Categories
Blog Blog Post

Ecology Review – Halo Infinite

After many years, a new installation of Halo has come upon the world, drawing in a high level of my curiosity for reasons I do not yet understand. As a game where the multiplayer and the shooter-ing are oft-examined, I and probably many other gamers have been waiting with bated breath for the answer to only one question, all this time, as it impended: how would 343 craft Halo’s classic boreal ecosystems using contemporary quality standards and rendering techniques?

There will not be spoilers of any kind in this review, but I have elected to undertake this assignment extremely seriously and with a fresh set of high standards, resulting in an exhaustive examination of the game’s entire map to ruin both mine and your own enjoyment of its painfully well-rendered environments. Let’s get at it.

Part 1: The Trees

While long-time game ecology enjoyers may have picked up early warning signs for this feature back in the 2020 demo, I came into Infinite with a fresh and ready palate for towering woody plants, the impressions of which are first and foremost when you meet Zeta Halo’s vocabulary of non-human life.

As a fan favorite and much-beloved feature of natural environments, I expected a great deal of care in the placement of forests, but I must say that I came away disappointed! In contrast with the ancient forests native to the watersheds 343 calls home, the distribution of trees in Infinite seems to be largely random, belying either a lack of knowledge or simply commitment for simulating or set-piecing a simulacrum of forest succession.

A rare selection of trees at about the highest density you can find them

Forests are the result of generations of microbes and lichens and eventually grasses working in tandem with animals and fungi to thrive, decay, and in so doing, build layers of soil that bury scapes of bare rock under a deep layer of hummus – the rich soils nutritious enough and moist enough to support the myriad beings of a mature ecosystem. This usually happens in waves, bathing landscapes in grasslands that build into forests – wide and deep and dense. Furthermore, the plants in a forest have complex relationships with each other, either via literally supporting each other with fungi-facilitated nutrient exchanges or with the cascading effects of pheromone exchanges and pollen on the wind.

At the very least, tall trees will block sunlight for younger trees (often the offspring of their own fallen pine cones), causing them them to grow slowly until the oldest generation eventually dies: trees in open sunlight tend to get bushy and wide, while those forced to grow slowly and bide their time grow taller as they grow older in order to compete for sunlight. This also creates the conditions necessary for the niches that result in diverse speciation. (Fun fact: in the Sequoia forests of California, tree species that are common elsewhere can be found growing up to 30 meters higher than normal due to competition with neighboring redwoods! This is also one of many reasons why giant tree species don’t reach their legendary heights in foreign habitats.)

The team at 343 seemed to understand that they should throw in a few smaller trees next to the big ones, but if the trees as tall and impressive as Infinite’s grew naturally, they would need a great deal of time and neighboring trees to do so, resulting in something significantly denser – perhaps leaving few patches of open grass at all in the absence of grazing animals (we will get to that later). The ring is, apparently, about 100 thousand years old, which is more than enough time for countless successions of old growth to peak and wane continuously.

As it stands (ha), adult trees are clumped together at arbitrary densities – often thrown in three to five at a time or in randomly denser pockets, usually surrounding the presumably recent installations of Banished infrastructure in dubious fashion. There are indications of landslides or washed-away soil that trees might not find appealing, but they don’t always particularly indicate that a forest once stood there or that a water source exists at the bottom. In more open fields, trees can sometimes be found younger and bushier, but rarely in notable proximity to their parents. I just can’t help but ponder all the veritable swathes of sunlight-kissed soil simply waiting to for a pine cone to grace them.

Where are your parents??

Overall, the impression isn’t extremely dire; there are plenty of times where the curtains of trees form pleasant silhouettes that frame the set-pieces well. That said – while I would like to see a full realization of trees and their relationships in just about any game I play – it’s the sparseness and largely monocultural speciation that distracts me the most, given the time this ring has been sitting in space undisturbed. There are plenty of techniques for rendering an incredible number of trees, but Infinite just doesn’t seem interested in more than a minimal selection – something especially apparent from any high vantage-point looking down.

There is some unspoken understanding that a thorough simulation of ecological succession isn’t on the menu for a shooter game (although Far Cry 5 seems to think so), but I would expect a lot more than this from any AAA game set entirely within a forested ecoregion. If the ring is being maintained this way, it would at least be interesting to see sentinels attending to forestry.

Part 2: The Meadows

Between the intermittent clustering of suspiciously towering trees, swathes of low-laying foliage sway in copious, curious beauty. I think it’s apt to call them meadows because the intermittent scatterings of grass are too static and sporadically tree-pocketed to be considered prairies – despite a few nice, sizeable fields – and their relation with the trees or waters seems totally non-existent. However, while the height and profile of the grass is very stock (the kind of Videogame Grass that looks like a lawn grew out), the selection of herbaceous plants is overall quite commendable, rendering a good diversity of flowering things that shift to shorter clovers and ferns in proximity to trees. Mushrooms can even be found near dead logs, and there are several species of alien-looking plants to spice things up.

On the technical side, one particular compliment I can make is that the yellow flowers leave an equivalent yellow splotch on the landscape texture, representing their color at a distance when the mesh fades out. While it isn’t present for every flower, it makes the LOD transition to nothingness of the brightest ones relatively less noticeable. However, there is a general problem where the large rocks burgeoning from the meadows that build into cliffs are simply covered with a green texture and no semblance of grass at all, contrasting roughly with the landscapes they pair with. This is probably due to the landscape material being solely responsible for populating the terrain with flora – something that can’t account for static meshes (evident by grass clipping into rocks) – but there are solutions to this that I wish the studio could have implemented.

Ecotones can be complicated, but this is just rough.

Overall, it’s standing in a meadow and breathing in the wind where the game’s natural world can really look its best. While so much open space doesn’t really make sense for the reasons elaborated above, you can elect not to think too hard about where the shrubs are and earn a genuinely nice display.


Part 3: The Topology

When it comes to landscaping, plants on their own can have a significant effect on the make-up and ecology of an environment, but there is an even tighter relationship between the lithosphere and the hydrosphere when it comes to the shape of a place. This is where the artificial origins of the ring become most relevant, and (sometimes), provides an array of imaginable answers to what would normally be quirks in the terrain’s design.

Before we dive in, one feature I quite like is that the day/night cycle plays light off of the other side of the ring, rotating in space. It’s something I always enjoyed watching at night, and the spin of the ring also explains the shortness of cycle, which works in clever harmony to be comfortable with open-world gameplay.

On its own, water is of primary importance to the history of a place, as it is both essentially the base determiner for what kinds of life a landscape can support and the most powerful force of erosion that a can meet it. The lack of ready water at higher elevations (thanks to gravity) requires plant life to either be capable of reaching deep to draw it up or need little to begin with. As it trickles and builds into creeks and streams, tumbling further down into rivers or occasional lakes, shrubs and trees begin to crowd around them, more easily able to survive with pools of water and moist soil ripe for making a home near. This flow carves through soils and wears away rocks, creating hills and valleys – tracing their lowest points.

A conspicuous giant puddle

All of that history in relation to the land is ignored in Halo Infinite. Almost none of the water sources display a significant source of plants nearby them, where open soil is directly available. Furthermore, sources of water are actually quite rare; lakes and oceans decorate the opposing interior of the ring, but even the wider basins in the playable map never pool deeper than a few inches. The results are somewhat disappointing; much of the stagnant water looks more like the flash result of recent rainfall than a permanent feature of the environment, and there are hardly ever any plants to take advantage of the moisture. I have to wonder if weather was a planned feature that had to be cut – something I can’t blame them for when the game had a difficult time getting shipped – as a lot of the water (and mud) could be explained by a dynamic phenomena where they maybe come and go.

The most impressive area I could find was a sort of bog, which showcases a deliciously thick smatterings of aquatic plants and frothy algae, complete with buzzing things and fireflies in the night; surrounded by trees and interesting plants, it made me wonder by who and when it was made, as the care put into it seemed to outmatch the neighboring areas. It is, of course, fed by a 10-foot wide waterfall sourced from a small and isolated bog high above it, ultimately kneecapping the high it delivered.

When it comes to flowing water, there are multiple streams – artfully placed – that have little relation to the heights of the land that they run through. They call to mind, however, how the forerunners might attempt to maintain water cycle; heads poke out from scattered sources on high-up mountainsides, where I would chase them down to the shattered edges and watch them topple into nothingness – into atmosphere? An inclusion of stream-side plants would be appreciated, but the banks are often rocky enough (if somewhat rough-looking) to excuse their absence – which is more than I can say about the ponds.

Overall, the effects can make up for the nonsensical placements – as the sun sets and rises, mist coils up from naked water, presumably feeding the blankets of fog that nestle between the trees and rocks for artful framing. These transitory periods – an actual natural dynamic instead of just a prop – were often the most exciting things to witness in the game, and I have to commend the thought put into this effect.

But the mountains they blanket – oh, the mountains! Never have I taken those things for granted – native as I am to the flatter part of the States – but Halo Infinite struggles to impress me, bashing rock upon giant rock into towering cliffs and peak-like shapes that seem to work best only well into the distance.

With the mountains, most of all, the artificial structure of the ring should be able to explain nonsensical (although artful) shapes, but instead of magnificent towers of metamorphic rock – craggy and naked and raw from the shattering of the ring – the myriad piles of stone feel often dull and difficult to look at, something especially egregious when shoving your face into them as you’re grappling up a cliff.

Something I saw a lot of in this game

At their best, the peaks or shelves catch sunlight perfectly in the distance, or stand tall and dark as the light falls behind them, or tumble into shattered stones spilling out onto a valley. Erosion too can sometimes be apparent, with evidence of sedimentation littering various slopes or the messy results of landslides.

Given a hundred thousand years have passed since the ring’s inception (a hilariously long time for the forests, but ultimately very short in geological terms), I can’t have expected much to change in terms of hydro erosion – but with neither a sound geological basis (or pretense of one) for their existence or the succession of lichens and forests from the ecosystem that’s lived here this whole time, there isn’t really much to hold visual interest upon closer inspection. As mentioned above, the unconvincing textures of dirt or grass only contrast with the terrain they build out of.

Giant, lumpy, un-geological cliffs are no stranger to video games (and I have read many a geologist lament this fact from game to game) but Infinite’s plethora of bare rock still disappoints me, and can often be the weakest-looking part of the game. In contrast with the beautiful hexagonal pillars – kissed brilliantly by the sunlight and reflections of the sky – the experience of grappling up stone can be both frustrating and occasionally ugly. At their worst, they highlight the limitations of dynamic lighting (a paradox I hold deep sympathy for), never looking quite dark enough in shadow in a way that lowers the overall contrast. But beyond being difficult to navigate, I would say that at their worst, too many areas can struggle to look like a natural formation at all, invoking a kit-bash dull-grey rock palette in the hands of developers rather than a mythical creation process from eons ago.

Real-time global illumination and other lighting tech isn’t just for show, but would probably greatly benefit the art direction in this game.

The overall effect isn’t terrible, but it is a unique intersection of the game’s technological weaknesses (and production workflows for games in general) playing poorly with the hyper-fidelity of the foliage or metallic structures. The final component of the topology, however, is something I do think is a bold visual design: the ubiquitous hexagonal structures that make up the literal foundation underneath all the stone. For something that drew actual criticism in the 2020 showing, they have made quite the glow-up, showcasing a real committal to giving the landscape a unique and alien identity. I noticed late into the game that geology itself is in relation these pillars somehow, apparent where the crust is cracked at the seams – giving the impression of some abstract tiling that conjures to mind unknown rules for how the ring operates or how it was built.

In the end, the geology and the waters – two inseparable forces that play off one another in planetary formation – are here both visually disappointing and entirely unrelated, which may upset geologists or the rare few people that care about their opinions. If the layout of these features were more naturalistic, 343 may have had more to work with in terms of visual interest, but the literal silhouettes and metallic underpinnings of the terrain are so unique that I think the mistakes were made up for by the effect.


Part 5: The Moving Things

Last – and, unfortunately, certainly least – we have the animal inhabitants of the ring that exclude the excruciatingly attended-to military combatants. I needn’t give an introduction to animals, as the behaviors and emergence of our kin is already obvious to humans, but one could imagine the complexity a game could lean into if it represented their needs and interests.

Of all the things I love and yearn for in games, animals and non-enemy AI are the dearest, so I hoped to see at least some of these things. For a moment – too brief – Infinite gets really close to impressing me: the landscapes are populated with intermittent flocks of birds, bright and colorful, or odd, blue little burrowing gophers. The lack of committal becomes really apparent within several hours, however, collapsing the fantasy more than anything else that this is a world interested in representing an alien environment.

I first met these things with genuine wonder and curiosity – taking my time to observe where I could find them and what they could do, but the mere handful of species becomes quickly repetitive and unnatural even without paying attention to them; each group spawns as a flock, disperses when you get close, and disappears. Needless to say, they do not search for food, interact with each other, sleep, or even persist for more than a minute. The impression can be good from a distance, where birds flock similarly with much less attention being drawn to them, but relegating the opportunity to showcase wildlife to mere ambience in a series reputed for its excellent AI – it feels like a missed opportunity. After caving into the temptation to shoot a gopher some hours in, I found that they merely disappear with a wet particle effect, cementing their intangibility in a way I found actually sad.

Even the Premium creatures – the ones that we want to end the behaviors of – offer different disappointments. The Banished patrols are basic, often mere meters long (and never over distances between outposts or camps), and many of them don’t move at all when you aren’t shooting at them. Grunts will sleep like they did in 2001, and nobody else seems to have any better ideas, so they just stand around. In combat, I can admire their diverse tactics and intelligence on the grounds that I usually would, but there are still limitations in where the scope of this game exceeds the old ones: if you shoot from afar, the smaller species will just stand and shoot back while the bigger ones take cover, sitting in exactly one place until they feel threatened to move a few feet. Rarely if you are on a difficult feature does the AI attempt to flank you or have interesting ways of countering it, and you can tell where the nav-mesh is denser and where it may not exist at all.

The marines? They are solid, but uninteresting, and struggle with the terrain in understandable but fix-able ways. The first ones I found were unable to follow me out of an area I shortly led them to, making a sorry send-off to my initially warm first-impression.

And yes, I liked all of these things at first; I’m sure many people feel the same way. My first reaction when I see creatures in games is genuine and novel, like a human instinct. It’s the curiosity of seeing something intelligent and wondering what it will do, a bandaid to the endless isolation games often drown in, or simply a creature you want to see live when so many are created just to die.

I can sit here and joke about the lack of ecological succession in a military adventure made by computer nerds, but I do feel uniquely disappointed at how AI is shafted time and time again, and here – in Halo Infinite, the big one – after the series has flirted with this concept for so long. The multiplayer bots are keen and human-like, so perhaps I was set up my expectations were too high from the start. Maybe the rest of the ecology would have to be holistic for AI programmers (or the staffers that hire them) to conceptualize non-combat at all.


Conclusion

While the level of fidelity on display in Halo Infinite is stellar, the game suffers from a lack of commitment to ecological principles in a way I would argue meaningfully holds it back.

If you start to imagine a very dense forest – dark and claustrophobic and pocketed with Banished patrols that could be around any corner – you could start to imagine a whole new level of visual and experiential leverage they could get out of the singular biome in the game, something which already showcases an impressive diversity of locales. Larger fields with distant bunkers, sprawling wetlands with alien infrastructure, twisting canyons traced by ancient watersheds and pocketed with anti-aircraft guns – the evidence of time and space baked into a terrain is nothing to take for granted, and would intersect meaningfully with Halo’s existing identity and this new opportunity for a long-range adventure, now split wide open with fast-travel, FOB’s, and air-support on demand. Why not make the terrain a real star? Think a little less hard about combat density and objective locations, just let the principles of natural landscapes guide your level design.

I can’t exactly blame 343, who were already pressed for time and decided to make Big Halo, but the world in Infinite feels like what a team makes with a lack of interest or perspective on what naturalistic landscapes can offer – beholden to a giant level instead of a giant world. That is by no means unusual for video games – I can’t think of a single example that does it well – but the structure of game landscapes is lagging noticeably behind the blistering fidelity of their character models and other assets. As it is, the game is vertical, dense, and consistently interesting, but in a very normal way where zones are smashed together in close proximity to try and keep things constantly interesting. I just want the world to breathe, to have some dignity.

Halo Infinite’s 2018 Announcement trailer

Maybe this would sting less if it weren’t for the 2018 engine trailer, which showcases natural landscapes, rain, deep oceans, and even stampeding space-rhinos and odd-looking deer. It addresses, funnily enough, everything I talked about in this article. The video’s own comments and other forum threads I’ve come across contain posters lamenting what didn’t get in the game, although they usually fixate on the various details instead of the whole – it had the impression of a real place.

While the world in Halo Infinite often looks good from a warthog’s point of view, it fits together in chunky, predictable ways and a small scale common to games of its ilk. I have enjoyed my time in it (and the actual videogame it facilitates), but the closer you peer into it, the emptier it is. Maybe that emptiness isn’t a lack of items to pick up or bad guys to shoot, but a lack of plants and animals that exist in complex, dynamic relationships – that exist in their own right to a degree you should respect and represent.

You don’t need to re-invent the universe to make a Halo level, but maybe we can learn from trying to imagine we can.


By Steven Zwahl

I'm a part-time software developer at Thunderhead Engineering and part-time indie game developer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s