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Monday, May 20, 2024

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State of the Game: Halo Infinite – these aren’t teething problems anymore


Halo Infinite

Halo Infinite isnt in the Top 10 of most-played Steam games. In fact, at a little more than six months old – and its fan-favourite multiplayer component entirely free-to-play and available on Steam – Halo Infinite doesnt even breach the top 50 games that boast the highest concurrent player numbers. Or the top 100.

At the time of writing, Halo Infinite ranks as the 286th “top game” according to Steam Charts. It bounces up and down around the chart, of course – the highest I saw it hit yesterday was 255th, I think? – but in the last 30 days, its peak concurrent PC count hasnt even breached 8000 players, even though, at its height last November, it boasted over a quarter of a million. According to the same tracker site, Infinites lacklustre peak concurrent count is down 50 percent compared to last month alone. And thats a problem.

Before you start drafting your angry retort in the comments: yes, I know, concurrent player counts are far from the only metric we can use to measure a games success, especially when that game has for many, many years been a console exclusive. It is, however, perhaps a symptom of Halo Infinites chronic malaise and indicative of an unhappy player base.


Watch on YouTube

Digital Foundry check out the Halo Infinite Campaign.

You dont have to know much about Halo or even like it to appreciate its legacy as one of the worlds most influential games. Its long been at the forefront of FPS innovation, and birthed many of the user experience improvements modern shooters take for granted, including matchmaking and playlists. And while theres a stubborn segment of the population that refuses to believe that a murder simulator shooter like Halo could offer much in terms of storytelling, few can deny the franchise has peerlessly fused meaty gunplay with compelling characters and a detailed world that we care about.

But when series creator Bungie bowed out with the (stunning) Halo Reach and development transferred to Microsoft first-party outfit 343 Industries, things seemed to change. Both Halo 4 and 5 – both of which I enjoyed enormously and collectively spent thousands of hours with – did broadly well enough with critics, but player reception was mixed and a tad less forgiving.

Infinites debut, on the other hand, was well-received by critics and fans alike. It boasts a striking open-world approach that redefines the series single-player experience. Its satisfying multiplayer beta was everything I expected from Halo MP. So why is it the only Halo game of the last decade that makes me want to uninstall and never come back?


Watch on YouTube

Ian and Aoife look at the Halo Infinite Campaign.

The problem for me doesnt lie in Infinites campaign (although Im still missing co-op) but instead with its uneven multiplayer mode. While its offered entirely free-to-play for the first time in series history, players have been struggling with the same old things since it launched over six months ago – were knee-deep in Season 2. Yes, 343i has consistently acknowledged, apologised for, and promised to fix Infinites issues. Its patch notes and updates have been humble and candid. But its time to accept these arent teething problems anymore; theyre just problems. And many are now so glaringly apparent and horribly impactful that even the most ardent fans find it hard to overlook them.

I detailed, at length, my frustrations with Infinites second season earlier this year, and little has changed, which is itself a stunning indictment. Im still jumping on console and squaring up with PC cheaters because theres no way for me to opt-out of crossplay. Progression still feels punishingly slow at best, and just plain broken at worst. Im finding myself repeatedly taking on the same (much higher) ranked players, perhaps because the server population is so sparse and the player base has shrunk. My challenges seem to love Last Spartan Standing, but I do not. Oh, and did I mention the cheating yet? I did? Okay. Well, Im going to say it again because its still that bad.

All of that is frustrating. Throw in the long-term lag and desync issues, and it becomes painful, untenable… and painfully untenable.

And look, Spartan supersoldiers may have been deliberately engineered to smother empathetic responses, but Im not. I sit in front of a computer writing all day, and even I struggled to acclimate to the abrupt change to full-time homeworking; I cant imagine what it was like for a studio as big and complex as 343i to pivot to remote game development. We all know Infinite underwent a costly and time-sucking re-work partway through its development. Many of us believe that, despite numerous delays, it was released astonishingly undercooked.


Halo Infinite
There are moments of real beauty here.

Despite numerous patches and promises since then, multiplayers slow start has been compounded by a leaky pipeline of new things to do, and a great campaign truncated by missing features that arent coming quickly enough. I still love the rhythm and punch of its gunplay. I still love the grapple hook. The open world campaign was interesting, if not quite all-encompassingly compelling. But without more maps, fewer cheats, and better stability, those things arent enough. Not any more.

Six months on, it continues to feel like Infinite has been developed from the ground up with co-op and community in mind but released without the features needed to accomplish that. The shooter is dressed and presented as a games-as-a-service offering, but isnt releasing new seasons or complementary limited-time events anywhere quickly enough. From the lengthy queues to join matches and the same old names popping up in lobbies, I now fear the game isnt even able to retain its current player base, let alone make a dent in any of its service game competitors.

This, in turn, forges (pun not intended) another horribly vicious circle. I dont want to play the campaign because Ive finished it, theres little else for me to do, and I still cant replay missions Ive already completed with a fellow Spartan at my side. And I dont want to play MP because Im routinely up against the same (often higher ranked) players, again and again, several of whom I suspect are cheating. And wheres the fun in that? I firmly believe that no premium game should lean heavily on user-generated content, but Im even missing Forge; at least some community-designed environments would break up the monotony of the map rotation, even if 343i still – bafflingly – wont let us choose what multiplayer modes we play in them.


Halo Infinite
Halo Infinite.

On a less sour note, my friends at Digital Foundry have just roadtested Halo Infinites co-op campaign, albeit in beta, and call it “superb fun”, which sparks a desperate seed of hope in my battle-weary heart. The pivot to an open-world campaign undoubtedly brought additional – possibly even unforeseen – technological challenges for Infinite, and its to the studios credit that, seven months on, it didnt throw up its hands in defeat but ploughed on.

As DF explains, it wont be entirely seamless as therell be “certain points of no return” that will reset the positioning for all players, and may make some feel that “the game was artificially keeping us closer together,” but following that up with the words “it felt like a classic Halo co-op experience” is, quite frankly, all I care about. No, its not ideal that its taken this long for what has, until now anyway, been a key staple of the Halo formula, but Im delighted its finally here. Better late than never and all that, eh?

Quite how long the rest of the missing content will take to arrive remains to be seen, of course… and I cant quite shake the nagging fear that it all may be too little, too late to win back the good will of a fervent but understandably frustrated community.


This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how theyre getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.


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