November 30, 2021
The name 'Halo' doesn't mean as much as it used to once upon a time, when fans were so eager to get their hands on Halo 3 that lines wrapped around Best Buys and shopping malls at midnight on a weekday. The pervasiveness of digital downloads has a lot to do with that, but for a generation of people, Master Chief was the king of FPS for a moment in time, combining big set-piece campaigns with no-frills multiplayer that helped usher in the online console era.
In the years since, the series has taken more cues from other games than the other way around. A game that was once a slow-moving shooter centered around map control has evolved into a game with sprinting, grappling hooks, and even a battle pass, with 'Halo Infinite' the first title in series history to go free-to-play for their multiplayer.
On December 8, the game will release officially around the world, a few weeks after the multiplayer was dropped off in a beta state to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the series. Having played it extensively the last few weeks, here's what I think works, what doesn't, and where developer 343 Industries has to go from here.
Halo Infinite nails the most important part — this feels like a Halo game, but a Halo game that is looking to iterate and meet modern standards instead of holding onto the distant past. It plays fast relative to older games in the series and does so without losing its soul.
Relative to the games it is competing with, titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield, Halo is still a high time-to-kill game, reliant on team shooting opponents and landing headshots after you've whittled down an adversary's shield. Save for instances where you can wrangle a power weapon capable of delivering a one-hit kill, you'll find yourself in plenty of cat-and-mouse situations, ducking behind cover and tossing grenades to either kill your opponent or move them into a position more advantageous to you.
Brute forcing your way through enemies tends to be a losing strategy, save for when you can catch a group of opponents off guard which is a bit too easy in radar-less modes, thanks to some issues with audio cues. But those moments are all the more satisfying when you can pull them off because they're not as common or easy to execute as they are in competitors, and Halo's classic multi-kill call-outs and medals certainly add to the feeling of satisfaction.
(For my money, no one has figured out a way to make in-game achievements feel as satisfying as hearing the Halo announcer yelling out your multi-kills and kill streaks. All the giant, screen-invading messages in the world can't replicate the joy of understated play-by-play for your damage dealing.)
At the center of the experience are the guns, which include plenty of reliable favorites, subtle tweaks, and new additions to the series.
The assault rifle and battle rifle, your starting guns in unranked and ranked games respectively, feel as good or better than ever, with the assault rifle even feeling a bit punchier than it has in the past. The Shock Rifle, a one-hit headshot gun that can chain to multiple enemies if they're standing close enough to one another, is a great addition. The Skewer is basically a harpoon gun, a one-shot weapon with some distance drop-off that is a powerful counter to vehicles. Some of the plasma weapons feel decidedly useless as finishers, but broadly speaking, every gun has some sort of unique purpose. If a gun isn't good for the killing blow, it likely has a purpose in crowd control, and vice versa.
(My singular beef is the replacement for Halo's iconic shotgun, which doesn't sniff the power of the former close-quarters beast. Having to two-tap enemies with a gun that is strictly designed to kill in tight spaces doesn't feel great.)
Those weapons are enhanced, rather than diminished, as a result of the on-field equipment you can pick up in Infinite. Halo's classic energy sword is still menacing in close quarters, but combining it with the game's grappling hook, a tool that can latch onto walls, vehicles, and opposing players alike, allows you to close ground quickly if an opponent catches you in a compromising situation from midrange. Barrier walls can be used in a pinch to block a potential killing blow or augment your position to fire shots off from a new angle. Landing timely headshots is still the name of the game, but winning engagements requires an understanding of what tools you have in the kit and how to synergize them all.
Even as I write this, I'm continuing to discover new ways to use the equipment in the game. I've watched teammates attach an enemy detector to the back of a running teammate, using a human meat shield to survey an area before they move in. Panic can often breed moments of genius. While on the run from an opponent toward the end of a Slayer match this past weekend, I half-mistakenly used the Repulsor tool (designed primarily to knock back enemies) as a jump boost, clearing an otherwise unreachable wall and ducking out of sight before the opponent could score a kill.
In a Big Team Battle setting, you get to combine all that with a classic suite of vehicles and turn it into full-scale war. When both teams are fully engaged in the objective, there are thrilling and excruciating matches to be had. Hopping into a Warthog with a group of friends and going on a rip-roaring run through an enemy's backline is still as thrilling as it ever was, and the counters they have to kill you all makes a successful push all the more satisfying. You will learn a lot about your aptitude in Infinite when your vehicle gets EMP'd at the worst possible time and forces you to think on the fly.
To that end, the early period of a new FPS is usually rampant with huge gaps on the scoreboard as rankings settle out and players are distributed to their proper place on the skill curve. But I've found games surprisingly well-balanced at the outset even with crossplay between PC and Xbox enabled from the start (I'm an odd bird, a PC player who still uses a controller out of unbreakable habits). I've played games where I was by far the best player in the game and others where I felt like I was playing with drunk goggles on, and nearly all of them were closely-contested games to the end. There have been some early complaints about cheaters popping up, but I haven't run into those quite yet, and the game has run smoothly aside from an occasional crash or two.
Call me a man of simple taste, but if a shooter has guns that feel good to shoot, creates unique gameplay moments, and consistently makes everyone feel like they have a shot to win games, that's enough to make a very good game.
The biggest mark against "Halo Infinite" from a gameplay perspective is one that, thankfully, is easily fixable. At present, the game is artificially limited by its modes, and what's worse is that players have no option to choose which games they play when they hit matchmaking.
Halo has always had some of the best variety in the genre, thanks in part to the custom game and Forge integration that has allowed popular, user-created game modes to take hold and eventually stick as official multiplayer playlists. For now, there are just four modes in Quick Play and Ranked playlists (Slayer, Capture the Flag, Oddball, and Strongholds) in addition to two modes specific to the Big Team Battle playlist (Total Control and Stockpile). A special event last week provided players access to the Fiesta playlist, but only for a week, and an official Halo Waypoint blog noted these modes represented the entirety of their day-one offerings in the multiplayer suite.
A lot of series favorites are missing, including but not limited to Infection, SWAT, Team Snipers, 2v2, or even something as native to the genre as a Free For All mode. It's a curious decision, and a lot harder to justify than a lack of multiplayer maps, which require thoughtful design, art direction, and considerable testing for balance issues. Making different modes accessible to players is comparatively very easy.
This issue is compounded even further by the inability to choose what game type you're playing when matchmaking. You're completely at the game's mercy when it comes to what you might play — there were stretches when the game would spit out five straight games of Oddball even if you had no interest in playing the mode to begin with.
That creates a poor user experience on several levels. For one, the frustration of being thrown into a game mode you don't actually want to play will be enough to turn some players off entirely, opting out of the game if they can't play what they want. What's worse is when a teammate applies that philosophy within the game, ignoring the objective as a result of being stuck in a mode they had no interest in playing.
Given the absurd player count Halo Infinite has had so far — it has already peaked with over 250,000 Steam users playing the game concurrently — there's also no excuse of player fragmentation to hide behind. Having a small, dedicated group of players in an objective-based playlist creates a better experience than throwing every single player into modes at random, simply hoping that players will buy into the team goal.
The headline-making issue at the center of Halo Infinite is the progression system. Whether you think progression should matter much in a Halo title, the dopamine hit from unlocking new items and customization options is now baked into player expectations for online multiplayer. And let's be clear, Halo Infinite launched with an embarrassingly bad Battle Pass and progression system, locking what seem like pretty basic customization options behind a pay-for pass. Worse yet, they can be semi-difficult to obtain even if you decide to dole out money for the pass.
I would argue this problem is not as bad as it seems, mostly because the customization options within the battle pass are hardly worth caring about and thus easy to skip. If you grew up with Halo when ranks and stats were all that really mattered, whether or not you can add a piece of metal to your helmet probably matters very little. Would it be cool to paint my character however I wanted whenever I wanted? Certainly.
I do understand, however, that free and deep customization has a specific legacy in the series. Obtaining the coveted Recon armor in Halo 3 was not a product of paying more money than other people, but a reflection of difficult, in-game achievements that reflected time spent with the game. If you saw someone wearing certain gear, it created a certain fear factor heading into a game, and that's a moment that seems hard to replicate under the current Infinite system.
And it's hard to ignore how user satisfaction can be impacted by the system even if we ignore the series' legacy. At present, there is currently no reward for how well you do in a multiplayer match one way or another, whether you're putting up 3000 points at the top of the leaderboard and winning or sitting in a corner doing nothing en route to a loss. Unless you complete a weekly challenge during a game, you receive the same paltry 50 XP as everyone else, friend and foe alike. That feels pretty terrible no matter how you slice it.
Weekly challenges can be as broad as playing one game mode to getting a specific number of kills with one particular weapon, and for players who are concerned with leveling up the battle pass, finishing off challenges is the only way to move quickly through rank levels. As players chase the more specific objectives, team goals can end up taking a backseat for players to chase their individual goals. Combined with the aforementioned concerns about using one unified playlist of game modes, the player experience can swing wildly game-to-game for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual gameplay mechanics.
(I've even fallen into this trap myself. I went after and completed the ultimate weekly challenge for Infinite last week, the final step requiring five killing sprees in Fiesta, a game mode with random-drop weapons. Having suffered through a number of awful starts and near-misses, I eventually resorted to hiding and camping once I spawned with a good load out, not necessarily helping my team so I could pick up cheap and easy kills no matter how long I had to wait in one spot.
Developer 343 Industries has promised to make changes to this system, and while I can't see them opening up customization the way it used to be, the easiest and most sensible step is to simply reward players for the amount of weight they pulled in a game. At the very least, there needs to be an option to unlock customization options without paying for them, and most modern games (even free-to-play games) have offered the ability to earn in-game currency through time invested.
But if these are the biggest problems to date, Halo Infinite is in good shape. The early numbers suggest this is a hit, and Halo Infinite has the benefit of dropping next to an uninspiring Call of Duty release and a poorly-reviewed edition of Battlefield. Still, it's hard to say whether there is enough in the package to pull players out of battle royale games and other popular titles to invest time and possibly money in Microsoft's flagship shooter.
For this writer, the initial failures are easy enough to look past because the spine of the game is sturdy as can be. Halo Infinite is a blast to play with friends, and even if postgame rewards aren't there yet, it still feels good to see your skill rewarded with a spot at the top of the scoreboard. If they deliver a strong single-player campaign and offer the requisite post-launch support multiplayer games demand, the potential for another classic is there.
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