343 Industries made a surprise announcement for the Halo franchise on Wednesday. The first PC release of the long-running series since Halo 2 is on the way. Only, it's not Halo 5: Guardians. Instead, it's a free-to-play online multiplayer game that will soon launch a beta in Russia.
The free Halo multiplayer game for the PC is called Halo Online and will launch a beta this spring, only in Russia. It is being developed by Saber Interactive, who worked on Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Halo: The Master Chief Collection, in conjunction with a Russian company called Innova that specialized in online multiplayer games.
The Q&A that accompanied the announcement implies that the game could expand to other regions, but there's no timeline on when or if that will happen.
"Halo Online is powered by a highly modified version of the Halo 3 engine and optimized for smooth performance on lower-end PCs," 343 Industries revealed. "While there's no campaign mode, Halo Online is set on a secret UNSC space installation called Anvil, where Spartan-IV soldiers train together in war exercises to sharpen their battle skills and test experimental technology."
The Halo Online announcement makes clear that there will be an in-game economy. So that means micro-transactions for at least cosmetic items like armor. There's also mention from a Russian gaming site (via reddit) that armor will have attributes that can affect play, like speed. There will still be weapon pickups on maps, but will come with an indicator as to whether the weapon is better or worse than what players are carrying. That makes it sound like the in-game economy will come with weapon purchasing, too.
343 Industries calls Halo Online a "learning opportunity" for them. Russia is a large market for free-to-play PC games. It's also a market with a high rate of piracy, which means that "games as a service" are more likely to succeed than traditional retail or download games. The fact that Saber Interactive's development offices are located in St. Petersburg, Russia, probably factors in, as well.
Halo isn't the only traditionally released Western shooter that is testing the free-to-play waters in a new market. Activision released Call of Duty Online in China earlier this year. That title took maps and features from Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops in competitive shooter modes, a Survival co-op mode, and a Cyborg Zombies mode (since regular zombies are not culturally appropriate in the country). It's highly unlikely that Call of Duty Online will ever see a western release.
What do you think of a free-to-play Halo Online shooter? Should it come to North America and Europe? Sound off in the comments below.
[Images via Halo Waypoint, reddit]