Halo 5’s movement updates restore the balance of earlier games
Halo 5’ s movement system represents the most concerted and fundamental overhaul of the series’ base mechanics since it began in 2001. It’s a significant step, if only because the success of Halo, more than most shooters, has been founded on its perfectly judged motion and aiming. Since the start, the way Master Chief has moved through the world and zeroes in on enemies has been a mix of meticulousness and luxury. It is just so, a feedback loop of pleasure akin to that of steering a perfectly balanced car, or watching an oiled chain glide over gears, the satisfaction of interacting with a tuned and efficient machine.
Initially, the Chief couldn’t sprint – unlikely for an augmented supersoldier, but an absence that gifted Halo a sense of calm and steadiness. Field expertise in multiplayer combat was hard won, a matter of knowing the maps and their occasional shortcuts. The only masterable skill was the game’s crouch jump, a way of tucking the Chief’s legs into his body at the apex of a jump to reach higher ledges, a rough-cut back door into advanced manoeuvrability.
This movement system impressed a particular shape onto the series’ geometric design. The multiplayer arenas for the first three Halo games are dominated by flat surfaces, squares and ramps. They are, at the small and personal end away from the vehicular combat, intricate solid mazes of layers, exits and just-jumpable distances. Cold Storage, Lockout, Guardian, Epitaph: all are beautifully executed pieces of architecture that mesh with a set of movement parameters that dictates steady speed and heavy gravity, producing the classic, elegant combat for which Halo is known.
Then, with Halo: Reach, the system changed. It’s tough to stay standing still, even elegantly, and the enormous impact of 2007’s Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare made breathless, frantic combat an industry default. Reach reacted with the introduction of Armour Abilities, powerups that included movement augmentations such as a limited dash, jetpack boosting and an evasive roll. Halo 4 then made the sprinting a permanent fixture and also retained jetpacks and a thruster boost for dodging as Abilities.
With the arrival of Halo 5’ s more thoroughly redesigned movement system, it’s now clear that this was Halo in crisis. By breaking up the uniformity of manoeuvrability, Reach and Halo 4 disrupted the core of Halo’s multiplayer, which had up to this point been about map control. Sprinting effectively shrank the size of maps, but only for certain players, while jetpacks rewrote the rules of vertical engagement. Those solid mazes could be bypassed with a button press, and the critical skill of reading Halo’s radar, interpreting 3D space and anticipating enemy movement using a 2D indicator was lost. What was gained seemed to be speed for speed’s sake – more dashing about and energy, but no system to make it meaningful.
The console shooter is now post- Call Of Duty, in as much as the effect of Modern Warfare’s haste and directness has settled into something like a new consensus. Titanfall, built by the key creative minds behind Modern Warfare, repopularised mixing doublejumps and wall running into the FPS moveset. It was a liberation of the pad-steered firstperson soldier, no longer condemned to dash along the ground until dead. Advanced Warfare’s Exo Suit made Titanfall’s flirtation with freerunning seem less like an exception and more like the new standard, before Halo’s old masters at Bungie confirmed it with Destiny, a game that interprets vertical movement as variously double-jumping, triplejumping, hovering, and blinking. The top tier of the console firstperson shooter genre is now as much about moving as it is about shooting. Which has always been true, of course, and Halo has known since the beginning. And in Halo 5, the series once again has a system that reflects that truth and measures up to the competition. Halo 5’ s Spartans can sprint forever, clamber up chest-high ledges, and boost dash in any direction. Their new thrusters also enable them to slam to the ground from a jump, hover momentarily while aiming, and shoulder charge. This moveset is uniform, unlike the old Armour Abilities, preserving Halo’s level playing field and, crucially, making it possible to design maps around one set of traversal abilities. The space around the combat is once again tuned specifically to the parameters of possible movement within that space, and as a result Halo 5’ s Arena maps look again like Lockout and Guardian – square-cut geography for skilled, vertically restrained battle – and Arena is again a tussle for map control.
Best of all, nothing about the system feels like a shortcut. Clambering and the boosting are ways of making movement more fluid, but – like the crouch jump, and unlike the jetpack – they are still locked to an essential, reassuring gravity. Halo 5 is tactile, and it never feels as though we are disengaged from the ring of heavy boots stomping through its metal corridors. Rather than a flyaway abstraction, there is a dexterous pleasure to mastering the new manoeuvrability options, chaining boosts and sprints, jumps and climbs. And so, like the multiplayer at large, it feels as though 343 has done a remarkable thing, giving us a Halo that lives up to the demands of the marketplace in which it finds itself, and yet delivers an allusive feeling of a game we once knew. The Chief moves better than ever, and yet somehow feels just like he always has.
Halo 5 is tactile; we never feel disengaged from the ring of boots stomping through its metal corridors