File picture: Pexels
File picture: Pexels

'Halo Infinite' doesn't look like a console seller - but feels like an exciting 'Halo' game

By The Washington Post Time of article published Jul 27, 2020

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Washington - "Halo Infinite" looks good or underwhelming depending on what you want from "Halo," a franchise so big it's almost "Star Wars" in terms of reach and passionate fan discourse.

Discussion over the graphics is par for the course for video games, particularly during a generational pivot like this year's, with "Halo Infinite" set to launch with the upcoming Xbox Series X this winter. Thursday's first real look at the game didn't give us too much else to go on anyway, but its graphics and tone displayed a strong lean in to the "spiritual reboot" angle. The color palette is bright and sunny. The Warthog looks like a Tonka truck. Shadows are muted and the alien armor looks like plastic. Like the box art teased earlier this week, it looks a lot like the first "Halo" game.

Immediately there's been a flood of memes making fun of the look and how it looks akin to Mega Bloks toys. That's understandable. It's a new generation for consoles, and this wasn't a technological showcase in the same way other games have been in the past. For example, PlayStation 3 launched with an unforgettable trailer of "Killzone 2" that still looks phenomenal by today's standards. Expectations are doubly high for "Halo Infinite." It's a "Halo" game. It's the game that pioneered first-person shooters for controllers and consoles, and its next two sequels were graphical showcases for the late-Gen original Xbox as well as the Xbox 360. Given that pedigree, "Halo Infinite" may have failed to impress in the same way as it has in the past.

There's a few things to remember about the original "Halo" games:

The series is rarely on the forefront of gaming graphics. Even "Halo 3," often considered to be the finest in the series, failed to impress on graphics with its "console beta" multiplayer back in 2007. "Halo" was rarely about looks and always about how good it feels to play.

The artificial intelligence in the 2001 game was advanced even compared to modern shooters. The enemy AI in the last two "Halo" games was famously and controversially tweaked down to adjust for higher graphical fidelity. Bungie's own modern-day "Destiny" series, while being semi-open in design, has dumber AI enemies than the first "Halo" game.

The games were really funny and goofy. The Grunts and their panicked reactions to player prowess always doubled as comedic relief. The first game's secret ending gave us a new cutscene of a tough sergeant and an Elite hugging it out.

"Halo" became the standard-bearer of video game design based on distinctive art and audio design. No two weapons or enemies looked or sounded the same, which empowers players to make snap decisions.

The game's trilogy story was always a very fun and melodramatic PG-13 Saturday morning cartoon, with little ambiguity as to who the good guys and bad guys are. Master Chief was never a compelling character, he's just the one-man army who's always ready with a one liner.

"Halo: Reach," the last made by series creator Bungie, started the shift toward more grit and realism in the graphics and storytelling, and 343 Industries leaned into that in the fourth and fifth sequels in the series. Microsoft also began to see the business potential in the "Halo" brand, and expanded the lore with novels, comic books and a handful of spinoff games.

Despite that effort, it's fair to say the series never quite reached the heights of success achieved by "Halo 3," which in turn was also a return to the first game's aesthetic. It's no surprise that 343 Industries is now mining past success for inspiration. Those were the games that started the whole craze in the first place. "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" adopted the tactic of returning to the roots of the very first "Zelda" game and rode it to wild success.

"This speaks to the spiritual reboot concept where we wanted to take learnings from 'Halo 4' and '5,′ and look across the entire history," said "Halo Infinite" creative director Chris Lee in an interview with reporters Thursday evening. "We wanted to embrace the most iconic elements and bring those forward. . . . The visual language harks back to those iconic looks we've had in 'Halo.' Master Chief's design really is a great example from the past."

Lee said the tone of the art style is meant to evoke "a world that's filled with hope and wonder and mystery." Namely, something that's brighter than the more complex but muted color palettes of the last three games.

That's not to say the demonstration ran in pristine form. Background elements still popped into visibility, a visual relic of open-world games that many hoped to leave in the past. Shading can also appear flat, and some elements indoors didn't even have shadows. And sure, the graphics especially fail to impress when compared against the PlayStation 4′s "The Last of Us Part II." Or even against the texture work of older "Halo" titles.

"Halo Infinite" promises to be an open world, boasting a map size larger than the campaigns of the last two games. Lee said the team wants to finally meet the promise made in the second level of the first "Halo" game, when Master Chief stepped out into this mysterious ring-shaped structure and had to explore. The battles were dynamic and frenetic, but the exploring was limited. "Halo Infinite" hopes to change that.

To have a large open-world game running at the promised 60 frames-per-second is a feat. Yes, "Red Dead Redemption 2" from 2018 looks immediately more impressive than "Halo Infinite." But Arthur Morgan isn't flinging himself across the map with a grappling hook as dozens of individual AI-fueled enemies make snap decisions to react to your attack, nor did it have rainbow-colored particle effects and all kinds of physics mayhem happening at the same time.

Paul Crocker, associate creative director on "Infinite," didn't specify whether AI was going to be tweaked back up, but promised it would remind us of battles of old, and that enemies would be able to move and react much like a real player would. While the Halo ringworld is promised to be "explorable," the developers weren't ready to say whether the entire map would be persistent with no loading times. The prospect of exploring a ringworld sounds exciting, as well as the possibility of varied climates.

It's also worth noting that the two of the current kings of the shooting space, "Fortnite" and "Overwatch," are basically 3-D animated cartoons as well. "Halo Infinite" seems to aim at a balance between realism and its fantasy roots.

That said, Microsoft should be taken to task for touting the Xbox Series X as the most powerful console to play games, all the while marketing a marquee game that isn't a visual showstopper. Perhaps that wasn't the main priority of 343 Industries, but if "Halo Infinite" does have other complex processes working under its hood, particularly with the artificial intelligence and engine physics, 343 Industries and Xbox failed to communicate that adequately. Letting us know what's happening behind the digital curtain would give us more news to chew on besides how it looks.

Other big takeaways: Helping you traverse a larger playing field (besides vehicles) is the return of a sprint function (controversial in the competitive "Halo" space) and the addition of a grappling hook, which will be optional for multiplayer. Millions of "Halo" fans play the series for its multiplayer mode, but none of that was on display Thursday. Developer 343 Industries said more will be revealed later.

"The Pilot," seen in the trailer, will be Master Chief's human pal for the adventure, and the audience surrogate for witnessing Chief's great feats of heroism. He has a name, and it's "not that important" in the grand scheme of the story, Crocker said, adding that he's "the most human character we've created for the franchise." He'll be an interesting, non-artificial stand-in for series staple Cortana, who had gone rampant and practically become omniscient by the end of the fifth sequel.

And 343 Industries has a long-term plan for "Infinite." While they hesitate to call it a "live service" title like "Fortnite," the developers are more than happy to call it a "platform" for future "Halo" content. That means the game still needs to look good and run well several years from now.

We need to see more. The jury is out on many things. And this isn't the first time 343 has had long-term "Halo" plans, only for much of it to collapse, like the "Spartan Ops" online episodes for the fourth sequel.

But 343 Industries has also been slowly but surely building up a lot of goodwill in the community, mostly in the form of "The Master Chief Collection," which compiles all the mainline games into what is currently the best package deal in gaming. Multiplayer communities for that and "Halo 5" have stayed healthy for years. But both games also underscore and support critics of the new game's graphics. If you want that classic "30 seconds of fun" formula the series is known for, the MCC offers smooth 60 frames gameplay with graphics that look exactly like the old games, because they are the old games.

The strongest assurance we have is that this is the "Halo" game that will remind us what the series brought to the table. It's a tall order. "Halo" wasn't just a revolutionary title for consoles and shooters. It once claimed the crown of having the most successful launch day in entertainment history. It was so successful, even Hollywood executives complained about losing business to it. Now games are decidedly bigger than Hollywood, and "Halo" has its descendants to contend with.

In the end, "Halo Infinite" doesn't look the part of a launch day system-seller, and it wasn't a showstopper for the Xbox Series X. But from what we saw, it at least looks like a pretty exciting "Halo" game.

The Washington Post

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