The delay of “Halo Infinite” is a bust for Xbox in the short term, but it may also protect (or delay) Microsoft from further meme humiliation in the long run. This wasn’t just any “Halo” game. It was supposed to be a launch game, hoping to recapture the magic of the original console launch in 2001.
Microsoft’s 343 Studios announced Tuesday in a tweet that the previously expected launch title for Xbox Series X won’t ship this holiday. The release date is pushed back to sometime 2021. Chris Lee, the game’s director and studio head, cited the work-from-home pandemic quarantine for the delay. And the news was meant with disappointment but general understanding, and even some relief. The announcement also made a nod to the “well-being of our team," an acknowledgement of game industry labor issues that have come to light in recent years.
A trailer of the game debuted last month to a very mixed response, with widespread concerns about the presentation. Tech analysis outfit Digital Foundry produced an 18-minute analysis of the gameplay, explaining why the graphics appeared “flat” to so many people. It mostly comes down to the lighting, and the challenges that come with bringing the “Halo” series to the famously hard-to-develop open-world genre. The game expected to move Xbox units off the shelves didn’t set the world on fire. An especially funny-looking Brute gorilla character has become the most famous meme of the next-gen news cycle, whom fans have dubbed “Craig.”
If there’s one thing the Xbox brand sorely needs right now, it’s great exclusive games. And no, it doesn’t matter what Microsoft executives say about providing a service, which has become the company’s focus in gaming in recent years. The fact of the matter remains that many core gamers will still buy a console based on what games it has that others might not. It was the Xbox One’s most glaring weak point in the last console generation. That fact was made only more clear by Sony’s one-two punch this summer with “The Last of Us Part II” and “Ghost of Tsushima.”
Now it looks a lot like it did in the previous generation, with cross-generation titles like “Cyberpunk 2077” and “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” to lure in the early adopters. Once again, we enter another generation of consoles investing in the promise of a future delayed.
But it’s far too early to talk about a ruined console launch, particularly since Sony’s PlayStation 5 doesn’t exactly have a killer lineup, outside of “Spider-Man: Miles Morales,” which is still not confirmed to be a PlayStation 5 exclusive. It appears another game that’s gaining notoriety in memes, the looter slasher “Godfall,” is the only exclusive launch title for either console.
When you look back at the history of console launch titles, it hasn’t exactly been a nonstop hit parade of classics. The PlayStation 4 has sold more than 112 million consoles worldwide, but its launch lineup was a mixture of last-gen PlayStation 3 titles, “Angry Birds Star Wars,” a few indie titles like “Resogun,” “Warframe” (which wouldn’t be good until years later), and most famously, “Knack,” a game that’s lived on in memes. The Xbox One barely fared better, with a ho-hum brawler in “Ryse: Son of Rome,” a new exclusive “Dead Rising” sequel and “Killer Instinct,” a traditional fighting game.
The last time either of these two console manufacturers had a hit launch game was in 2001, with the first “Halo: Combat Evolved.” The game was so good and revolutionary, it practically saved Microsoft’s place in the gaming space.
Nintendo is the only manufacturer that has consistently prioritized and met launch deadlines for quality titles. The Nintendo Switch got a big boost with “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” in 2017. The game sold so well, at one point it sold more copies than consoles. The Wii also launched with another “Zelda” title. And of course, the Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo and original Nintendo machines launched with a game-changing Mario title.
The first two PlayStation consoles had lackluster launch lineups, but more than made up for it quickly in the months that followed release. The first PlayStation got a near-perfect arcade conversion of “Tekken,” while the PlayStation 2 sailed on the promise of big exclusive titles like the next “Metal Gear Solid” game.
But this only applies more intense pressure on 343 Studios to knock it out of the park. The next trailer for “Halo Infinite” needs to impress, not just on gameplay but in presentation. The studio also announced recently that the game’s multiplayer features would be free to play. Perfect. Bungie released a playable multiplayer beta for “Halo 3” half a year before its release on Xbox 360. It was a true beta, and Bungie used learnings from it to make what many consider to be the best game in the series. It’d be great for today’s “Halo” community, now forced to be patient, to similarly be able to provide feedback on a product they want to support.
It was a worrying sign that more of the work wasn’t completed before the pandemic hit. “Halo Infinite" was first announced two summers ago with a much different look. And last month’s showing, despite being the game’s first real appearance, left fans with little to chew on and discuss, outside of the disappointing graphical presentation.
A delay of “Halo Infinite” isn’t going to determine the Series X console’s legacy. This isn’t 2001, and the Xbox is an already established and popular brand adored by millions. Because of that, the delay probably does more to protect the Xbox brand from further humiliation from the meme makers. “Halo 5,” also by 343 Studios, is famous for its tremendous failure in the franchise, mostly derided by fans when it came to the single-player campaign at least. But it was also released in the middle of the Xbox One’s life. “Halo Infinite" no longer has the luxury of being known as just another entry. “Halo Infinite” will forever be known as probably the biggest delayed launch game ever.
Microsoft’s biggest concern right now is making sure “Halo Infinite” doesn’t keep that reputation.