343 Industries would like you to look at Halo Infinite and see Halo: Combat Evolved. Have you seen that box art? It's a very deliberate, and successful, evocation of box art from 2001. There's the sweep of the halo ring itself, the best skybox in gaming, that resolves into undulating green hills – a natural world built on artificial ground. The contrails of spaceships overhead, suggestive of sandbox action, and a grey monolith in the periphery, odd and unexplained. And right in the centre of it all, the Chief. Our John.
So be it. Let's do Combat Evolved again, in a semi-open world, with a brutish villain. But if that's what 343 is shooting for, it needs to nail more than just the shooting. It'll need to codify and replicate the key elements of Halo: Combat Evolved – some of which I've attempted to capture below.
In many modern shooters, it's perfectly possible to complete a campaign without ever throwing a grenade, the R1 button collecting dust while you engage with more interesting systems. In classic Halo, however, the humble explosive potato refused to be ignored.
The plasma grenade, favoured by the Covenant, stuck to its victim as it ran for cover through enemy placements, potentially catching grunts, banshees, and turrets in the blast. Grenades even persisted after the death of their owners, sitting on the belts of corpses, awaiting their moment. When combined with the Flood, which animated those corpses and threw them at you, the latent bombs were a recipe for chain reactions and rippling, ragdoll detonations.
Really, those grenades were emblematic of Bungie's systemic approach to the sandbox shooter – to have as many elements bounce off each other as possible. Sometimes that meant going wide with pitched tank battles between factions; at others, it meant trapping the Chief in a corridor with 500lbs of explosives.
With Halo Infinite, the risk is that 343 will simply go so wide that no two elements ever come into contact. But there are examples for the studio to follow: Breath of the Wild, in particular, is a masterclass in making an open world volatile – turning objects into catalysts, then shaking the snow globe until something surprising happens. The fact that, in Halo Infinite, brutes can pick up grunts and hurl them at you? It bodes well.
Bungie has never been in the business of writing interactive sitcoms, but Combat Evolved was daft and knew it. The grunts, with their screeching cowardice and hand-waving, recalled MDK or the creatures that messed about in the periphery of Star Wars while the serious space men and women were talking. Cutscenes and dialogue played up the contrast between the godlike Master Chief and the slightly pathetic rank and file on both sides. The unearned bravura of the Marines, especially, often raised a chuckle. "Notify his next of kin," they'd say upon downing an enemy. "Because they're next!"
In the years since, Halo fiction has become sacred to fans, which in turn has encouraged developers to treat the series with a po-faced reverence Bungie just didn't have for its own material. My hope is that in Infinite, 343 can see beyond their respect for Combat Evolved, recognise what was silly about it, and write accordingly.
The tone of Infinite's campaign trailer was hard to read. Its new Banished adversary, War Chief Escharum, looked as if he hadn't so much chewed the scenery as sharpened his teeth on it. As the camera pulled uncomfortably close to his bellowing face – "beeeeaaahhh yor faaahhhngs!" – it was easy to laugh, but harder to know whether we were supposed to. It remains to be seen how self-serious 343's space opera will be.
The Chief himself isn't vulnerable. He's not really a character, for that matter – just a shard of metal hurtling through space. But the Marines around him are awfully brittle. In Combat Evolved, they threw themselves into the fray, died in their droves, and quietly eulogised each other in unscripted moments. OK, that's not quite true: sometimes they didn't do it quietly. Sometimes they filled a cold Covenant body with lead while screaming the name of a fallen comrade called Bob.
The pain came from the knowledge that you could have prevented that loss, if only you'd fired with more efficiency, or tossed an extra grenade. For a certain kind of player, it became a self-set challenge to reload from the last checkpoint and pull every last Marine through. The worry is that, if Infinite plumps for an auto-saving open world structure, there'll be no checkpoints to reload at all.
It's only right that Halo Infinite seems to have the slowest grappling hook in the business – a sullen tug scarcely quicker than taking the journey on foot. Movement in Halo should be buoyant, the Chief arcing gracefully through the air as if he were playing Doom 2016 underwater. It's a characteristic that distinguishes Halo's game-feel, if you'll forgive the term: playful and preoccupied with vertical space.
The same principles applied to the vehicles in Combat Evolved – not just the hovercraft, which of course drifted lazily back to earth, but the warthog too. It's already clear that 343 has spent plenty of time getting that one right – we counted three whole seconds of airtime after the demo's player gunned the jeep off a natural ramp. If Infinite really is going to lean into open world structure, it's crucial that movement be a joy in and of itself – not just when the Chief gets to his destination.
343 was handed a tough set of cards when it came to Halo lore. With Halo 2, Bungie made the decision to put a camera inside the halls of the Covenant, exposing its conversations, conventions, and political systems. Approximately 900 tie-in novels later, there's very little unknown about them.
In Combat Evolved, by contrast, the alien was still, well, alien; the strange, grey structures and underground temples spoke of religion but revealed none of its practices. Instead, an unnamed spiritual energy coursed through the game, tempering the oo-rah macho nonsense of the Marines.
That sense of mystery is central to recreating the atmosphere of Combat Evolved, and you can see its influence on Infinite's architecture, which plants mechanical cliffs and skeletal ships in the landscape. What 343 probably can't do is put the genie back in the bottle – the enemy, and its technology, is already explained.
Halo Infinite release date is set for "Holiday 2020" where it will launch through Xbox Game Pass, as well as for Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and PC.