343 Industries: Where Ambition Takes Precedence Over Function

I’ve made no secret of my disappointment with the Halo 5: Guardians Arena Multiplayer Beta. If this were a demonstration of the multiplayer component of a completely new IP, I’d be excited at everything that 343 has on display. As the next entry in one of gaming’s most monolithic franchises, though, it’s naturally subject to much closer scrutiny and historical comparisons. A lot of people disagree with me when I say that Halo 5: Guardians feels less like a Halo game than any other title in Bungie and 343’s heralded series. They may well be right, but I’m not sure that my views on Halo 5: Guardians will change unless the time-per-kill is increased through either weapon-nerfing or a major health buff, but Halo 5: Guardians‘ newest mechanics are balanced brilliantly, and that more than anything highlights 343 Industries’ exciting – and frustrating – potential as a studio.

343 still have some major problems that they’ll have to address to be on par with Bungie. Despite its brilliance when it works, Halo: The Master Chief Collections launch issues mark the first time that a Halo game has suffered a major period of non-functionality after launch. There are still strange connection problems in the Halo 5: Guardians Beta – like lobbies not consolidating a 4 v. 2 game to 3 v. 3  so that a match can begin – which speak more to bad decisions than technical gaffes. Top developers like Nintendo, Naughty Dog, and Valve always ship games that work. Regardless of how inventive a game’s design is, it needs to work to get any recognition – functionality and polish are perhaps the most important factors in the AAA market. 343 is going to have to solidify its current-gen server architecture before it can truly be considered elite, but once that happens the Kirkland, Washington studio has the potential to be the next great AAA team.

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343’s apparent need to constantly experiment with their storied franchise has always struck me as strange. At its peak Halo was the Mario of first-person shooters. It might not be everyone’s favorite series in the genre, but at least its quality and ruleset were always reliable. What would gamers think if Nintendo changed the way Mario jumps or the speed at which he runs? What if, in Mario’s next adventure, mushrooms and fire flowers were removed in favor of predetermined power-up loadouts? When you buy a Mario game, you assume that it’s going to be  a Mario game. Tweak it too much, and you’re left with an entirely different product with Mario on the box.

Halo 4 saw an extreme expansion to Halo: Reach‘s loadout system, giving the final product the feel of Call of Duty – the anti-Halo. There’s a reason why Halo 4 saw such an extreme player count drop-off shortly after release: it wasn’t the game we thought it would be (outstanding campaign component notwithstanding). There are hundreds of class-based shooters lurking around the gaming world, but only one arena shooter reigns supreme on consoles. When the Halo 5: Guardians Beta was announced, 343 put heavy emphasis on the fact that the next canonical Halo title would see a return to its arena multiplayer roots, and it has… in a sense. Halo 5: Guardians is an arena shooter through and through, but some of the staples of the Halo franchise – perhaps most importantly the tank-like characteristics of Spartans – have been fundamentally changed. For every two steps 343 takes forward, they stumble one back.

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Not everything is fire and brimstone, though. 343 has shown a remarkable capacity for crafting stories, as some will argue that Halo 4 had the best campaign of any numbered Halo release. Aside from their single-player prowess, Microsoft’s apparent flagship studio does have the talent and know-how fine-tune new mechanics and features. Unlimited sprinting and iron sights aiming were added to Halo 5: Guardians, and both add to the experience rather than subtracting from it. The fact that a player’s shield doesn’t recharge while sprinting leads to an abundance of frantic chases or tense moments of hiding. Taking a bullet instantly yanks a Spartan away from their iron sights, meaning that mechanic is only useful at range or in an ambush. Those who try to sprint or aim-down-sight during the chaotic shootouts Halo is famous for will find themselves at a moderate to severe disadvantage. Regardless of whether or not 343’s additions to the franchise are ultimately embraced by fans, they’re remarkably well-balanced.

There’s some real talent at 343 Industries – that much is clear from their original and remastered campaigns. However, that talent can only go so far before out-of-the-box thinking starts to harm the final product. In a perfect world, the studio would fully commit to making every game function flawlessly before they try to reinvent the wheel (or ring-world, as the case may be). Once they realize that, we might finally see the modern Halo we’ve been waiting for.