As expected, Microsoft kicked off its big Xbox Series X showcase with the gameplay reveal of Halo Infinite. As I’ve said in the past, this demo was a crucial moment for the Halo franchise, as well as the Xbox Series X as a whole. With this being Microsoft’s flagship series and a launch title for new hardware, 343 Industries had to prove it could be a system-seller in the vein of Halo: Combat Evolved for the original Xbox back in 2001, as opposed to something more like Halo 5: Guardians, which delivered an underwhelming campaign.
Right from the start of the demo, it was clear that what we were seeing was actual gameplay. It was a wise move for Microsoft to begin on the main menu with the “Press Menu Button to Start Demo” prompt. Given criticisms about how little actual gameplay we’d seen from Sony and especially Microsoft, it felt like a deliberate statement from the Halo team.
From there, this extended nine-minute demo kicked off with a brief cinematic featuring Master Chief and his familiar pilot friend before jumping right into the action. And I’m happy to say that the second Master Chief stepped off his dropship and onto the surface of this new Halo Array, the rush of nostalgia from this “spiritual reboot” was absolutely palpable.
It’s no coincidence that the swell of familiar music, geography, color palette, and even the look of Chief himself seemed to pull far more from Halo’s origins than from its recent history. Even kicking off the action with Chief taking out a handful of Grunts before hopping behind the wheel of a Warthog felt like a deliberate and successful return to form.
Everything from the HUD and the skybox to the UNSC rifle, the battlecries of Grunts and Jackals, and even the crunch of Chief’s melee attack evoked Combat Evolved on the original Xbox, but with a fresh 2020 coat of paint on it. This upgrade wasn’t just visual, but in terms of the atmosphere and world itself. Within seconds of gameplay, we saw wildlife scurry by and a flock of birds soar through the sky, adding a sense of scale and life to the world. This, combined with the promised day/night cycle, all feels like it’s injecting character into the playground around you.
But this isn’t just a fancy reskin of a 20-year-old game. A little ways into the demo, we see three separate objectives pop in the corner of the screen — Chief has to take out a trio of anti-aircraft guns before he and his new pilot pal can press on. Shortly after he hops on the Warthog, he opens up his map, which shows that the rumors and hints of Halo Infinite taking a somewhat open-world approach to design were true.
The menu shows that the island they’re stranded on is just a small section of a much larger world, with unidentifiable map markers scattered in all directions. The North, West, and East gun batteries are all presented at once, showing how order of objective completion is open-ended. We also got a brief glimpse at a few other tabs on the menu, including Upgrades and Database.
It’s my guess that Halo Infinite is not so much a “go anywhere and do anything right from the get-go” style of open-world like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Skyrim. Rather, it’s likely a controlled mixture of wider play spaces for exploration and more linear story missions. Think of how games like Gears 5, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, or most recently The Last of Us Part II handled their open-world sections, and I feel like that would be closer to Halo’s.
Regardless, the world is certainly larger than any we’ve seen in the series so far. In a blog post on Halo Waypoint, 343 Industries Studio Head Chris Lee commented, “The scale of the environment accessible to players is several times larger than that of the last two Halo games combined with opportunities to discover hidden rewards and assault Banished fortifications in brand new ways.”
While we’ll have to wait and see if we’ll be receiving sidequests from characters or hunting down various collectables or currencies, the rest of the demo did showcase some of those new tools and upgrades that are going to be at Chief’s disposal. The first big one was the Grappleshot, which can be used to snatch ammo boxes from a distance, pull yourself towards enemies in combat, and climb up walls and other obstacles. Earlier this year, Doom Eternal proved that classic shooters are only made better with grappling hooks, so I’m glad to see Halo got the memo.
Chief’s other major upgrade was the Drop Wall, which acts as deployable cover. These two pieces of equipment add new verbs to Chief’s combat and traversal language, which all seems to feed into the promise of more freedom in how you complete objectives throughout Halo Infinite.
All of this gameplay looks like tons of fun, and I’m all aboard this new era of Halo. That said, nothing we saw from today’s demo during the stream really screamed “next-gen” to me. Don’t get me wrong — Halo Infinite looks great, and I can’t wait to play it. Some of my scepticism might have to do with the fact that the game is cross-gen and still playable on Xbox One, with Smart Delivery support. That said, my favorite launch game of last generation wasn’t the pretty-but-forgettable exclusives like Ryse or Killzone Shadow Fall, but rather Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which was also available on Xbox 360 and PS3. So what do I know?
Also, it’s hard to fully appreciate the promise of 60 FPS, 4K, and the Xbox Velocity Architecture’s near-instant loading without actually going hands-on with the new console. Watching it all unfold on the subpar video quality of a livestream makes it harder still; for that, I highly recommend going back and rewatching the showcase now that the 4K / 60 FPS version is live. But without clear evidence of how tangibly better Halo Infinite looks and plays on Xbox Series X than it does on the Xbox One, it feels like Microsoft might have an uphill battle in convincing some folks that Halo Infinite is a reason to upgrade to new hardware this fall.
I’m also curious to see how Halo Infinite acts as the start of a new chapter for the series. The glimpse we saw of the Banished and their leader Escharum, as well as the story ties to Halo Wars 2, certainly look promising. It’ll be interesting to see how the game and the franchise itself expand over time, as Chris Lee told IGN, “Halo Infinite is the start of our platform for the future. We want Infinite to grow over time, versus going to those numbered titles and having all that segmentation that we had before. It’s really about creating Halo Infinite as the start of the next ten years for Halo and then building that as we go with our fans and community.” I don’t see the series transforming into a live-service game, but it’s clear that the future of Halo is going to be falling under Infinite’s umbrella.
But honestly, none of these minor questions or concerns really matter in the grand scheme of things. The second the sound of the series’s iconic drums began to rush in as combat intensified, I knew that Halo Infinite had its hooks in me. I’ll be there day one on Xbox Series X, despite not having a clear view yet of how much improved my experience will be on the new hardware compared to that of my older Xbox One X. But given how uncertain most things in life have been throughout 2020, it’s nice to know that this fall we’ll be able to count on reuniting with Master Chief — and forming new memories to go alongside all of those incredible ones from the past two decades.