Halo, arguably Microsoft’s flagship franchise, is sick. The television series failed to secure either of its target audiences, long term fans of the series and the average TV watcher. Halo Infinite, which launched to positive reviews on account of its fun, narratively messy campaign, has burned every ounce of goodwill it managed to garner with its community. Even the Master Chief Collection, a collection of previous Halo games people still enjoy playing today, has been mired by confusing changes to the progression system, intermittent support, and technical issues. All of this has culminated in the series' conspicuous absence from the recent Xbox and Bethesda Showcase, historically one of Microsoft’s biggest events of the year.
Much of Halo’s current condition has been blamed on 343 Industries, the series’ developer which took over after Bungie left to make Destiny. 343i was Microsoft’s attempt to keep the franchise going, made up of former Bungie employees, contract workers, and new leadership. Their first foray into the series, Halo 4, met an extremely icy reception. The game was criticized for its introduction of a new enemy faction, the Prometheans, and for its extremely lore heavy narrative.
Halo 5 was actively, and unfairly, despised. Its narrative directly follows Halo 4 and has two protagonists, series mascot Master Chief and the newcomer Spartan Locke. Locke was hated on principle and poorly developed, while Master Chief’s story was increasingly personal in ways that didn’t really land for the audience. Most importantly, Halo 5 radically changed Halo’s signature game feel. Spartans were faster, more agile, and had a suite of new movement and combat abilities that utterly reshaped how people played it. I, for one, loved how Halo 5 felt, but recognized it was a big shift for many players.
Halo Infinite was initially pitched as a return to the series’ roots. It would abandon the Spartan Dash, Spartan Charge, and hover abilities from Halo 5, would significantly slow down the speed of characters (and their ability to sprint), and would abandon the Prometheans as an enemy faction to return to a singular focus on the Covenant. When 343 released a gameplay trailer in 2020, the response was extremely mixed. Players were excited about the mechanics and apparent game feel, but the visuals were intentionally cartoonish which did not go over particularly well. The response was so negative, that 343 spent the next year doing significant reworks to almost every aspect of the game before its surprise multiplayer launch in late 2021. All of this set the stage for the very strange state Halo Infinite now finds itself in.
The aforementioned rework and surprise multiplayer launch were not without their drawbacks. Developers experienced a messy and difficult development cycle in the midst of an awkward transition to working from home. The resulting product is, at first glance, extremely slick and well put together, but the developers at 343 have stated that they will have to spend at least a year repairing the damage done by rebuilding the game’s engine in a year. In addition to its technical instability, Halo Infinite’s rushed launch did not include campaign co-op or Forge, the series’ signature level builder.
The importance of campaign co-op to Halo’s community, and its place in popular culture more broadly, cannot be overstated. The series’ early culture was defined by couch co-op, and LAN parties. You may not be able to get an entire group of people together to link consoles, but you can get a friend to play through the campaign over and over again. It gives non-competitive players a reason to continue engaging with the game over the total course of its life cycle, as opposed to treating it as a one and done affair. It is the first game in the series to launch without campaign co-op, and its absence is not only odd, but obvious.
The game’s Legendary campaign difficulty is among the series’ hardest, and is obviously balanced with co-op in mind. Even the Infinite’s campaign missions feel designed around co-op, encouraging players to tackle multiple objectives in the same area at the same time. Where walking across a map to destroy four silos can feel tedious for one player, two players could have a dynamic and engaging time splitting up to take out the silos and then rejoining one another to fight to the other side of the map. The resource depots scattered around the map have four weapon and vehicle stations, allowing multiple players to requisition equipment at one time. Every time you boot up the campaign, you are reminded of the absence of cooperative play.
While the absence of Forge mode may appear on first blush to be less significant, it exacerbates one of the game’s biggest problems as a live service title—a lack of content updates and map diversity. Instead, 343 released a handful of game modes themed around their Fracture event—which sees alternate universe Spartans with armor themed around samurais and World War I (yes, this is very strange). Regardless of one’s thoughts on live service as a business model, Halo Infinite is failing to fulfill this role. Halo Infinite’s six-month Season 2, Lone Wolves, released a road map promising Forge by late August and campaign co-op by the end of September.
The absence of new maps, new modes, and other significant content updates is a major sticking point for the community, one that an in-engine custom level builder like Forge could help alleviate. Microsoft chose a live service model for Halo Infinite, one that they have failed to execute upon in multiple ways. For many fans, Halo’s absence from Microsoft’s showcase was as expected as it was disappointing, which is not where you want your flagship live service to be.
The lack of basic features and ongoing content updates would be enough to frustrate any fanbase, but the game’s progression and monetization systems all but seal its fate. Previous Halo entries had unlockable, customizable armor—whether it be through earning achievements in Halo 3, or through spending earned points in Halo Reach. Halo 5’s loot boxes were a significant step backwards, but they were tolerable. Halo Infinite’s progression and monetization systems are not only exploitative, but poorly designed.
The new system revolves around armor cores, which determine what cosmetics can and cannot be used on your character. The Mark VI armor core has separate cosmetics from the samurai themed Ronin armor core, which prevents players from mixing and matching components to make their spartans unique. Additionally, these cosmetics are unlocked through (relatively expensive) purchases and the game’s battle pass, albeit very slowly. The battle pass cosmetics are not only mediocre, but sparse, and the feeling of unlocking an armor piece you want to use for an armor core that you dislike is deeply frustrating. It is a sequence of unforced, awkwardly implemented errors.
All of this goes to explain Halo’s uncomfortable absence from the Xbox and Bethesda Showcase. The community has accepted that 343 won’t have anything new to show for a while, but they have done so with a resigned bitterness. The game ends on a cliffhanger, promising that more narrative will be added through the live service cycle. It feels unfinished because it is. Unlike many live service games, which are defined by being unfinished, constantly evolving ecosystems, Halo Infinite is an awkward half-measure haunted by the ghost of the games it could’ve been.
In spite of this, I am hopeful. It may be the childlike optimism of a woman who grew up with Halo or my habit of staunchly defending Halo 4 and Halo 5, but looking at what 343 has done so far I legitimately hope that the game will find its footing in the coming months. 343 claims that Halo Infinite will be the platform through which they expand Halo going forward, if that’s the case then maybe the game will be able to define itself by something other than its messy first year.