You’d be hard-pressed to find many video games that are more influential than Halo: Combat Evolved, a launch title for the original Xbox that could serve as the dictionary definition of a “killer app.” There had been first-person shooter games on home consoles before — the N64’s Goldeneye, just to name one — but Halo was the one that really figured out how to do it right. With its innovative controls, impressive enemy AI, and seemingly wide open environments, there had never been anything like Halo… until, for a moment, everything was like Halo.
Although its first-person throne was originally challenged (if not outright usurped) by Call Of Duty, Halo and its sequels were the standard for first-person shooter excellence for years, due to their creative environments and easy-to-learn controls. That first game came out 20 years ago, though. Video games are a lot different now, largely because of Halo — so how is the series supposed to stay relevant in world where it already changed everything once?
Halo publisher Microsoft and developer 343 Industries seem to have some idea, because there’s a new entry — Halo Infinite — coming out on Xbox consoles at the end of the year. However, based on the early multiplayer previews some players have been let in on, it’s going to take some digging to see what their actual vision is.
On a basic mechanical level, these tightly controlled Halo Infinite tests play a lot like, well, Halo. That’s a good thing, since Halo has a very particular feel (a bit floaty, a bit weighty, and simple enough that anyone can understand the basics), but it doesn’t necessarily feel like there’s anything new going on.
There are decidedly “new” things to do, like a grappling hook that isn’t as useful as it should be, and some weapons that fall into familiar Halo archetypes (weak things that shoot fast and powerful things that shoot slow). You wouldn’t blow anyone’s mind if you had a time machine and showed this to a Halo fan twenty years ago, even if they might be impressed by the size of an Xbox Series X.
While the graphics certainly look nice, even in these previews, Halo multiplayer has never really depended on how things look. Plus, games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite have offered a strong argument in the last few years that multiplayer games don’t need to look all that impressive anyway, as long as the actual play grabs people.
Interestingly, one recent argument for how to modernise Halo actually comes from outside of Halo. This year, a multiplayer game called Splitgate from indie studio 1047 Games has lit up the proverbial charts based on an undeniably strong premise: “What if Halo had the portals from Portal?” The fact that it works at all is impressive, and the fact that it works really well is simply stunning.
Splitgate is literally what it says on the tin — Halo with portals — where each player in a multiplayer match is able to shoot their opponent and plant two-way portals on the walls that allow them to quickly go from one area of a map to another. You can also shoot through the portals, position portals in a way that exponentially increases your momentum so you move faster (a basic trick taught in Portal), and turn your portals into traps that will lead enemies into bottomless chasms.
It is definitely brilliant, even if it’s literally just mashing two game concepts together. Splitgate is easy to learn, since Halo’s shooting is just a small step up from Doom in terms of complexity, and every self-respecting video game fan should know how to think with portals at this point. That being said, the issue with the game — and the one that might keep it from ever reaching the lofty pantheons of shooter supremacy — might be that its skill ceiling is worryingly high.
Mastering the shooting is easy and mastering the portals is easy, but mastering both at the same time is hard. Mastering both while dealing with enemies who have already mastered both can be infuriatingly difficult. If the game sticks around, the good players are going to get better and new players might get scared off, and that’s a problem that Halo, as the great pick-up-and-play unifier of first-person shooters, should not have.
So if adding portals isn’t the way to do it, how do you modernise Halo? The key might be to look at the most popular online multiplayer game in the world: Fortnite. Now, to be clear: Halo doesn’t need to become Fortnite, with its battle royale mode, dances, and unnecessary building mechanic, because Halo is already good at what it does. The lesson Halo can learn from Fortnite, though, is that Fortnite is a game about self-expression.
In Fortnite, you can play as a cool military man, or you can play as a giant banana. Your character’s backpack can be a backpack, or it can be a little puppy that excitedly looks around while you shoot people. You can fly through the air with a parachute, or you can fly through the air with a cartoon spaceship that shoots a trail of rainbow tacos while your character wears a costume that you got from logging on during a one-night-only concert event. Your character in Fortnite is your character in Fortnite.
Halo has been approaching something similar from the very beginning, where you could choose what colour you wanted your character’s armour to be. Subsequent games introduced customisable armour and then individual armour components that could be customised, and Halo Infinite looks like it’s going to lean even harder in that direction now that the multiplayer component — like Fortnite — is going to be free-to-play. There will be custom armour pieces you can buy with real money and a premium Fortnite-style Battle Pass that will reward players with exclusive armour pieces and armour colours.
But no matter how hard 343 and Microsoft push the customisable armour, they should double back and push it even harder. The best way to make Halo relevant, and to incentivise players to choose it over Fortnite or Call Of Duty or Battlefield this year is to make it possible for your Halo character to look completely different from anyone else’s Halo character. Each match starts with an introduction of your team, where everyone does a cool little pose and shows off their armour, and the winning team gets to do another victory pose at the end. There’s no reason for them all to rock the same basic “soldier in generic armour” silhouette.
Because don’t get it wrong: Halo doesn’t need to be Splitgate, despite the obvious joys of that title. It needs to be Fortnite. Just not in the obvious way, with the storm closing in, and the unnecessary structures you can build, and the last-man-standing. The mechanics of Halo are as solid as ever and don’t need to imitate anything else; it’s the larger ecosystem around those mechanics that should evolve. Halo needs to expand on Fortnite’s completely ridiculous approach to self-expression, because letting players be themselves is where Halo can, appropriately enough, carve out some space for itself.