Despite likening the beta test as "coming out of the house half dressed," 343 Industries and Microsoft will use December as a showcase for Halo 5: Guardians – at least the multiplayer part. With almost 2 years of work done and nearly another year to go before launch, Halo 5: Guardians is going to be a learning experience for just about everyone: first for seasoned Halo players coming to grips with new abilities and a far more responsive output of 60 frames per second, and then for its developers, who will have weeks of data and feedback to get Halo in suitable shape on Xbox One.
Halo 5 is another high-profile shooter that finds increased complexity in movement, with all of the game's engineered combatants juking sideways or down to the ground in a powerful smash. Tapping the B-button while holding a direction on the left analog stick will boost you out of the line of fire, but the shunt requires a few seconds to recharge. Halo 5's Spartans can also go into a jet-propelled slide close to the ground, or straight ahead in a melee charge that pops an opponent's shield head-on.
Crashing through another Spartan's shield is not the end of combat – a critical aspect of Halo's battles, which leave some room for a quick dance before a fighter goes down. The evasive dashing expands that dance a little further, makes it a little more frantic in both the horizontal and vertical, though not to the point where it becomes exhausting. Halo 5 has unlimited sprinting too, but cracked shields will not recharge while you're running. Standing your ground might be a better bet after all. The new ground-pound from above - initiated by holding the melee button mid-air – can instantly kill a surprised victim below, provided you're cool with being an easy piñata in the moments before landing. Spartans can also vault onto high ledges with a double-tap of the jump button and hover briefly mid-air while aiming down scopes (again: potential piñata). And here's another interesting change - every gun has a scoped mode, mapped to the left trigger.
Though I assumed it was another acquisition from Call of Duty, which relies heavily on aiming down weapon sights, Halo 5's shooting isn't dramatically different from earlier games. Ranged weapons like the DMR and Battle Rifle, which return in Halo 5, slip in and out of scope just like they did before, minus the click of the right stick. There's no penalty to movement while peeking through the gun, and getting shot will kick you out of the more precise (but claustrophobic) scoped view.
The cadence of weapons and battles here land somewhere between Halo 2 and Halo 3, with the former providing one of 3 beta maps I played. "Truth" is a new spin on Halo 2's "Midship" map, with purple Covenant corridors winding into smaller two-story arenas and an Elite energy sword – now called "Prophet's Bane" - arriving on a suspended walkway in the middle. The impending arrival of game-changing weapons like swords and sniper rifles is called out on the display for everyone, which is not something I'm convinced is for the better.
According to Halo 5 Studio Head Josh Holmes, weapon spawn information is meant to level the playing field, just like weapons, shields and movement abilities give everyone a fair starting point. The idea is to have teams react to these drops, but I think it's a manufactured approach to something that could happen as a surprise before – sometimes you'd arrive just in time to grab the rocket launcher, and other times you'd be killed by another player who had the same idea at the wrong time.
The Halo 5 beta also includes a map called "Empire," an industrial complex with a convoluted interior and an outer track. Though most of the beta will have 4 versus 4 Slayer games, there's a twist in the third map I tried, called "Breakout." Its stark blue-and-orange battleground is peppered with ramps, rectangular structures and coated with a reflective grid, as if a light cycle from "Tron" might come ripping through at any moment.
"Breakout" provides the basis for a tense new 4v4 game mode called "Crossfire," in which each Spartan has only one life per round. Winning five rounds and the match overall requires a slower, cooperative creep across the map and between cover. Just one well-placed grenade can devastate a team, especially one that doesn't realize how quickly the new, nimble Spartans can advance behind cover. Halo 5's SMG is also no slouch at taking down shields, which means "Crossfire" has an air of lethality you don't usually get outside of the clean-and-quick kills of Halo's SWAT mode. The fact that Halo 5's Spartans talk amongst themselves dynamically, calling out targets and dangerous situations, also feels like a nice backup for quiet/annoying teammates.
According to 343, players will get to vote on some aspects of the beta's additional maps in its second and third weeks, with all unlocks and armor sets transferring to the final game when it launches in 2015. The Halo 5: Guardians beta kicks off on December 29 and runs until January 18, if all goes to 343's plan – and that includes having you buy Halo: The Master Chief Collection to gain access.