It feels strange, after a decade of Call of Duty, years of Battlefield, and days spent with Destiny, to play a multiplayer shooter without ironsights. Halo 5’s weapons come with scopes — yes, even the assault rifle, the series’ staple weapon for more than 15 years — but beyond some mild magnification, they offer no particular assistance in the game’s close-up multiplayer firefights. It’s usually faster and easier to shoot from the hip.
Even after an unholy amount of Halo 3 multiplayer matches under my belt, removing the need to aim down sights in Halo 5’s multiplayer felt like playing with one hand behind my back. In my first forays into the game’s classic four-on-four slayer mode, I couldn’t help but play like I would in any other modern shooter, holding my fire until I’d brought my gun to my eye. Invariably, that target would turn on its heels and blast me away.
It took around five matches for me to realize that although Halo 5 may look like a modern shooter, with a constant 60 frames per second and gorgeous particle effects, it’s actually taken most of its cues from 2007’s Halo 3. Where Halo: Reach and Halo 4 made concessions to Call of Duty, borrowing that series’ system of perks, classes, and special abilities, Halo 5 has stripped out the jetpacks, invulnerable shields, and sprint options of previous Halo iterations.
The result is a particularly pure shooter that often feels more like Quake 3 than CoD 4, allowing for a level playing field by giving everyone access to the same weapons and the same abilities.
The decision to pare Halo 5's core multiplayer mechanics back makes it more approachable for new players, but it also gives it a higher skill ceiling. It's comparatively easy to silhouette an enemy face in your ironsights in most other shooters, but in Halo 5, squeezing out three DMR headshots across the length of a map — two to strip the shield, one to kill — is a skill worthy of a Wild West gunslinger. The famous Halo mantra — "30 seconds of fun" — also applies to its multiplayer modes. Where Call of Duty and Battlefield let you kill human opponents in a fistful of bullets, it takes a surprisingly long time to down an enemy in Halo 5. With generous shields, plentiful armor, and jet-assisted dash skill, gun battles give you time to react, to move, to find cover, and to squeeze off some of your own shots in retaliation.
Firefights come to be as much about resource management and strategy as they are about twitch skills. You have two grenades, two guns, and limited bullets — do you unload an entire clip at that enemy in the distance? Or close the gap, boxing your foe out with two carefully thrown frags, before stripping their shield with your plasma pistol? Or do you go quiet and try to sneak up on them for an execution kill? In Halo 5's Arena multiplayer — a playlist that includes Halo classics like slayer, free-for-all, and SWAT modes — the strategy comes in these moment-to-moment decisions. In the game's new Warzone mode, it's a little more high-concept.
While Halo 5 cribs most from Halo 3, its new Warzone multiplayer looks further afield for inspiration. The 24-player mode gives two teams a power core to look after and three points to capture. Hold them all and your foe's power core is exposed; lose them and you'll need to defend your own base to avoid an early defeat. It's a similar system to that found in Dota 2 and League of Legends, but that's not the only thing Warzone has cribbed from the PC games.
The mode also adds AI-controlled enemies to its huge multiplayer maps, rewarding players for breaking off from the fight against the human-controlled opposition to go and kill Prometheans and Covenant aliens borrowed from the game's campaign. It's a first-person shooter take on the concept of "jungling," by which players get points and bonuses from efficiently killing computer-controlled creeps, and, as in other Dota-likes, makes for an exciting new source of multiplayer flashpoints. With purple banshee aircraft swirling in the sky, warthog assault buggies bouncing across the rocky terrain below, and Spartan lasers flashing lethal lines between bases, Warzone feels like a chaotic replacement for the sadly departed big team battle mode.
343 Industries has also learned technical lessons from previous versions of Halo. The Master Chief Collection, a bundle featuring all of the games in the series up to Halo 5, was beset by crippling connection problems when it launched late last year. For weeks, players were kept offline while the developer worked on fixes. By the time the Collection's connection issues were fixed, frustrated gamers had largely moved on, the remastered games tainted.
Halo 5's multiplayer, on the other hand, already runs smooth at this early point in its lifespan. The game employs dedicated servers to host its multiplayer modes, a decision that means that unlike games that rely on peer-to-peer hosting, one player isn't handed an advantage by taking on hosting duties. In my experience, the use of these servers means the game takes comparatively longer than its peers to fill up a lobby — around a minute of searching for similar players — but lag was nonexistent once a match had successfully launched.
Headshots felt crisp, grenades flew where I threw them, and most importantly, it felt fair — I died because I misjudged a firefight, barrelled round a corner blind, or threw myself onto a grenade, not because my opponent was skating around the surface of the map like a stop-motion death machine. That stability comes with some restrictions. Connecting from Japan, I was unable to play on the same fireteams as friends in Sweden, the UK, and the US, Halo 5's servers apparently deciding there was simply too much distance between us despite my 100MB connection. But that's a minor price to pay for the ability to actually play the game you've just paid $60 for.
That multiplayer fairness is Halo 5's greatest strength, and it's pervasive throughout most of the game. The only snag comes in the new Warzone mode, which allows players to bring in toys from outside in the form of weapons, vehicles, and power-ups. These bonuses are pulled from REQ packs, digital bundles of cards players can buy either with experience earned by playing the game, or with real-world money.
Adding microtransactions to a competitive shooter is a tricky process — even cosmetic additions are seen through narrow eyes, as Destiny's recent emote update showed — but happily they don't feel too egregious in Halo 5. Players can get immensely powerful guns in these packs, but they need to earn the right to access them in a game, only unlocking them after a certain amount of time has elapsed or they've scored enough points. These REQ pack rewards are also completely disconnected from the Arena playlist, meaning Halo 5's traditional competitive modes are untainted by pay-to-win problems.
In aping Halo 3 so effectively, these modes are also missing the kind of persistence that keeps people playing Destiny, Call of Duty, and Battlefield. But Halo 5 doesn't really need weapon unlocks, or unique skills, or custom loadouts. 343 Industries has made the best multiplayer Halo since 2007 by stripping the game of complexities, rounding off the edges and making a classic multiplayer game feel fresh, modern, and pure.
Halo 5: Guardians is available now on Xbox One.