The pistol is the weapon of the gods, and I am not worthy. Seriously, I don’t know what to do with this thing—when I last seriously played Halo with a mouse and keyboard I had the reflexes of a 16-year-old and an endless summer to hone my three-shot kills. That was Halo: Combat Evolved, a game which still has active servers on PC. But today I’ve been playing Halo 5: Forge on PC, which Microsoft has released for free on the Windows Store.
Forge is two things: a robust mapmaking tool with new controls for the mouse and keyboard, and a custom game mode for playing on Halo 5’s official multiplayer maps and player creations. I may barely remember how to play Halo without a controller and aim assist, but after joining a few custom matches I can easily say Halo 5 plays like it was built for the PC. Mouse and keyboard feel fantastic.
The default keybindings are smart and easy to grasp, with only a couple exceptions. Fire and aim are on left- and right-click, while a mousewheel swipe down or the Q key swap weapons. Shift sprints, F melees, R reloads. Pretty standard stuff. I found the dash move, a quick jetpack burst, tough to trigger on the Caps Lock key when I was already holding sprint to run, so I bound it to a mouse thumb button. Likewise with Control to crouch, which I rebound to C in pure defiance of Evan’s moratorium.
The rest of the control settings are equally great on the PC. There’s adjustable mouse acceleration and smoothing (off by default) and sensitivity, raw input, and dedicated controls for machinima creators.
Same for graphics settings, with a couple disappointing omissions: no FOV adjustment, and a framerate locked to 30/60 fps. While I’d prefer a variable framerate that supports high refresh monitors, Halo running at a locked 60 fps feels great. The narrow FOV designed for living room TVs is more of a bummer. It doesn’t give me a headache like some gamers, but it’s easily the worst holdover from the console design and hopefully the first thing developer 343 Industries addresses.
Most disappointing is the limited pool of PC gamers who can actually play Halo 5: Forge. Because it’s a Universal Windows app, you’ll need to be on Windows 10, update to Windows 10 Anniversary, and have a DirectX12-capable graphics card. 343 has the system requirements listed here. I met those requirements, but if you’re on Windows 7, you’re SOL.
Just like the old days
After fiddling with the settings and bumming around a few empty maps by my lonesome, I joined up with the NeoGAF Halo community to play some real games. Halo 5: Forge’s main limitation right now is the lack of a custom game browser (aka a server browser), so you can only join games via Xbox Live friends. 343 is planning to add this feature in a future update, and when they do, Halo 5 multiplayer on PC is going to explode.
Halo 5 is the best the series’ multiplayer has felt in years, nailing the same fundamentals Halo 2 and 3 mostly got right: a focus on map control and coordinated team fire, a fun sandbox of power weapons and reliable starters like the pistol and battle rifle. Halo 5 replaced the armor abilities that just never felt right in Reach and Halo 4 with universal powers: a dodge speed burst, ground pound, and mantling ability.
On PC Halo 5 feels even faster—without aim magnetism tracking pistol headshots on sprinting Spartans is so hard with a mouse all of a sudden!—but landing those shots is extra satisfying. In one match I snap-aimed, fired, and disintegrated a mid-air Spartan with the fiery orange shards of an alien shotgun just before he hurtled towards me for a deadly ground pound. Man, I wish I’d been recording that. Even when I was running Dxtory to capture video, performance was a perfect 60 fps on my i7-6700K, GTX 980 and 16GB of RAM at 2560x1440.
I've seen scattered complaints online about the mouse controls on PC, suggesting they aren't pulling in raw input data and have some lag or acceleration, even with acceleration disabled. Testing by myself in a custom game, I couldn't detect this inaccuracy. The cursor seemed to stop when my mouse stopped. If there is some inaccuracy there, I didn't feel it. But the game does generally have a low sensitivity for mouselook that feels more like using an analog stick; I needed to use a higher DPI setting on my mouse to compensate.
I haven’t played nearly enough on PC to tell if the move to keyboard and mouse controls will call for any changes to weapon balance. That definitely seems possible, but mouselook may just make for a different distribution of player skill. If you can’t aim, pack it in or switch to a controller (that’s still an option in the PC build, too, and using it will re-enable the aim assist analog sticks need to keep up). I may be rusty, but a satisfying KO on a Spartan running for cover and a sniper kill on another did rekindle that drive to improve my Halo mouse skills.
Playing custom games on PC is how I’ll be spending most of my time with Halo 5: Forge, and I suspect that’ll be the case for most of its players. But this really started as a free project for the Forge community, who for years have been toiling away on maps for the community using limited tools on the Xbox. Halo 5’s Forge mode is almost unrecognizably complex compared to its debut in Halo 3, with crucial control over how items are locked together and far more memory to play with to make larger and more intricate maps.
Forge mode includes a great, but far too brief, interactive tutorial that walks you through the absolute basics of movement, creating and deleting objects, and popping into Spartan mode to test out your level. More complex lessons unfortunately aren’t doled out in-engine but link out to videos on Halo Waypoint, so you’ll have to install the Windows Halo app to watch those.
The UI is easy to understand and makes basic map design surprisingly easy. The controls for spawning and duplicating objects, deleting them, moving and rotating them are intuitive enough to grasp with just a bit of practice. But real efficiency and mastering Forge’s many, many shortcut keys will be a learning curve akin to video editing or 3D modeling. It’s going to take real time and the drive to create real maps to make that mental investment worthwhile. Again, though, all those keybindings can be customized, so the power’s in your hands.
Forge on the PC seems like it’s finally where it belongs—just the ability to type in rotation numbers with a keyboard probably brought a tear to some hardcore Forger’s eye—and I’ve already seen some pretty great Forge creations. I’m planning on talking to some members of the Forge community for their perspective.
With a server browser included, Microsoft easily could’ve slapped a $30 price tag on this and sold it as a real game. There are some oddities in Halo 5: Forge, like using the Xbox app to manage invites, and having your Spartan customization synced from Halo 5 proper, with no way to unlock items or customize your look in this game. There are still some classic Halo custom game modes missing, like Race and Oddball. 343 needs to either add those modes, or give the community the power to mod them in. But still, it’s free, and it’s the first proper Halo on PC in nine years. For the first time in a very long time, it’s good to be a Halo fan and a PC gamer.