Behold! Acquisitors, Part Two.
Call of Duty obliterated traditional multiplayer. They ruined it, and in a way, I resent it: it's easy to miss their innovations whenever they are not present. People used to be fine, no, better than fine just running around picking up guns and shooting people. CoD sells tens of millions of copies now, every year, and those copies are merely the ripples that are still swimming out from Modern Warfare, when the warlocks of Infinity Ward transformed the competitive shooter into an "RPG" which had heretofore been a kind of nerd ghetto.
Then Borderlands and Destiny spliced it into the rest of the game, not merely the PVP, while scraping even more rich RPG DNA out of the genre's skull. That's the world 343 is trying to release a Halo game into. Call of Duty virtually defines the shooter in our popular imagination, and Destiny is literally what comes after Halo.
In the universe of Halo, after a period of time - usually described as seven years - an AI becomes "rampant," or "goes nuts." I know it's more complex than that, purists, but it'll do for now. The weight of being increases until it fundamentally "can't even." I've wondered if that's what would happen to Halo, eventually: rolling, steadily growing in diameter, until it becomes something unlike itself. And that's the war they're fighting here with Halo 5, which is at least three distinct games: a cinematic, cooperative campaign based on almost twenty years of backstory, one multiplayer experience laser focused on traditional arenas and pure competition, and then a third modality with huge maps, a third AI faction, and 12v12 gameplay. This is Halo, rampant.
I went in expecting to love the campaign and Warzone, and to leave Arena more or less alone. Things turned out almost completely the opposite.
The campaign isn't as good as 4, where they managed to do the impossible: execute a Halo game where the story is actually included in the game itself. With 5, we're back to the best stuff being in advertising campaigns and the game itself not delivering on it. I've been waiting for this story since the first Halo - it's a Chekhov's Gun scenario - and they left so much on the table. Maybe it's Chekhov's Table, I don't know. As Episode 5, it was always going to be in cliffhanger territory - it's literally where Empire Strikes Back sits in another fabled continuum; it echoes Halo 2 in exactly the wrong way. But I feel like there's an hour or two missing right from the middle, and maybe there is. It's like watching ice turn directly into steam, sublimating, with no transitory phase. Something happened here, internally, and I want to know what. I'm open to the idea that these vast levels are better in co-op; the sandbox is intact. Other than the Warthog handling like "Warthogs On Ice: A Snow Spectacular" the loop is there. I think I need to spike the difficulty to maintain engagement.
I know some people were worried about the prospect of AI friends being able to resurrect you, what that might mean for the campaign, but two things: one, your friends can't resurrect you when you've been incinerated. Promethean weapons do this. So you're gonna hit a threshold campaign-wise where it's nothing like immortality. Two, the actual problem with four characters who can resurrect each other is that nobody feels important. And there's almost zero development on these human gods - they don't take the time to do it. I'm deeply confused by this: the opportunities are manifold. I mean, Spartan-IIs vs Spartan-IVs, bare minimum. Cultural differences. Training differences. Nothing. How did this happen?
Warzone is the big experiment this time around, and I expected to like it because Big Team Battle was always my thing previously: I longed for an opportunity to do that on huge maps with dedicated servers. It may just be the prerelease ecosystem, studded with pros, Twitch psychopaths, and journos, but I've never won a single round or, indeed, ever felt like I materially contributed. Theoretically, if we could capture all three points we could open up the enemy core and go for a knockout win, but I've never seen a team not get steamrolled here. I'm undecided on this mode, and I'll have to get back to it. The cards aren't the problem, I don't think - I like the cards, it feels good to open packs, and the currency flows at a good rate. It does alter some fundamental shit about Halo, though: the idea that the map has resources in it that are on timers and need to be managed is a big part of the game traditionally - denying the enemy the tools to pursue their aggressive domination is something you can do - and cards obviate that. Big Team type games usually have other game types mixed in, like CTF, to break it up. I love the third Spoiler faction - Covenant or Promethean enemies that need to be harvested for points. I don't think they're done tinkering with this mode, or multiplayer in general - with free maps and updates, I expect it to be a living document. I feel like there might be an approach here out of Killzone's playbook - a mode they call Warzone, strangely enough - where the objectives change from time to time during the course of a match. I even think an expanded set of REQ cards beyond the traditional weapons and vehicles could offer a solution.
There's a submode called Warzone Assault which also uses the card economy that doesn't feel like Halo to me at all. It's got set attackers and defenders, fighting over one point at a time, trying to capture it. It has that Battlefield vibe, waves crashing on a beach, instead of Spartans locked in duels. Somebody will probably like it. I don't. What I like about Halo is that an individual Spartan can never be counted out, even if you get the jump on them. Warzone Assault is functionally a cyborg orgy.
What they call "Arena" - a kind of throwback in a way, focusing on 4v4 combat - is probably the best competitive shooting experience in history. That's not an exaggeration. I talked before about Destiny, I play it a ton, and they incentivize campaign play with its profound mysteries, its legibility, its tangibility, and its brutal psychometric flensing of the brain's reward structures. Everything is close and real. But the Crucible - Destiny's multiplayer component - is not good. You may disagree. Like bad things if you want to; it's mush. Trials of Osiris is getting to something. But Halo 5 Arena is getting to something fundamental. The addition of carefully metered advanced movement techniques like hover, omnidirectional boost, and thrust assisted melee make the moment to moment toolkit incredibly deep. There was a prerelease playlist for Arena that was just amazing mode after amazing map after amazing mode; I hope they leave it in for launch. Breakout, a single elimination mode with a central flag played in game-grid lookin' purpose-built zones, is a revelation. Everything has weight and reinforces everything else in a predictable, masterfully curated physical simulation. You can trust it. That's not an accident - it's mastery.
In the same way that Pac-Man Championship Edition DX or Crossy Road distill the very pure, very fine liquor of engagement with a system, Arena does the same for games with guns. It is That Which Casts The Shadow, and it doesn't need any of its competitors' Criss Angel street magic bullshit to trick you into playing it. You'll play it for the sheer joy of testing yourself against it. When you win, you'll know why. And when you lose, you will scrape your edge against it, and become sharper.