343 Industries is treading a fine line between nostalgia and the next-generation. You can feel that tension in the Halo Infinite campaign demo. Footage so clearly designed to invoke the second mission of Halo: Combat Evolved, even as it attempts to signal the dawn of a new era for the series. A UNSC vessel enters the atmosphere of a ring installation, Master Chief wades out of the ensuing wreckage with an assault rifle in hand and a gaggle of Grunts are the first to feel the weight of it. There's a Warthog waiting to whisk you off to destinations unknown, should you ever be able to tear your eyes from the awe-inspiring superstructure that extends above you, piercing the alien sky. Where Combat Evolved left us to dream of what may lie over the horizon of a ring, Halo Infinite will make it a reality.
"We've approached this whole thing as a love letter to Halo," explains associate creative director Paul Crocker. "We really want people to feel the way they did when they first played Halo: Combat Evolved. Everyone remembers when they first crashed onto the mysterious Halo ring and how they felt as they looked around that world. That's the feeling and emotion we want players to experience again. Capturing that has been our goal ever since we started this. We want Halo Infinite to feel different, new, and fresh… but we really want to bring back that sense of wonder, mystery, and hope."
343's stated objective isn't all that different from the one it had back in 2010. When it started work on its first original game in the Halo franchise, the studio wanted to move away from Earth and the Halo Array so that it could chart a path beyond the legacy Bungie had left behind. By crafting new worlds, new enemies, and new conflicts, 343 believed it would be able to recapture the powerful sense of discovery that we had felt in 2001.
While many believe Halo was never able to recapture its sense of wonder, even in Bungie's subsequent sequels, it would be difficult to argue with the assertion that 343 made a miscalculation. The intentions were good, but Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians would ultimately prove to be divisive installments, straying too far from their roots to be recognisable. For Halo Infinite, the objective remains the same though the approach has changed significantly.
"We really started this game with the concept of it being a spiritual reboot. That idea was really us thinking through what we've learned from building Halo 4 and Halo 5 – and looking across the whole history of the Halo franchise – to grab the most iconic parts of Halo and bring them forward for gamers today," says studio head Chris Lee. "That was an important thing that we wanted to capture."
While the extent to which we could traverse the world presented by Combat Evolved was limited by the technology of the time, Halo Infinite is bound by no such restrictions. It's here where nostalgia makes way for next-generation ambitions, as 343 presents "the most open and expansive environment we have ever created in a Halo game," Lee teases. "The scale of the environment accessible to players is several times larger than that of the last two Halo games combined."
Jerry Hook, head of design at 343, explains that a driving factor behind this shift in philosophy was to ensure that players could look out across vast vistas and know that they will be able to visit them. However, the concept extends beyond the world and out into every aspect of Halo Infinite. "We took a look at every system we have in the game – from weapons to characters, to art and the story. We did this to bring back that sense of wonder, and the gameplay experience that our sandboxes have traditionally brought to Halo fans."
Exploring Zeta Halo
"Halo Infinite is the most ambitious Halo game ever made, We're letting players experience the size and scope of a Halo ring for the first time," says Lee, although he's hesitant to use the words "open" and "world" together. Still, it does appear as if we will be able to cover plenty of ground on Installation 07.
"Halo Infinite will be set on Zeta Halo," Lee confirmed, and the campaign demo was our first opportunity to see it after so many years of anticipation. It's an ancient Forerunner structure with a vibrant ecosystem, one that's quite unlike anything seen in the game's universe so far. We aren't given long to admire the scenery, with the new TACMAP indicating three AA cannons that need to be disabled so that Chief and the Pilot of Pelican Echo-216 can get a foothold. Beyond the gun batteries, other opportunities – waypoints denoting Banished fortifications to assault, UNSC soldiers to protect, and new areas to uncover.
"We want to create something that's familiar, but different," says Lee, adding that, "the TACMAP gives you an idea of the size and scale, and some of the objectives that you will find in Halo Infinite." One key benefit of building such an expansive environment, Lee continues, is to give you more scope to define your adventure as Master Chief. "It gives players a lot of choice and freedom as they play through the world. You'll be running into objectives, setting points on your map, and kind of navigating and exploring as you go."
343 is yet to confirm the return of Skulls or Terminals, but it would be a safe bet to assume that they will; Zeta Halo is a rich vein for lore, one the community has been attempting to excavate for years now, so you better believe this world will be packed with mysteries. "While players will experience the core storyline in a certain order, they’ll have the freedom to explore the Halo Infinite world to uncover secrets and incorporate their own playstyle along the way," Lee tells me.
How successfully this open-ended structure will work for Halo remains to be seen, but it's great to see 343 pushing for a more ambitious design. There are questions too of how prominent the day/night cycle will be, and how Infinite's new dynamic lighting and shadow system will react to such a setup, but it's clear this is a new frontier. Still, as Gears 5 proved, as The Coalition introduced large sandbox maps that were able to smartly thread core story beats and optional encounters together across spaces some 50-times the size of any previous level seen in a Gears of War game, sometimes a dramatic change is needed to inject new life into long-running series.
Building a better sandbox
Wondering who is behind the audio for Halo Infinite? At E3 2019, 343 announced that Curtis Schweitzer was working on the project. This year, the studio revealed that Gareth Coker is joining, hot off of Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Microsoft has teased that a third composer will also be announced in the future, but we'll have to wait until closer to launch to find out who it is.
Halo has always survived on the strength of its sandboxes. There's a reason why The Silent Cartographer [Halo], Metropolis [Halo 2], and The Covenant [Halo 3] are still held up as examples of the series' pervasive influence on the FPS genre. Those missions felt freeform and emergent, with Master Chief frantically shifting gears between a broad array of weapons, vehicles, equipment, and a mass of intelligent, encroaching enemies. Lee says that: "In Halo Infinite, the team is building on the legacy of this iconic sandbox while evolving and infusing it with new offerings."
That will manifest through larger combat spaces than ever before and retooled artificial intelligence that will make the Banished – a coalition of mercenary forces that formed following the conclusion of the Human-Covenant War, led on the ground by War Chief Escharum – the most formidable threat John-117 has ever faced. "Our focus is to deliver on the wonder, beauty, and epic battles of the Halo universe with emergent experiences. The combat and AI will reflect that throughout," Lee continues.
"You'll see the AI starting to take advantage of the sandbox in ways that you haven't seen before," says Hook, reaffirming the comments made by his colleague. "You'll still have that great feel of the AI taking advantage of shields and cover – which was pretty critical to the Halo experience that you've had in the past – but we wanted to give them more. We wanted to give them more awareness of the sandbox itself, so don't be surprised if perhaps you see an AI go grab a different weapon to take you out!"
The combat itself looks like classic Halo. Master Chief stepping in tight circles as Brutes, Elites, and Grunts approach from all sides, held at bay by little more than a hip-firing assault rifle and a swift nose-breaker should any close the distance. The splash of a plasma grenade, the sizzle as a glittering overshield bursts; it is unmistakably Halo, albeit a version running in 4K at a solid 60 frames-per second on Xbox Series X. "We're bringing the highest fidelity experience that we've ever created," asserts Lee. "We're able to do more than 10 times the processing power per pixel that we were able to do in Halo 5, which allows us to create this experience that's unlike anything that we've had in Halo before."
Those of you paying attention may have noticed that the TACMAP feature an "Upgrades" tab. 343 has been quick to confirm that while Halo Infinite will have a light-touch upgrade system which is tied directly to your equipment, such as the Grappleshot and Drop Wall.
It would also appear that Infinite won't be rolling back the more divisive additions made by 343 in Halo 5: Guardians, but rather they are being significantly altered. Sprint remains, yes, but it looks far more sluggish – a means to an end, rather than a vital tool to survive. Weapons look primed to excel without Smart Scope, mantling appears to be faster, and you're now able to shoot while sliding. The controls themselves appear to be reverting back to the Halo 3 standard. Essentially, it looks as if the systems are working to emphasise Master Chief's mobility without sacrificing any of his control or precision.
Five new weapons could be seen in the demo. Set three years after Halo 5: Guardians, the UNSC have some new toys to play with, including a full-auto VK78 Commando assault rifle and the CQS48 Bulldog, a 10-shell shotgun that's going to replace Halo 5's five-shell M45. The Banished has its own arsenal, including a three-round burst energy rifle called Ravager and a kinetic hand-cannon, appropriately titled Mangle. If you look closely you'll also spot a new variant of the Covenant's classic carbine rifle, the Pulse Carbine. With resources sparse, Chief will need to utilise everything that he can get his hands on to fight off against the Banished and the larger, looming threat of the mysterious "Harbinger".
Other big additions are the portable shield and grappling hook, just two of the new pieces of equipment that will be arriving in Halo Infinite in a generous overhaul of the famed Halo 3 system. The former, the Drop Wall, is a fast deploying cover that can be used to deflect grenades, fend off enemy attacks, and otherwise give Chief some space to recharge his shields. The latter is the Grappleshot, which not only opens up new ways to traverse the massive open spaces, but ways to engage with enemies too. "One of the great things about the Grappleshot is that it provides the player with lots of alternate routes in which they can approach problems differently and from different directions, and change their play style on the fly depending on what is happening," says Crocker.
That's all to say that while Halo Infinite is leaning heavily on nostalgia, 343 isn't afraid to push for evolution either. The studio wants you to feel as you did back in 2001, but it wants to deliver that within an experience that would only be achievable in 2020.
A platform for the future
343 built the Slipstream Engine to last. When Halo Infinite launches on Xbox Series X, PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Game Pass in time for Holiday 2020, it could be the only game in the series to launch as a standalone for the next 10 years. "Infinite kicks off us telling new stories and kind of continuing Master Chief's saga for years to come. And those will be coming online in the future. We don't have specific plans for how we're going to tell those and share that today, but we have a lot of great ways that we're going to bring those online for fans as Halo Infinite grows over time."
"Halo Infinite is the continuation of the Master Chief's story, and the saga that we started in Halo 4 and Halo 5, and then we're going to tell more stories," Lee says. He's also keen to note that the 'spiritual reboot' concept also applies to the story setup, so new players shouldn't fear coming into Infinite without six games worth of story notes written out in front of them.
"We want Halo Infinite to be a platform that grows over time and allows us to explore different narrative experiences. Creating this game is the start for the next ten years and we'll be continuing to build that platform out as time goes on."
Halo Infinite will be available for Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and PC later this year, and it will be available through Xbox Game Pass. If you're looking for more, we've also confirmed that Halo Infinite will have split-screen co-op at launch and that Master Chief will be the only playable protagonist.