It was after his colleagues had battled it out as super soldiers that Tom French thought of the good old days. In the hallways of 343 Studios he heard peals of laughter between anecdotes recalling that first “big team battle”—stories about fusion coils sent soaring like blue shooting stars and Pelican-dropped Mongooses splattering Spartans. And suddenly French, creative director of multiplayer at 343, didn’t feel like a developer anymore. He was a fan again; he was at a LAN party.
He says that to go back now and play a game like GoldenEye is a sad experience: The game is never like you remember it. But what his team had done was capture the memory—the deceptive memory—not of how Halo was, but, paradoxically, how it lives on in the memories of those who knew it best.
“It finally felt like the moment that the fantasy we all had in our head for the past 10 years was realized on the screen for us,” he says. “That was the moment where I felt like, ‘OK, we’re hitting our target where we need to go. Now let’s keep refining this and finish this game.’”
What Makes Halo, Halo?
It’s been said that tradition weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, and while this axiom does not refer (exclusively at least) to the living who make games, it’s fair to say that 343 Studios, stewards of the once-great house of Halo, know this weight better than most. On Tuesday, the multiplayer mode for Halo Infinite dropped suddenly, a celebration of the series’ 20-year bond with Xbox. On December 8, after six years, the game’s official release will follow. The return of the Master Chief comes after a much-maligned preview back in July 2020, more than a year’s delay, and multiple high-profile job departures.
But, as we all know, a lot can change in a year. To reinvent the shooter in the present, the team had to study Halo’s past. Not out of nostalgia, says Joseph Staten, creative director at 343. Nostalgia is a tired sigh, he says: It freezes games in amber, places old titles on a plinth wrapped in ivy, and lets players slip off unchallenged into the sunset. “The Master Chief doesn’t engage in nostalgia,” he says—and he should know, he worked on the original game.
Instead the team focused on answering a simple question: What makes Halo, Halo? “It should feel familiar, but it needs to spark your imagination,” he says. “It needs to drive your courage. It needs to make you curious to grapple up a mountain and see what’s beyond and get into a warthog and drive through a valley as bullets are pinging off you. That is not nostalgia; that is not a nostalgic state.”
I first encountered Halo, appropriately enough, in a museum, at an exhibition celebrating the history of video games. (I remember that it was the first time I had ever played Pong and Space Invaders. What I didn’t know then was that Halo shared a direct lineage with both of them. Some of the original Bungie team that developed the first Halo—long before Microsoft and 343 Studios were involved—worked on Pong, while Space Invaders was the game that popularized killing aliens.) I skipped past 30 years of progress encased in plastic arcade boxes and entered the section that considered gaming’s future. In a room saturated by a rippling navy light of the kind now favored by Denis Villeneuve, a Local Area Network game was humming through a serpentine tangle of black wires. Four Xboxes, four TVs, and 16 controllers. At that time, the future of games was Halo: Combat Evolved.
The original Halo trilogy transformed the first-person shooter on consoles. If you play any modern shooters, you know, even if you don’t. Halo popularized couch co-op for campaigns, recharging health over med packs (controversial at the time!), and, most importantly, the dual analog stick controls for shooters. It set new standards for AI, vehicular combat, and ridiculously realistic-looking grass. In 2004, Halo 2 brought online play, through Xbox Live, to the console. In 2007, Halo 3 added forge and theater where players could make and share their own games, along with deeper matchmaking. It was big in the esports scene. These innovations underpinned a bright, colorful, sometimes silly sci-fi world, populated by corny aliens and ancient evils, elevated by the game’s soundtrack—a rousing blend of string orchestra and Gregorian chant—and the Master Chief. “A bright green hopeful hero,” in Staten’s words.
How fans rank the remaining games in the series (only one of which, Reach, was made by Bungie, as the company parted ways with Microsoft after shipping Halo 3) often depends on incremental preferences across the campaign and multiplayer, like how much you hated sniper bloom, load-outs, or Spartan Locke. But what can be said definitively is that the original trilogy was the pinnacle of the series’ relevance. That was when Halo turned Microsoft’s energy drink-colored beast of a console into something more than a corporate pitch for cool gaming relevance (the Master Chief is carved into every Xbox, and Cortana is now better known as Microsoft’s virtual personal assistant, baked into Windows.) That was when the phrase “Halo killer” still had meaning.
“I think Halo 4 was the studio figuring out what kind of game they wanted to make,” says French. “Halo had been surpassed as far as the dominant FPS of the moment.”
A Rocky Start, but Renewed Focus
So into all of this history came the first viewing of Halo Infinite. The team was buoyed by the knowledge that the game was fun to play, says Paul Crocker, campaign creative director, but it was, of course, not the reaction they had hoped for. It was a wake-up call that they weren’t ready, agrees Bonnie Ross, studio head at 343. They realized that they needed to slow down. There was a pandemic. Some of the team hadn’t seen each other for a year. They were trying out all these new things: cross-platform play, a free-to-play model, an open world (which required a new engine.) They couldn’t finish the game in time for the new Xbox’s launch.
Admittedly, they were incredibly disappointed. But they were also relieved. “Microsoft said ‘OK, what do you need?’” says Crocker. “And very quickly, we were all able to get in a room and just prioritize the things we were going to go after.”
Halo Infinite’s campaign takes place 18 months after Halo 5. After taking a beating from a particularly buff brute named Atrinox—leader of the Banished, a rebel organization that broke off from the Covenant Empire—the Master Chief is found floating operatically in deep space. Keeping Chief out of the game for so long was intentional, says Staten, a spiritual call back to the original Halo trilogy.
“You know, Halo [the original] was a lot about landing on the surface of this alien ringworld not knowing anything about it, it being a giant mystery that you needed to explore,” he says. “Well, people have been on Halo rings before, but when players land on Zeta Halo, we crafted the story in such a way that Master Chief doesn’t know what’s happening there.”
After the Chief gallivants around an imploding space station, he meets an AI called The Weapon that was meant to terminate Cortana—the Chief’s close companion throughout the previous games—and then herself. The stage is set: Defeat the Banished and locate Cortana. This is the beating heart of the story. Crocker had played every Halo game on repeat for the first few years on the job, and he came to a clear conclusion. “Our way of describing this game is getting the band back together, getting the Green Man and the Blue Lady back together,” he says. “The emotional heart of Halo has always been the relationship between Master Chief, Cortana, and humanity.” This time around, technology allowed them to capture a genuinely physical performance: As Disney proved with The Mandalorian, you can wring a lot of melancholy out of the way a masked character bows its head.
The most significant change to the campaign is, of course, the open world. The team, says Crocker, never used the term open world; that’s a genre they wanted nothing to do with. “You’re not meeting with quest givers and going and gathering things for them and taking them back,” says Staten. “The Master Chief isn’t interested in crafting things. The Chief doesn’t need to go round and gather animal hides and herbs to make what he needs. He goes and beats the crud out of an alien and takes their weapon from their cold dead claws.”
The team was aiming for something else. They wanted a game that felt like the original Halo: a game, in Crocker’s words, that always “said yes to the player.” The original Halo was famous for its skyboxes, where the painted sky and mountains suggested the idea of a sprawling world. In this game, the Chief must fight across Zeta Halo, a superweapon big enough to house a world on its surface. Now, the modern player expects to explore these vistas—they couldn’t just exist in the imagination.
“What we’re doing is tempting you to stray off the path,” says Staten. “You’ll hear the sounds of gunfire crackling in the distance; you’ll see enemy aircraft flying over a ridge. And now you’re free to go and explore.”
In the game, The Banished have outposts and encampments spread out across the world. You can approach them in any way you choose. It’s those same shooter corridors from the original game—that same 30 seconds of fun, says Staten, pulled along by the story—but widened out. And if players want to ignore that huge, open world, they can do that too, and focus on the more linear story mission structure at the campaign’s core. “To me, our game is the game you think you played 20 years ago,” says Crocker. For the team, the open world is just a way of making your memories real.
Bringing Back That Multiplayer Magic
The early Halo Infinite multiplayer drop took me by surprise, as it did a lot of people. But I had an idea. I called up a friend, one who hadn’t played since Halo 3 (one who hadn’t played much of anything, really; he’s got a kid now.) We jump in: slayer on Fragmentation, a valley of ferns and cliffs and thrusters. “It’s Valhalla,” says my friend. I try to think back. The Spartans definitely didn’t pull little B-boy poses. The sniper clapped at a higher pitch? Then I’m stuck by a grenade and ragdoll 10 meters into a tree; I remember that. Two teammates are doing doughnuts in a Warthog while we get slaughtered, I remember that as well. When I hear the announcer’s deep-throated “triple kill” I feel good about myself, then I look at the score and my friend has twice as many kills as me. “I’m on a killing spree already,” he says. I remember that, too.
“That was good,” he said. “Like how I remember it. I thought it would be like Call of Duty.”
The difference between Call of Duty and Halo, says French, has always been the time to kill. In the former, death takes a split second: You just have to spot someone first. In Halo, he says, shields mean that it takes longer to down an enemy. Even taken by a surprise, a good player can win out over a bad one.
This is the combat dance, says French: that gut-level pull toward your opponent when you spot them; the tense exchange of grenades, bullets, and gun butts to the face. This all within a world inviting experimentation, where throwing a plasma grenade beneath a warthog might launch it high enough that you could launch it higher still with a rocket, all in the hope that you can follow that debris up into the clouds with a well-timed grapple hook and then pull out a sniper rifle and shoot someone in the head. Like this.
French isn’t shy about admitting it: The pinnacle of Halo multiplayer was Halo 3.
To recapture that magic, they needed to go back to basics. The game was guided by a Squid Game-like mantra: Everyone gets a fair start. Other titles might have load-out systems, or class systems, or a set hero with specific capabilities, but in Halo, everyone must start at the same power level. Variation is determined by scavenging.
“Scavenging is law,” says French. You need to case the level for that drop shield or shock rifle that will turn the tide in your favor. Some innovations from previous games, like the oft-debated sprint, complemented this dance. But in general the Spartan in Halo 5, says French, was just too powerful off of spawn. They had to strip it back. “The amount of things you can do with the thruster, the ground pound, the shoulder charge, we wanted to pull back in the competitive game,” he says. “We wanted to strip the Spartan back and go back to the idea that you’re just the Spartan at its core.”
Halo’s 4-vs-4 arena matches are undoubtedly different from the gaming zeitgeist. The team looked at other shooters, of course, all of them actually, says Staten. So they addressed the billion-dollar warthog in the room: battle royale. When the team told IGN in 2019 that “the only BR we’re really interested in is Battle Rifle,” this was a slight exaggeration. “When we started working on the game, we obviously talked about it,” says French. There were some experiments during development that broke the core tenants of the game. Battle royale actually wasn’t one. There is room in Halo, says French, for a battle royale mode. But with the campaign experimenting with the open world, and Halo transitioning into a live service game, they just couldn’t do it all at once. Someday they may make a battle royale. For now, you can make it in the forge (coming in May 2022.) For now, he says, the game is fresh, different from the competition.
“There’s room for BR and Halo, and we’ll keep augmenting and building new experiences,” he says. “And you know, maybe someday we’ll get to BR, but right now, we’re just trying to get this game out the door and build something that we’re super proud of—and then just kick off this journey for the Spartan and continue to grow the game over time.”
And this is the key: Halo Infinite will change with time. The team at 343 hopes they have begun a war that will last a decade. This is Halo-as-a-service, says Ross. Suppose you don’t like the new battle pass progression—343 will be listening. “We don’t want to lose touch with our players in our community across these long time spans,” says Staten. “Because then we lose that opportunity to be curious. To talk to them and see what they enjoy and to see what Halo means to them.”
For now, Infinite feels like Halo. Whether Halo is the future anymore, time will tell.
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