Microsoft showed off eight minutes of gameplay behind Halo Infinite, the next big adventure for the science fiction series that stars Spartan supersoldier Master Chief. After the Xbox Games Showcase was over, I took part in a briefing where the press quizzed the developers of the game at Microsoft’s 343 Industries.
In our briefing, the developers narrated the gameplay demo of the “spiritual reboot,” which features Master Chief and his sidekick, the Pilot, crash landing on a Halo ring. Master Chief then goes off through the open world of the ring, which is a fully realized open world. The Spartan makes short work of enemies and demonstrates the range of combat options available to players, including a new Grappleshot, or grappling hook, which makes Master Chief far more maneuverable.
The briefing had three folks from Microsoft’s 343 Industries: Chris Lee, the studio head of Halo Infinite; Paul Crocker, the associate creative director of Halo Infinite; and Jerry Hook, the head of design for Halo Infinite. They said the campaign is several times larger than the last two campaigns of the previous Halo games combined. They also brought back a classic enemy, Brutes, and a faction dubbed The Banished from Halo Wars 2.
I participated in a group online interview with the developers. I’ve included all of the questions from a variety of journalists as well as the answers.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Question: How long is the campaign?
Paul Crocker: This game is more than twice the size of our previous two games combined. It’s a huge world for players to explore. It’s hard to put a time on it, because there’s so much to do. We’ve tried to make a game where, if you really just want to focus on the story, you can. If you want to focus on exploration, you can. There’s a lot to do and a lot to achieve in the game.
Question: Besides the campaign missions, what other activities will you be able to experience in the open world? How do you plan to reward players for exploring?
Crocker: There are lots of ways in which we reward players. We’re not going to talk about all of the details today, about the various elements that you can find. But we’ve built an open and expansive Halo game. We want players to explore it, to learn its secrets, to find new equipment, and to just feel what it’s like to step on a wondrous, mysterious new place. To get the feeling you had when you first played Halo: CE and you didn’t know what you were going to find. That’s what we’ve focused on trying to emotionally give the player.
Question: Can you talk about mission design and quest design? Most of the interactions in Halo are combat-focused. Will you be doing a lot of that in the open world? It seems like the grappling hook leaves the door open for things like platforming, and potentially puzzles.
Jerry Hook: Here’s what I hope every single player gets from the demo: The Halo world is large, and you as a player are able to use the tools that we’ve put in the sandbox to explore and to approach combat in your way. This will include a lot of things. Absolutely, combat is the core of what Halo is for all of our fans, but as Paul said, exploration and finding items in the game world, whether it be lore or other secrets, that’s there for you as a player.
Question: During the demo, we saw the assault rifle and plasma pistol. Will more classic weapons like the [battle rifle] BR, [designated marksman rifle, or sniper weapon] DMR, and carbine make a return in Infinite as well, or are you focused more on building a new sandbox of weapons? Also, will aiming down sights be part of the game? What controller button allows players to aim down sights?
Hook: Let me try to break that down. First off, let’s go to the classic weapons. Part of what we wanted to do with Halo Infinite — what we talked about with Chris in his blog, he mentioned a spiritual reboot. That was a central pillar for everything that we did. Whether it be the art style or the character behavior or the weapons. One thing we tried to do when we looked at all the weapons, specifically as a baseline for the classic behaviors, we wanted to make sure they all fit within the box of the entire game loop.
This meant that at times, when you would take — let’s use the old shotgun as an example. The old shotgun was in a power weapon slot. We wanted to make sure we could bring a shotgun back that allowed the shotgun behavior, but that it fit well within the sandbox itself. That’s critical for us to, one, respect the legacy weapons, and also it helped us make decisions. Do we just need a new weapon, and we bring that forward first? Versus continuing to leverage just the legacy weapons.
We believe we’ve made a very diverse sandbox for you. As you can tell, it’s not limited to weapons. A lot of the things you saw in there — shooting the power coils that exploded or grappling them to pull them to you and then using them as a weapon — the sandbox is a lot more than just the weapons that we have to play with.
Question: Is the demo running on a Series X?
Chris Lee: Yes. The demo gameplay footage was captured from a PC that was running at basically what represents the experience that players will have on an Xbox Series X.
[We’re emphasizing this to show you just what Lee is saying here — it’s running on a PC that’s got the specs of a Series X, but it’s not a Series X itself — Ed.]
Question: I’d love to hear more about the overworld design. Is it separate areas, or one continuous map? Does it vary from past Halo campaigns in structure? I see, for example, the upgrades tab on the map. Is that persistent throughout the game, like an RPG?
Crocker: The easiest way to describe it is a phrase we’ve used internally, thinking back to when you played Halo: Combat Evolved and then knocking down the walls that were there. You feel like you have this much more open experience. Obviously we have missions that push you to different places around the map, but we want to encourage exploration, encourage that sense of you being on this mysterious world for the first time and learning its secrets, which you’ll do over the course of the game and into the future.
Question: Most of what Master Chief does is epic in scope — saving the world, saving the universe. Does the open world permit for quieter moments? Can I help a little farmer in the ring countryside who just needs me to deal with some pesky animals? I love the idea of that, just a farmer around here somewhere hoeing his fields. Is there an opportunity for a larger palette, so things aren’t so serious all the time?
Crocker: That farmer question is amazing. I almost wish that we had a farmer in the game. Maybe next time we’ll have a pilot, a farmer. We’ll add more roles. Anyway, yes, quieter moments. One of our goals — I know I keep saying this, but the emotional connection to the past is very important. Part of the story and part of Master Chief’s journey through the game relies very much on those quieter moments, as does finding a new vista, finding a new place, trying to figure out what this Forerunner structure is and so on.
Going back to our spiritual reboot, it’s very much about — you’re discovering stuff that you don’t know the answers to as you’re exploring this ring. We’re not expecting everything to make total sense straightaway. We want you to live in this world and to understand more about the ring.
Question: Given the focus on design optimized for Series X, can you talk about how the experience on PC and Series X will compare to that on the Xbox One?
Lee: The foundation for everything we’re building on is our new Slipspace engine that we debuted in 2018. You can see the game playing on it today. Slipspace was built with the ambition of this game in mind, really moving to this open and expansive campaign, but also making sure that we could support running across the most platforms that we’ve ever supported for a Halo game. We’re going to support the Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC. We’ve been building those in parallel.
We’re going to make sure that we have an amazing experience for our fans. We’re leveraging things like the smart delivery system for Xbox, where it will pull the most optimal version for you and your device that you’re playing on. We’re making sure that we can dial in all the right aspects for each of our players, so that they have a good experience.
Question: How systems-driven is Infinite? Are we going to see the Covenant interact with the environment? Do they roam the world, or stay in one place and wait for you to come to them?
Hook: That’s phenomenal. One of the great things I think our players are going to love, and I’m definitely excited about it, is that our AI — you have a classic feel for the AI, how they move, how the Elites are sleek and dodgy, that’s all there. We’ve upped the intelligence of the AI. You’ll see them interact with the environment more.
You saw some of this in the demo, if you caught it, where a Brute will grab a suicide grunt and throw it at you. You’ll also see them reach for weapons or grab other items within the sandbox. You’re going to see that not only does the player get choices to use within the sandbox, within our gameplay, but the AI is going to get that same choice.
Question: Is the grappling hook expendable, or can you use it any time you want? Is there a cooldown? How is the grappling hook set up?
Hook: One of the great things you saw within the demo, the grapple shot is a part of the gameplay loop. When we look at equipment, part of what we try to do is we look at our missions all up and we see how the players will interact within a time frame. We want to make sure that the equipment completely fits within the loop that the player is having to do to defeat every puzzle. That means most of that equipment is on cooldowns.
As you go out into the world and find more equipment, each one will have a unique way in which they interact with combat and the world itself. It’ll be your choice as a player about how you want to use it, what upgrades you want to put on those pieces of equipment, and what that means to your gameplay.
Question: You mentioned that it’s 10 times the processing power per pixel. What consumes most of that power now?
Lee: This question has a lot of detail that we can’t get into easily, but we’re leveraging technologies like Xbox Velocity architecture to bring a ton of rich gameplay data and rendering data into our Slipspace engine. That’s higher fidelity textures, materials, and geometry in the world. We also have a new lighting system that powers lighting in this open, expansive environment. It’s much more complex than anything we’ve had in a Halo game previously. There’s a lot of systems that combine to get into doing a lot more processing for every pixel that we render, while also maintaining 60 frames per second and up to 4K resolution. We’re doing a lot more with both the power of the GPU and Xbox Series X, but also advanced rendering techniques that were brought in with the development of the Slipspace engine.
Question: Is there a small detail you can point to in today’s demo that maybe people didn’t notice? Something you’re especially proud of, something you think might be overlooked?
Hook: First and foremost, I hoped everyone noticed the space gophers. I definitely want to make sure that gets called out. But the main thing I want you to notice is how the player paused at the top of the hill as they looked down. That wasn’t just a shot for us. That was also the player looking at which way they wanted to go. That summarizes what we’re trying to capture for player choice and player gameplay.
It’s your choice. You want to zoom over the hill and ramp and go flying? Go do that. You want to get out of the Warthog and go run somewhere? You want to run down into the wetlands? Go do that. That, to me, is a big capture of what we’re trying to get for the feel and the emotion of players on the ring.
Lee: That’s a great one. Also, the space gophers were going to be one of my potential mentions here. They’re a big favorite of the team, the wildlife. But when you broaden that and you think about how the ring has been realized for players, we’ve done a lot in the world to bring it to life. We have the wildlife. The time of day will shift subtly throughout the demo that you’re watching, which is representative of our new time of day system that can span a great amount of time and give players this feeling of immersion on the ring that’s quite special. It’s something I think the demo shows well, but while you’re seeing Chief on his adventures you may not notice that.
Crocker: Yesterday we revealed vis ID, but if you look at that and put it side by side with what we’ve just shown, there are so many small details there that you can find and use to extrapolate what you may or may not be doing across this game. There are also elements like the markings on Escharum, all the things that we have on the side of his armor, which tell parts of his story. There’s just a lot in there. It’s hard to pick one small thing that we’re the most proud of.