When was ‘Halo’ ever about the graphics?

The intense backlash surrounding how the game looks has overshadowed the true core of the series

If you orbit the gaming news sphere, I’m sure you’ve come across its latest icon, a charming character affectionately known as Craig the Brute. Craig is an enemy alien from Halo Infinite, popularised by a split-second screenshot from last week’s campaign gameplay premiere.

Now, I’m all for having a laugh about Craig. He’s a funny looking fella and we could do with a bit of silliness right now. His popularity has stemmed from his accepting, peaceful expression as he takes a deadly pauldron to the chin from series protagonist Master Chief. It’s a good, wholesome jab at the old vertical slice, but these well-meaning japes have been somewhat tainted by a separate agenda.

In the days since the gameplay footage debuted, Craig has become Halo Infinite’s unofficial mascot and, unfortunately, a useful scapegoat for fans to complain about the game’s “lacklustre” reveal.

Halo Infinite
Halo Infinite. Credit: 343 Industries

Craig the Brute is the prime example many people point to when criticising Halo Infinite’s graphics. The footage Microsoft debuted during the stream certainly wasn’t the most technically groundbreaking display we’ve seen this year, sure, but I’m not sure it ever would have been anyway.

You see, Microsoft’s (admittedly confusing) strategy is to not force players into the next generation and focus on committing to its current audience, who may not be ready to lay down the cash to upgrade. This means that as much as Halo Infinite is a flagship launch title for the next-generation Xbox Series X, it’s also crucially a cross-gen game and needs to perform well on a base Xbox One from 2013.

I’m sure this has created a particularly petrifying state of development hell for 343 Industries, but once we get this into our heads we can understand why it isn’t the most stunning game to grace our screens.

Master Chief
Halo Infinite. Credit: 343 Industries

But beyond strategy and unrealistic expectations, I’ve been thinking more widely about the Halo series over the past few weeks. I’ve been playing through the Bungie quadrilogy with a friend, and one thing we’ve discussed at length in the wake of Infinite’s reveal was how much Halo has never been about providing revolutionary graphics.

When Halo 3 came out in 2007, I don’t remember comparing it to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Crysis or Bioshock, a trio of graphical benchmark games that came out in the same year. That’s because the actual core of Halo is not about being the belle of the ball, but a silly space opera story with gripping gameplay. That’s what kept me playing for hours more than any of the games listed above, not the way the brutes looked up close (and believe me, they weren’t much better-looking than Craig!)

In fact, the inspired character designs in this series have always dodged tropes and thrived because of it. The meaty neck brace of the Hunter has always made me ponder the alien lifeform within. The way Jackals scupper around the landscape with their thin, reptilian bodies has similarly stuck with me – it’s exciting and, most importantly, distinct. It fosters an atmosphere and an aesthetic that still holds up perfectly today. Revisiting the old Halo games has been an utter delight, and I’ve never once questioned how they look.

Halo 3
Halo 3. Credit: 343 Industries

Take this one cutscene from the end of Halo 2, in which a block-headed Sergeant Johnson rides 343 Guilty Spark down to a forerunner terminal, before calling him Tinkerbell and threatening the monitor’s life. This series is silly with a capital S, and it’s never been an issue until now. Since when did Halo get so serious that we can’t deal with a funny-looking brute called Craig?

I’d go as far to argue that in the years since Bungie’s departure from the series in 2010, such focus on fidelity from 343 Industries in games such as Halo 5: Guardians has actually hurt the series far more than it has helped. During our quadrilogy playthrough, I couldn’t bear to play Halo: Combat Evolved with 343’s “Anniversary” enhanced graphics turned on because they fundamentally ruin the old-school atmosphere with greebles, post-processing effects and unnecessary extra assets that taint the original vision.

Halo 2
Halo 2. Credit: 343 Studios

Halo Infinite is far more measured and minimalist in this regard. While it hasn’t got Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare’s meticulous models, it does harken back to that old Bungie style, and if 343 can carry that through the rest of the game, it’s got a winner.

When I was playing through Halo 2, I watched the cutscene where the tentacled Gravemind captures John-117 and The Arbiter. As Chief and Arby quipped their way out of imminent doom, I remarked at how much the characters looked and acted like action figures. Once I’d finished playing for the night, I went back and watched the Halo Infinite demo again in full to solidify how I felt about it, and let me tell you, it felt like I was opening an old toy box.

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