Halo Infinite isn’t in the Top 10 of most-played Steam games. In fact, at a little more than six months old – and its fan-favourite multiplayer component entirely free-to-play and available on Steam – Halo Infinite doesn’t even breach the top 50 games that boast the highest concurrent player numbers. Or the top 100.
At the time of writing, Halo Infinite ranks as the 286th “top game” according to Steam Charts. It bounces up and down around the chart, of course – the highest I saw it hit yesterday was 255th, I think? – but in the last 30 days, its peak concurrent PC count hasn’t even breached 8000 players, even though, at its height last November, it boasted over a quarter of a million. According to the same tracker site, Infinite’s lacklustre peak concurrent count is down 50 percent compared to last month alone. And that’s a problem.
Before you start drafting your angry retort in the comments: yes, I know, concurrent player counts are far from the only metric we can use to measure a game’s success, especially when that game has for many, many years been a console exclusive. It is, however, perhaps a symptom of Halo Infinite’s chronic malaise and indicative of an unhappy player base.
You don’t have to know much about Halo or even like it to appreciate its legacy as one of the world’s most influential games. It’s long been at the forefront of FPS innovation, and birthed many of the user experience improvements modern shooters take for granted, including matchmaking and playlists. And while there’s a stubborn segment of the population that refuses to believe that a murder simulator shooter like Halo could offer much in terms of storytelling, few can deny the franchise has peerlessly fused meaty gunplay with compelling characters and a detailed world that we care about.
But when series creator Bungie bowed out with the (stunning) Halo Reach and development transferred to Microsoft first-party outfit 343 Industries, things seemed to change. Both Halo 4 and 5 – both of which I enjoyed enormously and collectively spent thousands of hours with – did broadly well enough with critics, but player reception was mixed and a tad less forgiving.
Infinite’s debut, on the other hand, was well-received by critics and fans alike. It boasts a striking open-world approach that redefines the series’ single-player experience. Its satisfying multiplayer beta was everything I expected from Halo MP. So why is it the only Halo game of the last decade that makes me want to uninstall and never come back?
The problem for me doesn’t lie in Infinite’s campaign (although I’m still missing co-op) but instead with its uneven multiplayer mode. While it’s offered entirely free-to-play for the first time in series history, players have been struggling with the same old things since it launched over six months ago – we’re knee-deep in Season 2. Yes, 343i has consistently acknowledged, apologised for, and promised to fix Infinite’s issues. Its patch notes and updates have been humble and candid. But it’s time to accept these aren’t teething problems anymore; they’re just problems. And many are now so glaringly apparent and horribly impactful that even the most ardent fans find it hard to overlook them.
I detailed, at length, my frustrations with Infinite’s second season earlier this year, and little has changed, which is itself a stunning indictment. I’m still jumping on console and squaring up with PC cheaters because there’s no way for me to opt-out of crossplay. Progression still feels punishingly slow at best, and just plain broken at worst. I’m finding myself repeatedly taking on the same (much higher) ranked players, perhaps because the server population is so sparse and the player base has shrunk. My challenges seem to love Last Spartan Standing, but I do not. Oh, and did I mention the cheating yet? I did? Okay. Well, I’m going to say it again because it’s still that bad.
All of that is frustrating. Throw in the long-term lag and desync issues, and it becomes painful, untenable… and painfully untenable.
And look, Spartan supersoldiers may have been deliberately engineered to smother empathetic responses, but I’m not. I sit in front of a computer writing all day, and even I struggled to acclimate to the abrupt change to full-time homeworking; I can’t imagine what it was like for a studio as big and complex as 343i to pivot to remote game development. We all know Infinite underwent a costly and time-sucking re-work partway through its development. Many of us believe that, despite numerous delays, it was released astonishingly undercooked.
Despite numerous patches and promises since then, multiplayer’s slow start has been compounded by a leaky pipeline of new things to do, and a great campaign truncated by missing features that aren’t coming quickly enough. I still love the rhythm and punch of its gunplay. I still love the grapple hook. The open world campaign was interesting, if not quite all-encompassingly compelling. But without more maps, fewer cheats, and better stability, those things aren’t enough. Not any more.
Six months on, it continues to feel like Infinite has been developed from the ground up with co-op and community in mind but released without the features needed to accomplish that. The shooter is dressed and presented as a games-as-a-service offering, but isn’t releasing new seasons or complementary limited-time events anywhere quickly enough. From the lengthy queues to join matches and the same old names popping up in lobbies, I now fear the game isn’t even able to retain its current player base, let alone make a dent in any of its service game competitors.
This, in turn, forges (pun not intended) another horribly vicious circle. I don’t want to play the campaign because I’ve finished it, there’s little else for me to do, and I still can’t replay missions I’ve already completed with a fellow Spartan at my side. And I don’t want to play MP because I’m routinely up against the same (often higher ranked) players, again and again, several of whom I suspect are cheating. And where’s the fun in that? I firmly believe that no premium game should lean heavily on user-generated content, but I’m even missing Forge; at least some community-designed environments would break up the monotony of the map rotation, even if 343i still – bafflingly – won’t let us choose what multiplayer modes we play in them.
On a less sour note, my friends at Digital Foundry have just roadtested Halo Infinite’s co-op campaign, albeit in beta, and call it “superb fun”, which sparks a desperate seed of hope in my battle-weary heart. The pivot to an open-world campaign undoubtedly brought additional – possibly even unforeseen – technological challenges for Infinite, and it’s to the studio’s credit that, seven months on, it didn’t throw up its hands in defeat but ploughed on.
As DF explains, it won’t be entirely seamless as there’ll be “certain points of no return” that will reset the positioning for all players, and may make some feel that “the game was artificially keeping us closer together,” but following that up with the words “it felt like a classic Halo co-op experience” is, quite frankly, all I care about. No, it’s not ideal that it’s taken this long for what has, until now anyway, been a key staple of the Halo formula, but I’m delighted it’s finally here. Better late than never and all that, eh?
Quite how long the rest of the missing content will take to arrive remains to be seen, of course… and I can’t quite shake the nagging fear that it all may be too little, too late to win back the good will of a fervent but understandably frustrated community.
This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how they’re getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.