We Discuss 'Halo Infinite' and the False Promises of Open Worlds

Open world games can struggle with imbuing the “open” parts of their worlds with life. Having a world feel active and alive between set pieces is one of the tricker balancing acts these games attempt, especially for games where the primary verb is “shoot.” When engagement ranges get further and further apart, the design behind where and when to place enemies or allow them to engage the player in the open world becomes a messy question. We discuss the recent Xbox Games Studios announcement stream, what we’re excited about, and the different tacts between contained encounters and emergent gameplay on this episode of Waypoint Radio.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qj4wg3/we-discuss-halo-infinite-and-the-false-promises-of-open-worlds
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I’ve been thinking a lot about Halo Infinite lately, and basically how I just can’t see any multiplayer focused game going forward that can sustain itself as a $60 boxed thing. Like, the end goal of any multiplayer game for both the devs and the players is to establish and sustain a large player base. It allows the game to be supported financially, and it makes it easier for a given player to find quality matches. And so, the only way for these games to succeed nowadays is to lower the barrier of entry as much as possible. So in battle royales, they’re typically free to play, even when they’re from a more traditional series like Call of Duty. Or if you’re making Overwatch 2, you just give your existing customer base the game for free and maintain the player base you already have.

So that brings me to Halo Infinite, a game from a series that is built for co-op and competitive multiplayer. Sure, you can run through the campaign by yourself but that’s not really something the developers and fan base are focused on when they talk about Halo. So to me, making Halo this high-end systems only, bespoke experience for $60 like a Sony game seems antithetical to the whole damn point of what most people want from one of these games. Halo is not going to win any visual awards, even if the devs manage to clean it up from what was shown in the trailer. But it’s got 4 player split screen even on an old Xbox One. It’s got a low barrier to entry through Gamepass. And it’s got cross-play between xcloud, Xbox, and PC. I dunno, I’ll happily take “last gen” graphics if it means I get a robust and flexible platform to play Halo on for the next couple of years. It may not sell people on a Series X, but the trade off is more than worth it IMO.

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The fact that Dragon’s Dogma somehow doesn’t count as an open world seems like part of the problem to me? There may only be two cities in the whole game, but there are things to find out in the seamlessly-connected world map, some of which you’re guided to by quests and some of which you aren’t. It even has bandit camps. Is that… not what people mean when they say “open world”? What do people mean, then?

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DD is 100% an open world. Is it a good open world? That’s debatable. I come to open worlds for character and story that has a strong sense of place, and I feel that DD is weak in that regard. But it’s absolutely an open world.

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It is but it’s not much of one, the hub area around Gran Soren feels like a big box in the same sense as Ocarina of Time’s field does. I really wish game genre language wasn’t so reductive because there’s so much difference in focus between a Dragon’s Dogma versus an Assassin’s Creed Origins (and you can even draw huge differences between Origins and past AC games).

I can’t think of a franchise that’s treading water more than Halo right now, my theory is that the laser focus on the graphical quality is an easy cipher to mask the fanbase’s burnout with recent games. They were hoping for something different/more, but weren’t sure what that Something was, and that disappointment gets directed towards the game looking kind of flat and blocky.

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That point kind of reminds me of Ratchet and Clank. Still largely the same game it was (although the graphical fidelity is such that the 2016 game and movie used the same character models), but because there aren’t a whole lot of people (at the big box level of development) really digging into the 3D action platformer, R&C’s return feels more like a breath of fresh air. Halo, by contrast, is competing with a billion shooters. It’s a different shooter, but fundamentally still a shooter.

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I’d like to push back against the assertion made during this pod that the Halo aesthetic is outdated.

I DISAGREE.

The issue with how the Halo aesthetic looks in recent Halo games has more to do with how 343 has chosen to blend the distinct stylistic elements of the Bungie Halo games with the modern graphical techniques that have been making the rounds this generation (programmable shaders, reflective surfaces etc.)

Basically, the Halo games mix the aesthetics of military sci fi and science fantasy together in a way that really complemented the technical limitations of the 6th and 7th gens. Over the course of the Bungie games there’s a fairly linear progression from blocky, ethereal science fantasy architecture and alien technology designs to the more drab, realistic designs and models of ODST and Reach. The issue the 343 games have is they don’t have a clear aesthetic goal relative to the Bungie games. They have then gone and compensated for that by making it all shiny and shit and now we have Halo Infinite which looks like they microwaved Halo 4.

Halo 4 is certainly much more military science fiction in terms of how Master Chief looks and how much more detailed and recognisably militarised the human tech looks, but it also has glowing orange orbs and nice, clean alien architecture. It’s the best looking of the two 343 games. Halo 5 is a real mess in terms of its aesthetic priorities. It leans into science fantasy in terms of the locales and architecture, but it also wants to have gritty battle-scarred armour and real ass people faces.

People have said that if you modernised the Halo aesthetic you would get Destiny, and while they are wrong this isn’t a bad way to think about what could be done to make Halo look and feel contemporary to modern audiences. Bungie went hard on science fantasy in Destiny, drawing on classic sci fi art to create are really tremendous aesthetic (that they’ve gone ahead and watered down with videogame-ass shit imo). The opportunity for 343 is that they can also take the same route without looking like Destiny because Halo has a lot of recognisable symbols and imagery in its back catalogue.

Rather than try to split the difference between Reach’s basically Call-of-Duty-but-there-are-Elites-here look and CE’s sparse but striking architecture, they should try to make Halo look like it used to sound. Lean into the ethereal, other-worldly vibe that the old music used to communicate even when the rest of the game was an awkwardly bump-mapped mess of blurry textures and character models that looked like plasticine. They’ve even approached this with the Halo 5 reveal trailer. Remember when Master Chief was in the desert with a nice cloak and suddenly there was a big angular sandworm thing? Make your Halo game look like that!! You had it right there!!

What I’m trying to say is: 343 call me, I can consult.

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Maybe this a hot take but I actually liked how the game looked when I watched the trailer. It reminded me of Breath of the Wild (maybe that’s weird?) and the grappling hook or hookshot if you will added to that. The big exception was that the Big Bad Villain Guy at the end looked like absolute release 360 game dogshit, but otherwise I thought it was okay.

It’s worth noting, however that I’m not a big graphics guy. I use a base PS4 on a 720p TV and I’ve never owned anything approaching a gaming PC. And it seems like the audience Microsoft is trying to chase are the big graphics people, especially with all the talk about how powerful their machine is, and in that regard this indeed seems like a big miscalculation.

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Open world halo didn’t strike me as a bad idea because uh, that series has always trafficked (literal traffic, sometimes) in pseudo-open worlds, making you pass through the same open field twice, etc, so I can see it working for it. The part that made me roll my eyes was the grappling hook, because, oh my god, couldn’t think of a better sequel mechanic huh? The story looks uh, boring, also, lol.

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Remember the Halo 3 trailers? Because I feel like those trailers from 2007 are leaps beyond what 343 has done so far for Infinite.

The 2007 gameplay trailer as an example. You have the speech but instead of showing them on screen giving it Bungie understood what it is you’re wanting to see out of a Halo gameplay trailer and it’s actual gameplay. Not a minute long hold on a bad guy who no one really gives a damn about.

It just feels a lot more authentic where as the Infinite gameplay trailer feels sterilized. Just the way whoever is playing does not feel human at all because of how they’re moving the camera.

Also that believe trailer still looks great, but I’m kinda a sucker for dioramas

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God I miss being 16 and just full of hype for Halo 3. I think I practically ran home from school and my mate completely skipped going in after picking it up at midnight.

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I completely agree, and the real issue is, I don’t think it’s just limited to the marketing, either? Okay, so, it’s been said that the Infinite demo was meant to call back to and lean on people’s nostalgia for Halo Combat Evolved—specifically, the sequence where you crash land on the Halo for the first time, and are met with this wide, open valley to explore, right? Well, if you contrast the opening of that sequence in the original game:

With the opening cutscene of the demo:

You end up with the exact same issue as you highlight with the trailers: the Combat Evolved sequence, even with its aged graphics and simplistic animations, is absolutely full of this sense of grand sci-fi mystery and adventure. The Infinite sequence, by contrast, is incredibly claustrophobic and dull—we spend half of it staring at someone’s face, and the other half on some kind of Star Tours-esque VR rollercoaster.

I read somewhere that 343 are trying the whole God of War ‘no cuts’ approach, and based on both the demo, and the opening cutscene they showed in a trailer last year, I’m deeply worried that the every cutscene in the game is going to end up looking, well, claustrophobic and dull as a result.

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I’ve been chewing on what it was about the Xbox thing that didn’t sit with me as well as the PlayStation thing. I think it was that my expectations were all out of whack, and some larger thoughts about Game Pass. I think I was expecting Fable to be farther along than it was (given that Playground has been staffing up since 2018) and that they would have closed with a more bombastic Halo demo. It’s not that I’m against the CG game reveal trailer, but It’s harder to get excited about the “Hey, we’re working on this” video when it isn’t backstopped by much else.

Regarding Game Pass, it makes for a weird video when you’re expecting to be sold new hardware and Microsoft clearly doesn’t care if I buy a new box. Microsoft was clearly out to sell Game Pass subscriptions, but I’m always going to have a Game Pass subscription. And so I’m in a spot where I don’t have to buy anything and there’s not really anything to see.

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Idk if I’m reading into this wrong but I get the impression that Microsoft were so burned from the launch of the Xbone that they’ve went in the complete opposite direction this time around. Like they got (deservedly) roasted time and time again for shitty features like the always online and inability to lend games stuff that they’ve 180’d this time and are just not wanting to rock the boat at all and let people buy in at their own pace.

That’s some of it, but they’re really keen (as are many tech companies) on the idea of “services.” If they can get you on Game Pass, that’s however much a month they’re collecting from you directly (as opposed to picking up whatever percentage from a brick and mortar sale), per month. Plus, they get to sell ads and sell your data off to other people so they can show you ads.

I have a bad feeling about the long-term ramifications of how small to medium scale games are used as the filler between tentpole releases on services like Game Pass. You can see a similar pattern to the “I’ll just wait for a Steam sale” effect, and while there isn’t empirical data right now pointing to a devaluing of small games (Microsoft would love to show you a half-dozen accounts where GP didn’t affect Steam sales numbers), I can only see a net negative occurring over the long term as these services become standard fare.

Rewatching the XB1 reveals, it’s funny how much of a fatalistic tone they had about the games side of the platform versus going all-in on multimedia services and wide audience attention-grabbers. You almost can’t compare their strategies then and now because the Xbox of 2013 had totally different goals from what they do now (even if the end result of “sell boxes and services” is the same).

I had a similar feeling at one point, and I’m not ruling this out eventually being what happens, but I’ve also seen at least a few indie devs basically say that they got a significant growth in sales when they added their game to Game Pass. I think while lots of folks might use the service to just not have to buy games, it’s also exposing people to games that they might not have otherwise tried at all. And then those people actually just buy the game outright to keep. I know that some use it as essentially a paid demo service - try it there, and then they go buy it when they realize they’re into it (or something I’ve seen more frequently, try it on Game Pass, and then buy it on Steam, because people hate the Windows store that much).

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I don’t know, once Slay the Spire leaves I’ll probably buy it on Steam for the mod support there.

I guess it depends on how Microsoft is determining what to pay to get these games. I’ve definitely played games through game pass that I would otherwise not buy at all regardless of sales. Game Pass has to at a certain level be allowing some developers to take risks on making smaller or more experimental games than they otherwise could.

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I feel like me saying this is just asking for a Kotaku article being published tomorrow to completely make me wrong, but in the three years of Gamepass, has any independent dev come forward saying that it was a bad deal for them? Anything I’ve read has been praise for the service in increasing exposure and sales of their games. Now, I fully understand that NDAs are a thing and there may be whispers to the effect of Gamepass’s chilling effect, but at least from what I can tell it’s been a good deal so far for smaller studios.

I dunno, at least for me it’s hard to spend money on a game that I don’t know I’ll like. It’s mostly psychological, but just having a line item in my budget that’s already spent makes it a lot easier for me to just dive into a new game without expectations. I would prefer if I didn’t have to go through a huge megacorp to do it, but I want to play on console and this is the only way to have an indie sub service in that form (that I am aware of).

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I think Austin mentioned in one of the recent podcasts that they’ve been told that GamePass has been a good deal for the devs that have taken advantage of it, but I could be wrong. From what I remember it was the one service for which devs actually said anything about, I guess others (Apple Arcade, Origin Access, PS+, etc.) are covered by NDA or haven’t had much written about them?

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