“Halo Infinite’s” broken multiplayer and “Starfield’s” delay are huge blows for Xbox

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It’s time to admit the truth: “Halo Infinite” needed more than a year’s delay.

Longtime Halo fans have understood this about “Infinite” since its December launch last year. Half a year later, it remains shockingly and sadly true. To this day, the game still lacks core features from previous Halo titles, most notably cooperative play for its story, the creative “Forge” mode and a broader multiplayer map pool.

Delaying “Infinite” to this year would have also solved Xbox’s latest problem: “Starfield,” the highly anticipated next game from Bethesda Game Studios, is delayed until 2023, the studio announced Thursday. This is a huge blow to the marketability of Xbox’s growing subscription-based Game Pass (think Netflix for games), which is meant to be supported by Xbox’s suite of first-party exclusive titles. Now, without “Starfield,” the service is mostly propped up by older games, quality indie titles and a half-finished “Halo Infinite.”

Halo developer 343 Studios is trying their best to make “Infinite” feature complete, and its second season, which launched early May, is a small step forward. But as a longtime player of the Halo series and someone who has tried to love the multiplayer live service of “Infinite,” it’s hard to ignore that the game is flawed at a fundamental level.

Here’s how “Infinite” remains a flawed live service: All player progression is tied to completing arbitrary challenges set by the developers. This season, there’s a fun new mode called “Last Spartan Standing,” a twist on the classic “Gun Game” mode of playing and being rewarded with increasingly powerful weaponry in that match. Yet for me to progress in the current limited time event and gain new rewards and cosmetic gear, I need to complete a challenge that requires me to hit other players in the back of the head 25 times. Reminder: The Halo series is a game about guns and shooting things. Asking players to punch others in the back of their head 25 times is counterintuitive to the entire premise of the game, the series, even the genre.

The developers keep promising with each update that they’ll fix challenges to make them more accessible. Yet at the launch of an update meant to last players through November, these counterintuitive challenges still appear. And 343 Studios insists that they are working on a progression system tied to metrics beyond challenges, but that the work is going to take a long time. That’s a tacit admission, to my ears at least, that they recognize centering the game’s multiplayer around a challenge system was the wrong move from the start.

I don’t know if delaying “Infinite” would’ve helped 343 Studios realize this earlier. It wasn’t until massive player backlash that the developers began to reconsider the system they built for the game. But even outside of the anxiety-inducing and frustrating challenges, the game is a shell of what it could be, and longtime Halo players understand this because they had meatier, more satisfying experiences in every other Halo game before “Infinite.”

I think I can make a strong case that “Halo Infinite” can be reasonably compared to “Cyberpunk 2077,” the 2020 game that saw many delays and became infamous for being one of the most disastrous big-budget video game launches in history. Yes that game was buggy in ways that “Halo Infinite” isn’t (for the most part). But the disappointment around “Cyberpunk 2077” goes beyond glitches. The game was sold to players as an immersive experience where one could reasonably “live” in its futuristic city, yet the final product was a standard, by-the-numbers open-world game a la Grand Theft Auto. The actual immersive, cyberpunk virtual reality that players dreamed of is not in the final product, and to realize it would require basically creating a new game from the ground up. Updates wouldn’t fix it.

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“Infinite” is a game that’s out now, that’s playable and can be fun. And yet, its live-service elements are a disappointment, because the game launched with a fundamental misunderstanding of how to engage players. “Fortnite” rewards players no matter what they do in any match, which encourages players to have a relaxing, comfortable time playing the game the way they want to. “Infinite” demands you play the game their way, otherwise you’re wasting your time and not progressing at all.

“Infinite” remains a fine time if you only expect to log on, play with friends and have a few laughs and not care about progression. But Xbox wanted “Infinite” to be a free-to-play, live-service game, which demands high levels of engagement at regular intervals to be successful. As it stands, “Infinite” isn’t a dead game, but it’s clear that it’s not going to attain the desired levels of player engagement — the likes enjoyed by “Call of Duty: Warzone,” which has a team of several thousands working on it every month, or “Fortnite.”

The delay of “Starfield” is a huge blow to Xbox’s strategic plan to grow its Game Pass service, especially since “Infinite” is becoming more of a niche arena shooter than the global blockbuster Microsoft hoped it would be. If “Infinite” launched with most of the core Halo features, especially the player-customizable Forge mode, this year Xbox could have at least offered a complete Halo experience on its service. Right now, it doesn’t have that, and it won’t have “Starfield” for another year.

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That’s not to say the Xbox Series consoles are a failure. Quite the opposite — they’re actually cutting into Sony’s console market share this generation, as the PlayStation 5 has struggled to meet demand thanks to the global chip shortage. Microsoft has sidestepped some of those issues to sell more consoles than it did in previous generations. That’s great news, and a sign of consumer confidence in the many acquisitions Microsoft has made to buttress its future offerings.

It’s also maybe a hopeful sign that Xbox is taking project management more seriously. Delaying “Starfield” can be read as a sign of Xbox learning that some games need more time; to that end, “Infinite” has been a sore, ongoing learning experience for them.

“Starfield” and “Halo Infinite” were meant to kick off a new era for the Xbox brand. But that era is now delayed, and there’s a lot of 2022 to wait through before anyone’s investment in Xbox, including Microsoft’s, starts to pay off. In the meantime, Xbox has little else but an incomplete, aggravating Halo experience to carry the console through 2022.