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Thursday, February 22, 2024

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Halo Infinite's Winter Update feels like the beginning of the fightback

Plenty has been said about the state of Halo Infinite – a game which launched to deserved praise on the strength of its campaign and multiplayer, but has since struggled to gain any real momentum. Our State of the Game from Vikki this summer goes into this in closer detail, but in short, despite being a brilliant return to form for the series, Halo Infinite has been left to dwindle through delayed updates and a clunky live service model that even Microsoft itself admitted it must recover from.

Almost a year after launch, that recovery starts here. Despite being pitched as a stopgap before the next full (and recently delayed) Season 3, the Winter Update is substantial, delivering long-awaited features and carefully considered tweaks alike. The headliner is the arrival of online campaign co-op, a series staple that should have been there at release.

Its belated implementation has the hallmarks of something thats been patched in after the fact. If you played Halo Infinite at launch, working out how to start a new playthrough while keeping your existing unlocks is far from clear. On a first attempt, our session started after 10 minutes of fumbling through menus and slightly panicked double checking of save states as we tried to line up our respective playthroughs intact.

Even when youre underway, mission replay – another new addition in the update – requires navigating with yet another confusing menu from the map screen, with no obvious sign of the mission order.

But once you get going, the faff is worth it. As good as the campaign was at launch, Halo isnt quite the same without a friend – and having multiple players charging into combat with grapple shoots and plasma coils flying is Halo at its chaotic best. For first timers, this is surely the best way to play, even if cancelled split-screen co-op would have been just as welcome, and Im excited to rediscover the whole thing over the coming weeks – especially with the lure of new achievements to sweeten the deal.

Another long-awaited feature is Forge, Halos level editing suite. This has launched in beta form, and it shows, with both creation and discovery features tricky to get your head around. Theres no in-game tutorials (official ones are provided on YouTube, and Im sure many community-made videos will join them) and the recommendation system is pretty poor, surfacing 343-made launch maps and random prefabs up first, forcing you to dig deeper through a trial-and-error combination of filters. Even then, expect to get problem with dedicated server errors when you find something that takes your fancy.

Theres some stunning early creations in Forge already.

Curation needs some work, then – it is a beta after all – and for now, I advise browsing dedicated communities on reddit or Twitter and bookmarking your favourites in a web browser. But like the campaign, once youre over the hump of setting up, its fun to get lost in its early creations. Various map remakes and scripting experiments currently hold the communitys focus – and even testing the most simple maps can shine thanks to Infinites well-honed armoury and suite of abilities.

My days of pouring hours into learning new creation tools are likely over, but as with the likes of Dreams, I can see myself popping back into Forge regularly to see what the community is up to. If you dont fancy that, the two most newly added multiplayer maps were created in Forge to show you whats possible. Meanwhile, a remake of Halo 3s The Pit is making a Forge-powered appearance before the years end – suggesting Forge could be an answer to Halo Infinites problems on the content front.

Watch on YouTube

An official Forge remake of a classic Halo 3 map will be coming before long.

Forge has potential, then, but for me, the most welcome multiplayer update is a quiet re-examination of rewards and progression. Halo Infinite is perhaps a textbook example of how intrusive live service systems can kill all momentum of a game post-launch, and though its clunky challenge swap and cosmetic unlock systems remain, there have been a number of simple but effective tweaks – such as giving XP for match performance and halving the challenges required to earn weekly winnings – that now better reward you for your time and effort.

My favourite change, however, is to the challenges themselves, making them more agnostic to work across more than one playlist. This has a remarkably big impact; Ive lost count over the past year I wanted to spend an evening honing my sweaty skills in Tactical Slayer, or to level up the battle pass with a friend, only to be forced to play modes we didnt enjoy, or in the most extreme, have to break up the party when our respective challenges werent aligning in order to make any progress.

The match rewards screen has seen a minor, but welcome, facelift to go along with its new bonuses.

This was all implemented with the earnest aim of increasing engagement across every mode, Im sure, but had extremely off-putting results in reality. Now, much of this should be a thing of the past. Ive still found myself needing a Challenge Swap from time to time, but challenges have better complemented what I was doing.

How challenges behave when events roll around will be the true test, as they were the biggest of Infinites offenders in funnelling you towards certain playlists against your will – but fingers crossed now, across any given week, you can enjoy Infinite for the otherwise satisfying – and moment-to-moment in the multiplayer space, Id argue unparalleled – shooter that it is.

The Winter Update comes with a free battle pass to tide you over until Season 3 – but its hard to get excited over unlocking more shoulder and knee pads for an armour set you probably wont use.

As mentioned, Winter Update is ultimately a stopgap, and work continues on grabbing your attention fully after a difficult first year. Theres already some promising other additions in the works; plans to surface Forge maps into a dedicated multiplayer playlist, ray tracing on PC and Season 3 ushering in a much-needed three-monthly update schedule starting in March among them, theres the feeling 343 is slowly turning things around.

Id love to see more, of course. Id argue a full cosmetic and progression revamp is needed, and my pie-in-the-sky request is more story content, as the addition of co-op will only keep you going for so long – the move to an open world campaign feels made for it, after all. Until then, if youre hoping to recapture the excitement experienced at Halo Infinites launch, theres more than enough here to reignite that spark.

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