The next Halo game has a tall task to sell the new Xbox console while keeping fans happy. The development team at 343 tell how they took inspiration from the 2001 original
If you experienced a sensation of deja-vu when watching the recent live stream introducing Halo Infinite’s gameplay, do not adjust your set. It was entirely deliberate on behalf on the development team working on the new Halo, which is due for release around November in conjunction with the Xbox Series X console.
Halo has always acted as a battering ram, a poster child, a totem of Microsoft’s next generations, just as the original Combat Evolved did for the first Xbox, back in 2001.
Almost two decades on, the team at 343 Industries – the company Microsoft set up to bring forward the Halo franchise – are unabashed about their intentions with Infinite. At an online press event to dissect the eight-minute gameplay trailer a couple of hours after it was broadcast, the leads at 343 reinforced their intention to deliver a new Halo that’s a lot like the oldest Halo.
“We built this to be a love letter to Halo for all the fans – we hope that everyone gets that,” says Paul Crocker, associate creative director for the game at 343.
The gameplay trailer plucks a chunk from the middle of the game but was chosen deliberately to echo the opening of Combat Evolved as you crash-landed on an alien ring planet.
“One of the expressions we've used a lot is spiritual reboot,” says Crocker. “Everyone remembers when they first played Combat Evolved when they first crashed onto the mysterious Halo ring from the Bumblebee escape pod, and how they felt as they looked around that world. And that to us is the feeling, the emotion that we wanted players to experience again. We want it to feel different and new and fresh. But we really want to bring back that sense of wonder and mystery and hope.”
That theme of recognisable but fresh is picked up by Chris Lee, the studio head at 343 in charge of Infinite. “It's really important that as we look at that spiritual reboot concept, we want to create something that's familiar but different,” says Lee. “That’s something we talk a lot about on the team.”
Lee pauses to pull up the tactical map of the ring and it appears to be huge. “This gives you an idea of the size and scale and some of the objectives that you will find in Infinite and it's the most open expansive environment we've ever created in a Halo game. It's several times larger than our last two campaigns put together. It gives players a lot of choice and freedom as they play through the world.”
The interview took place just as the internet worked itself up into a frenzy about the perceived bland, flat look of the Infinite characters and backgrounds, particularly in the cut-scenes but also in the gameplay locations.
At the time, 343 talked up just how much horsepower was being poured into the visual update of this next instalment. “On Xbox Series X, you'll be able to run at a solid 60 frames per second, and up to 4K resolution,” says Lee. “And we're bringing the highest fidelity experience that we've ever created. We're able to do more than 10 times the processing power per pixel that we were able to do in Halo 5, which just allows us to create this experience that's unlike anything that we've had in Halo before.”
Since then, 343 has held up its hands to the fans and insisted the graphics will get better before launch, a tall ask with just three months to go. A blog post from 343 community manager Unyshek tried to address the issues, insisting the simpler designs were deliberate all along.
“Based on our learnings from Halo 4, Halo 5, and Halo Wars 2 – along with strong community feedback – we decided to shift back towards the legacy aesthetics that defined the original trilogy,” Unyshek writes. “With Halo Infinite, we’re returning to a more ‘classic’ art style which was a key message going back to the very first reveal that garnered enthusiastic and positive responses. This translates to a more vibrant palette, ‘cleaner’ models and objects with less ‘noise’, though it doesn’t mean less detail.
However, Unyshek admits some feedback around lighting and detail has merit: “We do have work to do to address some of these areas and raise the level of fidelity and overall presentation for the final game.”
This is the first time Halo has gone open-world, with the main objectives driving the story and a host of side-quests that provide upgrades and secrets.
“We're trying not to restrict the player in any way,” says Crocker. “Master Chief shouldn't be locked down in any way. We do have a story that you work through – it's Master Chief's adventure. But there is a lot to find along the way – just look at the tactical map, you can see how much stuff is out there in the world. You can look at that image and wonder how that connects to the story we’re telling to the player experience. The simple answer is yes, there are additional things you can do across the world, but there is also a rich story.”
Chris Lee echoes that sentiment, hinting at a deeper world off the beaten path: “We want to reward players for taking their time and looking and discovering the secrets of this ring. So throughout the game, we will have this kind of story that Paul talked about. But you'll be able to deviate from that if you choose along the way and find some of these upgrades and equipment that give you more strategic options.”
Infinite has the difficult task of showing off the sheer grunt (pun intended) of the forthcoming Xbox Series X console but it must also be playable on older Xboxes dating to 2013. That’s not going to be easy and the 343 team admits there will be no differences between the versions beyond a cosmetic layer.
Chris Lee waxes lyrical about the how great Infinite will look on the new machine: “The fidelity we've been able to achieve in Halo Infinite is something that was unattainable previously. We've really harnessed a lot of advanced rendering techniques but also the immense power of the Xbox series X.”
Obviously, 60fps at 4K is not to be sneezed at and won’t be available on the Xbox One version. But when pushed, the team confirms there will no gameplay upgrades – no new enemy AI, no special extras, no additional weapons – to convince the potential buyer to shell out for a new Series X.
And that is the dilemma posed by Microsoft’s decision to make Infinite cross-platform. Will Infinite be sexy enough on Series X – after its graphical touch-up – to sell consoles? Or will be just a lively but derivative homage to Combat Evolved? We have only a few months to wait and find out.
* Since this article was published, Microsoft subsequently delayed the release of Halo Infinite into 2021.