It's been six long years since Halo 5: Guardians graced the Xbox One, but Halo is finally coming back - and this time, it's to reclaim its throne
If you follow the gaming-sphere at all, you've likely heard of the "test flights" for Halo Infinite (essentially limited-time and restricted beta access) being rolled out to select gamers over the past few months.
The first test flight happened at the end of July and gave certain lucky Halo fans access to a few maps against AI-controlled players in arena matches, showcasing 343 Industries' rather impressive new AI combatants.
Aiming to ease inexperienced Halo players into the multiplayer fray (or allow more experienced players to have a more relaxing time if they feel like it - although on harder difficulties the AI has shown to be more than capable of providing human-quality challenge), the addition of bot matches and a robust training feature is a rather smart move by 343 given that Halo's multiplayer suite will be free-to-play for gamers when it releases in December, potentially exposing plenty of newcomers to the world of Halo.
The training modes include weapon drills at a shooting range as well as bot matches where the player can choose their difficulty and test out any weapons and equipment on the fly - there's also the addition of matchmaking which pits a team of human players against AI-controlled combatants, which is the perfect way to introduce new players to the game without throwing them immediately into the deep end.
Although I didn't get into the first test flight, I did gain entry to the second which occurred over the past two weekends and now that I've gotten to extensively play a preview build of Halo Infinite's multiplayer, I can definitively confirm that Halo is indeed back and better than ever.
Modern Upgrades, Classic Feel
What's immediately apparent to experienced Halo players when starting a match in Halo Infinite is how 343 has brought back the pure, legendary feel of Halo.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Halo 5 and it's inarguably a very well-made and top-tier shooter, it was certainly divisive in many ways. Ignoring the major marketing misfires with Microsoft's emphasis on the rather drab Spartan Locke and Master Chief's supposed turn to the dark side, and of course some questionable plot decisions in the campaign, the core gameplay of the title was updated in many ways that ended up making it feel like an entirely different experience than the Halo fans were used to.
Some of its additions were largely well received such as the highly underrated Warzone multiplayer mode and the addition of smart scopes, the wealth of updates to the core Halo formula simply strayed too far from what made Halo what it is.
The over-used sprint mechanics and their accompanying shoulder bashes were too powerful and rewarded hyper-aggressive players, the thruster pack-aided boosts made close-range fights needlessly chaotic and combined with the all-powerful sprint made it a common tactic for players to simply run away and annoy pursuers, ground pounds looked like they belonged in a superhero game rather than a hardcore arena shooter - the list goes on.
It may have been fun for many (including myself) and 343's extensive support through free content updates was certainly impressive, but it simply didn't have the staying power or the gameplay balance that Bungie's beloved Halo titles sported. It didn't move the franchise forward - instead, it merely made it different.
When Halo Infinite was finally unveiled to the world as a next-gen launch title, initial fan excitement quickly turned to unease as we saw more of the title come to light.
The transition to a more open world in the campaign and the return to a focus on the Chief and Halo's iconic ring-world installations certainly had series fans excited, but the rather unimpressive visuals (particularly the lighting, which made much of the world and particularly character models look like they were made of clay) and rather blasé gameplay shown off at last year's E3 had fans more than a little worried.
Infinite was already nearing five years of development time and was supposed to kick off the launch of Xbox's shiny new consoles, so it is fair to say fans were expecting a lot more from Microsoft's behemoth franchise than what they showed last year.
Then came the delay to a 2021 launch date, a move that surely pained Microsoft to announce - after all, it had already heavily marketed Infinite as the flagship launch title for the Xbox Series X, harkening back to the way the Halo: Combat Evolved showed off the power and potential of the original Xbox way back in 2001.
Luckily however, 343 Industries has clearly put that time to good use and their most ambitious Halo title yet is shaping up to be what fans had originally hoped for - a return to the top of the FPS genre.
The immediate concern presented by fans last year was of course the rather unimpressive visuals - those playing the test flights however, even on original Xbox One consoles, can happily report that those issues have been fully addressed.
Infinite looks fantastic and plays even better, its visuals clean and the lighting back to looking like it's supposed to rather than the odd claymation look they had going on in last year's E3 footage.
Most impressively, the game runs at a buttery smooth 120 frames per second on the new consoles, while even the old Xbox One still manages to present Infinite in a rock solid 60 fps. The fact that 343 has managed to have the game look so good even on dated hardware without sacrificing frame rate is rather impressive, but even more impressive is what they've done with the gameplay.
Halo Infinite has managed to do what Halo 5: Guardians failed to do: capture the legendary essense of Halo, but with modern updates and upgrades that enhance that experience rather than morph it into something entirely different.
Gone are the thrusters, ground pounds, shoulder bashes, and overpowered sprint that Guardians made core to the experience.
Instead, spartan mobility more closely resembles earlier entries in the series (with the addition of clambering up onto ledges and the like) - there is still a sprint option, but movement is only slightly sped up and there are no offensive options during said sprints, instead putting sprinters into a disadvantageous position as the split second it takes them to bring up their weapon and fire upon a target can mean the difference between winning a firefight and waiting to respawn.
This removes sprinting as a core strategic option from fights and it's instead better used simply as a method of getting places a bit quicker on larger maps, or in an attempt to flee if the odds aren't in your favour - but again, without the super-powered sprint speed of Halo 5, fleeing is a last resort and is very rarely going to result in success unless you're already beside cover.
Another concern many players had after seeing Infinite's E3 footage was the presence of a Titanfall 2-esque grappling hook. While surely fun to use, that would be a pretty major change in the Halo formula and would surely result in everyone whipping around the battlefield like Spider-man, once again turning Halo into something else entirely; luckily, 343 has smartly implemented it in a way that ensures it isn't over-used or becomes a dominant aspect of gameplay.
Opting to return to the use of equipment like in Halo 3, players don't select any loadouts or spartan abilities or armor upgrades before a match - instead, Halo returns to its roots in being a proper arena shooter, with every player put on an entirely even playing field with power weapons, equipment, and other grenade types needing to be picked up on the battlefield (or from an opponent's cold, dead hands).
The (extremely useful and fun to use) grappleshot joins an array of other equipment that have a limited number of uses and can be found in matches just like power weapons and grenades, such as a repulsor which generates a blast wave that sends any incoming grenades or projectiles (or other spartans) away from the user, a threat sensor which reveals enemy positions within its limited range, a panelled shied barrier that can be shot through on one side and absorbs a few shots coming in from the other side before each individual panel breaks, and of course the classic overshield and active camo pickups.
The last two being changed to equipment means that players don't have to immediately activate those pickups like in previous games, but it also means that you're vulnerable for the second or two it takes you to activate the equipment after picking it up, a welcome addition that provides a new way to counter Halo's iconic power ups.
Of course the core of Halo is and always (should) be the golden triangle - guns, grenades, and melee - and on that front, Infinite is similarly firing on all cylinders.
Halo's iconic weapons return and feel instantly familiar even if there are some minor tweaks and cosmetic updates present, while the new weaponry fits in well from the fast-firing Bulldog shotgun to the awesomely powerful but hard to use Skewer which seemingly replaces Halo's overpowered Spartan Laser.
The weaponry already feels quite balanced (the classic assault rifle feels especially perfect as both a close and mid-range starter weapon) despite the game still being a few months out, with the exception of a few weapons not feeling quite powerful enough (the updated plasma pistol and the new pulse carbine come to mind).
The sole exception to Infinite's excellent arsenal however has to be the S7 sniper rifle. As someone who has always loved using Halo's iconic sniper, I was eager to get my hands on one as soon as I saw the power weapon spawn in a match, yet the more I picked it up, the more disappointed I became.
The incredibly tiny reticle makes it much more difficult to use right from the start (granted it may be easier for players using a mouse) and it simply feels unresponsive. Combined with being kicked out of the scope if you take any damage, and the bright light that alerts enemies far and wide whenever you zoom in, using it feels much less like you're wielding a coveted power weapon and more like you're performing a suicidal chore.
It doesn't appear that I'm alone on my thoughts regarding the updated sniper rifle and I've seen plenty of players struggle to use it or ignore picking it up entirely (in prior Halos, even the worst players worst with it would always pick it up, much to the chagrin of the talented snipers), so hopefully 343 makes adjustments ahead of launch.
There's also a new grenade type that enters the fray alongside the classic frag, plasma, and spike grenades (I can confirm plasma grenades are thankfully as fun to stick people with as ever) - the dynamo grenade, which essentially emits electricity to sap nearby shields and can also disable vehicles for a short window of time.
A total of four maps were available for the four-vs-four arena playlist during the test flight, featuring team slayer, CTF, and strongholds as playable modes.
All four maps on offer felt unique and well-designed for arena warfare, and even with the limited selection and the very few modes available during the flight, each held their own and none stuck out as a map I'd rather avoid, which is certainly a good sign.
Bazaar in particular though seemed to highlight one missed opportunity I feel would be a welcome addition to the Halo universe: proper environmental damage.
Given that Halo isn't a cover shooter, arena degradation isn't exactly high on the list of priorities and wouldn't really have an effect on gameplay, so it's completely understandable why it wouldn't feature here. With a return to the flora and fauna of Halo's ring worlds and more varied environments, it would still be very neat to see real environmental damage accumulate during the course of a match, from chunks of concrete flying off barriers due to nearby explosions to trees tumbling over courtesy of a stray rocket.
Though it may not be present in multiplayer (and particularly for the older consoles, it may simply be too much trouble to be worth it), here's hoping it comes in some form to Infinite's campaign.
The true standout from this test flight however, was the fifth map that was made available during the second weekend: Fragmentation.
To sample the new 12 vs. 12 Big Team Battle playlist, the test flight opened up a single map to try along with three modes: team slayer, CTF, and a new mode called Total Control, which features three control points that all must be captured and controlled by one team in order for that team to score a point; once all three are captured successfully, three new zones spawn after a short delay and the process is repeated until the score limit (or time limit) is reached.
Fragmentation is a massive map by Halo standards and already ranks amongst my favourite in the series. A spiritual successor to Halo 3's Valhalla, Fragmentation offers a massive playing field yet smartly focuses players on certain chokepoints rather than presenting a completely wide open battleground like its predecessor.
Halo's iconic vehicles of course come into play in BTB, and there are plenty of paths available for squads to mount up in Warthogs and pour lead into their enemies, but thanks to the varied elevation and plenty of cover, alongside of course power weapons and helpful equipment like the grappleshot or dynamo grenades, players on foot have plenty of countermeasures to combat vehicles and prevent them from being flattened repeatedly.
Another smart update which improves the flow of combat is that after the initial spawn, larger vehicles like Warthogs and Ghosts or even Banshees and Scorpion tanks are dropped off by Pelican airships rather than simply being spawned into existence.
As such, players have ample warning that desired vehicles are incoming and the race is on to get dibs on your wheels (or treads, or wings, etc.). Similarly, in addition to having power weapons spawn on weapon pads at designated locations, additional power weapons are periodically dropped in pods to random locations on the map - players who set timers to tip them off about weapon spawns or camp in their spawn locations don't get to hog all of the power weapons this time around.
The lone new game type, Total Control, was also a blast to play and varied up the action, but perhaps my favourite new addition was the fact that fusion coils are now throwable.
The hefty blocks of energy can be picked up by spartans and thrown like a football, exploding on impact. It's incredibly fun, and to add insult to injury, I even noticed that if being shot by an enemy and you throw a coil at them, if their bullets hit the coil it can explode prematurely in midair and kill them - except instead of netting you a kill, it counts as a suicide on their part.
Just like everything else in Infinite however, it's balanced; in addition to the very limited supply of fusion coils laying around, enemies can shoot the coils at any time, including while you're holding it, and yes that will kill you instantly. I can't wait until Forge arrives and someone makes a mode where everyone gets unlimited fusion coils to throw at each other.
Halo Goes Free For All
With free-to-play games being all the rage nowadays, it's not surprising to see Microsoft push Halo into that realm - it is surprising however to see that the traditional multiplayer experience in its entirety, and not some standalone battle royale clone, is being offered to players across Xbox and PC entirely for free.
Staying true to being a proper arena shooter however means everyone needs to be on an even playing field, and that rightfully means that gameplay is entirely unaffected by whether or not you've put any money into the game. Instead, cosmetics will be what players can spend their cash on, available through individual items and packs as well as a seasonal battle pass system which unlocks a series of customization items as you go through the season and complete challenges.
With that increased focus on customization comes a smart adjustment to player colours - because individuality is more prominent than ever, players will of course want to customize their armour colour, but with the "red vs. blue" forced armour colours that Halo is known for, 343 has adjusted to accommodate the best of both worlds.
Instead of forcing player's armour colours to match their team, each player will be outlined with their team's designated colour in other player's HUD, and their shields will also be that colour as they receive damage. This leaves every player free to use whatever armour colours they wish no matter what game mode they're in, without making it harder (or easier) for enemies and allies alike to differentiate friends and foes.
Though the test flight offered just a glimpse of what options players would have to make their spartans their own, there's also a surprising amount of customization available that doesn't just include some different armour pieces or colours to unlock.
Most notably, every player gets their own personal AI construct that will call out vehicle and weapon drops along with other information (don't worry, the classic Halo announcer is still there to call out medals, announce a scored flag, etc.) while you play. You get to choose your AI's avatar, colour, and voice/personality as well, and though the flight offered just four to choose from, plenty more are promised and the four available were quite unique.
An English fellow aptly named Butlr, a tepid and nervous-sounding Fret, a cheery and easily excitable Circ - all the AI personalities are unique and have plenty of their own sound bytes and quips to say while you kill things. Their avatars will also show up during certain actions, such as on a console when you're capturing a stronghold for your team, which is a neat touch.
While it doesn't sound like an overly big addition, it certainly adds character and although I initially didn't find it particularly notable, that all changed when I switched my AI over to Lumu.
Lumu is an AI that seems oddly familiar - her rather unenthusiastic and synthetic voice apes the typical AI voices one might hear today from things like Siri and Google Maps, and they've purposely played up that fact by having it clearly sound as if her lines were spliced together using separately recorded words by a computer. What makes this AI companion brilliant however is the delivery of rather hilarious quips in as dry a manner as possible.
Hearing her flatly say "electroshock therapy: failed" after having electrocuted someone to death with the new shock rifle made me genuinely laugh out loud, and there are tons of other quips that showed just how wrong I was about it being a fun new feature in the world of Halo.
With more AI constructs promised and surely more being added in battle passes in the future (perhaps even some celebrity voices...who wouldn't want to hear Samuel Jackson chiming in during a firefight?), it's just another way in which 343 has managed to add to the experience without changing what Halo is.
For those that don't want to hear an AI at all, you also have the ability to disable it entirely if you so choose - and that leads to another area that Microsoft has been leading in recently: accessability.
Players have literally tons of options available to fine tune their experience to their exact liking.
I for one wasn't a fan of the white "wind" lines that show up when you're sprinting, yet a simple toggle in the menu solved that issue. Similarly, I'm not a fan of motion blur in my games, so I happily turned down that slider in the menu to get rid of it.
There are a literal ton of options like this to make sure you are happy with the way the game looks, sounds, and feels, from graphical settings to controller deadzones and HUD options, and they've even added the option to completely customize which buttons/triggers/etc. perform each action, which is still a rarity in console gaming.
A few of these menu options did have issues in the test flight (such as certain settings reverting back to the default after each match), but issues like that are to be expected in pre-release software.
In fact, the menus were pretty much the only place where I found any problems at all - the gameplay itself was virtually flawless, matchmaking was brisk and painless, and I never saw any instances of lag or drops in framerates in any of my playtime.
The second wave of test flights for Halo Infinite were nothing short of a resounding success and the game is shaping up to be amongst the best FPS multiplayer offerings we've seen in years.
Though we still haven't seen much of the campaign, 343's return to Halo's iconic ring worlds and a focus on the Chief, along with a more open mission structure, all lead to it being something special to go along with the legendary multiplayer offerings that the franchise is known for.
If it's anything like the multiplayer suite shown so far, we are in for perhaps the best Halo game ever made.