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Halo 5 is the best multiplayer Halo game in years

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Every year the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. As with last year, we're running a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.

For more than half of my life, I have been playing and loving Halo multiplayer. My formative years are riddled with Halo memories; I remember sneaking sessions of the M-rated Halo: Combat Evolved on my childhood best friend's Xbox at age 11 (we told our moms the Spartans were robots, and the bloodstains were just oil). I spent my middle school summers playing roughly 1,300 games of Halo 2 on the original version of Xbox Live. I can clearly remember hauling my CRT television into my mom's van in high school so my friends and I could play system-linked Halo 3 at our buddy's house, and I somewhat-less-clearly recall countless nights spent in my college dorm half-drunkenly playing Halo: Reach online split-screen with whoever was nearby.

Then Halo 4 came along, and it broke my heart. It was a game that was easy to want to love: It marked the passing of the Halo torch from Bungie to a new team of passionate developers. It played very nicely. And it was gorgeous. But around this great-feeling, technically excellent Halo game, 343 had created a multiplayer structure that borrowed heavily from Call of Duty, in ways that were, uh, bad.

BETRAYAL

Let me explain why this was a big deal. In a world where virtually every other multiplayer shooter had caved to the progression model laid out by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the Halo franchise remained the last bastion of arcadey, Quake-like multiplayer. Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo: Reach were unflinching in their commitment to a straightforward, ultra-fair multiplayer environment where everyone started with the same guns, the same grenades, and picked up the rest of their weapons on the map.

Halo 4, in a bizarre reversal, disposed of what many players — myself included — considered the core tenets of Halo multiplayer, and replaced them with unlockable weapons and perks. Suddenly, players were bringing their own guns into each match and calling in killstreaks to swing matches even further in their favor. All at once, Halo kind of didn't feel like Halo anymore. In their first time at bat with the franchise, 343 Industries had, in many players' eyes, more or less demolished the even playing field that had defined Halo multiplayer for the past 11 years. This felt, to borrow a phrase from Halo's announcer, like a betrayal.

By most metrics, this approach bombed. Players abandoned Halo 4 with unprecedented speed — one NeoGAF thread pointed out that while Halo 3 managed to consistently stay in Xbox Live's Top 3 most popular games for three years, Halo 4 barely lasted two months. Looking at the game's player base one year in paints an even grimmer picture; Halo 3 still boasted 1.1 million players one year after launch, and Halo: Reach boasted a comparable 900,000. Halo 4? A mere 20,000 players.

Don't get me wrong: I played Halo 4 – something like 125 matches of it. But I never loved it. If anything, the more I played of it, the more clear it became that the game was not what I or anyone I knew wanted from a Halo multiplayer game, and after a month or two, I put down the game for good.

HILL MOVED

The first time I played Halo 5: Guardians, it was at a Microsoft event in November 2014. The event began with a presentation from 343 Industries, who opened with a huge declaration: "With Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer, we really wanted to get back to a level playing field." (I know this is what they said, because I jotted it down in my notes in bold, capital letters.)

This, to me, felt like an apology. "Listen," they seemed to say. "We get it. Halo 4 was not a good multiplayer Halo game. We listened, and we heard you." I was overjoyed.

This elation lasted approximately three or four minutes, because as soon as I sat down with the game, things felt ... off. Halo's control scheme had always changed a bit between releases, but this time, nothing was where I'd left it. Left trigger, which had been Halo's grenade button for 13 years, was now mapped to aiming down the sights of your gun. Clicking the left stick now sprinted, and clicking the right stick crouched. The B button was suddenly home to a dash move that felt straight out of Advanced Warfare. Spartans behaved more like Call of Duty soldiers than ever before: clambering over objects, sprinting into crouch-slides.

Like many others did, I bristled at the core locomotive changes 343 planned on bringing to Halo. Weren't they just swapping Halo 4's structural misteps for a slew of new mechanical ones? Whence came 343's fascination with Frankensteining Call of Duty and Halo together? Don't they get that their differences are what make them special?!

That day, I left the event worried that I may never play a true Halo game ever again. I even said at the time: "A Halo game where you zoom in with the left trigger is, in a lot of ways, not a Halo game to me."

Fast-forward to one year later. It's October 2015, and against my better judgment, I decide to once again open my heart to 343's version of Halo. Now, with over 150 matches and with 2,000+ multiplayer kills under my belt in Halo 5, I finally feel ready to render a verdict: Halo 5 is a fucking great multiplayer Halo game.

GAINED THE LEAD

I was resistant at first. Hell, the first day I had Halo 5 review code, I actually attempted switching back to the classic Halo control scheme (that is, with 'zoom' set to clicking the right analog stick), before ultimately reverting after realizing that the game simply wasn't built to be played that way.

During my first hours with Halo 5, it was hard to shake the left-trigger-right-trigger impulse pounded into me by virtually every other shooter from the past decade. But I've retaught myself that yes, this is Halo, and in Halo, shooting from the hip is not only viable, it's essential. Importantly, the zoom in Halo 5 doesn't actually affect your weapon accuracy – it simply zooms in the view, and weapons fired the old-fashioned way are just as accurate as they've always been.

For all the things in 343's version of Halo that feel like concessions to the Modern Military Shooter™ — the left-trigger scoping, the dedicated sprint button, the ability to clamber over ledges, the "thruster pack," etc. — almost all of it legitimately adds to the arcadey action I've come to love from Halo multiplayer. Take, for example, having a dedicated quick-dash button: Yes, it works exactly the way it does in every other near-future multiplayer shooter, but the time-to-kill in Halo 5 is ages longer than in its competitors, making it an much more useful move for surviving or even escaping combat.

Halo 5 actually learned the right lessons from the rest of the shooter world

Likewise, as weird as it felt to clamber in Halo for the first time, I now find it almost impossible to imagine going back. Even the 'ground pound' (an attack that probably feels familiar to anyone who plays a Titan in Destiny) is a weird, risky move that also happens to be among the most satisfying Halo plays imaginable when pulled off correctly. Unlike the progression- and unlock-obsessed Halo 4Halo 5 actually learned the right lessons from the rest of the shooter world, taking the mechanics you've come to expect from a 2015 FPS and thoughtfully applying them to a much arcadier game.

Oddly, some of my favorite parts of Halo 5 have actually been the ideas from Halo 4 that 343 had the confidence to hold onto. The on-screen power weapon indicator, for example, was a great idea. Likewise, Halo 5's version of the Halo 4 pulse grenade has unexpectedly become one of my favorite map pickups in the whole game: a powerful, surprisingly lethal area-of-effect weapon that rewards predicting where an opponent might move next.

Which brings me to one of my favorite things about Halo 5: the weapon balance. For the first time in a Halo game, every single weapon feels powerful and viable. I'll be honest: For my first 30 or 40 matches, the Halo 2 player in me steered clear of the Promethean weapons — they carried a bit too much Halo 4 baggage with them. But the first time I actually tried using a Boltshot, I realized it was a useful, dangerous gun with a lot of applications. The same thing happened when I tested the Lightrifle.

It's not just the Promethean weaponry, either. Halo 5 has my favorite iteration of the human Battle Rifle in Halo history, and the SMG — back for the first time since Halo 3 — is now a terrifying close-range weapon that devours shields and health in seconds. Every weapon has had an overhaul to make it worth picking up in countless situations, which is one area in which Halo 5 blows its predecessors away.

Was something lost in the CoD–ification of Halo 5's control scheme? Part of me still wonders that, but another, louder part of me thinks it was time. It feels like 343 has, as Arthur wrote in our review, dragged Halo's core mechanics "kicking and screaming into the modern era."

It took some squinting, but I think I can finally see 343's vision for what a multiplayer Halo game should be in 2015. And while it might not bear a perfect resemblance to the Halo I spent a decade with, it may also be the best Halo multiplayer experience yet. 343 has learned from its mistakes, doubled down on its best instincts, and put out a multiplayer Halo experience worthy of the name.