A Tale of Two Betas

Halo 5 GuardiansJanuary is always an interesting part of the year with gaming, Online usage is up, with people playing all their new games from the Holidays. But contrasting that, there usually aren’t too many big releases during the month. Instead we’ll usually see a few DLC packages, or downloadable games. In this year’s case, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is getting the Havoc pack this month, and we’re seeing the release of a current-gen Resident Evil remaster, as well as the current-gen Saints Row IV edition. Neither game is what I would call a major entry for this year.

On the other hand though, this month saw two high profile betas. While the Halo 5: Guardians beta technically started at the end of December, the majority of the beta ran through this month. The other beta, a larger scale pre-release beta than the Big Alpha, was for Evolve. It featured more content than the Big Alpha, but only ran for essentially a weekend, plus a couple days. These two betas show two very different approaches to pre-release events.

With the Halo 5: Guardians beta, it ran for a longer period of time, but had a much narrower focus. I wouldn’t ever really expect to see a beta feature a single player campaign, so this being solely multiplayer makes perfect sense to me. That said, the multiplayer in Halo is so varied and robust, that seeing only three game modes felt like they were holding something back. Halo is a series that’s been known now for years for having a multiplayer that’s full of not only built in game modes, but the flexibility to create all kinds of crazy modes. I think that 343 could have provided a scaled down version of their tools for custom modes. As it turned out though, I think they picked the modes for the beta for a couple reasons. Slayer was there because it’s probably the most played variant online; but the other two modes, Breakout and Strongholds, are both technically new game modes to Halo. It makes sense that 343 wants to feature them, not only to test them in an online environment, but also to promote them a bit. In general, Halo tends to fall into pretty typical patterns – objective games like CTF or Oddball always do well, while games like Assault or King of the Hill tend to fall more on the competitive side, appearing less frequently online. I think 343 wants to make sure that Strongholds or Breakout (or both) work well online and could in fact also work in the competitive world too.

Halo 5 Breakout Crossfire

All things considered though, the modes weren’t really what bothered me more about the Halo 5: Guardians beta. It was the map selection. Normally, in a beta I don’t expect much in the way of map variety. But then, most betas don’t last three weeks. Nor do they cycle the maps in and out. That’s really where I was most confused. The beta started with Truth and Empire, both on Slayer. The next week, those maps were pulled – and replaced with Regret and Eden, again on Slayer. What I couldn’t understand was why the first two maps had to be pulled down totally – why not keep them in, and have a four-map rotation. It made sense to me too, since those four maps were all inter-related. Truth and Regret are maps based around the same base – Midship. Truth is a pretty direct update, and Regret is what they’re calling a Remix – it’s Truth, just with a few twists to make it feel unique. It’s a clever way to build the map list, without creating an insane amount of extra work. Empire and Eden are also remix pairs – just not based around an old map this time. To me, I think it would have made sense to put all four in one hopper. Adding in the final map that appeared – Pegasus – wouldn’t have really been a bad thing, it could have broken up the monotony of playing the same two basesets. In the end, that limiting of the maps selection for the beta, is what made me limit my playing. I really enjoyed the gameplay, but it got old fast on two maps only.

Evolve Cover

With the Evolve beta, this was a bit different focus. The game has already gone gold. It’s too late to make major, sweeping changes. Instead, this was more of a, give the players a bunch of content, let them play essentially the full game for a weekend, and try to catch and squash as many bugs before release. Providing players with the first two sets of characters, both hunters and monsters, let Turtle Rock look at how they interact well before launch. Beyond that, pre-orders of the game before and during the beta unlocked the third and final set, and will have them all open in the full game. I’m not a huge fan of the early unlocks just for pre-ordering, but that’s a topic for another day. Honestly, the Evolve beta felt more like an almost complete game, probably because it was close to the final build, if it wasn’t the actual final build. There were strong built in tutorials, and every map that’s present in the game was in the beta. I think it was just a last chance tune-up prior to launch, which certainly has merits that can hopefully help keep Evolve from having yet another broken launch.

Image from Game Informer

One area where both betas did overlap was that both allowed the player to keep whatever unlocks they managed to get in the beta for the full game. In Halo‘s case, that mainly amounts to just cosmetic gear; with Evolve, that’s characters and upgrades. That’s a very different mentality from say last year’s Titanfall or Destiny betas, both of which had player wipes after the betas closed. I think both styles have their merits – I’m more inclined to be okay with Halo‘s approach, since cosmetic gear doesn’t impact gameplay (generally) while characters and upgrades can very much alter gameplay. Early on in a games life, I would rather have as many players as possible on a level playing field, as opposed to having players that were in the beta having upgraded characters, or players that pre-ordered having final tier characters. It’s up to the developers in the end, and we just have to hope they know what their doing.

Halo 5: Guardians Beta – Breakout Impressions

Halo 5 GuardiansAt the end of last week, Halo 5: Guardians unveiled its new game mode – Breakout. Based around paintball’s speedball style game, Breakout is a round based, single life slayer variant. In addition to boasting a pretty badass entrance animation too, Breakout challenges the player to look at how they approach Halo’s typical slayer games and adjust thanks to a few noticeable changes. The first being the round-based, no respawn format – since the games are back to 4V4, dropping down a player is a big deal and can swing a round easily. The other major change is in the player health – which is reduced for Breakout. It’s hard to tell exactly how much, but it’s noticeable for sure. Normally, the battle rifle can kill with four bursts, provided the fourth hits the head. In Breakout, it turns into a three-shot kill. This helps with the fact that the game is based more around small conflicts, with only two weapons on either side – one battle rifle, and one assault rifle – with grenades in the middle of the maps.

Because of the small maps, using the pistol is a major key for any engagement outside of close range. The default weapons that players spawn with are the SMG and pistol – both really great for most of the engagements, and because of the limited weapons on the map, you’ll need to get used to how they behave quickly. They aren’t weapons that might see a lot of use in normal play – with the exception being the pistol, since it can still score headshots, so it has value regardless of mode. With the reduced health in Breakout though, both weapons become incredibly useful for most, if not all, combat situations you’ll find yourself in.

Halo 5 Breakout Crossfire

And when we look at the two maps in the beta, I think you see exactly where the inspiration for the mode came from. In the series of ViDocs that 343 has been releasing – The Sprint – they talk openly about it being inspired from paintball. While it’s not quite a direct translation – thanks to not being based around SWAT – the focus still shines with the map design. Small sections of cover dot the landscape on both maps – along with strong hallways that focus fire and movement. There’s a good mix of verticality too, with a few high points that help your BR player really make a major swing in a round. Finally, the placement of the grenades – pretty much smack in the middle of the maps – helps show the worth of the quick burst of power that the explosives provide. Spawning only one also makes pushing for those in the middle an actual worthwhile effort. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of grenades as a power weapon, but within the Breakout formula, they really can be. They help flush out the BR player from his nest, and they can also buy you a cheap kill early, or help give you a breather when being chased. Thanks to the lower health, one grenade is all you need to grab a kill, so controlling them early is beneficial.

Finally, I want to hit on the one point that I was most worried about with Breakout. Ever since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare I’ve never been a fan of no respawn multiplayer modes – it’s part of why the Gears of War series never really appealed to me. With Search and Destroy, I found that the vast majority of players were forced into a decidedly passive play style. Whether that manifests as camping, or just playing incredibly slow and safe, it amounted to games that just weren’t fun for me. The barrier for entry was also too high – one mistake costs you a whole round of sitting out, and could cost your team the round. I was worried that the same mentality would pervade in Breakout. Thankfully, at least at this stage, I haven’t really seen anything to suggest that. Players are pushing out to the middle and controlling the map more than I tended to see in Search. I think that’s partially due to the lack of an objective – within Search, the defenders have the two points to hold and control. In Breakout, the control aspect comes from the map flow – hanging back lets the enemy get into points to force fights that are beneficial for them. Also the fact that players have a little bit of wiggle room for health, and the margin of error gets wide enough to play a little aggressive.

All things considered, I think that 343 may actually have a new gamemode in Halo that’s still true to the formula and works top to bottom. We’ll just have to see in the full release how well it holds up.

Halo 5 Guardians Multiplayer Beta – Day One Thoughts

Halo 5 GuardiansYesterday marked the beginning of the new Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta on Xbox Live. While I haven’t exactly been impressed with 343 Industries as far as the Master Chief Collection has been concerned; I think that they’re doing a smart job with the Halo 5 beta. Unlike a lot of recent betas – in particular for shooters – this Halo 5 beta is running for a pretty long time. The current plan is to end the beta on January 18, which will give them about three full weeks of data to look at. With that said, I played around in the current settings yesterday for a few solid hours with friends, so I thought I’d offer up my thoughts on how it looks.

Visually, I really like the style so far – it looks like a pretty good mix of Halo 4‘s newer style Spartans, with some call backs to the classic games that we now have easy access to. My only issues right now are that in the Beta there’s no way to change the brightness, and with my TV setup it’s pretty dark. The other issue is that the Blue team is kinda saturated, which is really an issue on Truth, the Blue team blends in with the level too well, and can make it hard to pick them out sometimes. As far as actual gameplay for being a beta it runs relatively well – no crazy framerate issues, or major geometry issues yet either.

While the beta right now is only a couple maps and Slayer to play, I think they do provide a pretty good glimpse of the direction that the gameplay is headed in. Overall, the feel is still very much Halo, but the execution is pretty unique. I think it’s borrowing a lot from the general shooter market this year in that there’s a big focus on movement. Titanfall did it with double jumps and parkour, Call of Duty did it with the exo movement – Halo 5 is doing it with the booster pack that all Spartans now have. It makes close combat much easier to get into, and helps extend your life by getting you out of combat faster. There are a couple little tweaks to keep the game balanced – like your shields don’t recharge if you’re sprinting now, and taking fire while sprinting will stop your sprint; but so far it plays very much like Halo, just with the speed cranked up a notch or two. The new Clamber system, which I was curious to see in action, really changes the way I thought about map movement. Instead of seeing a ledge that normally might require a series of jumps to clear, I can now jump up to it and clamber over the edge – it opens up flanking routes and changes map flow, I think initially for the better.

One last area that I think people might be looking at closely is the new behavior of the weapons. Every weapon now has the ability to aim down sights, which makes every weapon more viable at mid-range. The assault rifle has gone from a spray and pray style gun to being much more consistent – while I still prefer the magnum for it’s ability to score a headshot, the assault rifle is now a decent starting weapon. As such, it’s even more important than ever to learn weapon spawns and control the map – especially in Slayer. The new streamlined maps which so far appear to only have one or two power weapons on them (which are called out before they spawn) are built to allow for areas to be controlled by teamplay, but still have ways to break the hold. All things considered, the current state of the beta has me much more at east with the state of Halo than the release of Master Chief Collection did. I think 343 might be on to something with this, and as the beta progresses, I think we’ll get a bit better idea of it.