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If you had told me in December 2020 that I would get to play Halo Infinite in January, I’d be jumping up and down wearing my Halo Christmas jumper and rambling madly to my girlfriend in Halo lore. But now, in August 2021, I can acknowledge that my hype for Infinite peaked in the latter half of last year and now it has waned. So now that I’ve actually got to play the July Halo Infinite Multiplayer Tech Preview, I’m level-headed and ready to see what the latest instalment of my favourite childhood franchise really is.

As a disclaimer, I will start off by saying that I will not be discussing the weapon drills in this preview. Instead, I will be analysing the moment-to-moment gameplay of the multiplayer bot matches I was able to play in the flight. This is because all I can really say on the former is that the weapons generally feel great, but visual glitches made the firing range seem unstable during my experience of the flight. So, without further ado, what is it like to play Halo Infinite?

Source: Screen capture – Conor Smith

A Bit of the Old

What did it feel like to finally play Halo Infinite? To fire the sniper in the all-new Slipspace Engine? ‘It feels like Halo, in a comforting way’, is how my good friend Cally from Robot Republic described it to me, and I have to agree. It felt like I had just booted up Halo 5 or The Master Chief Collection and was back to shooting other Spartans in friendly combat, except everything was much more bright and colourful, clear and crisp.

In just the short segment of gameplay posted below, you can hear the glorious return of both the Halo shield recharge sound and Jeff Steitzer as the multiplayer announcer with ‘Halfway to victory’, but also the new addition of my AI companion which cheers me on with ‘What a shot!’ or warns me with ‘Ammunition low’. Jeff Steitzer as the multiplayer announcer is a particular standout performance in the multiplayer tech preview. While he seemed to have lost prominence in Halo 5, the Steitzer we hear in Infinite is a true return to form. This is not the corny, overdramatic Steitzer of Halo 2 Anniversary. No, this is Steitzer at his most urgent, his most fervent, and his very best. The growl as Steitzer says ‘Killing Rampage’ had an intensity I hadn’t felt in previous Halo instalments. It drove me forward and made me feel the hunger to do better – something the multiplayer announcer has always given Halo over other shooters.

All’s Fair in War and ESports

Having seen some of the gameplay on social media already, I knew certain elements of the gameplay beforehand. For instance, I knew that the sprint feature in Infinite was basically useless – someone can walk behind the sprinter at almost the same speed. While classic Halo never had it, sprint was introduced in Halo Reach as an armour ability. Most other shooters have sprint, the one example that doesn’t being DOOM. However, there’s a trade-off in Infinite: with sprint you can slide, and it pleases players who expect it to be there, but it really isn’t necessary for competitive gameplay. Those looking for a more arena-style experience can comfortably play Infinite without sprint and not be hindered by it – seemingly pleasing players on both sides of the argument.

This emphasis on competitive play seems apparent throughout Infinite‘s gameplay. I sprinted up to an enemy bot and held the melee button in their back to go into an assassination. Instead, the bot just fell to the ground. Assassinations are gone – at least they are at launch. So, what was the point of assassinations, then? Well, if you held the melee button, you’d perform an extremely cool kill animation that would shame your victim – but leave you open to attack, and even spare the life of the enemy player if you were sniped before your knife could reach them. When you think about it, there is absolutely no reason to perform an assassination in competitive gameplay other than it looking cool. It leaves you open and vulnerable. Therefore, it’s far better to quickly dispose of your opponent and always be aware of what could be around the corner. 343 Industries have even said that they’re looking to reintroduce assassinations post-launch, but are working on implementing them in a way that doesn’t affect high-skill players.

Source: Screen capture – Conor Smith

The new feature in Halo Infinite, though, is the ability to drop your weapon. Before, you could only swap your weapon for one you find on the ground, but now you can actually throw your weapon down to a teammate in need. This changes the options in combat significantly. Now the distribution of power weapons such as the sniper and rocket launcher can be shared between team members. Imagine throwing the sniper down to a team member who has a better view of the battlefield – strategies and tactics open up that have never been considered before in Halo.

What do I think of Halo seemingly accommodating the competitive player base? Well, on one hand, I love the return to form. The equality of everyone starting off with the standard assault rifle and magnum, and having to scavenge the battlefield for more powerful tools, is what Halo multiplayer is to me. The rest of these decisions also seem to be a levelling out of the battlefield, everything being fair and equal. This, for me, could only ever be a concern if social playlists were not as prominent as competitive playlists at launch. I and many others love nothing more than to chill and play about in custom matches or experimental game modes, and I personally can’t wait for the random, chaotic mess of Big Team Battle Fiesta, or the new game modes 343 Industries have thought up for Action Sack.

Source: Screen capture – Conor Smith

I (Don’t) Like Your Botfriend

Unfortunately, I and many others in Europe were asleep for the part of the flight that allowed player-versus-player matchmaking, so my experience is based solely on player-versus-bot matches. And what bots they were.

From the moment I started playing the preview, I made it my mission to stick a bot with a plasma or spike grenade. How hard could it be, right? Bots usually stand around being still a lot, right? Wrong. These bots mean serious business. They played convincingly like real Halo players, and every time I got killed by one, I felt that it was because I wasn’t playing smart enough. It wasn’t until the third day of the flight that I managed the spike grenade stick in the screenshot below, and similarly, the other plays you can make in Halo Infinite are not without their mastery.

With different difficulty tiers available in the final game, players can rank up the intelligence of the AI to suit their combat capability. While the bots at the start of most matches stuck together and stayed on a similar loop, once you killed them they traversed the map in the usual routes. They jumped, sprinted, picked up power weapons, headshot you across the map – everything you’d expect from a Halo multiplayer match. This was a joy to me. When I bought Halo: The Master Chief Collection last year along with my Xbox One, I was disappointed to see that they hadn’t implemented bot matches. It was the first thing I wanted to do – relive my childhood memories of playing Halo 3 on the maps that I wanted, the game modes I preferred, and to be able to just relax with some AI who didn’t care if I was good or not. The fact that Halo Infinite has this preservative feature at launch pleases me to no end. So many multiplayer games of my childhood are either now unpopulated or, more likely, the servers have shut down. But now, Halo really is … infinite. I can only hope they bring bots over to The Master Chief Collection, too, because with Infinite around the corner, I don’t know how much time I have left to replay the Halo 3 multiplayer I have always adored.

‘Tag, you’re it!’ (Source: Screen capture – Conor Smith)

Maps of Natural Formation

Just when I thought I knew what Halo Infinite was all about, feeling slightly tired of seeing the same two maps, Bazaar entered the flight and changed everything. While the previous two maps, Live Fire and Recharge, were fine, they were a bit bare – one being the power station seen in the E3 showcase, the other being a military academy named after Sergeant Johnson. Bazaar, however, changed the map dynamics completely. Being located in the recovering streets of New Mombasa, the environment is immediately recognisable as the second mission in Halo 2, Metropolis, and is a great nostalgia hit for long-time fans.

Each team being spawned at opposite sides of the map, they then rush in and flood the market square in the middle. The building at the top of the market square has a balcony where a rocket launcher spawns in, and the opposite sides of the square have balconies where you can shoot across at the enemy team on the other, or shoot your enemies below. Around the alleys of New Mombasa, there are murals and posters of the Master Chief, Earth’s long-remembered but often-absent hero.

One of the biggest surprises I had on this map was disappearing inside a vent on the side of a building to escape enemy fire, only to fall down a shaft and burst through a grate at the bottom, landing in a room I had no idea was there. This type of environment interaction felt completely new to me. While some Halo multiplayer maps of the past have had parts of the environment you can shoot to fall on your opponents, or interact with to power up a shield, traversing the environment never felt as alive as it did in that moment. If the team at 343 Industries have put as much work into the other multiplayer maps as they have in Bazaar, then Halo Infinite could have the best maps of any Halo yet. To have a memorable moment or an event occur unexpectedly in a map like this was a moment of pure joy.

Source: Screen captures – Conor Smith

Boosted by my enjoyment of Bazaar, I thought I’d indulge myself in my battle pass rewards and make sure my Spartan was kitted out. The battle pass I unlocked worked identically to the season tiers in The Master Chief Collection, rewarding me with new pieces of armour and customisation the more I played. I also enjoyed buying pieces of armour and weapon skins off the store with in-game currency. While it looks like there is an option to buy the in-game currency with real money, I don’t think players will feel the need to at launch.

The customisation, for me, is where Halo gets you to invest in the game. I got an armour coating that wasn’t one of the base one-colour coatings that you start with, I changed my helmet to suit it and applied my new visor. I changed the colour of my AI companion to match, and I also decked out my weapons in different colours. I immediately wanted to get back into the game and see all my new gear in action. The customisation variety of Halo Reach is back, but bigger, and I’m so excited to make my Spartan my own at launch.

Source: Screen capture – Conor Smith

Dust and Echoes

The in-game music for the multiplayer matches suits its purpose perfectly. At the beginning of the match, a cinematic introduces your team, with music driving the energy as you’re about to jump in, and then the camera rolls into your perspective as you race into battle. The music cues during the match and nearing the end of the game fit the intensity and heat of battle, never sounding out of place.

However, the multiplayer menu music is another story. The non-intrusive dreamlike quality of the menu music is too soft to stand out or even be very noticeable. What you do notice, though, is when it regurgitates motifs and recognisable melodies from tracks of the previous Halo games. While I expect most people to disagree with me on this, when I heard the Halo 3 piano motif being used in a piece reminiscent of lo-fi YouTube music, I could only think of how nauseatingly needy it sounded. As if it needed to remix the best hits of Halo in unending fan service. You can listen to the menu music here.

I realise I might sound harsh, but I can’t help but remember how new and unique Halo Reach felt when the beta was released. The gameplay and visuals were so different, and the music was a whole new take on the sound of Halo – something completely fresh, an Eastern-inspired suite of melancholic war tracks. It is not composer Alex Bhore’s fault on this, but rather how Halo Infinite, in general, handles its lineage and legacy.

Source: Screen capture – Conor Smith

An Enclosed Ring

So far, the gameplay of Halo Infinite makes me excited to play the campaign this holiday. What will others think of Halo Infinite? I think they’ll love it. I think it’s bound to please many, possibly nearly all fans of Halo. I think it could end up being the best Halo game, or the definitive Halo experience if 343 Industries play their cards right. There’s a perfect marriage between the classic Halo gameplay of Halo 3 with its equipment and classic simplicity, while keeping with the slide, armour abilities and intensity of Halo 5. It feels like they’ve made a Halo game to please everyone. And here lies the problem.

I’m conflicted. I really, really enjoyed my time with Halo Infinite, but I was also slightly bored – it was nothing I hadn’t seen before. Halo Infinite currently feels too familiar, too comfortable, too safe. I can’t help thinking that it will be a “best hits” of the Halo franchise, rehashing every successful element from previous Halo games to make an assured pleaser. Now, here at Gaming Sandbox, we focus on small indie games, because we are passionate about highly creative, personal pieces of art. Halo Infinite will be just another Halo game, ultimately. The direction 343 Industries took with Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians was divisive, but bold. It felt new to play as Fireteam Osiris and Spartan Locke. Granted, it wasn’t executed well, but I had enjoyed the fresh direction Halo was paving for itself. Now, conforming to the legacy of its lineage, I can’t help but feel that Infinite is bound to be successful, and that’s … just not interesting.

I’m certain that almost all Halo fans will disagree with me, but the truth is I’m still holding out for a new ODST or Reach to come and discover the unexplored potential of the Halo universe. Perhaps I’ve just changed as a gamer, but I think I’ll hold out for an experience that feels far more personal, where the developers have made themselves vulnerable to scrutiny on the confidence of their vision before I sing the praises of Halo becoming just another quick fix for gamers looking for that old Halo feeling.

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Played on: Xbox Series X
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

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