We're told it's something special. Something well worth lining up for. Then we're told we won't get into the demo this time around.
We're at the Xbox After Hours during E3. A special event where the Xbox booth is opened up after the show officially closes for a selection of media and partners. Still we don't qualify among the selection of the selected and are told to come back before the show starts on the last day of the show. That's why we're walking through downtown at 8:00am - a full two hours before the showfloor opens on the last day of E3. We're not in the best of moods.
There's much confusion in the line with journalists who have been forced to wake early for this special presentation of Halo 5: Guardians. Some have been told they're going to try HoloLens and don't realise what this has to do with Halo. The distance between our pupils is measured by a man in a white robe.
In fact, there are two lines for the demo. One on the left side and one on the right side of the booth. Red vs Blue. 12 players are let in for each demo on each side. We're about to play Halo 5: Guardian's brand new mode Warzone, but first we're treated to a special briefing that makes use of the flashy new HoloLens device. We're fitted a HoloLens and told to move out (yes, there are waypoints to lead us on our way). We're treated to a view of the hangar bay, before the full team assembles in front of a holo display in the middle of the room where we are introduced to the basics of the new mode and introduced to the specifics of the map we're playing.
In many ways this is a wet dream for any fan of Halo. This is a first-hand experience of the space marine experience we've spent so many hours enjoying over the years. It's early in the morning still, but we can't help but smile.
In all honesty this briefing is not just there to show off the fancy new HoloLens tech. The complexity of Warzone is such that going in without any prior knowledge would simply not be a good experience. And as far as multiplayer modes go it's hard to imagine something more complicated in terms of components, objectives and mechanics.
You start off in your base and you need to clear it off AI controlled enemies in order to unlock your requisitions module and proceed with the rest the mode. This base is also where your core is stored. This core is only vulnerable when one team holds all three bases in the middle of the map. Destroy the enemy core and your team wins. The other (more likely) way to win is to collect 1000 points. You score points for killing AI (some points), enemy players (more points), and special AI bosses (lots of points), and holding bases (not as much as you'd think). In addition to the points you score towards the win you also gain energy points that you can use on requisitions (switching your loadout, jumping into vehicles) at one of the many stations in the bases (or as you respawn).
As you'd expect at E3 the groups of players that make up Red and Blue are an unruly bunch. Some players may be keen to group up and work together towards objectives, while others simply want to scout the map and perhaps sample some of the weaponry. It's classic Halo action, and soon players have enough energy points to bring in Warthogs and Ghosts. The map itself also offers a classic Halo experience that anyone who has played any of the previous games should feel right at home in. A mix of open spaces and bases with corridors and cover. The addition of high priority enemy targets (it is announced when they enter the battle) makes for an interesting choice.
The points they offer is enough to send both teams gunning for them, but that also means bases could be left uncontested. When we played it was only really our team that focused on the priority targets, while the other team seemed to focus on capturing and holding bases. Both strategies seems to hold potential, but if you don't take down priority targets you'll likely need to bring down the enemy core in order to win as you won't score as many points holding bases. Our team spent much of the match defending our core as the other team held three bases, but we also managed to take out a few priority AI targets and so in the end we managed to reach 1000 points and win it.
Speaking to 343 Industries' Frank O'Connor we learned the reasons behind bringing Warzone into the fold: "We have players that only play campaign, those that only play multiplayer. We have players that only play a single mode in multiplayer. And getting those guys to do other things is really good for our community and for the gameplay experience. The more players we have doing more things, the better the experience is for everyone. So we wanted to build a mode that actually had something for everyone."
Warzone is a ton of fun, and it really succeeds in creating a meaningful online mode for players of different skill levels - something that's truly an accomplishment. There are however a few question marks that only hours upon hours of online play will straighten out. The points structure seemed to favour focusing on priority AI targets over players and bases - it may just be that it's what happens when you're playing with a group of people who are new to the mode.
Another concern is that the number of objectives in play at any one time will mean that players are too spread out over the map and that there a fewer big clashes between large groups of players as a result. The one thing that counters the latter is when a core is vulnerable (one team holds three bases) as that tends to really focus the action into one area of the map.