An Infinite Burden
Earlier this week, Halo Infinite’s first tech preview concluded. With that, Halo fans could catch their breath, reflect and discuss what they had experienced. For 343, still deep in the trenches of development for what is potentially the most important game on the Xbox platform in over a decade, they gather the early returns to prepare for the stretch run before Halo’s release this Holiday.
The men and women of 343 have inherited a nearly impossible mission, to unite a divided Halo fanbase while living up to expectations that come with being the face of a platform. Championships aren’t won in the pre-season and a tech test with one game mode on three maps against bots without the full arsenal of weapons or equipment represents what is essentially Infinite’s pre-season showing.
However, after the team at XboxEra spent many hours testing every nook and cranny of what 343 laid to bare, early signs indicate this game has a foundation and identity that can reinvigorate the franchise to heights we’ve not seen since Bungie was warden of the franchise.
While Halo has trended to dominate the conversation with more positive energy than we’ve seen in years, it isn’t perfect. There can’t be a perfect answer for a franchise whose base has been as deeply split and vocal as Halo’s has grown to be over its 20 years of existence. Both of 343’s mainline Halo games had identities that diverged from Bungie’s simpler and evenly paced gameplay. Halo 5 in particular, comes with a faction of fans who loved its integration of the Halo sandbox with explosive modern mechanics. 343 has explored solutions for Infinite that reveal they considered both camps and may have cooked up a recipe for an evolved modern Halo that doesn’t sacrifice the identity of the classics.
To sprint or not to sprint?
That is Halo’s biggest question. No single component of the franchise has been more controversial and led to more discussions, videos, and arguments within the community since 343 made its addition permanent when Halo 4 launched nine years ago. What 343 came up with here would’ve been inconceivable if we weren’t seeing it for ourselves which is both wings of the party appearing to be (mostly) content with the compromise.
When 343 showed sprint during Xbox’s July show last year, it looked like the sprint camp had won the debate. Upon further review, many of the issues that purists of Halo have with this mechanic were indirectly addressed by changing the risk/reward equation for using it.
For starters, the difference between base movement and top speed has a smaller gap than the previous Halos. There’s approximately a 9% difference between sprinting and normal player movement. The base speed of our Spartans has been increased to the point that movement feels swift even while not running.
On the flip side, there is no longer a penalty to shield recharge time if you choose to sprint. Time to shoot coming out of the mechanic has been reduced resulting in quicker engagement once you encounter a combat scenario. The result is more continuous action.
One of the complaints by the non-sprint crowd for Halo 5 is that the action was stop-and-go. The penalty for shield recharges created longer escape and recovery periods and a more defence-oriented cycle. In Halo Infinite, even after taking damage and removing myself from a battle situation, I would be back into action faster than I would in Halo 5. Being able to recharge my shields while sprinting meant that running away didn’t mean hiding. It allowed me to run to an area of the map to re-engage from a flank or different position while those shields continued to charge. The most impactful change to the fast walk/run dynamic is that rather than 343 penalizing players for using sprint, they added a new reward for sticking with the base speed. In all past Halo games, you would show up on an opponent’s radar while moving at a normal pace. In Infinite, radar appearances only happen while running or shooting. With the reduced importance of sprint, some Halo fans have questioned whether it needed to exist at all. 343 has answered this by tying other benefits to the mechanic.
The most notable tie-in to sprint is the return of the slide mechanic. Slide spinning around corners may make it more difficult for your opponent to line up a shot while you survey your surroundings. It also just feels good. These mechanics combine to make your Spartan feel more agile on the battlefield. For some gamers, the feel is an important factor even if the substantive advantages you get from using them are limited.
Another returning movement from Halo 5 is clamber. While less controversial than sprint, its detractors felt it consistently broke up the flow of action since you couldn’t shoot while you were climbing. 343 appears to have addressed this complaint in a few ways. While Halo 5’s maps were designed to force the use of the mechanic, the 3 maps we played so far in Infinite introduce fewer situations where clamber is necessary to get around the map efficiently. 343 also introduced a new step mechanic which results in quicker jumps up smaller steps. No longer will you have to make full or floaty leaps to make it over small ascents which allows for traversal at a brisker pace.
A glaring omission from Halo 5’s movement set is the thrusters. Their removal results in the elimination of Spartan Charge, Ground Pound as well as Boost. Its removal comes with trade-offs, however. To partially compensate for the lack of thrusters, these Spartans are more nimble than the ones in 5. You can now turn a corner while sprinting at sharper angles. As mentioned previously, general base movement is faster and when combined with less aim assist, basic strafing is more effective. While Spartan Charge is removed, melee appeared to be fluid on the run.
All of this brings us to a Halo that “feels” modern in its controls and movement while maintaining the core principles and even pacing that purists love about the classics. While there will be gripes from both camps, at its core 343 appears to have threaded the needle(r) better than many believed possible.
Tools of Destruction
After my first game of Halo Infinite, I scrolled through the stats and immediately realized that things were going to be different. Game after game, average shooting percentages were lower than I was used to seeing in Halo 5. With the reduction of aim assist while adding bloom and recoil to some weapons, using a mid-range precision fire-arm was no longer the solution to all of my problems the way it’s been. Bloom is when the aiming reticle expands while shooting which reduces accuracy while recoil is when a gun provides kickback resulting in less precision with rapid-fire. Despite changes to aiming and balancing, the overall sound and feel of most of the weapons on display were excellent. While Halo 5’s weapons were also very good, the contrast to Infinite’s more dynamic mix suddenly makes 5’s strong arsenal of destruction look flat in comparison.
One of 343’s most interesting new toys was the VK-78 Commando. Somewhere between an AR and a Battle Rifle, this weapon is versatile and effective in the right hands. From a distance, 7 fast-firing single shots to the head would take your opponent down while at close to medium range, it would double up as an automatic weapon. While something like the Commando isn’t going to be a favorite or clear pick-up for every type of player, it highlights the thoughtful and deliberate intention for each weapon to have its own identity.
The Battle Rifle felt as good as ever and had more value as a pick-up due to the balancing and purpose of everything else on the map. Whereas picking up a BR in Halo 5 arena-style game modes often had you mixed in with seven other players using something similar, the BR’s presence was distinct and stood out the way it hasn’t for years. We may see a clamoring for BR playlists soon but independent of that, Battle Rifle fans should be excited that it may return to prominence as Halo’s clear preferred mid-range precision weapon of choice again.
When we talk about weapons, we can’t forget about grenades. If the bots during the tech test taught us anything, it’s that grenades are more potent than ever. Without the ability to jump-boost, well place grenades are harder to dodge and therefore more deadly in skilled hands.
Other new weapons like the Heatwave, Skewer, and Pulse Carbine seem to have more specific use-cases but will take more time to determine their long-term effectiveness. The jury is still out whether the Bulldog is up to the challenge of replacing the classic shotgun with its current balancing. The sniper felt like it was tuned for a mouse and keyboard while the Needler was so effective, it functioned like a power weapon. We’ll likely see plenty of tuning prior to Halo’s final release but what’s exciting is how purposeful each item on the battlefield seems to be. With the limited information we do have, 343 appears to have rebuilt the weapon sandbox to encourage more diversity in what players will use, reduce the redundancy within the arsenal, and have added additional nuances to master the tools of destruction at each player’s disposal.
Very few franchises in gaming have maps with the identity and eminence that we saw in Bungie’s Halo games. In the past decade, 343 struggled to duplicate that. The small taste we got during the tech test doesn’t appear to be a threat to dethrone Bungie’s greatest hits however they were steps in the right direction. All three maps varied aesthetically and played out differently. The environments didn’t feel stretched or cluttered with obstacles. With a de-emphasis on Spartan abilities and less variance between running and walking, map creators should have fewer variables they’re forced to accommodate every time allowing for more creativity and focus on gameplay flow. 343 made a good first impression and hopefully, they can continue to trend beyond good to create a collection of well regarded maps of their own.
It’s been a couple of decades since AI in video games has shown notable leaps in improvement. Does cloud-powered AI present an opportunity to change that? While we have no answers to that today, the question was raised more than once as we witnessed the Halo-bots occasionally display behavior that felt authentic to what a human might do. Often times we’d see clear flaws. They were predictable to start matches and sometimes, they’d just stop doing anything useful. However, when they were at their best, they could’ve passed for a slightly below-average human player. How far will they progress? Will this AI progression make it to the campaign? Will Halo have its version of Drivatars? While none of these are questions we can confidently answer today, it’s worth a call-out to keep an eye on the potential that 343 was able to tease here.
Grappling to our Hearts and Minds
A core component of Halo Infinite’s sandbox, much like Halo 3, will be the use of equipment. The tech test kept some of these items out of reach although scrolling through the menus revealed that thrusters will still exist as an equipment pickup. 343 has revealed the repulsor during E3 week however gamers weren’t given the opportunity to take it for a spin last weekend. The drop wall and threat sensor may prove to have useful strategic uses once we have the opportunity to spend time with them in PvP but felt uneventful when used against bots.
With no other stand-outs, the stage was cleared for the Grappleshot. What we learned about this new addition to the Halo universe is it has a stage presence! The Grappleshot is a wrist-mounted equipment pick-up that fires a grappling hook that can attach to a surface, enemy, or weapon. Depending on what it’s attached to, the player will either pull or be pulled towards the target. The concept or use of grappling hooks is not new in gaming. The implementation of 343’s version most certainly is! What makes the Grappleshot unique is that its physics-based. This leads to it being less constrained to specific situations and allows the user to be more creative in taking advantage of its functions. Zipping across the arena felt both natural and lively. Depending on the angle and distance of the surface you are attached to, your momentum can lead to an assortment of ways for situations to play out.
The Grappleshot felt like a microcosm of the overall Halo Infinite experience. On paper, it wasn’t original or exciting but in the game, it was exciting, fresh, and felt like an evolution of everything before it. It was new to Halo but felt like it belonged. The Grappleshot was the Superstar for many gamers last weekend and could be one of the best additions 343 has contributed to the Halo sandbox.
Last weekend was 343’s first chance to make a hands-on impression with their divided Halo community and they came out swinging with a Gravity Hammer. While critics may ask us to temper expectations, long-time Halo fans who’ve engaged in 1000’s of hours with the franchise over its two decades of storied existence have been given enough information to develop a hunch; that the pieces are here and the Halo rings are aligned to create something special. 343 is walking a tight rope that leads to what seemed impossible by stitching together most of Halo’s fanbase.
It’s been nearly 14 years since Halo 3 was king of the FPS mountain. Since then there’s been incredible competition. New kings. A few others who’ve set new trends and a AAA landscape which has often followed. During that time, the one thing we haven’t received is an adequate replacement for Halo.
For many, Halo isn’t just a game. It’s an energy. One that has helped form many friendships and positive memories. The kind of energy that brought people together rather than divided them. For at least one weekend, that energy made an appearance. We saw positivity from corners of the community where it’s not existed for years. Halo clips dominated social media. A fanbase reunited.
We believe there’s more of that to come.