“Not everyone likes every decision, not everyone likes every single part of the game, but that feeling that you’ve actually done something right, I think that’s something everyone on the team is feeling right now,” Halo Infinite associate director Paul Crocker tells me about the game’s long-awaited launch this week.
Master Chief’s latest adventure has walked a difficult road, having been subject to several high-profile delays, a constantly changing creative vision, and expectations that nobody on the team expected to meet. 6 years after the arrival of Guardians, Halo Infinite is now out in the wild, and I caught up with 343 Industries to talk about years of hard work, how the game changed since its delay, and where exactly the franchise could be going next.
“The [past few weeks] have been a mixture of exhilarating and terrifying,” Crocker says. “We’ve had previews, we’ve had feedback from everyone, but now that the reviews are out there and people are actually playing through the game, obviously everything is going to be mixed… but there’s just this relief that the decisions we’ve been making over the last ‘X’ amount of years have proven to be the right ones.”
Halo Infinite’s development has been clouded in secrecy, which is partly why fans were so afraid of how the campaign would end up. 343 Industries could have produced a spiritual successor to Combat Evolved that went down in history as a modern classic, or accidentally doomed the legacy it’s working with to ashes by completely missing the mark. To the relief of millions it seems the former is true, and it’s fun to hear the team ruminate on how it feels to reach this point.
“Halo is one of those games where once you get it into the hands of fans, they start doing crazy things that we never even thought of as developers,” character director Steve Dyck explains. “YouTube videos are already going up and we're seeing things that people are loving, sometimes they’re not loving, because of course they aren’t going to love every decision that we’ve made. But it’s been such a long development and a labour of love for Halo that we’re just excited to get it out there. The initial reviews and initial feedback has been really positive, which obviously helps the terrifying part be a little less terrifying.”
To many, Halo is a sacred icon that can’t be tampered with. The golden triangle that makes up its immaculate gunplay has been toyed with before, and fans responded in vocal uproar. 343 Industries is fully aware of the expectations it must meet, and how moving too far away from tradition could be a recipe for disaster. Luckily, it seems the team never allowed this pressure to shackle them from achieving innovation. “There’s a lot that we changed,” Dyck says. “There’s a lot of evolution in the campaign from the more open areas to the equipment, to just more freedom as far as player choice is concerned. Those were really big bets we were making, and we felt confident in them, but you don’t really know if [it works] until you get it in front of fresh eyes and get a fresh perspective on it.
“There was a lot of trepidation from people who were like, ‘Is this gonna be just like Far Cry? Is it just an open world where I’m just gonna have a whole bunch of small tasks that I need to do? Is it like a full blown open world kinda game?’ and we were kinda cagey around our answers. It’s not really open world, but you need to play it to understand that and now people have they’re like – ‘Oh I get it.’ There are open areas, there is more player choice, but you aren’t taking Master Chief on fetch quests or looking for spare tires to fix a Warthog. You’re doing things which feel Master Chiefy, for lack of a better way of putting it.”
Crocker echoes the sentiment of Dyck, while acknowledging that being a “fan” of Halo has changed so much over the years, and accommodating everyone has become an impossible task that 343 Industries has come to accept. “I think the most gratifying thing is, and we talk about this a lot internally, is that we’re a 20 year old franchise, and everyone on the team loves Halo. Not everyone loves the same Halo, and when you step outside the building, there are millions of people and all of them are fans of Halo. You can be a fan of Halo who has only played Halo Wars 2, you can be a fan who has only read the books, or you can be a fan who only just played Halo: CE for the first time yesterday – but you still enjoy Halo.
“We are constantly trying to create the emotional connection and response those games have given people, the effect they’ve had on people, but at the same time, making sure it stays new and fresh. It’s about making sure that we are making the game that we wanted to make in the first place, which is the spiritual reboot of Halo it is. It is a game for all fans, it is also an evolution of those ideas because it isn’t supposed to be a copy of the past.”
The last-minute delay of Halo Infinite mere weeks before the launch of Xbox Series X was a massive blow to the morale of 343 Industries, but a bitter reminder that the game wasn’t in a shape it was happy with, both due to external factors within the company itself and a broad scope that simply wasn’t very Halo. When taking into account shipping the game, extra time only boiled down to a handful of months, so it was a matter of refinement rather than expansion to turn this shooter into something to be proud of. Content was removed while further narrative context was added, but it seems the delay’s greatest benefit was one of introspection. “The biggest benefit to me was just the ability to play our own game,” Dyck says. “To assess what we had and fine tune the pieces that were really making it special and take them from good to great, which people expect from a franchise like Halo, right? They don’t want ‘eh, that’s good enough’ they want to have a really polished experience, and that's where we were able to get to with the extra time.”
The team had time to craft Halo Infinite into a game with a confident identity, one that wasn’t riding on the coattails of modern greats or being confined by its own legacy. “There’s a lot of games out there now, so it’s easy just to say this game is Halo meets whatever, it’s the classic elevator pitch, right? Like it’s Die Hard on a bus,” Cocker jokes. “But the thought for us was ‘It’s Halo, how are we going to make Halo?’ and what a modern interpretation of Halo looks like. That’s why we didn’t talk about adding a million things into the world because it doesn’t bother Master Chief. He doesn’t care, you don’t have to go on a fetch quest to find tires, you can ride a Warthog without them.
“There’s all these situations where we want to reinforce Chief as this unstoppable force of hope and power, and that is what affects the design. It’s this super soldier basis, the ‘green man, blue lady’ goal of if you squint at Halo, this is the thing you remember, and all of those things are what we focused our efforts on. It was never about being the biggest, but it was about being the best, and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. It’s about making the best Halo experience we could, about making the thing that really solidified that first Halo experience 20 years ago and bringing it up to date, and taking it into a new future as well.”
Halo Infinite’s smaller scale and surprising approach towards intimacy is arguably its greatest strength. Master Chief isn’t fighting to save the galaxy anymore, he awakens in a world where the war is already lost and all he can do is pick up the pieces. “Our goal was always to be a spiritual reboot, but to also continue stories from the past while taking us to a new future,” Cocker tells me of the campaign. “It’s about making a team you want to go on adventures with, and that sounds really simplistic, but you want people to have arcs, and you want to go on an adventure with them, but at the end of the day we want to surround you with characters you want to spend time with. At the same time, you play as a character with no face, no eyes, and in some games says barely anything while in others goes through a lot of emotional turmoil, so finding a balancing act between those so you can put yourself inside that character and understand you have a mission to do without forgetting about the past.
“The conscious decision was made to have all three characters in the Master Chief, Weapon, and Pilot triangle to know all the same information.They all have a secret of some description but they don’t know what’s going on. Therefore you as the player are on the same journey as them of the mystery of what happened to Cortana, the mystery of The Banished, and the mystery of Zeta Halo are all things you learn together at the same pace.”
343 Industries understands the baggage that comes with being a Halo fan in today’s world, and how the series has so many characters, nuggets of lore, and previous events that are best learned to stay on top of everything. Halo Infinite is a reset button of sorts, yet it never intends to leave hardcore followers behind. “It doesn’t require homework, it doesn’t actually expect you to know anything,” Crocker says. “One of our biggest problems when it comes to our 20 year history is that it comes with this baggage that you have to know things. But actually, if you go into [Infinite] cold and don’t, by the end of the game you will know everything there is to know about these characters. I mean that was the intention anyway and it would be worse if the first thing was ‘Well let me just tell you what’s happened over the past six months’ because at the end of the day, all the Chief wants to do is complete his mission and save humanity. That’s what makes his character so great, he’s an unstoppable force of hope and power. Everytime a marine sees him they feel like they’re going to be saved. When The Pilot reboots Chief he is filled with absolute joy, there is finally a saviour in town again, unfortunately it doesn’t stay that way for very long. It’s just that sense of like, ‘This is what Master Chief means to people.’”
I’m told that Halo Infinite is developed primarily for those who didn’t play Halo 4 or 5, while still ensuring it addresses major plot elements and wraps up events from The Reclaimer Trilogy. Like Microsoft’s wider ethos for gaming in the future, nobody is being left behind, and that even accounts for Halo as it embarks towards pastures that are currently unknown. Given the game has only been out for a handful of days I don’t intend to spoil anything here, but I had to ask Crocker and Dyck about what the future might hold in store, and where Chief, The Weapon, and The Pilot could venture in the years to come.
“Let me just tell you all of the specifics,” Crocker laughs. “Like I said, it’s about putting characters in a position where you want to go on adventures with them, and just having this kind of bright future. We obviously have ideas, we obviously have plans, but until Sunday night we didn’t even know if people had even liked what we’d made. I’ve talked to lots of people where I’m like, ‘Oh, it would be cool if this, it would be cool if that’ about three years ago, and some of those moments are in the game. We are going to spend some time absorbing feedback, seeing what worked well, and really just trying to be better at making Halo games for everyone. It’s really that simple, and at same time incredibly challenging and rewarding and scary and terrifying. We carry the weight of the past of the franchise and we have to carry the responsibility to do the best we can.”
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