Halo, Fortnite, and The Magic of Multiplayer

or: When The Best Multiplayer Game Isn’t The Best Multiplayer Game

This essay is from a newsletter project that I started in early 2020 and abandoned shortly thereafter.

This holiday season (as with every holiday season) I was hoping to use some time off from work to catch up on the games I haven’t yet played that topped the annual end-of-year lists. And (as with every holiday season) I failed. Instead of finally getting into Disco Elysium, I spent a lot of time playing two games I’ve already played before: Fortnite, which I’d played for a handful of hours before the holidays, and Halo: The Master Chief Collection, a compilation of games that I’ve already spent hundreds — if not thousands — of hours playing.

Halo was an indulgence. I saw that The Master Chief Collection had recently been released on PC, so I downloaded it from Game Pass for a little nostalgia trip. Then, after spending some time with Master Chief, I randomly ended up playing a dozen hours of Fortnite with my in-laws since it was the one game that everyone was already familiar with.

As I played, I noticed an interesting similarity between these two games: both had pretty clear weaknesses, but those flaws were massively overshadowed by the seamless multiplayer experience they provide.

Halo

Although I’ll always have a deep, abiding love for Halo, I was shocked at how sluggish and slow the game felt after my reflexes had been re-calibrated over the last decade by games like Call of Duty and Overwatch. Plus, I forgot how easy it is to get lost within a multiplayer map, or caught in a no-mans-land that you didn’t know existed. When I reviewed Splitgate: Arena Warfare with Jake last year, I assumed its major flaw was that it wasn’t similar enough to Halo. Now I feel like the flaw was that it’s too similar.

But booting up The Master Chief Collection did remind me of the jubilant LAN parties I had as a teenager. Halo was so accommodating in its networking features that any size group was always able to do something together. You could put four people on one screen and jump into matchmaking, or you could have eight people on two screens playing each other, or you could have two people on an old CRT TV, four on a high definition big screen, and one more on a little tiny TV you found in the garage, all of them playing on one team in big team battle. You could easily swap teams if you were playing on a LAN, and the customization features were practically endless. Assuming you had a few friends with Xboxes and some rudimentary networking gear, you could get a large group all playing together fairly easily.

Fortnite

I was impressed by the changes Epic Games seems to have made to Fortnite as part of “Season 2” — the game feels smoother and tighter than ever before. But it’s still Fortnite, which means that there’s still building, which means that combat — aka the entire game — still eventually dissolves into a bizarre construction competition where two players try to assemble taller and taller towers so that they can jump on top of their opponent and obliterate them with a shotgun. Other battle royale games thrive on the glorious tension of needing to run across an open field while not knowing if you might be in a sniper’s crosshairs. Fortnite deflates that tension by allowing you to instantly build a tiny log cabin around yourself the moment you start taking fire.

But the simplicity of Fortnite’s multiplayer makes my memories of Halo look positively prehistoric. Although squads generally max out at four players, new features allow parties of up to sixteen people to compete in select modes. Plus, unlike some Battle Royale games (cough — Apex Legends — cough), party size doesn’t matter. You can easily jump into a game with one, two, three, four, or more players.

All of that pales in comparison, though, to one of the game’s greatest achievements: crossplay. After reaching an agreement in 2018, players can now play with each other on any device. You can have a four person team composed of one person on an Xbox One, one on PlayStation 4, one on PC, and one on an iPad. (Or Nintendo Switch, or an Android phone…)

Plus, of course, Fortnite is free. I made a fair amount of friends playing Halo in middle and high school, but I can’t imagine how much wider that social circle would’ve been if Halo and been free and available on any device that resembles a computer.

Multiplayer

When Marshmello held a virtual concert inside of Fortnite last year, some speculated that we were getting a glimpse of our AR/VR future. Even now, olds like me are beginning to conceptualize Fortnite as “the place where young people hang out.” But, as Halo reminded me, simply hanging out in a game world (as opposed to actively competing in it) isn’t as new as we think it is.

One of the game modes we would play during those Halo LAN Parties was called “Capture The Tower.” Two teams were plopped down on Ascension, a map with a tall tower on one end of the playing area. At the top of that tower was a mini-gun style turret that dealt heavy damage and featured infinite ammo. The objective of the game was to seize the tower and prevent the other team from capturing it. The twist was that holding the tower was easy, but capturing it was not. All long-distance weapons were removed from the map, and players were given shotguns (high-damage, but low-range) by default, so the only way to capture the tower was to try and avoid the constant barrage from the turret, get inside the tower, and eliminate the entire other team.

This dynamic resulted in Sisyphean gameplay. The team trying to capture the tower would repeatedly throw themselves at it, typically getting mowed down by the turret. Occasionally someone might slip under the hail of bullets, but then they still had to shotgun duel the rest of the team. Teams would often go for twenty minutes or more without capturing the tower.

Any designer would probably look at this mode and call it unbalanced. Other players would probably get frustrated at how frequently they were dying. But we loved it. And when I think about why we loved it, I think it had less to do with the game and more to do with just being together. There were certainly competitive moments at those parties, but there were many more where we were just goofing off and playing a silly game mode.

I think about that mode when I think about building in Fortnite. It’s strange to have players instantly constructing fortresses around themselves (a mechanic that’s left over from the game’s original concept, which involved defending yourself from hoards of computer-controlled enemies), but it doesn’t get in the way because building isn’t what the game’s about. Hell, fighting other players isn’t even what the game is about.

Just like multiplayer Halo, the game is about doing something with your friends. Sometimes that thing is a perfectly designed competition, and sometimes it’s just a mode that everyone can participate in.

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Chris On Videogames

Videogame criticism that’s short, sharp, and insightful. New reviews every other Friday.