I’ve been debating whether or not I should post this article since Halo Infinite’s multiplayer released on November 15th and its campaign on December 8th, but not for the reasons that you might expect. Mainly because I haven’t had the chance to pull myself away from the game long enough to actually elaborate more on my thoughts.
That should speak to the level of quality that 343 Industries has reached with Halo Infinite; that it’s the most fun I’ve had with a Halo game since Halo 3 despite its litany of shortcomings yet I’m struggling to put it down so I can finish writing up my thoughts on the game in its current state. By the time I do get around to doing so, many of the sticking points I’ve had with the game have been (or are being) addressed while new issues pop up in their place and existing problems only worsen. The last time a game made me feel this way was Destiny, an appropriate comparison considering Infinite’s live-service aspirations as a platform for Halo’s future in the same way the Master Chief Collection was for Halo’s past, the rollercoaster-rides that were their respective development cycles, and how both games launched almost barren of any content.
This is what makes covering a live-service game such as Halo Infinite so difficult and why I never covered Destiny in a post before: How do you cover a game that, by definition, necessitates constant change and iteration? Does one cover the game that launched or the newest version and the problems that still exist? How relevant will that post stay when more updates are released that address most of my comments and concerns? What if new updates add new issues in monetization or gameplay that makes this post age like a fine milk? Do you cover the development issues surrounding the game or the potential that it has yet to reach? Do I have to keep updating this post with every new content update that comes out till it resembles a more verbose game of whack-a-mole?
The answer to all of these questions is “I don’t know and I don’t care anymore.”
Leaving aside that Halo Infinite’s multiplayer is free to play and the campaign itself is a part of Xbox Game Pass, recommending this game to anyone is less of a question about a dollar value that one ascribes to one part of a product or an entire subscription service and more of a statement on what you personally expect from a finished product and the games you enjoy spending time and/or money on. Both are highly variable across individual people and I’m not interested in reviewing a game that’s already been covered a thousand times over by several press outlets just to satisfy a few people who probably made their minds up anyway. Especially if you’re asking someone who’s pre-disposed to say “Hell yes you should play this game” as a fan of the series since Halo 1.
Which to be clear, is exactly what I’m gonna end up saying at the end of all this.
Instead, I’ll be diving deeper into Halo Infinite as a whole while discussing how the final product was affected by a rocky development cycle fraught with mismanagement, compromises, and crises ranging from a global health crisis to departing studio heads. As such, this is going to be a longer post than I’d have anticipated writing to fully cover every facet of my thoughts on this game but in doing so I’ll be content that what I wrote will act as a sufficient indicator as to what my thoughts on Halo Infinite’s current state are and what needs to be addressed for it to be the best game it possibly can be.
With luck, I’ll be able to cover all of it with less toxicity than what it would take to lock down the Halo subreddit for the weekend before launch.
Thirty Seconds of Golden Triangles
“In Halo 1, there was maybe 30 seconds of fun that happened over and over and over and over again. And so, if you can get 30 seconds of fun, you can pretty much stretch that out to be an entire game.”
– Jaime Greisemer, Former Bungie Game Designer
Thirty seconds of fun is a pithy way of describing how Halo’s core gameplay loop allows for engagements to feel fresh and dynamic even as the scenarios kept changing, be it against the Covenant, Flood, or human players. At the core of this design philosophy is a ‘golden triangle’ of weapons, grenades, and melee that are reinforced by a utility-driven sandbox that encouraged unique roles for armaments and vehicles across different factions. It gave greater context to the larger environments and the two-weapon limit by encouraging players to scavenge the environment and find the tools they need to overcome any challenge that came their way and eventually settling into a gameplay rhythm that would turn thirty seconds of fun to thirty minutes and so on and so forth.
Starting with Reach, the series began moving in the direction of intrinsic modifiers ordnance drops, armor abilities, and enhanced mobility to attract a broader audience, affecting weapon balance and the way by which maps were designed around player movement. The sandbox became more focused on lethality than utility with greater aim-magnetism to better compensate for the speed of Halo 5’s enhanced mobility and became even blander for it despite the greater weapon variety and addition of weapon variants. With Infinite, a lot of emphasis has been placed on extrinsic modifiers that shift the tide of encounters and a more focused sandbox in an effort to return Halo to its old-school arena combat roots while gathering inspiration from other games in the genre.
Some aspects of enhanced mobility return from Halo 5 but with drastic changes to supplement the player’s base movement speed rather than outright replace it. Sprinting can only take you so far but in the right hands, players can perform Titanfall levels of speedy traversal by chaining together the right combination of sprinting, sliding, clambering, and equipment usage to fly from one end of the map to the next. This change alone makes movement far more skill-based than it was in previous titles and puts more emphasis on Halo’s gunplay than ever before, even acting as a way to let the player interact with objects outside of weapons and grenades. You can grapple straight to vehicles and use them to bring fusion coils closer to you to chuck at enemies like a seven foot tall metal-bound Donkey Kong.
To shake up the gunplay even further, equipment has also seen a major improvement and is much more diverse in Infinite than it was in past games in sheer variety and functionality. Beyond classics like Active Camo and Overshield, the highlight of Infinite’s equipment is easily the aforementioned Grappleshot, which can hijack vehicles and can pick up weapons/objectives as effectively as you’re able to navigate the map with it in both campaign and multiplayer but it’s far from the only viable option out there.
Nowhere is this better exemplified in the Repulsor, which can reflect enemy projectiles and allows for ingenious plays in platforming and defensive maneuvers such as pushing players off the map and providing a boost to get you to certain platforms faster. Thrusters have returned from Halo 5 and it retains their usefulness while cutting down on extraneous abilities like Spartan Charge and Ground Pound. Even something as simple as the Drop Wall (think, a quarter of a Bubble Shield that you can shoot through) can be a death sentence for a trigger-happy rocket-wielding Spartan rushing you if deployed at the right moment. There’s even enough room for support pickups such as the boring but practical Threat Sensor that highlights moving entities behind walls much like the Pulse Blade from Titanfall 2.
This is bolstered enormously by Infinite’s sandbox and its renewed focus on utility as a core design tenet. Armaments and vehicles are divided into damage types with returning staples like the Battle Rifle, Plasma Pistol, Sentinel Beam, and Sniper Rifle being divided into Kinetic, Plasma, Hardlight, and Power damage respectively. This Destiny-inspired change serves to codify established rules in past Halo games like plasma damage stripping shields and the 4-shot kill threshold of the Battle Rifle while allowing for more space to add new weapons, expand upon iconic mainstays in Halo’s armory, and introduce a new damage type in the process.
Shock damage inflicts incremental damage-over-time on players, stuns enemies briefly, and disables vehicles via an EMP effect, which ends up removing it from the Plasma Pistol and does away with “no-fun allowed” weapons like the Spartan Laser in the weapon sandbox. In its place are more interesting weapons like the Skewer, an anti-vehicle sniper rifle that can hobble or destroy vehicles and one-shot kill a Spartan, but requires an insane amount of time to reload and to properly lead your shots while accounting for projectile drop-off much like the devastatingly powerful Mangler. The Mangler- much like everything else in the game- is helped by having some of the most visceral and satisfying sound design that I’ve ever heard in any game this side of Battlefield with Infinite’s Battle Rifle being the best iteration in the series for this reason alone.
The Skewer also acts as a showcase of how the sandbox design and improved movement work together to benefit the gameplay; because of the changes to enhanced mobility, aim magnetism isn’t as baked into the game’s aiming mechanics to compensate for player speed and it allows for more experimentation in the sandbox. It allows for weapons like the Heatwave- a Forerunner shotgun that riffs off of Halo 5’s Scattershot that fires ricochet rounds with a horizontal firing mode for multiple targets and vertical for single targets – to exist without intruding upon the sandbox role that the Bulldog shotgun fulfills without completely erasing the role that the classic pump-action shotgun used to take up despite the latter’s absence.
It seems as though 343 Industries wanted to avoid repeating their mistakes with adding an overcrowded weapon sandbox out of an obligation to include and re-tool legacy weapons with little opportunity to add new ones as seen in Halo 4 and 5 without feeling overly redundant. What they ended up going with feels like the best of both worlds despite how trimmed down the weapon variety really is. Yes, the Bulldog is no replacement for the classic shotgun but it’s bound to end up returning at some point with balance tweaks to better integrate them into the sandbox in a future season. One glaring omission from the equipment pool are things like the portable man-cannon that filled neutral roles for both players to evenly benefit from, though one can hope that’ll be included as well along with the requisite balancing passes to buff underperforming weapons and other sandbox elements.
This unfortunately includes vehicles which- despite having undergone several design changes since Halo 5- leave a lot to be desired in their execution in just how much of a severe downgrade they are compared to past games next to the sheer amount of options that players have in disabling and destroying them. The main issue is that it feels like Infinite does everything it can to discourage you from getting into a vehicle at any time: If the vehicle you’re looking for happens to spawn in an apparent miracle (likely exacerbated by the asymmetric design of Big Team Battle affecting their spawn rates), then it won’t be too long till you wish it didn’t thanks to some of the worst handling I’ve ever seen in a video game, provided it doesn’t get destroyed in mere seconds by stray gunfire.
While Halo’s vehicle physics have always been rather floaty, they at least had a semblance of weight to them that made them feel satisfying to control. Not the case with Infinite; if you so much as drive over a pebble, the vehicle can and (probably) will roll over regardless of how straight the road you’re driving on is, and may God help you if you decide to make a turn at any point because there’s no guarantee you’ll even be in the vehicle long enough to complete it. Even aircraft and tanks aren’t immune from this either thanks to an absurd lack of power in their onboard weapons and similarly low health pool that only makes them feel like an afterthought.
This is likely due to balancing changes so that a small group of players in a Warthog aren’t unstoppable forces of destruction, but what good are new vehicle variants like the Razorback and bringing back the Brute Chopper if they’re this unenjoyable to use? I’d hope it’s something that 343 decides to take a look at because it’s bizarre that an entire gameplay mechanic feels so unpolished relative to the rest of the game, especially if more vehicles are on the way in future updates.
Leaving aside my issues with the vehicles; Halo Infinite plays like a heavily grounded version of Halo 5 with a more focused sandbox, deeper movement, and an extremely satisfying game feel that fully embraces “Thirty seconds of fun over and over again” all over again with a newly reinvigorated focus on Halo’s golden triangle and the end result feels like a return to Halo’s halcyon days.
Especially when it comes to its campaign.
“Oh I like it.”
After the garbage-fire of calamitous writing, atrocious pacing, abhorrent characterization, and inexcusably horrendous level design that was Halo 5’s campaign, literally anything beyond the bare minimum of what’s to be expected of a Halo campaign would’ve been seen as a triumphant improvement over its predecessor. As the only PvE content in Halo Infinite as of this writing, there was a lot of pressure for 343 Industries to deliver upon something with enough replayability as other Halo games with the encounter design and enemy variety to match. Cards on the table: This is the best campaign that 343 Industries has ever made and as close to a true thematic continuation of Bungie’s Halo games as they’ve ever pulled off.
Since Infinite is a “soft-reboot” of the series, it uses the basic story structure of Halo 1 as a foundation to build its story upon and establish itself as an accessible starting point to newcomers while extending olive branches to those who are familiar with past games and the overarching lore of the Forerunners. What we’re left with is a more focused narrative that acts as a somber reflection on the series up to this point and a thematic continuation of Halo 4’s story of the Master Chief reconciling his humanity as he copes with trauma, failure, and the loss of a friend all while wrapping up plotlines opened up in Halo 5 and rerailing entire character arcs in the process.
Just like Halo 1, Infinite’s story begins in medias res with humanity at their lowest point since fleeing Reach as the UNSC fights a two-front war against a fearsome alien aggressor in the Banished from Halo Wars 2 and Cortana’s Created from the end of Halo 5. When Cortana’s location is tracked down to the newly-discovered Installation 07 (or Zeta Halo), the UNSC sends the Master Chief with a fleet led by the UNSC Infinity to capture and bring her in for immediate deletion. Before the mission can be carried out, the Infinity is destroyed in an ambush and the Master Chief is defeated and left for dead by the Banished’s leader, Atriox.
Six months later, a lone pilot on an adrift Pelican discovers the Master Chief floating in space and resuscitates him. In that time, Zeta Halo has been blown apart with the resulting explosion triggering a Slipspace jump to an unknown region of space that effectively strands the weakened remnants of the UNSC and the Banished- now under the command of Escharum in the wake of his student Atriox’s death- as they fight for control over the ring world. With no way back to Earth, the Master Chief launches a counter-attack with the help of the Pilot and a newly discovered AI known only as “The Weapon” to re-establish the UNSC’s presence on Zeta Halo while uncovering the mystery of what the Banished are looking for on the rings and how Cortana’s involved.
Much of Infinite’s story is spent filling in the missing pieces of what happened before and after the attack on the Infinity with audio logs to explore the depth of the UNSC/Banished conflict while adding context to both factions’ respective viewpoints much like the terminals from past games, but never in an over-explanatory way that detracts from the mystery that Infinite spends its run-time building up. It’s a smaller scale narrative than most 343-era Halo games with a renewed focus on the Master Chief and a significantly reduced cast of characters that allows for emotionally weightier scenes with greater depth than anything seen in Halo 5. With the Pilot and the Weapon, the game is able to explore the Master Chief’s humanity through the Pilot’s survivor guilt and his grief in losing Cortana through his burgeoning friendship with the Weapon and contrasting her naïveté with the Chief’s stoic “been there, seen that” attitude by role reversing Chief and Cortana’s dynamic from past games.
The first few levels of Infinite are largely linear affairs that take place within Banished and Forerunner environments, giving players a preview of two out of the only three environments they’ll be spending much of their time in and what to expect from encounters once you’re able to explore the ‘open-world’. Infinite borrows heavily from ODST in how its open world acts as connective tissue to bridge main missions, side objectives, and collectibles together with the completion of campaign missions being a necessary condition to explore more islands in Zeta Halo presumably to preserve pacing.
Some of these collectibles are used to upgrade the equipment that the Chief picks up throughout the main missions, often by adding new functionality to them like the Grapple Punch to the Grappleshot or by blending existing equipment together like the Thrusters triggering a brief Active Camo effect. The game matches the Chief’s new abilities and equipment with wide-open battlefields and enemy variety that keeps the player on their toes, leading to some wonderfully frenetic and hectic combat scenarios that feel almost exactly like they came right out of Combat Evolved. Beyond the usual suspects of Hunters, Elites, Grunts, and Jackals (yes, even the snipers), the Brutes return in a variety of archetypes that can shift the dynamic of encounters by forcing you into more defensive maneuvers like the Brute Berserkers that can rush you into close-quarters engagements.
With the right armaments, enemy squads can be a force to be reckoned with and they frequently work together with witty dialogue to accompany their AI co-operating with each other with one interaction being Brutes flinging suicide grunts at the player’s head. Even bosses- an enemy archetype not seen since Halo 2 (we don’t talk about Warden Eternal)- have seen a major revamp with phases, unique attacks, and arena design changes that make them stand apart in interesting ways. It’s Halo’s combat at its most experimental and it’s incredibly refreshing to see 343 iterate upon widely panned ideas by focusing less on cheap difficulty and emphasizing mechanical novelty with appropriate build-up and thematic suitability to make boss fights feel more natural. That the Prometheans and quick-time events of Halo 4 and 5 were left out of Infinite only elevate it even further without the need of cheap gimmickry.
It lends itself to an addictive power fantasy with moments as exhilarating as evading a rocket fired by a heavily armored Brute with a well-timed thruster boost, switching to your Grappleshot to pick up a nearby Skewer and sniping the Brute in the face before picking off the retreating stragglers with your sidearm and hurling grenades to take care of a few distant grunts desperately attempting to kill you with their Plasma Pistols while Infinite’s breathtakingly amazing soundtrack plays in the background. Best of all, moments like this take place across the entire campaign through every mission available to the player and it effectively incentivizes exploration throughout Zeta Halo. It’s so mesmerizing and murderously balletic in its execution that it would make the Doom Slayer shed a tear.
Completing missions gives you Valor, which unlocks increasingly powerful weapons, vehicles, UNSC squad mates, and variants of both that can be requisitioned from FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) so you can take them with you to other missions throughout the game. As the game progresses, more side objectives become available to the player as the open world expands and plenty of possibilities open up along with it, allowing for the kind of ridiculous sandbox hilarity that the Halo games are known for even with only one person at a time. It’s a shame that co-op campaign isn’t available as of this writing because this would be one hell of a game to break over your knee with a friend and I hope it arrives sooner than later.
It took me 25 hours to beat the campaign on Legendary with 100% completion and instead of walking away from it as bitter as I did with Halo 5, I walked away wanting even more. Admittedly a major part of that comes down to a lack of variety; most missions and combat encounters take place within some variation of Banished structures or Forerunner formations with only one biome connecting everything together and one common objective. “Go here and kill everything” begins to wear thin after a while and without any compelling quest chains to go after within the open world, it makes Zeta Halo feel utterly barren. This open world design works well for something like the deserted streets of New Mombasa in ODST but it doesn’t hold up nearly as well in a Halo installation where a sense of scale is needed to communicate what the Forerunners were capable of and the conflict that takes place on the ring’s surface beyond light skirmishes and Ubisoft-style map markers.
This begins to fall apart near the end of the game where the scale dramatically ramps up out of nowhere and the campaign rushes to cobble together a feasible threat that’s really only built up during the only non-playable gameplay snippet in the entire game and mainly through audio logs, which is partially why they’re so important to Infinite’s overarching narrative beyond adding context to the six months the Chief spends floating out in space. Once the final cutscene played before the credits rolled, it only made me want to see more biomes than the seemingly infinite range of forests, rivers, and canyons that litter the landscape as a send-up to the second and third levels of Halo 1. Even more knowing how multiplayer maps take place on a greater range of environments. That said, I didn’t feel fatigued playing through the game or exploring the open world and I enjoyed my 25 hours with the campaign enough that I’d reconsider playing through it all over again, ignoring the lack of a mission replay feature that shipped with past Halo games at launch.
I also think I’d be singing a completely different tune if I paid full-price for the campaign compared to downloading it off of Game Pass. Because it’s $60 for a campaign, it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting to justify value for something that was part of a larger package with a baseline amount of features but ultimately comes up short for it. It becomes much harder to swallow when you remember that Reach shipped day one with solo and co-op campaign, competitive multiplayer, Forge, Firefight, and a functional theatre mode with more content between each mode than the entirety of Infinite. It’s a huge trade-off that feels like it was used to justify a subscription fee to a service that- despite its insane value- offers ephemeral ownership in return and feels more indicative of a cynical gaming and global landscape that promises zero ownership and greater ‘happiness’ for it.
But that’s why the free-to-play multiplayer is there, right? Well about that…
“Your Ass, My Size-24 Hoof.”
I’ve been playing Infinite’s multiplayer since its surprise launch on November 15th as a “beta”- whatever that word means when it was out mere weeks before its official release date with microtransactions in tow- and there were a lot of things I was willing to excuse on the assumption that fixes were coming. Despite the hotfixes that have been made to address concerns, expecting more might’ve been too optimistic so I’m going to talk about the multiplayer in its current state. While I’m still enjoying the multiplayer, it’s clear that it’s still effectively a beta and that 343 needs to address a lot of outstanding issues in the months ahead.
A large part of that comes down to just how little content the multiplayer and the game by extension shipped with in November with only four playlists, a handful of ranked playlists, and a Battle Pass tying it all together with free events interspersed between seasons of content lasting a few months with Season 1 lasting until May 2022. This would be easier to stomach if there was something else to go after in the game beyond the Battle Pass but there’s zero auxiliary progression beyond it and Weekly Rewards in stark contrast to SR levels in Halo 5 or the performance-based XP system seen in the MCC. Once that Battle Pass is done, you basically have next to no reason to come back to the game unless a free event runs in the game for a shot at limited-time cosmetics.
Initially, the Battle Pass could only be leveled up through challenges that offered a stingy amount of XP to reach a single tier before it was changed to offer a continuous 50 XP reward for completing matches and finally changing to a deprecating XP reward that would go from 300 to 50 XP in a matter of a few matches in response to feedback. Over time, the challenges were tuned in difficulty to allow for less stringent completion requirements that were contingent upon specific modes that could only be played in certain playlists. If a certain challenge is still grating to complete, you could swap them out for easier ones that are a matter of a dice roll that could end up taking multiple swaps to find a plausibly bearable one to finish.
The philosophy behind this change appears to be to give players a reason beyond chasing a number that grows larger the more you play, but that feels like a revisionist take by 343 themselves. You’re still chasing a number that grows larger the more you play, it’s just attached to something you could spend real money on. Besides, it’s not like past Halo games didn’t have a number or ranking you chased after to begin with; Halo 3 offered a player rank that grew the more XP you earned across playlists, Reach offered a unique leveling system based on credits you earned throughout all activities offered in the game. It’s a shame because this makes an otherwise phenomenally fun multiplayer game feel like a chore; the exact opposite of what 343 wanted to avoid in the first place in making its multiplayer feel like a second job. That 343 has been offering challenge skips in promotional codes for the game only cement the fact that 343 knows this system isn’t ideal to begin with.
What makes it more discouraging is that there’s no social experience that ties it all together; Infinite didn’t ship with lobbies and with it, no option to view other Spartans apart from the intro cutscene in every match or partying up with other players. This alone is particularly galling because I recently played the original Halo 3 on the 360 prior to the servers being shut down and with Infinite being hailed as a return to form for the franchise with stories of several players returning to play with their friends circulating social media, it’s beyond infuriating that Infinite doesn’t have better tools than a game from 2007 to match and play with other people at a time when gaming has become more social.
This is without getting into some of the occupational hazards that litter the game’s multiplayer; desynchronization issues that are caused by Infinite’s netcode exacerbate the unreliably wonky melee system that registers lunges whenever it feels like it and the removal of friendly player collision along with it. Infinite’s inconsistent anti-cheat system turns social and competitive playlists alike into an uncomfortable mine-field of cheaters with an unforgiving ranking system for competitive play that drops you by whole ranks that only make the experience far saltier than it needs to be despite how fun ranked multiplayer is to play. Even BTB was broken for days on end with a patch that’s scheduled to come this week as of this writing.
Thankfully the maps are really well designed with a lot of effort being made to preserve a sense of flow that allows for dynamic movement and equipment usage to really shine. It feels like the culmination of several lessons that 343 Industries learned in making maps for Halo 4 and 5 by following in the lead of how past games and popular Forge maps handled weapon spawns and chokepoints. Plenty of breadcrumbs have also been added for fans of the series to nibble on with homages to past games with Streets and Bazaar being my personal favorite maps in the game for this reason alone with references to both Halo 2 and ODST being plastered on walls and the inside of buildings. It helps that every map- much like the rest of the game itself- is unbelievably gorgeous with the art design doing much of the heavy lifting to communicate the grandiose scale of Halo’s universe from the tiniest of towns to the largest of Forerunner installations rather than a series of tangentially connected BSPs. Even with all these references, the presence of Halo 5-esque weapon pads do detract from the environmental story-telling the classic Bungie era games were able to do with something simple as a sniper rifle spawn in the Blood Gulch cave being tough to find.
At their best the maps feel like a continuation of Halo 3’s map design philosophy but at their worst they feel awkwardly out of place for the player-counts they were designed for. Despite the aesthetic appeal of maps like Behemoth taking place in a Forerunner structure out in the desert of Zeta Halo, the open-ended width of the map makes 4v4 combat feel like a stop-and-go affair that grows more dull as time goes on with the chance of a permanent deadlock happening during objective based game modes such as Capture the Flag. One would hope that 343 plans to experiment with higher player counts as 5v5 combat in maps as large as Behemoth or even the Reach-inspired Launch Site could benefit a great deal from more chaotic engagements with more players with more maps being more than welcome when they are released down the line. More variety in environments would also be greatly appreciated with Covenant and Banished environments rather than strictly human or Forerunner inspired maps.
Because Infinite is free to play, the multiplayer has been built from the ground up to accommodate new players with bots to practice against and a full-blown tutorial that gets your feet wet with the basic mechanics of Halo as a whole. If you want to practice with specific weapons, there are a set of trials for each gun that help you get accustomed to the weapons and their unique traits to train you in different situations with a scoring and star system to assess your skill. For new and returning players to the series, the onboarding process feels incredibly smooth with plenty of opportunities to practice and it offers a great way to ease into Halo’s combat flow from other games. It feels respectful to other players and their time in a way that’s refreshing and welcoming to see in today’s gaming landscape.
That is, until you want to make your Spartan look halfway decent.
“And you’d told me you’d wear something nice!”
If you go by the amount of parts you can change on your Spartan, then Halo Infinite easily has the most in-depth customization seen in the series since Reach. Everything from your Spartan’s armor to prosthetic limbs, armor effects, voice, and body type can be customized including the way your weapons and vehicles look with their own set of cosmetic items. Customization options can be unlocked through playing the campaign, levelling the Battle Pass, a Fortnite-style rotating store that you can buy items from using real money, and special events such as the Fracture Tenrai event for the heavily advertised Samurai-inspired Yoroi Armor Core.
On paper, it’s the Master Chief Collection’s customization suite taken to its logical conclusion; it allows for multiple styles of Spartan armor and experimental cosmetics to be added in the future with the existing options being aesthetically appealing on their own thanks in no small part to the game’s sublime art direction. In practice, Infinite’s customization is frustratingly limited at best with several customization options having been downgraded from previous games and downright malicious at worst in the ways that customization is intrinsically tied to its monetization system.
Part of the issue comes down to the way that cosmetics are spread across items combined with the amount of overlap between them. Vehicles, weapons, and armor cores share unique pools of cosmetics that can’t be shared between each other and lead to frustrating outcomes like the way vehicle emblems can’t be used for your player emblem despite sharing the exact same appearance. This gets even more ridiculous when you realize that individual vehicles share individual cosmetic pools much like weapons do, possibly to leave more room for monetizable cosmetics like mud flaps for the Warthog and similar systems are in place for armor customization.
This is where armor cores come in by locking customization down to a pre-defined pool of cosmetics for that specific core. Most of this makes sense from both a lore perspective and a design standpoint; mixing and matching different pieces across cores may not be compatible across different generations of Spartan armor and could lead to clashing aesthetic choices that may cause rampant clipping in the character models. At least it would make sense if the bots couldn’t do cross-core customization and the Waypoint mobile app couldn’t demonstrate it were possible via rendering glitches in the in-app Spartan model with almost zero clipping.
I’m willing to give 343 the benefit of the doubt when they say that it could take months of work to implement for players but that also could be so that they can balance giving players cross-core customization with pending monetization systems similar to how Transmog/Armor Synthesis from D2 was designed to complement Eververse. As it stands, it’s a cynical way to make you buy overlapping cosmetic options per armor core and it gets even more baffling when you realize you’re buying the exact same armor coating as offered in one armor coating either through the Battle Pass or for free.
The arbitrary limitation of armor cores also affects the way that accessories can be equipped; in addition to being locked to a specific core, only one attachment can be used at any one time on any piece of armor. With this change alone, it ruins the silhouette that some armor cores are known for and dampens further customization. It’s the main reason why the Reach armor pieces look off; several armor attachments can’t be mixed together and a lot of them are missing such as the UA-HUL attachment for the ODST and Recon helmets or the chest-mounted knife being a separate attachment that can only be bought from the store. It gets even more outrageous when you realize that certain armor pieces outright block the armor emblems with no alternative to position the emblems anywhere on the character model.
Worse yet are pre-selected sets known as “armor kits” that can be equipped so that players can look like the five named members of Noble Team or an e-sports team themed Mark VII set, yet doing so feels pointless since changing any piece of it removes the entirety of the armor kit. These problems are exacerbated even further when you realize that certain pieces found in the armor kits are behind a paywall, and combined with how arbitrarily restrictive the Destiny-inspired coating system is compared to the Primary/Secondary/Tertiary color customization options from earlier games, they both lead to the exact opposite of “greater customization and player expression” that 343 Industries was aiming for. If anything, Spartans feel less distinctive than they were in past games and the customization system is the very definition of “mile-wide and an inch deep” for how compromised it all feels.
Worse yet, it’s reinforced further by Infinite’s monetization and the utterly user-hostile UI that supports it.
“A Monument to All Your Sins.”
I wanted to set aside an entire section to discussing monetization in greater detail because there’s a lot to cover and simply saying the monetization is “bad bc expensive” doesn’t do enough to touch on why it’s so problematic, especially when it’s being propped up by the worst user-experience that I’ve ever seen in video games as a whole since the original Xbox One UI in 2013. In theory, a store that rotates on a daily and weekly basis makes sense for a free-to-play Halo game since there’s so many examples to draw from in Fortnite and Destiny 2 among a few examples. Done properly, it could be a really consumer-friendly addition to the multiplayer that would complement decisions like the non-expiring Battle Passes but it’s let down by some absurd decisions on 343’s part.
A lot of the issues with the store come down to the aggressive bundling of items to justify an obscene price tag in the hopes that ten dollars for cat-ears that you can only put on a single armor core can easily be justified with a handful of accessories you might not even care about. Often these come in the form of coatings, charms, and emblems that only serve to indicate just how inconsistent the value of those items are across bundles and how meaningless the actual prices are. This conflict can be seen in the highest-tier bundle at 2000 credits ($20); an armor set is barely worth that much, nor are voice packs that used to go for nearly a fraction of the price, and neither are the extra stuff they add to those bundles. It all comes across as insulting when you realize that the same amount of cash can get you the entire Master Chief Collection at its sale price.
Ignoring the audacity of bundling a bunch of emblems and a charm with the aforementioned cat-ear bundle, are Warthog mudflaps really worth bundling with three other vehicle coatings you’re probably gonna see in two playlists for the same price when the vehicles have the structural integrity of toilet paper? It makes the more fairly priced bundles feel like a rip-off and combined with how cosmetics are bundled and never sold separately, it makes the “Stay Tuned for more Details” messages in each armor piece more egregious because of the FOMO it inspires. Even if you do find something you think is worth spending money, rest assured that the way Spartan Credits are bundled on Xbox Live Marketplace will get you to think twice about dropping a dime.
You could say that’s endemic to free-to-play games and Infinite’s certainly no exception to the same issues that plagues a game like Destiny 2 but at least buying Silver to purchase items from Eververse was one option you had to buy things. Halo Infinite currently has no way to earn currency or an alternative version of it (like Bright Dust in Destiny 2) for free through in-game activities and offering this would go a long way to reduce most of the issues with the store provided it’s balanced properly so that players can still choose to spend money if they want to. It’d give players a way to speed up the grind while offering an option to engage with the already sublime gameplay loop to earn enough to buy whatever they’re interested in that given time.
Thankfully, 343 have announced in an update that they plan to evaluate the store with requested changes like lower prices and better value bundles in response to user feedback but how far is that going to go when people are still buying cosmetics from the store in droves? Are the same pricing tiers going to exist but with more stuff packed into them? What dictates how much a certain cosmetic costs over another and what about event-related cosmetics? I’d be remiss to say that I’m not excited to see what changes are in the pipeline for the store, but it feels like a first step in addressing an even larger problem with the game’s horrible user experience.
Despite running the game on a Series X, Infinite’s UX was a sluggish affair that begins with taking an eternity to connect and synchronize data with the server on a decent internet speed. Successive updates have only made the wait even longer with several players reporting the same even with better internet than mine. Even if this was rectified the UI is still a horribly jerky mess rife with miscommunication and barely built at scale.
The playlist selection menu in particular feels like it was never supposed to have more than four playlists at any one time with a horribly awkward scroll bar that crops other choices off. By the time you do get to a match, you’ll find that there’s no other way to mute players without jumping through a series of infuriatingly hidden menus that past Halo games were able to solve with a single “Mute All” button. If you do come across a cheater or a toxic player, there’s no in-game tools to report players and submit feedback directly.
The customization menus are where all these problems culminate into something even worse in how it seems to go above and beyond to sell upon the fantasy of picking between personalized suits of armor, weapons, and vehicles like something out of Iron Man but with none of the functional appeal behind it. As neat as the presentation is, 343 forgot to build a functional UI over it with horizontal menus being rampant across the customization menus to resemble that of the Battle Pass UI.
Equipping any cosmetic requires more clicks than past games with some options being hidden behind tabs. While less options are less difficult to navigate for newer players, it’ll become a massive problem when players have been playing for multiple months and acquire a ton of cosmetics over time at which point the filter option feels like an inadequate solution in ways a vertical menu would’ve mitigated from day one. And don’t even get me started on the misleading and completely vestigal nature of the rarity tiers in this game: That the game’s own storefront actively refuses to acknowledge it in its pricing of cosmetics in any logical way only makes the rarity tiers for cosmetic items a meaningless differentiator that adds absolutely nothing for the end user.
This isn’t me just saying “just make it more like the old games lol”, even 343 themselves recognized that in Halo 4’s UI from 2012 and Spartan customization fared far better for it! This feels like change for the sake of it that only serves to repeat Halo 5’s mistakes by detracting from the user experience and customization as a whole. This is without getting into the poorly optimized PC version with the way customization menus seems to cause the framerate to tank. I’m aware that these aren’t simple fixes and would likely take months if not years to implement fixes and overhauls, but is that not just like the state of the rest of the game at this stage? If Infinite needed one extra year of development from its projected Holiday 2020 release date and this is what we got out of it all, it only begs the question: Exactly what on Earth did they plan on shipping last year when Infinite was planned to launch on the same date as the Series X and S?
Pointing it out now seems like kind of a moot point with the sheer volume of complaints that’ve been made about the state of the game that I’m likely forgetting about others within the UI and the rest of the game by acknowledging that alone yet nothing’s stopping me from going on about everything else.
So I will.
“I Think We’re Just Getting Started.”
If 343’s response to these issues are anything to go by, it’s that they’re acutely aware of everything that’s been going on and actively working on fixes. As of this writing, Halo Infinite has been out for three months with multiple components that are missing with Forge and co-op campaign scheduled for 2022 with a performance-based progression system and multiple seasons of content to go along with it. That’s without getting into the conspicuous absence of Service Records and in-game statistics among several features seen in Halo games at launch.
So far, the theme with Infinite appears to be “Expect it ___ months/years after launch” and while I understand the disappointment that some people -myself included- do feel that these modes and features aren’t being included at launch like Halo 5 before it, the issue doesn’t come down to “lazy developers.” I know that’s not what intellectually lazy keyboard warriors who barely possess a coherent thought let alone the slightest understanding of game development between paroxysms of futile rage and impotent self-flagellation want to hear, but it speaks to a larger issue of crunch in the video game industry and the mountainous technical debt that’s accrued throughout the development of nearly every main-line Halo game and iterating upon the -Blam!- engine since Combat Evolved in 2001. Even to this day, Bungie has struggled with technical issues related to the engine in developing Destiny thanks to burdensome tools and have only managed to get into a consistent groove of quality expansions and seasonal content as recently as last year. That’s eight years into Destiny’s ten year plan and Infinite is in a far more dire state even with all the broad deadlines being brought up for Forge and co-op campaign.
What no one wants to admit about Forge and co-op campaign being delayed is that had they shown up at launch on December 8th, you’d have heard far more stories of employee burnout with layoffs and hellish stories of crunch abound all while the modes and features in question would’ve ended up in a far worse and more compromised state for it. If that sounds familiar, try CD Projekt Red and Cyberpunk 2077 or – better yet- Bungie during the development of their Halo games.
Halo 1 was developed in 9 months to coincide with the launch of the original Xbox while Halo 2 had to be massively stripped down and rebuilt in 18 months due to development issues after E3 2003 with some employees working 50 hour weeks. The crunch from Halo 2 was so brutal that several staff members took a less active role throughout Halo 3’s development which experienced similar levels of crunch and overtime as Reach and ODST did years later.
In the six years between Halo 5 and Infinite, 343 had been releasing content drops for Halo 5 while hiring and actively developing the Slipspace Engine for Halo Infinite all while working on much-needed overhauls to the Master Chief Collection and porting all six games (Reach, CE, 2, 3, ODST, and 4, seven if you count H2A) to PC and the Xbox Series S/X. Infinite’s development cycle has been fraught with high-profile departures, rotating studio leads, a reliance on contractors contributing to its revolving door of staff, and a shift to working from home in the onset of a global pandemic with new hardware launching the same year before being pushed back a year after an underwhelming yet promising eight-minute snippet of the game’s campaign.
It’d be an understatement to say that 343 has been incredibly busy as of late and I doubt that the decision to push these features back was an easy call to make with everything else going on in the background. I’m willing to accept these features being delayed if it means that they’re trying to respect the well-being of their employees by not subjecting them to the same levels of crunch that Halo-era Bungie and even 343 Industries themselves have been guilty of with Halo 4 and 5. It’s why I take umbrage with accusations of laziness or malice that are being directed toward staff members of 343 Industries because it misses the point entirely as to why these issues can happen in game development; chronic mismanagement.
Many of this game’s outstanding issues and scant amount of content feels like the result of heavy-handed mismanagement on both Microsoft and 343’s part as the project rapidly changed scope and direction throughout development (if accounts by former 343 staff are to be believed) all while implementing several systems and UI decisions with the intent to prioritize maximizing Infinite’s revenue stream over fleshing out the game itself. If the aforementioned issues, high turnover of studio leads and contract staff, and the hiring of Joe Staten to right the ship as Campaign Lead weren’t enough to show just how much disarray Halo Infinite’s development cycle was in, I don’t know what else can hint at the hellish tug-of-war that must’ve taken place between 343 and Microsoft. Least of all because I have to imagine Microsoft needed a way to raise enough cash to buy Activision Blizzard somehow.
The level of slimy mismanagement runs so deep that you can even find hints of it in the game’s achievements as the background art for the achievement granted for completing the Battle Pass shows 120 levels rather than the 100 levels seen in the final game; a hint that several items were most likely removed to be sold in the store for that sweet MTX cash. How else can you explain the Mark VII helmet being placed in Infinite’s Battle Pass despite it being part of the default armour core of the entire game’s multiplayer and being so heavily advertised in Infinite’s marketing campaign or Reach armor like HAZOP and JFO being store bundles instead of being offered in the Battle Pass?
If 343 Industries’ Community Manager Brian “Ske7ch” Jarrad’s response to the Halo subreddit about the state of Halo Infinite is anything to go by, it’s that the team is painfully aware of every single issue in this game and are working to resolve them given the foundation they have to work with and the mountainous expectations placed upon them after six years between mainline Halo games that have already set the standard for 343 Industries to surpass.
The toxicity reached such a fever pitch that the entirety of the Halo subreddit was locked down the weekend before the campaign’s official launch. I don’t believe that 343 owes an explanation for what happened during Infinite’s development nor do I endorse the stupidity of taking a monolithic corporate entity like Microsoft -and subsidiaries like 343 Industries by extension- at their word. But I vehemently disagree with hurling insults and baseless accusations as a substitute to constructive criticism and I explicitly condemn death threats over something as banal as a video game.
Despite all that, I believe 343 has the best chance they’ve ever had to capitalize on this game’s strengths and deliver something even better than what we got even if the base game is about as unfinished as the Jorge armor kit’s untextured shoulder pad.
It’s the beginning of what could be a Great Journey.
“The Great Journey is at hand.”
I mentioned earlier that one of the reasons why this post took a long time to finish beyond playing the game and working a new job (and let’s face it, sheer laziness on my part) is how open 343 has been in how they’re receiving feedback. Any fault I point out regarding Infinite’s progression, the lack of playlists, and desync has been addressed one way or the other with fixes on the way if they haven’t already been patched. With Halo Infinite being a live service game, I expect that the game -like my thoughts on it- will change a lot over the course of time with updates to better balance the sandbox, add new events and cosmetics, and new campaign or PvE content as a more substantial release.
I’ve written an entire novel’s worth of my thoughts on this game and I wanna go back to playing more of it the moment that this article goes live. Again, that alone is a testament to just how much 343 Industries nailed Halo Infinite’s gameplay and I can’t put to words how excited I am for what the future holds for this franchise. Everything that Infinite gets wrong is immensely balanced out by how much it gets right that I can’t help but enjoy it as much as I have been, much like Destiny was and still is for me to this day with its sequel and the clanmates I’ve played with since 2014.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’m biased as a huge fan of this franchise and the legacy it’s built over the past twenty years; Halo 1 was the first shooter I ever played when I was a kid and one of my favorite games ever made. Infinite’s release and reception marks the strongest the series has been since Reach came out in 2010 and I badly want to entice more people to join in on the fun to see why this series appeals to me the way that it does.
I think I speak for myself and fans of the series that the last thing anyone wants to see is for Halo to lose the momentum its gained with Infinite’s launch and the possibilities for the next ten years of its planned post-launch support are just that, Infinite.
This ends with me needing a weapon.