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After the Microsoft Press Conference in July, where they showed approximately nine minutes of footage from Xbox’s new flagship title Halo: Infinite, there was a certain backlash over the results.
Mostly, fans seemed to be upset at the lighting and what looked to be the lack of a finished product. The textures were not supported with any robust contrast, the faces of enemies were pasty and lacked definition, there was texture pop-in along the horizon, enemies lack a smooth hit feedback system, and guns seemed to either lack that signature “Halo” style. All in all, there were plenty of other design differences and choices that did not align as well as we thought to what Halo should be.
So in this post I’d like to take a step back. With 343 Studios re-releasing the old Master Chief Collection on PC this year, I have been playing a lot of the Halo series and sort of reminiscing about what it was like growing up with the series. Unlike many of us millenials, the Master Chief is a cool, calm, and collected individual, not only with the smarts and know how to approach any situation, but he had the right tools to get it done. We need the Master Chief now more than ever, but by the release of Infinite in holiday 2020, some larger questions still remain. What kind of Halo game should exist, or could exist, given the rapidly expanding and bloated multiplayer shooter market? Is there a place for the Master Chief at all?
In order to answer these questions, we need to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Once that’s solved, we can begin to answer some of the questions about whether Halo: Infinite stands a chance of revitalizing the series.
We should start with what we liked, and what the original studio Bungie was able to do. The Halo series was and has always been about three core features of fighting: weapons, grenades, and melee.
We should start with what we liked, and with the original studio Bungie was able to do. The Halo series was and has always been about three core features of fighting: weapons, grenades, and melee. Bungie famously gave their modus operandi of “if you can’t nail down that thirty seconds of gameplay over and over, you’re not going to have a good game.” This is most notable in their newest intellectual property, Destiny, for both its ups and downs. Its thirty second gameplay is there. The shooting is some of the best in the genre, the speed and weight of melee feels right, and the artistic panache of grenades going off is a wonderful spectacle.
But they have been unable to capitalize on their excellent attention to detail in shooting with a compelling story, and they have been tweaking a loot system for almost a decade that, to this day, never seems quite right.
Still, for those early iterations of Halo, combat was king. It nestled itself comfortably and effectively between the “pick up” style of arena shooters, and the more tactical and military oriented simulations of the time. You still had to reload your weapons, unlike arena shooters, but you could throw grenades with a single trigger press.
It would be a sin to not mention that Halo presented a compelling argument for multiplayer on a gaming console, and a lot of that had to do with slowing the combat of the game down while also providing a toolset in weapons, grenades, and melee, that would feel as satisfying to shoot as it was for using the N64 controller for Mario to jump in Mario 64.
Combat was organic in Halo. In each set piece, you find yourself under siege from vehicles you can respond to at your discretion. Getting in and out of vehicles was a button press away, and this flow between experiences allowed the games to provide a wide range of tones and atmospheres for the first game’s gripping campaign. Escape from the Pillar of Autumn in narrow corridors in the first mission, and then lead a guerrilla resistance on an ancient and mysterious ringed structure. Drive a Warthog through hand-built architectural spaces. Snipe at night and infiltrate an enemy capital ship. The combat was malleable enough to do any number of things.
But the time was short-lived. In Halo 2, the series was undoubtedly a trend setter, if not in gameplay decisions, then at least on the back-end with matchmaking, Xbox Live, and a huge amount of data and information on player statistics that still astound to this day. One of the most thrilling details was that of “heatmaps,” where players could see where combat took place the most on maps and where people died the most. Over time, a player could track their stats, customize their emblems, customize game types and scenarios, all culminating in a very robust experience that has almost taken a step back for gamers in recent years.
By the time Halo 3 came around, the apex had started to decline as Call of Duty’s combat became the main influencer of shooting. From then on, Halo followed a more tactical trend of highly lethal weapons and a more linear and “spectacle-heavy” campaign. Ever since then, Halo has struggled to return to that happy medium between arena shooting and simulation, despite the resurgence of games like Doom 2016, which updated the formula while staying true to the original feel. Halo Reach, Halo 4, and Halo 5 suffered from being unable to recognize what it was about the original trilogy that made it so great. And while that started with combat, it also had to do with space.
Besides some small exceptions (The Libary? Anyone?) the original Halo: Combat Evolved campaign is one of the best ever made. Most people remember the middle levels. Shown above, “The Silent Cartographer” offers an incredible first thirty seconds of a massive marine invasion of an island that you get a chance in the next thirty minutes to fully explore and tackle on your own. “Assault on the Control Room” is a huge snow level that starts with some corridor shooting, and then expands hugely, offering some foreshadowing for a later experience by crossing a bridge some thousands of feet off the ground. Looking below, you see marines fighting a Wraith tank that you will eventually destroy some five minutes later. “343 Guilty Spark” is an amazingly dark and mysterious level that showcases one of the greatest reveals, the Flood, an infectious race that completely changes up the way the player has used his or her weapons, grenades, and melee.
For a brief moment in the middle, the game hits its sweet spot. In each of these, the level design caters to multiple styles of play. Whether it is on foot or in a vehicle, whether it is quieter or more brute force, or whether it is working closely together in coop or dividing and conquering, each moment offers a chance for you to create the spectacle.
The better campaigns of the series are ones that can address the open-ended solution based design, as well as the opportunity for player-made mayhem, rather than have the game do that to you.
Halo 2 was far more a series of linear gameplay elements that managed to grab a hold of one of these two things. In most of these missions, however, while you were providing mayhem, you were sent through linear streets on Earth, winding lines on another Halo, or riding on an elevator to get from point A to point B. It’s the longest campaign as a result, with 15 exhausting missions with a similar feel, despite the exotic locales.
Halo 3 attempted to bring back the original feel and largely succeeded. With more expansive moments, like the Scarab fight in “The Storm,” Bungie was acknowledging the much better feeling of taking one of these down in Halo 3, where you were riding alongside a marine on a mongoose ATV, throwing rockets as you drove around while avoiding the legs, compared to the very linear and dependent scenario of Halo 2, which had you following it until it stops awkwardly at the end of some man-made structure, waiting for you to kill it.
Halo 4, Halo Reach, and Halo 5 offer no comparison. A large problem with the later series and level design was the “lemon squeezing” of certain scenarios. Too many times, after completing an objective in the campaign, the Covenant will send in a couple dropships for you to fight. While these moments barely peppered the original two games, it slowly inveigles its way into the later iterations. The worst of these is Halo Reach, where it seems as though at every stop along the path in the campaign, you’re forced to wait for these dropships to arrive. Their cannons are so menacing and annoying that you lose any chance to get glimpses of the surrounding environment, and any dropship slows the pace down of the campaign to a crawl, as you have to wait for them to arrive, and then you have to kill every enemy, before you can move on.
Why this change? Why in earlier games could you see your opponents and dispatch of them so readily, whereas in later games they slowed the systems down and punished you with wave after wave of troops?
In fact, developers seemed to acknowledge this with newly arrived “horde” modes. Made popular by Gears of War, horde mode had you face wave after wave of enemies on self-contained maps more like a multiplayer mode. With friends you tried to defeat as many enemies without dying as possible, increasing your score. While the mode worked very well with Gears of War‘s cover system, it was never a perfect fit for Halo, because the game flowed too much, and any sort of static defense in the series quickly gets boring. Remember, Halo was a holdover from games like Quake, arena shooters that do not cater well to “stop and pop.” Yet to see the “firefight” mode in Halo Reach, and to see how the maps provided were only the exact ones in the campaign, and in each moment in those areas of the campaign you find yourself doing the exact same thing (killing wave after wave of Covenant), highlights a very real problem in the Halo series that, in my opinion, has never really been solved.
This is a good time to mention the elephant in the room. Most people in Halo were upset about the graphics. They felt as if they were very subpar compared to what they wanted from the next generation of consoles.
Now, this is not to be confused with style. The game looks to be a spiritual successor to the original games, and it is easy to see that the games feature a similar color palette. That’s all well and good.
But I would like to make the case that Halo’s problems really run deeper than just a conventional idea of fidelity and graphics.
I’d like to say that the Halo series has been unable to capitalize on the technological advancements of the past two decades, largely because better graphics hamper the experience.
This is perhaps much easier to see with Bungie’s newer work, Destiny. These games have had a very real problem iterating on their art design in a way that is sustainable and robust. Don’t get me wrong: Destiny is a beautiful game that runs well. That’s hard to do in 2020. But so much painstaking detail is exacted on each area that the developers have a difficult time adding new content at the pace that players want to play it. It’s just too hard to keep up that high quality and offer compelling spaces. It’s been almost a decade, and players are still shooting the exact same enemies, crossing the same terrain over and over for hundreds if not thousands of hours, and they are hearing the same voice over as they complete the same Strike or Raid.
In the original Halo game, each level is sprawling. Sure, there may be occasions where the copy-paste of some of the corridors irks you. But the verticality, the expanses, make you wonder how they were able to do that in 2001. It makes for a very replayable campaign as I went through the Master Chief Collection, re-released on Steam in 2019 and 2020.
As graphics became more demanding on an artistic end, the Halo series began to slowly but surely slow the gameplay down to keep the player in spaces that took much longer to design. And with each new tool for higher fidelity, the original formula for Halo began to show its seams. Halo excels when there is a wide toolset, but also there needs to exist a wider geography for the player to interact in.
Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal got to be on the receiving end of a lot of good developments in the history of gaming. Doom as a franchise wins because it doubled down on corridor shooting, where the contained experience can be pushed to the limit for graphical fidelity.
Games like Arma 3 are on the other side of the coin, where graphics take a step back and a massive feature set across sprawling terrain is the way to play.
Where Halo and Destiny used to have a niche market, they are now pinned uncomfortably between two competing trends.
Just How Infinite?
It’s no accident that graphics ended up being the topic of scrutiny for the Halo series. Ever since the first Halo, graphics have become, rather than an opportunity for the developers to showcase weapons, grenades, and melee, instead became a hurdle that developers have to overcome to mitigate pacing.
With Halo Infinite promising an open world, it seems like the developers have discovered, at least on paper, what the older games excelled in: a chance for Master Chief to fight in his own way. Time will tell whether this was the right decision or an overreach. Based on the gameplay showcase, Halo is still holding onto its roots in arena shooting, with each gun offering a different playstyle. This may clash in an ugly way with an open world design.
All this may be moot, and Halo Infinite may be dead on arrival. Perhaps the Halo series existed because of the exception, rather than the rule. It was at a time of early 3D development, and while the N64 was home to some ugly-as-hell polygonal design, Xbox got lucky and entered the new millenium with a brief sweet spot between combat and space.
But that time seems to be largely over. Whether it’s a battle royale like Fortnite, or a corridor shooter like Doom, or an open world shooter like Far Cry, there are other games that splintered the organic parts of the Halo series and turned each one into something better. And I haven’t even gone into the narratives of these games, which are so worn down and so old hat that I would be impressed to see anyone mining the cutscenes for information like people used to.
The true crisis of the Halo series has been its inability to take, not new gameplay decisions like sprinting or a grappling hook, but iterative technological designs in fidelity and graphics, and map it onto an old combat system of the early 2000s that does not hold up today.