus the multiplayer progression on commitment rather than skill. In terms of execution Halo 4 was phenomenal, with outstanding gameplay, great visuals, and solid map and level design. While this reality makes Halo 4 an incredibly disappointing game, it also means they are only a few design re-evaluations away from making Halo 5 an excellent Halo game, and we can only hope the studio has learned from the feedback they got about Halo 4.