Until around 2015, I don’t think I ever actually owned a single Halo game. I borrowed the games from a friend, playing through the campaigns and swapping the disks back for the next one. Mostly though, I played at my friend’s house, huddled in the dark after a midnight McDonald’s run, laughing at and with each other as we blasted each other away. Like many, my first experiences with Halo were social.
Over time they became more lonely, until recently. I tend to hyper fixate and flit from game to game. My job as a critic only facilitates this, as I review and write primarily about games without constant updates and surging communities. The pandemic, the trend away from couch co-op, and my own online friendships (often with distinct gaming hobbies) have ensured that I play mostly alone. Even when I play a game that has hit the zeitgeist, it tends to be months after it has faded from conversation.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t longed to live differently, though. I’ve looked afar at Destiny and Final Fantasy XIV with jealousy, wanting to have a game I could really care about and talk about with lots of people. I’ve booted up Warframe and downloaded Magic the Gathering: Arena with the promise that this would be the game I play consistently. None of it has really stuck. My interest in older games and constant switching around has ensured that I could never really settle into a single title to call my “social” game. Based on the recent preview, though, Halo Infinite is teeing up to be exactly that.
To some degree, this is not a testament to Halo Infinite’s quality, but a matter of extraordinarily good timing. I recently fell into a small discord server where we primarily play Halo: Master Chief Collection. I’m not good at it, though I have my moments, but most of us on the server aren’t. Rather it’s an excuse to get together or to make new friends, all around something we enjoy doing. I already liked Halo, but playing with friends every couple of weeks has solidified its particular joys to me. I love Master Chief’s lumbering gait. I love the contrast between the rumble of the assault rifle and the “pew pew” of the plasma weapons. I love the greens and steels of an earthly military swept up in galactic majesty. I love the inert and grand tragedy of the super soldier Spartans, metal people forever meant to fight battles that are not entirely their own. This is, basically, the perfect time for a new Halo to drop for me. Fortunately, if the preview build is anything to go by, it’s more than a worthy successor to all that came before.
If you’ve played Halo at all, you understand the basics of how Infinite works. The basic set of weapons have all returned. You still have to shoot through shields to get to the venerable meat underneath. Deathmatch, capture the flag, and two variants on control points were the central modes available in the preview. If you’ve played any competitive shooter since functionally the beginning, you’ve played variants on these modes. This familiarity, though, was a boon to the test. I felt comfortable enough to hop right in, but also disoriented enough to notice the changes.
The two areas that 343 Industries has most distinctly improved over their previous games are aesthetics and weapon design. Halo 4 and 5 embraced the sheen of post-Star Wars prequel science fiction. While Halo’s aesthetic could hardly be called unique, its combination of neon soaked alien tech, gritty American militarism, and sweeping natural landscapes usually managed to impress. In later entries, that difference was flattened into the shine of a gleaming HD world. Expensive, yes, but it sometimes felt as if the scale and drama of Halo’s spectacle was lost. Of course, there was still plenty that felt inspired. Halo 5’s depiction of the alien world of Sangheili is among my favorite set of levels in the franchise. Nevertheless, the games often felt more shine than substance.
Infinite seems to have caught on, and its settings feel more scaled and naturalistic. Little alien chickens skirt around abandoned marketplaces and tiny beavers hide out under ancient structures. The maps are colorful, but faded and worn with age and decay. It also has hints of the kind of scale that made the Halo campaigns so compelling to me. Artificial hex pillars jut out from natural-looking ravines and cliffs. Massive unknown structures hover about fields and mountains. It’s not all good, but it feels sufficiently grounded, which will hopefully make the more spectacular elements of the campaign more weighty.
In the past, most of the weapons of 343 games felt exchangeable or derivative. Here’s the human assault rifle and here’s the alien assault rifle. Part of the appeal of Halo’s gunplay, particularly in the campaigns, is how much the available weapons change your strategy and your relationship to the environment. As the guns became more similar, the games lost part of their shifting playfulness.
Fortunately, nearly every weapon I encountered in Infinite filled a new niche. The Spiker, for example, is a clumsy and powerful sniper rifle that can also one shot vehicles. The new plasma rifle is a semi-automatic carbine; it’s a bit tricky to use but can shred enemies’ shields. You can charge the Ravager to temporarily coat a part of the ground in fire, preventing enemies from passing or damaging vehicles. The use cases can be specific, but they also feel immediately effective. It is an incredible thrill to fight the right weapon for just the right moment.
This could, of course, fall apart in the full release. A handful of maps and three or four cool weapons in no way represent the game as a complete object. However, this is all a good sign of things to come. I came away from the preview build with confidence in what the game would be by release.
The most disappointing, but also obvious, part of Infinite is the detritus of the current multiplayer games: battle passes, cosmetics, and XP boosts. Absolutely none of this is surprising; every Halo game since 3 has had some variant of mechanics like this in it. Infinite’s swerve into Free-to-Play only makes it more inevitable. It is invariably a part of playing games at the scale of Halo these days, but I really long for when the enjoyment of a match with friends was unadorned with meta bullshit.
There is also stuff I miss from the previous 343 games. I loved the expressive movement of Halo 5, being able to float in the air while aiming or boost around corners. Infinite has some of this; you can slide down hills and sprinting helps you gain momentum for jumps, but it does feel like a step back from 5’s lumbering, mobile suit speed. To compensate, Infinite adds the absolutely fantastic grapple hook. It’s the kind of toy that feels so fun and essential, it is hard to imagine how Halo existed without it. Nevertheless, for its faults, Halo 5 took largely successful swings. It is both disappointing and predictable to see them seed ground to a more traditional framework.
Perhaps also though, this return to basics will ensure that the game is a hit. It feels exhilarating to be riding the wave of something I know will crash to the shore with bombast. Sincerely, the last game that I was this excited for was Anodyne 2: Return to Dust, something I knew would be a lonely and contemplative experience. In a broader sense, I have some distaste for what Halo Infinite will be. I know the ideological baggage of military themed games. I know that the game will be, in some fashion, a nightmare casino, filled with spending points and hooks for engagement. Still, what Halo Infinite will most likely be for me, and for many other people, is a space to spend time with friends, without expectation outside of play and chatter. Games like Halo are merely vessels for something far more powerful and precious. The game itself will resist that in some ways, but it will also accommodate it. I want little more from something of this scale than a small joy I can share with those I love.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.