Halo’s single-player level design has long been shaped to better serve new weapons, enemies, and AI behavior. The developers created flowing canyons, rifts, and cityscapes that subtly guide players on a quest to save the galaxy.
In the past, gameplay has typically been about working your way up a hierarchy of enemies in each encounter. Playing by yourself or maybe with a couple friends, you prioritize small Grunts and fearsome Elites based on their weaponry and how it can be used in small to medium-sized spaces. Large spaces were usually reserved for vehicle levels or sniper shootouts.
But in Halo 5: Guardians, something’s very different: Enemies come in large and unfamiliar groupings. There are sniping perches that rise higher and higher over the battlefield. At certain points, the game literally asks you to wander around and listen to civilian chatter.
To figure out what drove these significant changes, we spoke to the campaign design team and did some digging ourselves to observe how this rethink makes the new levels feel different.
Nicole Makila, lead producer on 343’s campaign team, says that in designing Halo 5’s new kinds of levels, various departments were constantly in meetings with each other.
"We'd ask ourselves what are the goals of the level, and how do we translate that into environment art?"
Rather than letting the level design team set out the path and have art and character teams react to that vision, the teams reacted to each other’s projects and tried to balance and flow off of each other’s work.
"We'd ask ourselves what are the goals of the level, and how do we translate that into environment art?" she says. "If there's a new character, how does the space showcase that character's behaviors? And if the sandbox team is developing Spartan abilities, what do we need to do with verticality to showcase those?"
To analyze Halo 5’s design, she says to start looking at where those new mechanics and rules push against the familiar Halo space.
Take the increased number of playable Spartans. While Halo games have always had co-op modes to accommodate up to four players, Halo 5 is the first to assume that four characters will be playing at all times. Master Chief and Spartan Locke will each be joined by a crew of three Spartans controlled by AI or other human beings.
Makila and her colleagues had to make sure that these four-Spartan squad always have something unique to be doing in a given space.
Lead campaign designer Chris Haluke calls these new spaces “bowls,” and explains that the goal in their design is to create multiple paths through that accommodate different shooter playstyles.
(Pictured above: seen from behind, one of the game's strongest "bowls," with a sniper perch on the right, a bottleneck down the middle, and an ammo cache on the left)
“You enter an area, and you have three to four tactical areas all around you and players can interact with a big variety of verticalities and heights,” he says. “From there, we can populate each path with slightly different encounters, which can vary even more depending on if all four players charge down one path, or if they split up.”
Halo 5 doesn’t add substantially new kinds of enemies, but the ones defined in Halo 4--mixes of Covenant and Promethean enemy types--do get new roles.
“We had a specialized group of developers that took care of encounters from a higher [complexity] level,” says Haluke, “and we stuck to the principles of the previous Halo games to make things familiar for players.”
“If you’re used to seeing an Elite, three Grunts, and some Jackals in that classic combination, we’re going to do the same arrangement, but we augment it with more clusters of enemies to get our number count up.”
One striking example of this enemy augmentation is that Promethean Crawlers, the doglike enemies introduced in Halo 4, can be populated in bigger numbers than Halo 4. Before, they would supplement squads of Knight-type enemies the same way Grunts have stood by Elites, but now they can form hordes of their own and force the player to be watching their feet at short to medium range engagements. This shows how the increased space and increased number of players can lead to opportunities to tweak enemy arrangements and AI behaviors.
(Pictured above, crawlers moving to flank three Spartans engaging a Knight.)
The last big shift for Halo 5’s level design comes from the Spartan abilities. In the past, Spartan abilities were pickups that could be swapped around like firearms, leaving no guarantee a player would have a specific ability unless the game forced it on them. In Halo 5, Spartans have the same abilities all the time, including 3 new ones that significantly alter their physical speed and placement--the boost, the charge, and the ground pound.
While each of these moves has utility in the game’s combat, lead environment artist Justin Dinges says that they also shaped his work in building out the geography and terrain of the different levels.
“One of them, the Spartan Charge, lets us do old school secret wall kind of stuff," he says. "We got to build out this visual language the player would respond to, so they could identify suspicious walls and crack it to reveal weapon stashes or other secrets. That let us get into the exploratory adventure mode.”
“Secrets” don’t just include power rewards though. Walls can also conceal flanking paths and audio logs can be found by boosting over gaps. Constantly rewarding players by using these things to explore doesn’t just mean creating hidden power nodes--it also winds up shaping how they think about movement in newer, bigger spaces. (Above: The Spartan on the right boosts in the air in the game's arena mode.)
Halo 5’s successes will ultimately need reach beyond its level design into an ambitious story and an eSports-focused multiplayer mode to find the level of success that Microsoft is hoping for. But as the first all-new Halo game on the Xbox One, its increased player count, tweaked enemy organization, and use of fixed player abilities tightly show how core gameplay decisions can influence the size, geography, and sense of presence in the craft of level design.