It’s not a common sight for a game to actively promote the exact games that served as the main inspiration for it, especially when a title almost lifts the whole design philosophy, visual style, and gameplay department of a certain franchise. And yet, Splitgate’s Stanford-based developers 1047 Games do exactly that, blasting the “Halo meets Portal” comparison much of the press and players noticed right away when the title was first shown. And indeed, nearly everything about this free-to-play multiplayer shooter looks and feels like Halo, but with players being able to place portals like in Valve’s iconic franchise. After a shockingly successful open beta, Splitgate’s Season 0 is here, and we tried it on Xbox Series X|S for you.
And I say HA-LO…
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room immediately: Splitgate is extremely inspired by the Halo franchise’s multiplayer, and the developers make no secret of this. It’s a first-person arena shooter where most of the base armors look something straight out of Halo 4 or 5, where maps’ visuals and geometries recall classics of the franchise, where weapons are functionally the same, from the DMR facsimile to a gravity hammer of sorts. There are even jetpacks similar to Halo Reach and the game modes mostly mimic what can be found in popular arena shooters, mainly Halo but also Call of Duty. Down to a kill announcer and medals for multi-kills! But inspirations don’t end there, with titles like Titanfall and Overwatch also serving as muses for this love letter towards some of the finest shooters on the market.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if you’re checking out this XboxEra review, there’s a good chance you already own an Xbox and/or a PC, which means you can easily access the entire Halo franchise; either through console backward compatibility of the various chapters or the finally excellent The Master Chief Collection, enhanced to take advantage of the new and more powerful hardware. So why play a “Halo clone” instead of the real deal? The short answer: Splitgate is an expertly crafted free-to-play shooter that is enamored with Halo enough to combine the best parts of each installment, but also creative enough to stand up on its own with some key changes, with portals being the most notable. And, well, this formula worked wonders for the developers, who suddenly found millions of downloads and hundreds of thousands of concurrent players, to a point that they had to redo their whole server infrastructure and delay the game’s launch from July to August to make sure everything’s in place to handle all that player load. They even managed to land extra technical help and funding to do so, as the team’s effective engineers were initially merely four. The joys of indie development!
2021: The Year of Portals
Regardless of the game mode chosen, every player has a portal-creating device that can be used whenever players want, allowing them to place portals on compatible surfaces that stand out due to being brighter and having this holographic grid on top of them. It’s not a weapon but an accessory, so players can place these passages anytime, even when flying with a jetpack or while shooting a weapon. And just like Valve’s iconic first-person puzzle game, momentum and direction are preserved when traversing a portal: land into one at high speed and you’ll be shot out from the other one seamlessly with the speed accumulated before the teleportation. There seems to be something in the air this year, as Splitgate, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and Psychonauts 2 delivered some of the most exhilarating portals since… well, Portal in 2007.
As expected, players can see through their portals, which can be used strategically even to find enemies across the map and shoot them through this brand new passage. This makes the game’s classic arena maps very dynamic, as there could be enemies popping up from anywhere, through passageways that did not even exist seconds earlier. And, similarly, the combat itself can take unexpected turns, with your enemy turning a corner to get away from you and, with the use of a portal, teleport behind you and gain the upper hand. A special kind of grenade that players can hold 2 of can be used to destroy opponents’ portals, and with the use of the D-pad (per the default control settings), players can choose to close either of their portals at any given time as well. Can come in handy during an escape to avoid the opponent from following us into our portal, for example.
How to get away with frag
Looking at the list of game modes, there’s very little missing for an arena shooter, be that old-school in the vein of Unreal Tournament or something more recent like Call of Duty. We’ve got Team Deathmatch and variations thereof, such as Team SWAT or Team Shotty Snipers that are functionally the same but with restricted weapon choices. There are classic, more tactical modes like Domination, Capture the Flag, and King of the Hill. Even modes with peculiar rulesets like One in the Chamber and Gun Game are there, alongside round-based game styles. And, perhaps most hilarious of ’em all, a mode called Teabag Confirmed that is a variation on the beloved Kill Confirmed mode, but instead of collecting enemies’ and fallen teammates’ tags… players have to teabag them, in true Halo fashion.
The weapon variety and the match structure are a love letter to the arena shooters of old as well. No loadouts, no supers, no classes: aside from a few party games, every player starts with the same stats and weapons, what are those depends on the game mode. If the rules allow for them, weapons spawn in a specific location at regular intervals in time, the last of which is signaled by a handy timer to allow players to know when to come back to try and acquire a particularly interesting weapon like a rocket launcher or a railgun. Therefore, most of the battles often rotate around a few key points of interest for most of the match, as teams try and keep control of a, particularly favorable location. The presence of portals that can be opened on many surfaces does, however, make holding the spots more difficult, as it’s hard to cover passages that have yet to be opened.
The Fortnite model
Splitgate is a multiplayer package through and through, and indeed it does not present a single-player campaign. Multiplayer extends throughout a variety of modes in casual, ranked, and custom matches, but there are a couple of things for solo players to waste some hours on. On top of a handy tutorial that explains how to use the jetpack, the portals, and so on, players can improve their aim on various target practices on the game’s maps. Similarly, in a move that mimics the Titanfall games and Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 a bit, the various multiplayer maps have a special single-player race version, where players will have to use the portals, jetpacks, and jumps to navigate through a series of checkpoints as quickly as possible. This is an excellent way to understand how to best traverse the maps and how to adapt high-level plays, such as opening portals mid-air or using the momentum of a fall to be thrown towards a hard-to-reach platform at high speed.
How does a free-to-play title sustain itself economically nowadays? Selling maps, weapons or competitive advantages is no longer the norm, fortunately, so there’s a model that very much resembles what can be found in the most popular F2P titles of our days, such as Fortnite or Rocket League. Seasonal battle passes to complete via XP earned in matches or with challenge completions; separate cosmetic purchases for weapon skins, emotes, character models, and more; further content unlockable by mastering specific weapons or kill requirements. Most importantly, it’s all cosmetic and optional, and there are no competitive advantages, even though we already see some dodgy pricing, with some weapon skin bundles already going below 30 dollars/Euros. Time will tell how this model resonates with the players, however. For now, free drops and rewards seem generous enough to obtain good swag without opening the wallet. Our writer Jordan Campbell, like me, has been putting a lot of hours into the game and appreciated the relative generosity and quality of free items being given out for simply playing the game normally. Hopefully, it won’t turn into a “grindfest” in the future.
This is how we roll
From a technical standpoint, the game gets the job done without currently impressing us too much. The framerate has been solid through the final open beta and the game’s launch, but the game’s resolution seems to dance around 1080p, revealing some “jaggies” when looking at ledges and far-away decorations. And while the game tends to perform well once players finally manage to connect, developers have been overwhelmed by the amount of interest and hype that grew around the game in the last weeks, often rendering log-in sequences harder than they should be. But other than that, the game’s infrastructure looks solid, with even complete cross-play to boot that pits Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 players together. One important downside of the unified pool is that ranked matches can make controller players face mouse and keyboard opponents too, which is known to be a massive disadvantage for the latter group.
It doesn’t matter if the game is not going to win awards for originality though because the massive player numbers and hype prove this formula is resonating with players. And it’s no accident: the core gameplay is a mixture of highly polished elements taken from some of the best arena shooters ever, imitated nigh-perfectly, and mixed in a never seen before way. As our own Jordan Campbell notes, this shooter entered the market at a complicated moment, with a mainline Halo and a much-hyped Battlefield are about to hit, and yet it managed to find its audience and strengths to shine. The excellent portal system, combined with one of the tightest FPS modules in recent years, makes me believe I’ll be playing this a lot as I wait for Halo Infinite to drop. And, frankly? I’m not even that certain 343’s much-awaited title will have Splitgate beaten in all aspects. It is simply that good.