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Can Halo Infinite be great? by Henri Robbins

It’s a Friday night in the early 2010s. You’re sitting in your best friend’s basement. On the table in front of you, three liters of Mountain Dew are placed around a stack of pizza boxes like motifs in some sort of ritual. The lights are dim; a soft, blue washes across the room. A dull hum emanates from the massive, now-archaic television in front of you.


You’ve been waiting for this night all week: a twelve-hour Halo: Reach marathon. You couldn’t be more excited. The entire night, you and your friends will be laughing until you cry, quoting YouTube videos, and flinging each other across the map in the most absurd ways.


These nights are the nostalgic backbone of Halo’s fanbase. After two (admittedly horrible) mainline games, Halo 4 and Halo 5, the only thing keeping fans around is The Master Chief Collection, a redux of every Halo shooter before Halo 5 that brings all of them to the latest model of Xbox and, more importantly, PC. For the past year, 343 Industries,the studio Microsoft put in charge of Halo after Bungie left,has been introducing continuous patches and updates to these original games, and pushing a new vision into the original series in preparation for Halo Infinite.


On Monday, the twentieth anniversary of Halo: Combat Evolved, 343 Industries unexpectedly released Halo Infinite’s multiplayer—a month before its planned release date. Despite a few leaks and predictions, the release shocked the Halo community. It was magnificent.


So far, having only played the multiplayer, Halo Infinite seems to imitate everything that made the early Halos great without becoming a clone; 343 builds upon Bungie’s gameplay and experience, adapting the now-classic multiplayer to the modern shooter landscape. And this potential primarily comes from 343’s willingness to step away from their last two games and start anew.

Despite this, Halo Infinite doesn’t have the same soul as the originals. There isn’t the same excitement, the same unwavering hype, around the games. Compared to Bungie’s original series, Halo Infinite seems to have lost the spirit that truly made Halo, Halo.

But why? And more than that... Can Halo Infinite be great?


How Combat Evolved


“When you first saw Halo, were you blinded by its majesty?” — Prophet of Regret


In 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved released as the original Xbox’s flagship title. At the time, nothing else compared. Halo truly made the player feel unstoppable.


There were countless reasons why Halo succeeded where other games failed: Better gameplay, more intuitive controls, cool (and strange) weapons, and even the introduction of traditional dual-stick FPS controls. But above anything else, what created Halo’s fantasy was aim assist. Until now, any shooter on a console was awkward. Controlling your aim was next to impossible when using an analog stick, and using a directional pad with only four inputs was somehow worse. The only comfortable way to aim was with a mouse and keyboard, and that didn’t work when consoles had always been defined by their controllers.

The solution? Help players aim. I’m not saying that Bungie invented aim assist, nor that Halo was the first game to ever have bullet magnetism, but I am saying that the presence of the system was a key part of creating satisfying gameplay back in the day, and it still is a key aspect of it today. Players felt powerful because, instead of having to fight with the game’s control scheme, they were able to cooperate with it. For players to feel powerful, they had to feel in control, and Halo did this perfectly.


But creating this feeling wasn’t just about making players stronger. Instead, it was creating a balanced combat system that empowered them to make their own choices. While most sci-fi games had focused on giving players a massive arsenal of weapons to work with, Halo limited this; countless weapons were strewn across the map, some from allies and some from enemies, but players could only carry two at a time. Because of this, players had to engage with the game world and develop strategies in the middle of combat as their weapons ran out of ammo. While this may sound completely benign by today’s standards, games like Doom and Quake had made the multi-weapon system the standard at the time.


Along with this, players couldn’t sprint in the traditional sense. While most modern games require players to lower their weapons to move at maximum speed, Combat Evolved let players move at their maximum speed while still shooting. Why? Because why the hell wouldn’t a one-ton mass of cybernetic enhancements be able to shoot a gun while running at max speed? It made sense, and that’s how it was, until Halo: Reach.


Because of this system, the multiplayer also became much more complex. Players had to make strategic choices when picking up weapons, positioning themselves and making predictions based on what gear they had available to them. There was a strategic advantage to memorizing which weapons spawned where: you could anticipate what weapon an opponent had based on where you were encountering them and fight—or retreat—accordingly.


The game’s combat systems weren’t at a breakneck pace, either. Compared to Call of Duty, Battlefield, Titanfall, or really any other shooter now or then, getting a kill took ages. As a result, there was a certain strategy involved: throwing grenades around corners, shooting explosives near your enemies, and outsmarting opponents with solid positioning or smart reactions. Who shot first wasn’t the determining factor in an encounter. Instead, the most ingenuitive player won.


And to enhance this need for strategy, each player always started out with the exact same weapons when they spawned into the match. Any other weapons, grenades, or power-ups all had to be scavenged on the map.


Despite how complex it may seem, the multiplayer was a complete afterthought for the developers. They almost didn’t even include it because of some issues found late in development. But, for some fantastic reason, they decided to throw it in. And it was a hit.


Halo instantly became a staple of college dorms and parents’ basements across the country. The game developed an entire culture around it, too: LAN parties, late-night marathons, and even local tournaments sprouted up around the game’s multiplayer. There weren’t any unlockables. There weren't any achievements. There wasn’t even XP. It was all about kicking your friends’ asses, and who doesn’t love that?


The game’s fandom wasn’t relegated to shooting each other, either. Red vs. Blue is a video series that popped up and had a massive following, ultimately spanning eighteen seasons and every major Halo game before Halo Infinite. Gameplay montages, memes, and entire message boards took root. The culture that developed was strong enough to cement Halo permanently in the video game canon.


Following all of this, Halo 2 should have been a disaster. With only eight months left of development and after a game showcase at E3, Bungie realized that Halo 2 couldn’t actually run on the original Xbox. They were forced to rebuild the game from the ground up and, according to fans and modders alike, it was a bit of a mess. Wonky physics, countless glitches, and some game-breaking exploits, along with code so messy that modding was nearly impossible, all make it the least-replayable game in the series.


Despite this, Halo 2 introduced online multiplayer, along with gameplay mechanics like dual-wielding and melee-focused weapons like the energy sword. Because of this (and the success of Halo: Combat Evolved), Halo 2 was one of the fastest-selling media products at the time and is still a fantastic game to play.


The Height of Halo


What really matters, though, is Halo 3, the pinnacle of the series. Thanks to the higher-grade tech of the Xbox 360, Bungie was able to do everything they’d envisioned in Halo 2.


But Halo 3 didn’t do anything truly revolutionary, and that’s part of what made it so good. All Bungie did was improve upon what they already had. The multiplayer was more robust and balanced, dual-wielding didn’t feel overpowered, and the maps were more diverse and had greater depth.


More than anything else, the multiplayer experience was satisfying to play. The battle rifle had a fantastic rhythm to it. Power weapons really felt powerful. Driving a Warthog was just as much fun as shooting the massive gatling gun on the back of it. And all of this was backed by fantastic artistic direction: a rugged, seemingly-utilitarian design sensibility made sure that virtually nothing felt unnecessary, and the things that did (like a katana strapped to your back, samurai armor, or a flaming helmet) stood out in the best way. No matter what you were doing, you were having fun. Halo 3’s multiplayer cut right to the chase and made playing the game something to remember.


On top of that, Halo 3’s fanbase was MASSIVE. Multiplayer communities, cosplays, the continuation of Red vs. Blue, even new series like Arby ‘n’ the Chief all built up the mythos of Halo. The game wasn’t just fun to play, but now was even fun to just talk about. There was always something to do, even if it was just making idiotic posts online.

In my opinion, Halo 3 would have been good even if it didn’t have any character customization at all. Combat Evolved and Halo 2 didn’t, and they were both great. But instead of continuing tradition, Halo 3 created a progression system that actually encouraged players to play the game. Mind you, this was well before the days of microtransactions. DLC was barely even a concept. Halo 3’s armor unlocks were done through actual accomplishments: beating the game on a certain difficulty, unlocking special achievements, or even completing the famed Vidmaster Challenges.


Halo 3’s multiplayer was fantastic for two reasons: simplicity and culture. You could pick it up and have fun, and put it down to talk to other people about how much fun you were having. There was nothing more to it.


The Fall of Reach


Halo: Reach. The installment I have the most fond memories of, but also the most problematic of Bungie’s Halo installments. Reach released in 2010 to critical acclaim, introducing new combat mechanics, more armor customization, and an enhanced focus on multiplayer. This all sounds fantastic, right?


The answer is uncertain.


Halo: Reach introduced what is probably the most hated mechanic in Halo: armor abilities. Now, instead of each player starting with all the same gear, players could choose from a set of different abilities at the start of a match. And one of these abilities is still considered to have ruined the newer Halo titles: sprinting.

Long has the community lamented the introduction of sprinting into the game. A series that was once defined by its minimalist control system and massive focus on map knowledge, strategy, and positioning was entirely cut down by the addition of a second, faster movement speed. So what? Who cares?


The answer is simple: When players are limited to one movement speed that they can perform every action at, the gameplay becomes entirely focused on being in the right place at the right time. You need to know which guns are where, how to beat your opponents to those guns, and how to beat your opponents once you have them.


But when players can traverse the map at almost double speed, all of this strategy is eliminated. Some players can immediately sprint to the other end of the map, pick up whichever power weapon they want, and run from any encounter if their health gets low. In a game like Halo, where health is plentiful and most weapons take a fairly long amount of time to kill, this means almost every combat encounter can be trivialized or avoided by a survival-minded coward.


And from a more practical standpoint, the main selling point of Halo was that you were the ultimate super-soldier, weighing in at 1,000 pounds with metal-reinforced bones, super strength, and nearly-indestructible armor. Why shouldn’t you be able to move at full speed while shooting a gun?


Sprint, however, was only one side of the equation: Countless other armor abilities invaded the sandbox. Jetpacks, bubble shields, and holograms popped up all over the map. Players were no longer on an even footing, but instead had to take risks based on what they assumed their opponents had picked before the match even started.


This didn’t make Reach bad. The multiplayer experience was still a blast. Bungie still knew what they were doing. I spent dozens of hours playing Reach, always working for some new unlockable or just trying to have fun with friends. The issue was, really, that it influenced the attempts from 343 Industries to make a Halo title.


A Monument to All Your Sins


Halo 4 and Halo 5 were both made by 343 Industries after Bungie decided to step away from Halo and pursue their newest franchise, Destiny. In developing these two, 343 decided to design their games by following the pattern that Reach set out for them.


Now, in Halo 4, sprinting was no longer an armor ability. Instead, it was a default skill. And armor abilities were no longer something chosen during a match. Instead, you unlocked them over time by gaining XP, which allowed you to build custom loadouts. The idea of an even starting ground was entirely destroyed. Instead, players with more experience could demolish newcomers.


This destroyed Halo. There’s a reason nobody plays Halo 4 anymore, and the multiplayer scene in Halo 5 is almost entirely focused on their Warzone gamemode. The balanced (and fair) combat systems of Halo were destroyed and, in their place, a system that rewarded grinding, constant play, and meta-game strategies was implemented.


Halo 5 was so much worse. One-time-use cards to get powerful weapons, pay-to-win mystery packs, randomized armor drops, and almost no character customization only added to the game’s already-plentiful issues. It was a trainwreck.


And on top of that, 343’s art direction was abysmal. The rugged, heavy aesthetic of Bungie’s Halo was gone, replaced with an awkward, fleshy, and over-detailed design language that made almost no sense. Massive shoulder pads and exaggerated forms were standard, and almost nothing made sense from a practical standpoint. And more than that, unnecessarily bright colors and a toy-like sheen on armors made everything look fake. The soul of Halo wasn’t there and, as a result, the series fell into obscurity.


Can Halo Infinite Be Great?


So here we are. Halo Infinite is a month away from release, and the multiplayer is already out. And so far, I have my doubts.


There are some things Infinite seems to have done fantastically. First, 343i seems to have solved the sprint conundrum. They recognized, first, that removing sprint at this point would be absurd; too many players have gotten used to spriting as a core component of the modern FPS, and taking this away would make the game even more foreign and unusual to newcomers than Halo would be anyways. On top of a slow time-to-kill, multiple types of weapon damage, and even more noticeable bullet travel times, new players would have to come to terms with the loss of sprinting.


But 343 is being smart about it. Sprinting doesn’t give you a massively boosted movement speed anymore. Instead, players can slide, jump, and clamber while sprinting. (Players are still unable to shoot, but that’s no longer because they can’t shoot while running at maximum speed. Now, it’s because sprinting is a vessel for mobility skills that can’t be done while aiming a rifle.)


Infinite seems to also be returning to Halo’s roots. Once again, players start on an even playing ground. No armor abilities, no customized loadouts. Instead, everything relies on map knowledge and awareness. Someone picking up the game for the first time has access to all the same benefits as someone who’s played for years.


To sweeten the deal, the overall gameplay feels great. Every weapon handles great, driving is intuitive (and you can finally drift a Warthog), and the game’s visual systems—which now highlight players in red or blue and let them keep their main armor color—eliminate the concern of one color being more visible than the other without resorting to horrendously bright armor colors and toy-like textures.


The battle rifle feels crisp and rhythmic, the rocket launcher has heft to it, and even newer weapons like the pulse carbine have a good weight to their animations and feel (mostly) intuitive to use. All of this blends together with an art style that takes all the best parts from Bungie’s Halo to create an experience that, for the first time, feels like a genuine successor to the original Halo.


But….


Infinite has some serious flaws, and almost none of them have to do with the actual gameplay. Instead, they’re all rooted in the new progression systems.


Like pretty much every other game today (including The Master Chief Collection, in recent updates), Halo Infinite has adopted the battle pass system. You know the one: a set track of 100 or so items is set out for players, and each time you level up you get an item (or two, if you pay $10 for the premium pass). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. I mean, it works. People pay for it, and game studios need money. The issue lies in the fact that the battle pass is the only option to unlock gear at the moment (besides a single weekly unlockable). There aren’t any items that players can unlock through skill or grinding challenges. There aren’t any pieces of armor that say, “Damn, that guy’s good at this game.” Instead, you see a player with the lLevel 100 armor and you say, “Damn, that guy has a lot of free time (or, a lot of money).” There’s no way to really show off player skill, so there’s nothing for players to competitively strive to show off. And this is made even more true by the XP system. Grinding for levels is abysmal. Doing so takes forever, and players benefit in literally no way from doing well in a match. Instead, all it gets down to is completing simple goals (get five battle rifle kills, kill a flag carrier, etc.) and playing as many matches as you can.


Were It So Easy...


But that’s not what really matters. What really matters is the culture around Halo. Sure, it can be the most fun game in the world, but does it really matter if you can’t engage with the community? If you can’t sit down on a couch and spend all night laughing with your friends? The greatness of Halo may have been founded upon making a good FPS, but what truly created that greatness was the community that spawned around the game itself. My fondest memories with Halo aren’t from a great-feeling battle rifle or a fantastic sprinting mechanic. Instead, they’re from hard-fought achievements, hilarious situations, and genuine human connections with both old friends and complete strangers. “Can Halo Infinite be great?” isn’t just a question of whether it’s going to be fun to play. Instead, it’s asking whether the game can foster the same community as Bungie’s Halo did back in the day. As of now, I don’t know. The series’ greatness might honestly just be nostalgia, a sensation that will never happen again. But playing Halo today, it’s all just as good. (Even the community, no matter how small it’s gotten.) The love is still there, and I’m hopeful that Halo Infinite can give me something to look back on and yearn for in 20 years.

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