There’s a moment during the final boss in Dark Souls III when the fight takes on a more personal tone for longtime fans. At this moment, the music from the original fight with Gwyn plays, specifically the piano notes, and players just lose it to these “three simple notes.” At this year’s E3, it took just one simple note and a shot of the Halo 2/Halo 3 styled Mjolnir armor to get me a little misty-eyed. The note was the very same that played as the intro to the Halo 3 announcement trailer, a trailer I consider to be one of the best trailers of all-time, if not the best. It was this familiar note combined with the familiar armor that almost immediately changed my opinion of the future of Halo.
Understanding that this is a teaser, there are enough scattered signs that this could be the return to form we’ve been waiting for from the recently stagnating but still iconic franchise. Most important is the new Slipspace engine, an engine built from the ground up for Halo. It looks fresh and new, better than the engine that was used to develop Halo 5 (again understanding that this is likely a best-case scenario teaser for an engine that is very likely still a work-in-progress). Despite its new look, there were a few moments very early on in the trailer that simply had a Halo look and feel. It’s hard to put into words, but I just know Halo when I see it. Some of it is the saturated color palette, some of it the lighting, some of it just looks like something you’d see in Halo. If nothing else, the fact that I could identify that this was Halo well before I even saw the crashed Pelican means they’re doing something right with the engine.
The fact that 343 has been spending the last several years building this engine means Microsoft as a whole is still investing heavily in their most iconic franchise. But why a brand new engine when Halo 5, despite being a low point for the franchise, looks pretty great as a whole? Well, this is likely the engine that will take us into the next generation that Phil Spencer hinted at at the end of the event when he mentioned the Xbox team was hard at work on new hardware. We must also consider the new Play-Anywhere initiative where all new Xbox games are hitting PC at the same time as their console counterparts. The last Halo game to reach the PC was Halo 2, and both of the original Xbox Halo games came to the platform. A big reason for this could be the shared x86 architecture.
Why does x86 sound familiar? It’s the architecture of Windows and both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The Xbox 360, on the other hand, used a PowerPC chip from IBM, the same architecture as the competing consoles from Sony and Nintendo. If these Halo games used an engine built specifically to take the most advantage of the 360, it could have made porting them to PC a costly prospect at a time where PC gaming wasn’t as mainstream as it is today (remember, that was around the time people were saying PC gaming was dead). We know Halo 3’s multiplayer came to PC in a free-to-play version for Russia and was later brought to the US by a team of modders, but that was taken down as Microsoft stated it was using active code from existing Halo games. Halo 5 likely uses an enhanced version of the Halo 4 engine, which was originally built for the 360. This Slipspace Engine is in all likelihood built to perform on both Xbox and PC. Plus, you can very clearly see a reference to Windows 10 on a smaller screen to the right of the primary at the Microsoft event so the game is confirmed to be coming to the platform.
Now, getting past the engine implications, we have something pretty serious to address: the change in art style back to Halo 2 and 3. This is a significant change for the team that insisted that the style they made for Halo 4 was to make the Chief feel more robust. Deep down, and as much as I actually do like the new style (though not as much as the original), I feel as though they knew this was where Halo started to lose its way. In all their attempts to put their stamp on the series, they got a little lost along the way. This feels like an attempt to do right by the long-time fans of the series, but there are other implications that come along with this.
Just changing the look of the armor doesn’t make Halo Infinite in line with the original trilogy. No, this change likely means more than a change in art direction. Forgive me for grasping at straws a bit here, but my firm belief is that 343 is going back to the drawing board, back to when every FPS wanted to be more like Halo, to rediscover what made the series special in the first place. I believe that this latest entry will bring back much of the look and feel of the original games, making it again stand out against all the other samey-feeling shooters. This is, however, a fine line to walk.
One thing 343 did do extremely well (on a base level) was incorporate the extended lore of the franchise into the games. At least through Halo 4, which had plenty of problems on its own, it was still the Chief’s story, but one that incorporated story elements outside of the games themselves. 343 took this concept too far with Halo 5 and ultimately made a game that let down fans of Halo’s story while alienating newcomers with a heaping helping of impenetrable lore that essentially meant you had to either read the books and comics or just stick with the multiplayer. Another success though was making Spartans feel more powerful. While many didn’t like all the Spartan abilities, they did well enough to make Spartans feel as powerful as the lore would lead you to believe. If they can find a balance between new and old in this regard it can help modernize the series without feeling as different as the likes of Halo 4 and 5.
My hope (and belief) is that Halo is prepared for something of a renaissance as we come to the conclusion of its latest trilogy and what could end up being the final chapter in the Master Chief’s story. I’m excited about the future of Halo, more excited than I have been since the release of Halo 5: Guardians. I know it’s all just a teaser and I know nothing is set in stone yet, but there’s enough here to be optimistic, and that’s good enough for me.