Halo Infinite has been in the works for a long time. So long that 343 Industry campaign associate creative director Paul Crocker and character director Steve Dyck joke that they sometimes forget when some parts of their work came to be. "I can't remember how time works anymore," Crocker joked at the start of our conversation.
That's partly because the COVID-19 pandemic has categorically fudged with everyone's sense of time, and probably because of the long, tumultuous journey Halo Infinite went through in development. It makes even trying to remember the ins and outs of a feature like the Grappleshot--Halo's new traversal tool to help players move through the series' first-ever open world--kind of a challenge.
Temporal fuzziness aside, Crocker and Dyck are still proud of what the Infinite team accomplished with the Grappleshot. It's a tool that makes protagonist John-117 (mostly known by his rank, Master Chief) more maneuverable without compromising his super soldier sensibilities. Halo players are still meant to flow in and out of combat against their alien enemies with an eye on what gun loadouts they have available.
But the zipping around, and being able to catapult the Chief to any point on the map--it just works. There's no explanation for why the Chief got such a device installed on his armor, but as soon as the adventure on Zeta Halo begins, it feels like a natural evolution for Halo's longtime hero. The definition of Master Chief's core power fantasy was at the center of the Grappleshot's development--and the many, many iterations it went through.
Powerful from the jump
343 Industries divides its developers into different groups in order to support the Halo franchise's balance of multiplayer and single-player content. 343 has developers working on the campaign team, the multiplayer team, and the sandbox team.
The sandbox team, Crocker and Dyck explained sits between the campaign and multiplayer teams. That team had been developing the Grappleshot as a tool for Halo Infinite's multiplayer mode, where players can equip different upgrades that might help them dominate their opponents. Versions of these multiplayer abilities first appeared in Halo Reach, but have evolved with each game since.
At some unspecified point (about four-and-a-half years ago, by Dyck's recollection) the campaign team began to realize it was a natural tool for their work as well. But Crocker did say that from the jump, it was clear how powerful the upgrade would be and how it would impact the campaign team's work. When the grappling hook is at its most functional, players can leverage it to go anywhere in the game world they want--and 343 had to make sure there was something there waiting for them.
Dyck explained that the team had a "come to Jesus" moment about six months into working with the Grappleshot, where they had to commit to designing an open world where the device could interact with every object. Before that point, it was "a bit divisive" because it did "change the kind of game we were going to make."
Was that change worth it? It's easy to say "yes" now, it was a bolder thing to say "yes" at that moment in development.
What followed that moment was a bit of interesting design nuance. The Grappleshot would be in Halo Infinite, and it would have a high power and skill ceiling. But how powerful would it be when players first obtain it? What gating was needed to make it feel "good" across a whole campaign?
Other game abilities might start off with a low or moderate amount of power that grows explosive by the game's finale--a player dropping into a Battle Royale title starts with "nothing," and weapons obtained only rise to their fullest potential if the player invests time into upgrading them by endgame. The Grappleshot starts off as a very powerful and useful upgrade. Only a moderate amount of gating stands between the player and its maximum use. That gating only includes a few upgrades to the Grappleshot's cooldown, and mostly serves to add more enemy damage.
"The majority of those conversations [about traversal restrictions] ended up being like 'no, that's okay. Let the player get up there.'"
Crocker and Dyck said that at all levels, they kept coming back to the fact that the Grappleshot needed to be powerful. In meetings where team members reviewed potential unusual spots that the player could access with the Grappleshot, it was more often necessary to permit players to get to those areas, rather than eliminate them or nudge them out of the player's way. "The majority of those conversations ended up being like 'no, that's okay. Let the player get up there,'" said Dyck.
He said that unless a grapple point crashed the game, threw the the player out of the environment volume, or moved the player past a progress gate they weren't supposed to clear yet, it stayed.
It's not fair to say that the Grappleshot is the only tool that lets players "go anywhere" in Halo Infinite. The array of vehicles--some of which can fly--also help players navigate into weird nooks and crannies of Zeta Halo. Crocker noted that the Grappleshot's uniqueness was that it allowed players to "dominate the mid-tier" of verticality across campaign and multiplayer.
He explained that in Halo's broad design history, combat was divided between a very low ground level and a very high sky level. Halo's "bowls" have often been large enough to accommodate Banshees, Hornets, and other flying vehicles, which opened up other opportunities for long-range combat. With the Grappleshot, there's now an ability to navigate the space in between those two extremes without searching for a vehicle or long-range weapon (players can eventually unlock the Wasp aircraft in Halo Infinite to explore the world from sky level).
That means some encounters can be designed with the knowledge that players can more easily close the gap--and if you've played Infinite, you might already know that closing said gap can just open up more problems for the Master Chief. (Get to a higher ledge to punch one sniper? Cool, there's three other snipers on the cliffs above you.)
This is where Crocker and Dyck began to wax poetic on what it means to "be" Master Chief, and how it influenced design tweaks to the Grappleshot over time. In Halo's fiction, Master Chief is a super soldier's super soldier. A clever bit of narrative design in the game's opening cutscenes highlights what makes him so impressive: he's not just a good shot, he's adaptive. He can start a mission with a pistol and a single bullet, and work that into an escalating series of events that ends with the destruction of a capital ship.
So when players control the Chief, that ability to adapt and react becomes part of the super soldier fantasy. If players can grapple themselves into weird spaces and find a batch of enemies they weren't ready for? "Why would we stop them doing that?" Crocker asked rhetorically. "You don't want anything to make you feel weak."
That even drills down into how the laws of physics work on Zeta Halo. The Grappleshot works slightly differently from real-world grappling hooks in that it the relative physics of the 1,000-lb. Master Chief and his environment don't determine how things move.
The Grappleshot (blessedly) operates on the following logic: if the player grapples onto terrain, an enemy, or a vehicle, the Chief moves toward it. If it grapples onto a weapon or an object the Chief can hold, it reels it in towards the player.
That doesn't get really weird until you grapple onto a 250-lb. Grunt and realize in the real world, it would be the tiny screeching alien who goes airborne (Crocker objected to my calling the Grunts "tiny" in our conversation, pointing out that Unggoy are fairly large compared to the average human).
Dyck humoring my line of questioning about realistic physics in a video game explained that there was wisdom in this wackiness. "The simple answer to that question is [that] we looked at the grapple as a mode of traversal," he said. "So we wanted it to be consistent."
Clarity in Halo Infinite's chaotic battlefields has always been important, which meant when players hit that grapple button, they needed a good idea what would happen when it connected. Differentiating the reaction based on what enemy happened to jump in the Grappleshot's way could have been problematic.
Speaking from personal experience, it's already tricky when a flailing player doesn't realize they've locked onto an object instead of a piece of terrain or an enemy--and instead of moving forward, they do a surprise gun swap. The broad rules serve the Grappleshot very well.
The Grappleshot did exert gravity on the continued design of Halo Infinite's campaign, but that continued permissive design thinking kept flowing well with what 343 Industries wanted out of the game's open world. Dyck said that for his own personal playstyle, he began to see a pattern evolving with how the Grappleshot is best used. When he was in open-world environments, it was primarily a tool of traversal. In tight spaces or the game's handful of linear levels, it was a combat accessory.
Dyck pointed out that tools like the Grappleshot can add variety to your architectural choices. "Traditionally, you'd have players get to a ramp or an elevator to get up to something," he explained. "This is almost instantaneous."
Crocker expressed that 343 really wanted to remove as many elevators as possible from Halo Infinite's open world. "We didn't want Chief just to be standing on a slowly-moving metal platform as he gets to his destination. It's not very, super soldier," he noted.
There are still an array of elevators on Zeta Halo (its in-universe builders did not navigate the terrain with grappling hooks--I think). But Crocker said based on the size of the world, there could have been way more long, awkward elevator rides for the Master Chief and his holographic companion.
Talking about Halo Infinite's development does mean talking about Infinite's highly-visible delay from 2020 into 2021. That delay pushed it far out from the launch of the Xbox Series X|S. Mandatory remote work and a lukewarm reaction to the first demo of Halo Infinite drove the delay, and the company has been transparent about the improvements that came with the extra development time.
Crocker pointed out that said delay wasn't a "full year" for the campaign team, because development timelines obviously differ from release dates. But that intervening time was still a notable period for the Grappleshot. Its core stats--range, cooldown, etc.--were locked by the initial release date, but extra polish in the last year helped make it a memorable feature.
That polish came in a couple of specific forms--enemy reactions, and last tweaks to Infinite's tutorial. Dyck explained that in 2020, hitting an enemy with the Grappleshot only generated a generic "I've been hit" animation and audio line. The grapple also had a universal effect on all enemy types.
But with extra time to polish, 343 expanded those enemy reactions to mix up how players use the Grappleshot in fights. This was the period where tougher enemies got a "brace" reaction, where they'd freeze up and brace for the Chief's incoming punch. Depending on their health, some will shrug off the follow-up melee attack and immediately transition into their own close-quarters punch, while others will still take the hit and drop.
The shield-carrying Jackal enemies also got a tweak to the player's advantage. Having trouble getting through their shields? One tap of the Grappleshot sends them stumbling, leaving them open for a follow-up grapple or just a burst of gunfire.
Halo Infinite's first level is supposed to be the space where players learn about the grapple and what it can do them. With extra time to polish the level, Crocker said that the team began removing more floor panels to make sure players got that it was a necessary traversal tool. He noted these weren't meant to be "hard" tutorials (like the classic "have the player look up and down at lights" that appears in most Halo games), but subtle teaching tools.
Apparently if the player can figure out early that they need to be grappling across open areas to progress, they'll start grappling in other unconventional areas too. Additional tweaks were made to the game's second level "Foundation," where Crocker said they just removed a whole chunk of the ground after the player is dropped off. "People were forgetting they had the [Grappleshot]," he said, "so we were reinforcing that."
Improvements to Halo Infinite's campaign also included a lot of reactive voiceover, which meant the eminently quotable Banished enemies got a fresh set of voice lines for when they were grappled as well.
There's a lot to like in Halo Infinite's Grappleshot, and it's a good signifier of the bigger changes the series has gone through to keep up with modern times, and provides some interesting insight on what it takes to add "iconic" features to already-memorable games. Crocker and Dyck were mum on future plans for single-player Halo titles, but the Grappleshot's success feels like a foundation for possibilities that you might say are infinite in nature.