About 30 minutes into playing the Halo: Infinite online beta last week, I had a shocking, almost unbelievable realisation: I am quite good at the game. I’d just vaporised two enemy players with a grenade, which I’d thrown in a perfect arc to catch them together and totally unaware. The brutalist formality of the level design meant that I could come in at an acute angle, skirting their sightlines until the very last moment. I then took up the flag and ran it all the way back to our base, jumping and dodging around incoming fire. It was my third capture of the evening.
In modern shooter games such as Call of Duty: Warzone, Fortnite and Apex Legends, older players like me tend to get absolutely destroyed by teenagers. With Halo Infinite’s multiplayer mode, it’s the other way around. In early interviews around the game, developer 343 Industries talked about how they thought of Infinite as a spiritual reboot of and love letter to the first three Halo titles, which were released between 2001 and 2007. We’re playing on our turf now.
Old-school Halo’s design aim wasn’t realism or even variety: it was fun and feel. You were given a limited number of perfectly balanced weapons and abilities, so you didn’t have to worry about perks, stats, builds or loadouts. Instead, all the complexity came from the ways the weapons worked perfectly together with the game’s physics and environments to offer an array of emergent possibilities. The holy trinity of gun, grenade and melee actually provided a vast arsenal of attack options, just like the basic kick/punch moves did in many a quality old 2D fighting game.
This is something Halo Infinite’s combat perfectly recalls. All the complexity is systemic rather than inventorial. “Every player starts with the same loadout and there are no abilities on cooldown,” says game designer and Halo veteran Dan Pearce, my favourite person to speak to about shooter games. “Whatever tools you have access to, the other team has access to as well. There are no surprises, you don’t have to think about whether or not you’d have landed that kill if you’d had the same weapon attachments as your opponent.”
“So no matter how a match is going, there is always some new way you can think on your feet and maybe turn the tide. Obliterating someone who’s stolen your flag with a rocket launcher not only feels fair, but smart. Both you and the enemy had equal claim to that weapon, you were the one who decided to grab it first, and now that choice will inform rest of the match.”
This careful revisionism extends to the way players move through the world. In classic Halo multiplayer, the pacing comes down to where objectives are rather than how fast characters actually run and jump – something the series lost sight of in recent years. As Pearce explains, “Halo 5 radically expanded and sped up the movement options for the player … It was extremely dense with options in a way that I feel distracted from the core combat loop that Halo as a series is known for. Spartans in Halos 1 through 3 are a lot floatier than I think a lot of people remember. There is a slow deliberateness to the way players had to move in those earlier games that modern shooters don’t really demand.”
This, I think, is why older players are doing so well with Halo Infinite. It reignites the muscle memory of those first Halo games, the way their pacing wouldn’t let you rely purely on instinct and lightning-fast reaction speeds. Encounters tend to be more involved and more multifaceted than the bulletfests of Warzone and Apex Legends, where face-offs are over before you can blink.
Halo Infinite also recalls the classic competitive multiplayer map design from the early 2000s. The environments are totally artificial – they are not designed to resemble genuine locations, they are self-reflexive play spaces constructed to provide exciting, varied encounters. Excellent new maps such as Recharge, Streets and Bazaar are like shopping malls in the way they use levels, sightlines and differing ceiling heights to generate intrigue and keep people moving. These are the spaces I remember, not just from Halo, but from the earliest days of competitive first-person shooters: the likes of Unreal Tournament and Quake Arena.
“I cut my game design teeth back on Halo 3’s Forge mode back in the day,” says Pearce. “It was a very simple map editor, which for the most part gave players access to only very basic objects and geometry. Thousands of incredible maps came out of those tools because Halo is at its best when the maps are clean, simple and balanced.”
Importantly, most of the new features added to Halo infinite fit in perfectly with the classic play style – such as dynamo grenades, which create a damaging electric field and shut down passing vehicles. Meanwhile the grapple hook, inspired perhaps by Titanfall, is a whole new way to get around, allowing you to latch on to walls, vehicles and other players and then zoom over to them. It’s faster than the conventional Halo jump, yet the way it opens up emergent tactical possibilities is typical of classic Halo design. As Pearce says, “when you grapple on to an enemy vehicle and kick the driver out, stealing it for yourself, you cannot tell me that isn’t Halo right down to the marrow.”
Eventually, of course, the teenagers are going to catch on and learn the old ways of the Halo warriors. They’ll understand that in this universe, it’s not all about combining dozens of gun parts into highly personal weapon loadouts, obsessing over damage-per-second ratings and then turbo-jumping through a series of millisecond-long encounters in an absurd African village level. Halo is about what the players bring into the experience themselves with their experimentation, accuracy and forethought; it’s about how all the systems can come together in explosive 30-second fights.
These are the things I remember from thrilling all-night Halo 2 and Quake Arena sessions long, long ago. It is fun to be back there but also to be right here in the present, where the old quirks and visual limitations are ironed out, and where there are a lot more players to surprise with perfectly flung grenades.