I’ve never been much for multiplayer where Halo is concerned. I’m well-known as the Halo lore nerd from my days working at Kotaku UK, but as that suggests I've always loved the campaigns and story over four-on-four deatchmatches and Killtacular medals. That's partly because there’s a pretty rich lore and expanded universe other gaming franchises can only dream of, and partly because I actually suck at Halo.
It probably all stems back to the old Halo 3 days, when I had to wrestle the Xbox controller away from my brother who had the irritating ability to blast himself up the ranks without seemingly trying very much. Ever since that vicious circle of me sucking and him, well, not-sucking, I've never had the patience to git gud – as the kids used to say.
The ‘Training Grounds’ VR system at Halo Outpost Discovery changed that a little. Not only did I not suck at it, but it also proved to be a surprisingly solid gaming experience. I half-expected it to be terrible and broken, but boy was I wrong.
For those who haven’t followed this story at all, which will be damn near everyone, Outpost Discovery is a special Halo convention-type thing with a bunch of interactive activities for fans to immerse themselves in. Training Ground was the one I actually cared about because it offered untethered VR multiplayer: in other words, you can actually run around pwning noobs without the risk of tangling yourself up in wires and breaking your IRL neck.
Each game is around three minutes long, with two three-player teams running around a small map armed with Covenant Plasma Pistols. It’s a pretty standard Slayer setup where the goal is to get as many kills as possible while minimising your own losses. You have the usual Halo shield to absorb incoming damage, and after it’s gone you’re vulnerable unless you scarper. Once you die you return to a little box designated ‘home base’ to respawn. Otherwise you’re left to roam the map as something akin to a beige-armoured zombie (outside of the core action, there's little interactive in this environment).
The ammo's unlimited, though if you use it all too quickly you have a recharge wait. The Plasma Pistol’s classic charged shot depletes the lot in one go, which is all very nice but, crucially, not enough to score a kill if your opponents’ shields are up.
So you either had to work together, or be quick enough to duck behind some cover and hope your battery recharged fast enough to score the fatal blow.
Sadly the Plasma Pistol is the only weapon available, though that makes some kind of sense when you think about it. Using the Vive controller as a weapon is great if you’re dealing with a one-handed gun like a pistol, but a two-handed weapon like the classic Halo Assault Rifle throws some unnecessary kinks into the mix. I’ve used two-handed guns in VR games before, and it does take a bit more concentration to keep everything working. Assuming, of course the controllers aren’t locked into some sort of plastic case (like that of the PSVR Aim).
The size of the map and the length of the games will have been the key factor here, though it would be nice if there’s a future iteration that lets you roam a larger area and swap out the plasma pistol for some other pistol-y gun. Or the Covenant Energy sword, provided health and safety sign off on that one.
The great news for people like me, who are prone to motion sickness, is that this didn't trigger it. I felt the potential when watching the panorama video of the Halo ring, but not once while running around in VR shooting Red Team (noobs). Perhaps the short length of the match had something to do with it, but I came out fresh as ever without a touch of nausea – albeit a little bit sweaty from all the running around
The games are clearly custom-built for this experience, and when inside it looks pretty indistinguishable from Halo 5's visual style. The only key difference here is that you’re not playing as a proper Spartan soldier, only the weird mannequin-like ‘drones’ featured in the trailer up top.
But the game is running on actual PCs of some shape or form, since the setup uses HTC’s Vive Pro and those backpack PCs that pop up every now and again for serious VR gamers. And that’s how you get to run around tetherless. The headset is still physically connected to the computer pack, which is then wirelessly connected to the rest of the equipment.
The prospect of carrying a PC around on your back probably isn’t very appealing to most people, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable. In fact it was less of a pain than carrying around my own backpack, which is usually full of all sorts of junk I don’t really need to carry around so much. Or at least it was fine for the ten or so minutes I had to wear it, including the three minute game time.
The key disadvantage to this kind of gameplay is the size. It’s too big for you to be able to set something like this up in your pokey millennia flatshare, but it’s also too small to offer players the option to properly roam around the Halo maps. This particular map shuffles itself twice per game, which keeps things more interesting, but not to the point where people could stomach playing it over and over again. Something something variety is the spice of life.
I’d say the real failings of Halo’s Training Grounds was more of a failure of the Outpost Discovery event. There were too many people for the number of attractions, and the queues to get into things were hours long. But that’s not to say there isn’t promise in the concept. Training Grounds was set up by VRcade, which runs other tetherless VR experiences out in the real world. If Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire can go off on tour, then I don’t see why Halo VR couldn’t either. Even if Microsoft has showed practically zero interest in VR gaming up to this point.
Assuming there’s space to fit it in, Training Grounds could become that fun thing you do in the back of a bowling alley arcade, provided it doesn’t cost too much and 343i makes sure things are kept interesting. Plasma pistols are great, but how about a bit of UNSC hardware.
Sadly my game ended with my team losing by two points. Fortunately it wasn’t because of me and my repeating my general suckiness at multiplayer. As the below scores show, I was basically carrying my entire team and scored more kills than everyone else.
Suck it other people with no VR experience to speak of: my skills are obviously superior to yours.
It’s just a shame that the queues were too long for me to justify going back for a second go. I would have liked to, but there were other things to see and not enough time to get them all done.
VR will always be a side-project for the Halo series. But on its first go, turns out that VR gave me a version of Halo’s multiplayer that I actually enjoy, and it’s a huge shame that it’s currently only available for a limited time at a few select locations across mainland USA. If you want to try it for yourself there are currently four Outpost Discovery events scheduled between now and the end of August, but be prepared for some Olympic-level queuing.