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Go big or go home: Hands-on impressions of Halo 5’s new Warzone multiplayer

Halo 5: Guardians was one of the tent poles of Microsoft’s E3 roster this year. Ever since the Xbox One was announced in 2013, fans have been eager to see what the flagship shooter franchise would look like with the new console’s power. I got a chance to see for myself while here at E3, playing a match of the new Warzone multiplayer mode. I can tell you this much for sure: it definitely looks and feels like Halo.

It’s a trap!

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First, an aside: far and away the most exciting part of my hands-on preview with Halo 5: Guardians was the briefing before the actual match, which used Microsoft’s augmented reality HoloLens headset. After getting off to a late start (Kanye wanted to play, so everyone else’s appointments were pushed back — typical!), we were led into a room and fitted for the the AR glasses. Glowing objective markers that hovered in mid-air, a video game brought to life, led us to a briefing room where our team assembled around a holotable where our CO explained, Admiral Ackbar-style, the mission parameters and led us through key points on the map. This was my first time trying Microsoft’s cutting-edge device, and it more than lived up to the hype. That brief prelude to our match, when we disappointingly had to take them off, was one of the coolest, sci fi experiences I’ve had. Augmented Reality laser tag is going to be amazing.

Danger Zone!

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Warzone, Halo 5‘s new multiplayer mode, is big. Two teams of 12 players square off in arenas upwards of four times the size of any previous Halo maps, which are also populated by swarms of AI enemies, ranging from cannon-fodder grunts to big bad bosses. The match begins with each team being dropped into a base that they must first secure from AI aliens before heading out into the field. In this particular map there were two armories and one garage that could be captured and held by the teams in order to use their Requisition (REQ) Stations to buy weapons and vehicles.

Related: Best of E3 2015: 10 games we can’t stop thinking about

Every Spartan starts with the standard Assault Rifle/Magnum combo, but those can be traded in at REQ stations for more advanced gear with points that are slowly acquired over time or more quickly acquired by killing. A cowardly sniper at heart, I quickly traded up to a Covenant Carbine in order to hang back at the locations we had secured and pick off encroaching enemies from a distance. Some of my teammates summoned up a Warthog and drove out to wreak havoc.

The game is won by the first team to reach 1,000 points, which are earned by killing enemies (both human and AI) and taking control of bases. If one team controls all of the map’s bases, their opponents’ core is exposed at their home base, which can be destroyed for an instant victory, regardless of points. Having multiple paths to victory gives Warzone a refreshing strategic flexibility. If your team is struggling in firefights, you can instead focus on AIs. Both aggressive and defensive strategies are rewarded. The strong AI presence makes it feel like a hybrid of traditional Halo multiplayer and the campaign mode. Warzone is big, messy, and fun.

Same old Spartans

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Warzone adds some exciting structural variety to the formula, but the moment-to-moment gameplay? Classic Halo through and through. You know the guns, you know the rhythm, you know the tactics. To be perfectly honest, I have always been pretty terrible at it, so for me it was the familiar sensation of getting killed over and over again. My more skilled teammates seemed perfectly at home, however.

This is obviously just one small part of Halo 5: Guardians, but I feel confident recommending it to fans of the series. Over nearly 15 years, Halo’s gameplay has been refined to perfection. The new console means that this is the biggest and most graphically impressive iteration yet. If you’re a fan of the series, get excited, because Halo is coming back in a big way.

Halo 5: Guardians is coming exclusively to Xbox One on October 27, 2015.