While Halo has a deserved reputation for online multiplayer, the franchise’s contributions to video game science fiction have been equally memorable. Halo has always boasted some of the best world building in gaming, fleshing out an entire galaxy with the Covenant, the Forerunners, and iconography like the Halo rings.
That remains true despite the absence of a strong main character. And sorry, but Master Chief is a thuddingly dull protagonist, another faceless space marine with an assault rifle instead of a personality. The frequently excellent Halo lore feels like more of an accomplishment when you consider that the best character development often happens in the periphery.
That’s what makes Halo 5: Guardians unexpectedly intriguing. I had a chance to see the story demo at last week’s X15 showcase in Toronto, and while Master Chief is still the main player character, he no longer bears the sole responsibility for carrying the narrative. The game splits the focus across two separate four-person squads – Chief’s Blue Team and Locke’s Fireteam Osiris, which includes Nathan Fillion’s Buck – which means that there are eight named characters that will be present throughout the campaign.
“We wanted new main characters,” said Halo 5 Creative Director Tim Longo. “We love Chief and this story is very much about him, but a lot of the story is shown through the eyes of that new team.”
“We wanted to include new Spartans with different backstories and different flavor. We’ve had Noble Team and others in the past, but these are ones that are all really unique. It was really a conscious effort to expand the galaxy.”
That desire went hand-in-hand with 343’s gameplay goals. While Halo has always offered cooperative play, the second player has typically been a nameless soldier lucky enough to tag along for the ride. The Halo 5 campaign, meanwhile, has been built from the ground up for squad-based gameplay. The same four characters will always be present whether you’re playing solo or playing with friends, ensuring that every player will always be a part of the story being told.
“We wanted people, when they’re playing co-op, to play as a character,” said Longo, explaining that the stability allowed the writers craft a more consistent narrative. “We can tell the story differently because they’re always there. You can have those wisecracks from Buck and he’s always going to be there.”
In many ways it’s the best of both worlds. Master Chief is still the visor of the franchise, but the writers have more freedom to take chances because they can always return that foundation. The combination provides novelty and context while increasing the human population of the Halo galaxy, and also alleviates some of the need to come up with new material for Chief’s already familiar journey.
“There’s always some pressure, for sure,” said Longo when asked if the team ever feels forced to incorporate the fan favorite, though Longo and Halo’s core fans obviously (and appropriately) have more fondness for the character than I do. “We like him too, so we always find clever ways to include him and have him be the focus of the story.”
Of course, any Halo game is still expected to stand on the strength of its multiplayer, and Halo 5 seems poised to deliver. The game was designed with more of an eye towards eSports than previous Halo installments. Arena is a precise 4v4 mode that acknowledges that competitive eSports players often want a more controlled and predictable environment.
“If we were to do highly competitive, surgical gameplay, we knew that wouldn’t be for everybody,” said Longo, distinguishing Arena from the more chaotic Warzone. Warzone is the game’s other primary multiplayer mode, a 24-player free-for-all that provides a more casual experience where anything can happen.
“We want to make sure that we’re not trying to please everybody in Arena. We have experiences for both,” said Longo, though he added that new players will at least be able to sample Arena if they so desire. “We have a matchmaking system that will match you with appropriately skilled people, so if you jump into Arena you’re not going to be playing pros.”
That drive towards accessibility influenced the decision to release all future multiplayer maps for free instead of as paid DLC expansions. No matter your level of engagement, you’ll always feel included because you’ll be playing on the same maps as everybody else.
“We didn’t want to have that fracturing,” said Longo of paid DLC packs. “It helps eSports as well, but it really was for everybody.”
The choice also seems to be in keeping with the studio’s approach to narrative. Just as the writing team benefited from a fixed cast characters, the decision to literally level the playing field – to give everyone access to every map – makes it easier for 343 to control the user experience and to make Halo 5 more enjoyable for everyone. Microsoft may lose some money on DLC sales, but there are plenty of other ways to mobilize the goodwill that comes from an engaged and happy player base.
Either way, it’s nice to see a studio making decisions with an eye towards the best player experience. 343 is striving to make subtle improvements that make sense for Halo, and I look forward to exploring the new corners of the universe they’ve unearthed for Guardians.