Microsoft had eight minutes to convince a world of gamers that they should get excited about the gameplay of Halo Infinite yesterday during the start of the Xbox Games Showcase. For the most part, it succeeded in convincing me that Master Chief is back in the hands of storytellers who know what they’re doing.
For many fans, Microsoft and developer 343 Industries had them with the grappling hook, the new tool that gives the Spartan supersoldier some serious air mobility. But that’s not particularly special, especially for people who played Doom Eternal, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Just Cause 2, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. It’s similar to how the bow-and-arrow became popular in games for a few years, and it’s one of those video game conventions that designers pull out when they don’t have enough going on to entertain players.
Fixing the past
Maybe that’s not the most productive avenue for discussion. But the creators of Halo Infinite have taken their time in coming up with this bigger and badder Halo. They’ve had five years since Halo 5: Guardians debuted with excellent multiplayer mechanics and a lousy story. As one of 15 Halo games, it felt a lot like Halo 5 hit creative exhaustion with an overly convoluted narrative. This is what Halo Infinite, No. 16 in the Halo franchise, has to overcome if it wants to get all of the Master Chief fans back on board.
In Halo 5, Master Chief went rogue, and it was up to another Spartan, Jameson Locke, to hunt the hero down. Because you play Spartan Locke for some missions and Master Chief for others, you gain knowledge about each character’s intentions. So you realize that what these two really needed to do was to get together and have a nice talk. I didn’t believe for an instant that Master Chief was a traitor, just as I had a hard time swallowing in The Last of Us Part II (spoiler alert) that one of the major characters was more like a villain than a hero.
I also had a hard time believing that Master Chief and his, um, AI love interest, Cortana, had also become enemies. The reason that Master Chief went off the official path, to Locke’s consternation, was to save Cortana, or what was left of her. That’s a more complicated story, but Cortana sacrificed herself in Halo 4 in what was a touching ending to a love story. In Halo 5, she returned as an AI gone mad.
In the eight minutes we saw yesterday, no vestiges of that convoluted plot were visible. In Halo Infinite, the new enemy isn’t a friend. It’s just a new enemy in the form of a Brute war chief, Escharum, who has taken control of a Halo ring and is part of a faction from Halo Wars 2 dubbed The Banished. He leads what is left of The Covenant, the traditional foe whose aim is to wipe out all humanity. The Brute has humanity on the run, and he’s a real villain. That makes me happy.
What made Halo special
The original Halo resonated with me as one of my favorite games of all time because it was a story about the dying light of humanity. It was about to be snuffed out, and then along came the last Spartan, Master Chief, who dove into the fight with impossible odds. He took on enemies knowing that his cause was lost and he never settled for a defensive strategy. And he saved us.
“Chief is that unstoppable hero, and he will take on insurmountable odds to save humanity,” said Paul Crocker, the associate creative director for Halo Infinite, in a press briefing.
I also remembered stepping out into the world of Halo, the mysterious ringworld planet where you could see the edges of the ring on the horizon. Nothing about that world was interactive or immersive. In this new video, the ring is the very first thing you see in the distance after crashing on the planet. You get to enjoy what you couldn’t enjoy in 2001 because there wasn’t enough processing power to do it.
“This is the moment where we get to step outside into a fully realized Halo ring,” Crocker said.
Studio head Chris Lee added during the press briefing,” Everyone remembers when they first played Halo: Combat Evolved, when they first crash landed onto the mysterious Halo ring from the bumblebee escape pod, and how they felt as they looked around that world. And that to us is the feeling, the emotion, we wanted the players to experience again. We want it to feel different and new and fresh.”
The creators have built an open world on the Halo ring. You can go anywhere you want in the massive world. There is wildlife, like the little space gophers and the birds flocking away from you after you disturb them. The water of the marsh reflects back at you. The sunny sky in the distance is multicolored, and you’ll see changes in the sky based on the time of day. The grass sways. When you hop into the Warthog (dune buggy), you can see the red gas cans on the back. Microsoft said the power of the Xbox Series X game console enables them to apply 10 times the processing per pixel compared to the last game. And it runs at 60 frames per second at 4K resolution.
“We’re bringing the highest-fidelity experience we have ever created,” Crocker said.
The music from the original game, created by Marty O’Donnell, was one of the most memorable parts of Halo. It had pulse-pounding drums during the action and monk-like chants that delivered a sense of awe in mysterious places. Curtis Schweitzer and Gareth Coker have created some music that feels very Halo-like.
Halo Infinite is a huge and ambitious game that is easily several times the size of the past two Halo campaigns combined. All of this effort has been undertaken in the service of making you believe that you are in the world of Halo. I am onboard with that idea, so effectively conveyed in the eight minutes. I’m a little wary of one thing about open worlds. I don’t want trivial side missions to exist alongside the critical ones that can result in the saving of humanity. And I don’t think we should be grinding away to become powerful enough to fight some powerful boss. But short of that, I can live with an extended campaign that I could enjoy for a long time.
The combat also feels good. The original Halo from 2001 on the original Xbox converted me from a PC gamer with a mouse and keyboard to a controller player. I learned how to play with the analog sticks and triggers, and I still play shooters that way today. When I fired the assault rifle in Halo, the empty bullet shells popped out. The guns felt powerful. The gunplay in Halo Infinite felt similar.
With Halo Infinite, the player has so much more freedom. As you look through the world and glance at the minimap, you can see that you can attack any of the multiple targets. It’s an open world. You can hop into the Warthog or go on foot. You can try to be quiet or just jump into the battle with guns blazing. You can stay mobile, using the grappling hook to get you airborne and positioned above your enemies. You can use it to pull yourself to them with a killing punch. The enemies are also smarter. They can toss a suicide bomber at you, or evade your shots if you try to pick them off in a stationary way.
This game clearly delivers that gunplay well. You are back as Master Chief. You also have a sidekick. This time, it’s not Cortana. At least, from what we know about it so far, there is no Cortana. I don’t know for sure. But in the meantime, 343 Industries showed us the Pilot, a human who bickers with the chief about what to do when they land. He’s an ordinary human, and while his face and movements look a little wooden, he represents the best attempt to create a believable sidekick for the hero.
“The Pilot is our most human character we have ever created in the franchise,” said Lee. “He’s basically the most normal guy we could put in crazy situations.”
I like having interesting enemies. The Covenant Elites were tough to fight, but the Brutes were harder to deal with, and they had great weapons in the form of grenade launchers that could do a lot of damage. Fighting them won’t be so easy, even though whoever controlled the demo made quick work of them during the eight-minute scene. And this guy, Escharum, is a cocky bastard that I would enjoy fighting. He advises Master Chief to “die well.” What a bastard.
I could see how this open world, faster action, and 60-frames-per-second 4K graphics would also make for outstanding multiplayer combat. In my opinion, this collection of things that it showed us in the eight minutes is all that Microsoft has to deliver to get its fans back.
Eight minutes isn’t enough
I can’t believe I haven’t played the game at all yet and that eight minutes is all we’ve seen of it. But I think that Microsoft has moved its flagship entertainment property — which has more than 65 million players — back to what fans liked about it. The story looks simpler. It’s humanity against the bad guys. The chief has his sidekick. The world looks amazing. The combat feels good.
I may come to eat my words. But so far, so good. The sins of the past weren’t that egregious, and they look like they can be overcome. Microsoft has called this kind of a spiritual rebirth, rather than a reboot, and it clearly had to do that in order to win fans back. But if the eight minutes we saw is representative of what Halo Infinite is all about, then we’re in good hands.
I checked with Spiketrap, the company that tracks how games and entertainment are doing on social media. Microsoft’s overall event had a positive sentiment score of 79 out of 100 based on analysis of social media reactions across a number of platforms. And Halo Infinite also tracked with a positive sentiment score of 76 out of 100. (Anything over 70 is quite good). So if you see some people who aren’t happy with the grappling hook (dubbed a Grappleshot), they’re probably in the minority. Fans like the art style going back to Bungie’s original look, and they like the concept of an open-world Halo experience — as well as the grappling hook.
Generally, that reaction is good for Microsoft, because billions of dollars and Halo’s place in popular culture are what’s at stake here, not to mention Microsoft’s place in the console war. Halo: Infinite comes out during the holidays on the Xbox Series X, the Xbox One, and the PC. Hopefully we’ll find out more about the gameplay by then.
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