Full contact: Hands-on with Halo 5's Arena multiplayer

I think Halo 5: Guardians is the Halo PVP I've been waiting for.

Now, right away, it's worth saying that I am not a hardcore Halo multiplayer person, in large part because ... I'm not sure why, actually. It might come down to melee combat and physicality.

I loved Halo: Combat Evolved's multiplayer, but I think every original Xbox owner was contractually obligated to. I enjoyed Halo 2 at first but the battle rifle's rise to prominence soured it a bit for me, as I felt like it spoiled a bit of what made the Halo sandbox so special.

And, honestly, I think the series has always struggled to find that balance again. Halo 3 added bigger maps, more aerial vehicles and equipment, which were great, but melee still felt a little left out. In Reach, melee assassinations made their way in, which were fun, but were a liability in competitive play because of the amount of time taken to perform. Halo 4 added some really great objective gameplay that I liked a lot, that added to the existing capture the flag/oddball foundation of the series, and evolved Spartan abilities, but it never reached a multiplayer critical mass. And once again, melee didn't feel like it was as important as everything else going on.

But in Halo 5, it's a lot of fun to hit things again (sidenote: you can also disable assassination animations in the options menu, which I assume every pro player will do immediately).

That's a simple statement, granted. I think, at its heart, I'm really enjoying that there are so many ways to make physical contact with your enemies at various points of engagement, at different speeds and from different angles. This isn't necessarily a surprise if you played the Halo 5 multiplayer beta last year, but it's especially clear on the new stages on display at last week's event that there are many different levels of verticality in each level. And, in turn, there are a lot of ways to propel your Spartan mass into someone else.

Reinventing Halo — The Multiplayer Future of Halo 5

Halo is a commercial enterprise, it has to make money, it has expectations. When you make a decision to give away so much content, which is a pretty big revenue stream for multiplayer games, do you have to start thinking of other ways that you can offset that?

Halo 5 Multiplayer design director Kevin Franklin: I think our main goal is to have our players play the game from one game to the next. That's a much bigger deal for us than worrying about whether or not there's a big burst of DLC revenue. I definitely feel that to maintain a really healthy playerbase, we want to keep all these players coming back for months and months. That's been our primary focus. And we're Halo fans too. We just want to make the absolute best Halo maps and modes that we possibly can.

Read our full, massive interview with Kevin Franklin about where 343 is taking Halo's multiplayer with Guardians here.

In fact, every ability added to your repertoire in Halo 5 seems based on basic physical interactions and mobility in a combat scenario. Running isn't just for covering ground faster or getting away, it's the basis for a powerful shoulder charge that left me feeling like the office linebacker after I got my bearings. I became a terror, like the world's fastest, angriest most-armored toddler, plowing my way through the other team from every direction. But I also learned my limitations when I collided with people face to face and nearly drained my shields on contact. It was fun, but it didn't feel overpowered, which, granted, we won't know until the game comes out and ostensibly hundreds of thousands of people offer a wider use-case.

The shoulder charge strikes me as a more meat-and-potatoes, useful piece of the arsenal than the much more talked-about ground pound, though the latter's skillshot necessity makes it particularly satisfying to successfully land. On the whole, though, there are enough differences present from the beta last Fall — running is slower, but base speed is faster, turning and strafing is faster, the ground pound is easier to do. It feels like the rough edges I caught myself on in the beta are mostly gone, and it's a lot of fun to move around in Arena's sandbox.

Last week was also a first look at capture the flag, which, for any other game would be a laughable stretching of the term "preview" but for Halo 5 felt more important. The things you can do in a Halo game have always been about more than kills, because of the sports-like nature of its earliest objective-based game types. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Capture the Flag is really important to Halo, and the great news is that it works really well so far with all of the tools added to Halo 5.

At least, it does in Arena's more traditional Halo structure. 343 also set us loose with a single-flag CTF variant in Breakout, the aggressively eSports oriented single-spawn game mode that also appeared in the multiplayer beta. Breakout still works great for what it is, and the single life allotted to everyone makes for a more careful, tense game of Halo, but it also made for some fairly anticlimactic capture the flag moments — everyone just died too fast. Once again, the sample size of players I had to determine whether this will be a thing was small, and the truth will only out once a larger number of players get into the game. And I'm sure that eSports teams will make it a much more competitive experience.

I suppose that's the whole problem with playing a game like Halo 5 outside of a full release, where a huge population of players is straining at all times to break it, essentially, to "solve" its meta and find the best possible exploits for its mechanics. Right now, I think Halo 5 feels great.

There's that word again: feel. At 60 frames per second, with all the new physical abilities added to Spartans, Halo 5 feels better to me than Halo ever has, more physical, more connected. 343 is saying all the right things about a game that should find a community, with an emphasis on competitive balance and totally free map additions over time for the foreseeable future.

But only release will tell if it gets off the ground and brings Halo multiplayer back to the kind of relevance that made it the standard bearer for online shooters.

You can read more about Halo 5's campaign here.