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How the ‘Halo Infinite’ campaign changed during the year-long delay

(The Washington Post illustration; 343 Industries)
7 min

In August 2020, Xbox announced the bad news: “Halo Infinite,” the killer app for the new Xbox Series consoles and the publisher’s Game Pass online subscription service, was going to be delayed to 2021.

This decision came after the first gameplay reveal failed to impress players with its surprisingly flat visuals and storytelling. Shortly afterward, Joseph Staten, who wrote the series when he worked for its original developer, Bungie, called up his friend Bonnie Ross, general manager for 343 Industries, Microsoft’s in-house Halo studio that made “Halo Infinite.” Staten’s casual offer to help the “Halo Infinite” team quickly became official, and he returned to the Halo franchise to help steer the project, primarily its single-player campaign, to a better place. The result? “Halo Infinite’s” campaign now feels like an expansion of Halo’s most universally adored campaigns, the same gameplay fans love about the series just at a larger scale.

The following story is drawn from conversations between Staten and The Post, as well as interviews with 343 published by IGN, detailing some of the changes made to the campaign in the year and a half since its delay.

‘Halo Infinite’ returns to the series’ original roots, and its original writer

The original vision for “Halo Infinite,” even before Staten’s involvement, already featured a personal, intimate story about Master Chief, with open-world gameplay that called back to the best parts of the franchise’s revolutionary first game. Staten said his first days working on “Halo Infinite” involved just playing through the campaign the team originally designed, as much of it was already playable a year ago.

That first game featured memorable levels like “The Silent Cartographer” and “Assault on the Control Room,” maps filled with stranded Marine forces from the United Nations Space Command. “But when I first played [‘Infinite’], there weren’t very many Marines in the experience at all,” Staten said. “You could load them into a vehicle, and when you unloaded them from a vehicle, they were tethered to the vehicle, so they didn’t move with you in the environment. And the result was the world felt kind of lonely.”

In the earliest installments, players could fight alongside stranded and struggling Marines in scripted sequences, and it was possible to have these troops survive through the entire mission. In fact, players sometimes turned this into a self-imposed challenge, expanding the story to include a cast of characters along with Master Chief.

“It’s that classic feel of, ‘I’m going to get my Marines, I give them all the good weapons, and then I’ll load up a bunch of them like an angry porcupine with rocket launchers into a Warthog and slam into a base, and they’re going to get out and follow me,’ ” Staten said. “We did a lot of work to make sure that wherever you go, Marines will follow you.”

Staten also said the development team scattered more Marines across the world. Some will need rescue; others might simply be manning outposts.

The ‘Halo Infinite’ campaign map is basically one huge, excellent Halo level

Another area of focus was “Infinite’s” boss fights, Staten said, a feature the series has struggled with in the past. Some Halo games didn’t have any bosses. “Halo 5: Guardians,” also made by 343 Industries, had an infamously bad approach to these encounters: There was one type of boss fight repeated several times across the entire game. “Halo Infinite” will have several unique fights in its story and in the open world.

“We wanted to make sure that the boss fights that we had in the game were really, really impactful,” Staten said. “And we spent more time developing those characters through cinematics and presentation and just their behaviors in the fights.”

You can see this in the game’s first open-world boss fight against a named Elite lieutenant in charge of a tower of torture, Chak’lok. As the player ascends and battles through the tower in search of a distress beacon, Chak’lok will taunt the player through the loudspeakers, adding weight and flavor to your mission.

Chak’lok has a life meter, like a classic video game boss, and his invisibility camouflage will encourage players to use the threat sensor equipment to find his location.

Teaching players to use equipment, a gameplay mechanic that has its roots in Spartan abilities from Bungie’s last Halo game, 2010′s “Halo Reach,” was another big element the team focused on as they polished “Infinite” for release. One such piece of equipment, the grappling hook, is the star of the show, featured not just in the game’s marketing and trailers but also in the in-game cutscenes.

Master Chief begins the game with the grappling hook as a piece of equipment, giving the player a few hours to experiment with it in the opening, lower-pressure levels. Later, the player discovers the threat sensor equipment just before the fight with Chak’lok, which doubles as a tutorial on learning to use the equipment to find enemy threats, whether they’re behind walls or hidden in camouflage.

In a way, these moments in the campaign act as a tutorial for equipment use in “Halo Infinite’s" multiplayer.

“We wanted to make sure people understood how to use equipment, and that there was a progression system where they could really learn and have more fun over time,” Staten said.

Staten told IGN in an hour-long interview that these three aspects — the liveliness of the world, boss fights and equipment use — were among 10 “epics," the team’s internal jargon for gameplay priorities, that were strengthened in his time at 343.

“Equipment like the grapple shot was the big addition to the Halo sandbox,” Staten told IGN. “It really is the fourth leg of the three-legged stool of grenades, melee and weapons. Grapple shot really is that fourth leg of the stool.”

When Staten began at 343 Industries, he said he helped make the case to Microsoft decision-makers that the game needed to be delayed.

“The conversation really was, ‘Let’s pause and figure out what we really need to do here,’ ” Staten told IGN’s executive editor Ryan McCaffrey. It didn’t take long to determine that the campaign simply needed more time. “Even though there were costs associated with it, it was 100 percent a player-first decision, and I’m so proud of the studio and Xbox making that decision and I was there to help push the ball."

Much of the past year was spent optimizing the game to run on lower-end PC setups, as well as on the aging Xbox One hardware, Staten told The Post. The reality is that many players do not own either a high-end gaming PC or the Xbox Series X or S consoles, which remain difficult to find in stock even now, one year after their initial launch.

“In fact, it’s the majority of our audience,” Staten said. “I’m looking at my desk and I’ve got an Xbox One dev kit and a low spec PC. That’s how I play because I want to put myself in the customer’s shoes.”

In the end, Staten said the team focused on the idea that Halo games are fundamentally about “making the player feel like the most powerful actor in this rich physical simulation.”

“You are this one-man wrecking machine, but at the same time we don’t want to make it feel easy,” Staten said. “We want to make it feel like the odds are stacked against you, and it’s only through your good choices and skill that you’re able to fight your way through. That’s always been part of the DNA of Halo.”