Halo Infinite Campaign – The Simple Home Cinema Review

Introduction

I have waited with this review because I didn’t want to bring down the overall great reception for the game. However, in my humble opinion, there are a lot of issues that need addressing that I wanted to tackle once the initial fanfare died off. I know my opinion is not that of most people who have played the game. Ultimately, I want to share it here with the hope that it will resonate with some people.

I have been a huge Halo fan ever since I got my original Xbox and got to play Halo on a state-of-the art Sony 16:9 flat large-format CRT and 5.1 surround sound. It was the first console to have enough horse-power to deliver – at the time – awe-inspiring 3D worlds and 5.1 surround sound.

It was the first game to use bump mapping and pixel shading at large scale and the effect was simply stunning. Apart from some dialogue being a bit low and hard to hear, the surround sound was just as immersive.

Microsoft was trying to re-capture the same awe for Halo Infinite as they managed to achieve for the first Halo. Have they succeeded?

Review Equipment

Console: Xbox Series X

Displays: Epson 6050 / 9400 projector, 65″ LG B8 OLED, Samsung 85″ Neo QLED QN85 – all calibrated.

Surround Sound: Marantz and Denon receivers configured with 7.4.2 configuration, Audyssey XT32, Dynamic EQ On, Reference Level Offset at 10 and Dynamic Volume both on and off. Dual SVS subs pre-equalised with Multi-Sub Optimiser. THX certified speakers in all positions.

Additionally: checked audio on Samsung sound bar and LG TV speakers both delivering Atmos.

Story – 5 / 5

The story is well thought out, well-driven and is easy to follow. I think it definitely speaks to the core audience. There were a lot of complaints from fans when Halo 5 came out as some didn’t like that the story and gameplay wasn’t 100% focused on Master Chief. I actually liked the Halo 5 story and overall package so I didn’t have any such issues.

Do I think the story is original and exciting, though? Erm, no. This is why I actually think that Microsoft and 343 industries need to stop putting all eggs in one basket and actually let the Halo world develop across multiple story lines with mainline and side-story games.

I think it was a bit of a mistake to leave so many years between mainline Halo games and completely abandon the Halo 5 engine. I for one would have liked a continuation of a story in vain with Halo 5 – with the same game engine while we were waiting for Halo Infinite. It might have also taken the pressure off delivery dates for Halo Infinite, which I think ultimately hurt the product.

Technology & Gameplay – 3.7 / 5

I have decided to cover technology and gameplay together as they are quite closely tied together in this case.

Microsoft has decided to venture into open world territory, so sub-missions can be tackled out of sequence when in the open world. Other missions that take place indoors are more akin to previous corridor-driven Halo missions. The new engine has been designed to allow for both types of content.

Developing a new engine from the ground up sounds great in practice but it is usually romanticised by managers and teams who have never done such a thing before. It all sounds great to start from scratch and get rid of old, hard-to-maintain code that has been hacked to bits and is difficult to work with.

However, when you embark on developing a new engine – whether it’s a game engine or any piece of software really – you spend an awful amount of time simply re-coding the basics just to get to the point of getting it to work. Innovation and new content is quite a few steps beyond that. I know because I have been there – when I was a lot more inexperienced in running software development projects.

This is exactly the mistake Bungie did with Halo 2. In the end they had to scrap the new engine and re-develop the content on a re-tooled version of the original Halo engine. And I think it seriously hurt Halo 2. I was less than impressed by the technical and artistic implementation of the visuals. In fact even now as an anniversary edition I think this heritage still shows.

I totally understand that 343 wanted to re-develop the Halo engine. I know it was long in the tooth and they wanted to innovate. The original Halo was awe-inspiring because of the story, the large and variety of environments and excellent gameplay. I think 343i succeeded in innovating when it comes to gameplay and core technologies.

However, I do feel like 343 has taken it a bit far. The open world is quite large and sometimes you traverse for ages just to get to your next mission objective on the map so that you can drive the story forward. It feels a bit like the pace of the game is off with fits, stops and starts. It is certainly not the polished action-driven experience Halo games have provided in the past.

Additionally, it feels like they ran out of time so tucked a lot more corridor-shooting at the end of the game than they may have originally planned. This again hurts pacing a little bit and the repetitive corridors remind you of Halo’s Library mission – we need content so just copy paste the same room and corridor 50x.

Visuals – 3.5 / 5

The main letdown of Halo Infinite are the visuals: both in terms of its technology and its lack of variety in the environments. 343 has set the bar incredibly high for themselves.

Both Halo 4 and Halo 5 were state of the art and in fact miraculous in terms of the amount of visual fidelity pressed out of the Xbox 360 and Xbox One hardware respectively. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised. The same people who designed Microsoft’s DirectX API were also re-tooling the Halo engine for improved visuals. The DirectX team developing Halo was a bit like Beethoven coming to fix your piano arrangement for your school play.

Halo 4 and Halo 5 were doing things we didn’t think was possible on those boxes. They certainly had the WOW factor. I don’t really feel that is the case with Halo Infinite. In fact I could mention 5 games off the top of my head that pushed visuals more on the new generation of consoles.

Add to this that the engine isn’t even using next-gen rendering techniques such as mesh shading and ray tracing and you do wonder if the investment into creating a brand new engine that is still using Xbox One level technology was worth it. I think this highlights the need for Microsoft to force studios to contribute to a common game engine – akin to Epic’s Unreal Engine or EA’s Frostbite – that is used across all products, as opposed to developing and maintaining a new game engine per studio. It is simply no longer a viable and smart way forward. I am actually surprised that 343 was given the go-ahead for such a project considering both the aims and the end result.

The game engine was developed around the idea of dynamic time of day, and therefor dynamic lighting. However, since the engine has to work across 2 generations of consoles – from Xbox One to the Xbox Series consoles – the technology they were able to implement is limited – and at times looks worse than Halo 5.

Additionally, the variety of visuals on display is incredibly limiting. We basically have two environments: the outdoor Halo open world and the corridors of the internal structures. The visuals are so limiting that there is hardly any colour variation even in the internal structures. It feels like a seriously missed opportunity to at least provide different colours while I’m spending hours roaming from room to room. However, what is there in terms of level of detail and architectural interest is pretty good. In fact in-door visuals are a strong point of Halo Infinite but I don’t consider them a massive lead forward compared to Halo 5.

However, as I said in the technology section, I think the open world is too large and hurts the pacing of the game. I wish they could have made the open world half its size and created more environments to roam. So while I like the concept, I think the execution has hurt the pacing, the visuals and the gameplay. I think if the open world aspect was dialled back a few notches, the rest could be re-focused better. It is a little bit like creating a game around the core idea for the engine: open world and dynamic time of day. However, if we were to try and create a remaster of the original Halo using this engine, we would likely struggle. Who would want to play the Halo mission at night or trying to get to the Truth and Reconciliation enemy ship in broad daylight instead of under the stars. It would make zero sense. How about spring instead of winter during Assault on the Control Room. Again, from a story-telling point of view, I find this new technology rather limited.

In terms of core graphics, since the engine is trying to drive massive environments, detail levels do suffer, both artistically and visually. While they definitely improved from the original alpha / beta demos, I still find the Halo 5 visuals for their time more impressive and I keep wondering what could have been, had Halo 5 been updated for the new console generation.

While contrast levels have improved since the original showing, they are still lacking at times.

Cut scenes are still jerky 4 months from launch and it is really taking away from the experience. Both Halo 4 and Halo 5 were technically extremely stable with not a single dropped frame in the cutscenes. This is a far cry here and lets the product quality down. The introductory movie sequence still has issues with incorrect black levels with blacks looking grey. It is such an easy thing to fix that seeing it is maddening.

New missions and chapters aren’t visually distinguished enough. In the original Halo for example, the sub-chapters would be shown by pulling the screen into extreme widescreen (black bars floating in from top and bottom) and the name of the sub-mission coming up on the screen usually followed by a musical cue or theme change. This is not done in Halo Infinite very well which is a pretty big miss and adds to the feeling that pacing and forward drive of the story is off.

Audio – 5 / 5

The audio is very impressive and may be the best out of all Halo games. Dialogue is well delivered, clear and with great impact across the whole audio spectrum, but the standout is the lower midrange and bass. Explosions have great low-end impact. Highs are delivered with excellent clarity. Surround sound steering is just as impressive with Atmos delivering a big uplift in precision and the feeling of being there.

The score is a throw-back to Halo:CE but brings in some new variations on the theme. However, I don’t feel it is a standout overall – certainly not like Halo:CE or Halo 2. In fact, I would have a hard time recalling the musical themes of Halo Infinite.

Conclusion – Overall 4 / 5

Ultimately, I think 343 has done the groundwork for innovation, but the balance of the campaign is off due to too much emphasis on massive environments and the open world technology. I think some of the old style missions need to be brought back while allowing the sandbox within each mission to gain from the new traversal options. But focusing each mission on massive open worlds while not providing enough variety between that and closed corridors have really hurt the game. I would like to see 343 going back to driving the story harder, tighter and snappier with more environment variety.

I also think that scaling some of the missions back could allow the hardware to be better utilised and innovate with graphics more. As it stands, image quality is not exactly a stand-out. There are games that deliver a lot more detail and more impressive visuals.

I would have liked to see Halo 6 as a continuation to Halo 5 while Halo Infinite was being developed. I still think that splitting the team and delivering mainline and side-story games would be a better way of developing the franchise. This way the games could also have slightly different visual styles with the side-story games focusing on sharper visuals and less open world aspects while the new mainline games being developed in Halo Infinite style – albeit with more focus on fitting technology to content rather than trying so hard to fit content around the new open world technology and ultimately getting the balance off.

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