Microsoft revealed its biggest decision of the year this week – delaying Halo Infinite to 2021 from its original launch alongside the Xbox Series X console. By moving the release date, Microsoft has lost the significant advantage of launching a new console alongside a Halo game – an act that would’ve deliberately mirrored the original Xbox’s debut in 2001.
The delay makes sense. I can’t imagine the practical complications of finishing a game of Halo’s scale when your workforce is at home during a global pandemic, but I bet it’s tough as hell. I hope this decision really is to the development team’s benefit in terms of well-being as Microsoft suggests it is.
While the decision is big, this is the year where I think a company can release a major console without a big exclusive and get away with it. I believe the PS5 is going to sell out anyway – a combination of enormous goodwill towards the PlayStation following the PS4’s success, launch demand and the fact that games consoles have been selling out for much of 2020 during a year of global lockdowns will make the PS5 a smash no matter what. A new Spider-Man game won’t hurt either.
Xbox One X, meanwhile, has Game Pass, backwards compatibility and the same third-party games that Sony will have. It now lacks a headline exclusive game, which is a major weakness. The chances are that demand for the Xbox Series X will be high anyway, however, especially in a holiday season where a second wave of coronavirus seems likely, and more of players’ time will be spent indoors.
If the PS5 sells out, in other words, the Xbox Series X should seem like a viable alternative to anyone who wants to play next-gen FIFA or Call of Duty later this year.
Besides, it’s more important that Microsoft gets Halo Infinite right than out at the same time as the Xbox Series X. Halo actually does have something to prove this time. When it arrives, it will have been more than five years since the last mainline entry in the Halo series. The world of online games has moved on immeasurably since then, even as 343 Industries has kept supporting Halo 5.
While there is an evergreen element to the older Halo games – hence the ongoing success of The Master Chief Collection on PC – it’s hard to tell if Halo means as much to newer players now. Since Halo 5, these are just some of the multiplayer games that have been fighting for people’s attention: Rainbow Six Siege, Fortnite, PUBG, Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone, Overwatch, Escape from Tarkov, and CS:GO going free-to-play.
Halo will re-enter a world with many competitors in the online multiplayer space, then. It still has something unique to offer as a first-person shooter, given Halo’s specific pace and feel compared to its competitors. But the confirmation of free multiplayer suggests that Microsoft is well aware it has to adapt to the modern environment of online games.
It’s also hard not to wonder if the mixed reaction to Halo Infinite’s reveal is part of the reason this call was made. It’s true that not everyone was blown away by Halo back in July – I thought it actually looked great in motion, but agree some of those screenshots were rough as hell. That’s not something a new Halo game needs hanging over it before launch.
You’ve probably seen the ‘Craig’ meme at this point, itself part of the discourse around how Halo Infinite looks. In the same spirit, the screenshot above was extensively mocked too, probably because it doesn’t capture everyone’s idea of what a next-gen console game should look like.
Halo Infinite still has a lot of potential, though. As the first open world entry in the series, it’s set in a traditionally Halo-like environment, which only a really grumpy fan could begrudge (especially since we’ve only seen a tiny bit of the world). The leaning towards classic enemy types like the Brutes, too, suggest a move away from the Promethean enemies of 343 Industries’ previous Halo games, that made the single-player offering feel a little too un-Halo.
Still, Halo’s risk is being too insular – pleasing old players is one thing, but finding new fans is its own challenge for a series that’s now 19 years old.
343 Industries and Microsoft have to get Halo Infinite right to demonstrate it’s still a superpower as a console-selling exclusive series. Xbox doesn’t actually have that many big series to fall back on – Halo, Gears of War and Forza are kind of it. Meanwhile, Sony has Uncharted, The Last of Us, Spider-Man, God of War, Horizon, Gran Turismo and now Ghost of Tsushima in its back pocket.
The launch of a console isn’t everything, though, which is worth keeping in mind as the discussion about Microsoft’s games line-up intensifies. Last generation, the PS4 launched with Knack and Killzone: Shadow Fall, and it still sold 100 million units in the long run. Microsoft can just about afford to sit out this holiday period without an exclusive – but Halo Infinite can’t be a miss, for the series’ sake.