It's been some time since Halo review scores sent a quarter of the entire internet into a frenzy. During the console wars of the 2000s and 2010s—imagine a Ken Burns documentary filter, here—Halo games were sacred to diehard Xbox players. These days, Halo is a source of nostalgic good times in the Master Chief Collection (and hey, it's back on PC), but it hardly feels like the juggernaut it once did.
Even if it turns out to be quite good, the slow build to today's Halo Infinite reveal (embedded above) hasn't recaptured that 2000s feeling, where Halo was this enormous, spectacular videogame beacon that set forums to war, which makes it easier to view it with clear eyes. Some of us remain optimistic that it'll be cool, though others on the PC Gamer team weren't convinced at all by what we saw today. Here are our immediate reactions to Halo Infinite's reveal. Feel free to rant with us in the comments.
Tyler Wilde, Executive Editor: Where should we start?
Tim Clark, Brand Director: Halo doesn't need a grappling hook. How about there? Or at least it wasn't clear from that footage why it needs one. Is it a traversal thing because the world is so open and vertical? Or is it just a glorified finisher move thing. Probably both, I guess. But in either case I still don't think I care to see Master Chief making like Reinhold Messner in power armor.
Steven Messner, Senior Reporter: A grappling hook just feels like the safest cliche in games these days. Verticality, ho!
Andy Chalk, News Lead: I've always thought that Halo was a mediocre, thoroughly dull shooter that only got traction because Xbox owners didn't have any better options, and nothing I see in this trailer moves the needle on that in the slightest. It’s 2003 with a grappling hook.
Wes Fenlon, Senior Editor: I feel compelled to point out that Andy has played hundreds of hours of Destiny, which, scientifically, is just Halo with space wizards. The Bungie shooter DNA is still in there! I'm seeing a longer campaign demo for Infinite which I hope manges to better convey why the scope is a big deal, here, because as much as I do love classic Halo, for a game five years in the making, I really expected to be wowed by something. But it just looked... fine?
Tim: Let the record state that I am the PC Gamer team's foremost Bungie apologist, but I have to say that Halo Infinite suffered quite a bit in comparison to Destiny 2: Beyond Light's appearance later in the showcase. 343 Industries' work on the series has always (and probably inevitably) felt like ersatz Halo to me, so much so that I bounced off Halo 5 completely. Whereas Beyond Light showcased an exciting bunch of new ice-themed powers that will let Destiny's guardians create their own platforms to hop around and other freeze/shatter combos, Halo Infinite feels like it's scrambling to recreate the original game's now 19 year-old DNA. Going after Combat Evolved so slavishly only emphasises the gap.
James Davenport, Features Producer: Y'all are missing The Point of Halo. Scale is a big deal with sandbox shooting like this, though the reveal didn't do a great job underlining the potential here, and to be fair, maybe I'm banking too much on possibility. My strongest memories of the series always go back to two distinct moments: the first time you peel out of the caverns in Halo CE and into the open air, picking away at a few enemy emplacements from whatever direction you like, and then Halo 3's huge Scarab tank set piece. An arena with several tiers, turrets, vehicles on the ground and in the air, soldiers and Combine running all over—and you gotta take down a massive quadrupedal tank in the middle of it all. A Halo game that throws multiple enemy factions into an open world? The grappling hook barely registers. I'm too preoccupied thinking about the potential here for hoarding vehicles and weapons, heavy recon and preparation, that familiar sandbox shooting (maybe 'bouncy castle shooting' is more apt) spread deeper and wider, nested more faithfully in physics and AI and player ingenuity than ever. It's Halo: Crysis. Hopefully, at least. I'm surprised we didn't get a more explicit demonstration of the scale and open-ended nature of Infinite here.
Wes: Maybe the issue is just that we've explored a Halo ring before, multiple times, that looked just like this, only not quite as pretty. I have the same feelings about the old Halo games, but by trying so hard to evoke Combat Evolved but at a bigger scale, Infinite just reminds me, yeah, I've already done this. A lot.
Tim: What did you make of the shooter fundamentals? I know I'm being the resident downer here, but it didn't really fizz for me. There seemed to be an almost slight delay between killing blow and death animation that robbed the gunplay of the crackle and pop I look for from a sci-fi shooter. By which I guess I mean, watching the footage, I wasn't excited to fire those weapons or punch those faces.
Andy: Here’s something else that’s always bothered me about Halo: Why are the front-line enemies all dwarf-sized penguin-looking things that sound like squeak toys when you shoot at them? And how can you feel good about doing that?
Tyler: They're bad guys, Andy. You shoot the bad guys. And I thought Infinite looked fun enough. I like bouncy castles, as James aptly describes Halo, and that basic loop of hopping around, shooting alien faces, and lunging in for melee finishers broadly appeals to me—like in the way that food seems good when you're hungry. I mean that in the nicest way I can. It looks edible and filling, if not remarkably seasoned, like I wouldn't make a reservation and drive an hour for it.
Steven: I think it's an area where Halo feels shackled to its lore. Part of what makes Doom 2016 so exciting is how it had license to throw out bits of Doom that don't work and reimagine the bits that do, and Halo Infinite clearly can't do that. So the shooting to me still looks good, but the surprise and fun of seeing the new weapons felt diminished because, fundamentally, they're just the same variations of the same guns we've been using in Halo for years. There was nothing about Infinite that felt subversive or surprising, and that's kind of a let down after so many years of waiting.
Andy: I couldn't even make it to the end of the first Halo so the lore angle is lost on me, but I think the gameplay here looks dated and cliched. I mean, it's just Halo, right? Shooters have have come a long way since Combat Evolved, but it really doesn't look like Infinite has. And there's really no reason for it. Doom is the obvious example of an old shooter resurrected the right way, but you could say the same of Wolfenstein, Shadow Warrior, and smart throwbacks like Dusk, Amid Evil, and Ion Fury. Loved 'em all. This trailer captures none of that.
James: I've been playing through the old Halo games on PC lately and Infinite's shooting looks like it'll feel close to the same, with a few adjustments to locomotion. I didn't play Halo 5, but it looks like Chief is moving a bit faster than usual, he's got something like a crouch slide, and that grappling hook will make getting around even faster. But it still looks slower than nearly every action shooter around today by comparison, though I think that's a mark of Halo's design. Combat is a slo-mo acrobatic dance where you test the tension between you and some spongy Brute's shield. It allows for more room to dance around projectiles and perfectly lob your own. You need the extra reaction time and you need that juicy shield when you're trying to perforate emplacements held by dozens of enemies.
Tyler: It does have a low beats-per-minute, deliberate feel to it, though of course we were seeing a carefully constructed demonstration. That perfect shield throw in the middle, for instance. I liked the idea that I'd do that in the game, although realistically I'd fuck up a lot more.
Steven: That is the fun of Halo, though. I find I'm always trying to pull off these crazy bold stunts that, at some point, start to go sideways. It's where the tension of the combat starts to get really thrilling—when rapidly oscillate between feeling like a super soldier and a vulnerable grunt. I hate to say it, but as someone that's read quite a few of the original Halo novels and likes the story elements of those games, what did everyone think of those cutscenes and long monologues?
The story and cinematics
Tyler: The opening cutscene didn't excite me, and that's arguably the most important scene. It sets up the game, helps hook the player. But just in terms of the scene composition and how a crash landing was conceptualized, I found it boring. Their ship takes two direct shots to the cockpit, and the result is that it shakes and turns. And then our pilot says, "I'm going to have to make an emergency landing" as he makes an emergency landing. Compare that to the opening of Mass Effect Andromeda. I didn't love Andromeda's scene either, but it rips the door off the side of a drop ship and sucks you into an alien atmosphere. Way cooler, even in a game that wasn't all that cool.
James: Yeah, as much as I want to point to the camp of early Halo, the melodramatic tenor it's taken on since Halo 4 and a glut of tie-in novels isn't in top form here either. What are the stakes? Where are we? The actual narrative content here felt completely superficial, arranged just so to evoke the original game and nothing but. Then we get a monologue from A Guy at the end who, because his hologram is red, I'm guessing is bad.
Steven: I completely agree. It's hard because what we saw was obviously such a limited preview and the actual game might have a killer story, but this presentation didn't inspire much hope. Halo feels like it has a serious problem of narrative power creep where we've gone from just trying to survive in Halo: Combat Evolved to saving the entire damn galaxy by the end of Halo 3. It was an epic and satisfying arc, and everything about Master Chief's journey since then just doesn't resonate. So when I see some Brute who is poised as some big, scary villain, it all just feels pretty toothless.
Is it too open?
Tyler: Did it also feel lonely to you? Maybe it's the scale, or just that I've been playing a lot of multiplayer games, but it had the feeling of an empty server to me, like the player was just killing time waiting for friends. I think it's a relatively new feeling which has been brought on by stuff like GTA Online—I just have a harder time accepting sandboxes that I'm all alone in these days. I'm surprised they didn't show off co-op. That's the way to play Halo, right?
Wes: You nailed something that felt off about that demonstration that I couldn't put my finger on. It really did feel like Master Chief was fighting through this arbitrary, artificial obstacle course of bad guys, which was never a problem in the old games' linear missions but feels totally out of place in a huge environment. Maybe in the final game this will be solved by musical cues in the right places and lots of human chatter over the radio, but when old Halo was solitary, it was brief and purposeful, and the way this slice of the sandbox was presented, it really missed that tone. Maybe it was just a poor demonstration?
James: It's the one time I wouldn't have been upset to see a poorly scripted co-op segment that Ubisoft normally excels at. I think a short glimpse of different environments or set pieces would've been enough to alleviate that, but all we got here were some forests and cliff sides.
Is Halo still a big deal?
Tyler: New Halo games used to be these big events. People have Halo tattoos. So why doesn't it feel that way anymore? Is that just the march of time? One factor is that we're passed the place where a good shooter defines a new console. Microsoft and Sony don't have to have their own Half-Life or Half-Life 2 anymore. And meanwhile, a tough guy in full-body armor doesn't land like it did in the 2000s, when Doomguy with a voice was somehow radical.
Steven: Totally. There's a reason why the newer Doom games are blatantly satire and that's because that macho lone wolf aesthetic just isn't that cool anymore. But who knows? A part of me wants to just believe this presentation was flawed (maybe coronavirus threw a wrench in what was the original reveal plan) and that the actual game will have all the things we want from a new Halo, but Infinite just left me feeling underwhelmed. Big, open worlds just aren't exciting to me like they were six or seven years ago.
Evan Lahti, Global EIC: As our colleague Nathan Grayson eloquently put on Twitter earlier today: "Halo big now (opens in new tab)." Without underestimating the effort it takes to make Big Halo, that's pretty much all we saw today. Infinite just looks like Borderlands to my eyes: bouncing between outposts that have about a dozen enemies in them, throwing grenades, dropping special abilities, and occasionally driving a Jeep. It won't be a terrible thing if that's the extent of the game I guess, but it's something that's existed for a decade.
Tyler: Yeah, we've seen big. We've seen huge. Now people are talking about how smaller but denser is the way to go. So Infinite is a bit late even in that respect. It remains true that people want to get invested in great characters, and Master Chief still has his devotees. It's been long enough, though, that I wonder if they should've ripped the whole thing apart and tried something wild, something very un-Halo, something that would've upset the fans a little. I really wonder if even the fans truly want to see another Master Chief story, deep in their hearts, or if they would've accepted a surprise.
Wes: It's funny, since Bungie basically did that back in 2004, making you play as The Arbiter for half of Halo 2. In the 16 years since, Halo hasn't done anything as narratively bold or interesting. I think Halo's always going to be chasing that past where it was king of the world, but I hope its multiplayer, at least, manages to stand out from other shooters and really establish itself on PC. If it isn't trying to be the biggest shooter around and just focuses on doing its own thing really well, it could still end up being one of the top FPS games on Steam. It's just never going to be CS:GO or Rainbow Six Siege.
James: I see all the concerns, I feel them too. This was a strange opening salvo for Infinite's reveal, one that tried to come across as a return to the series' roots. There was little to no sci-fi bullshit, which gets pretty difficult to untangle in the series from Halo 4 on. We didn't see too many wild abilities or weapons. It's all back to basics for Master Chief, just nested in a Halo ring twice the size of the last two games, whatever that means. The problem is, without explicit context for the renewed focus on scale, it's difficult to understand exactly how bigger spaces and more enemies make Halo's combat any better. But it's also easy to imagine all the ways it could. Halo still doesn't feel like any other shooter out there, and in my experience, no shooter has better emulated the density of action and unpredictable chaos a genuine sci-fi battlefield might entail. Halo, but bigger, might be exactly what we're getting and exactly what the series has needed for so long. My Chief armor is still half full.