Feature Article

Halo Infinite's Challenge System Undermines What Makes The Game Fun

A lot of players have complaints about Halo Infinite's progression system, but tweaks to experience point rewards won't change the fact that its challenges add frustration and act as skill gatekeepers.

I was really enjoying Halo Infinite until I was faced with completing an ultimate challenge.

Halo Infinite's free cosmetic rewards can be earned in two ways. The first is progression along its battle pass, the usual free-or-paid tracks dishing out rewards as you "level up" by gaining experience points from doing in-game stuff--specifically, completing special challenges with requirements like "finish four ranked matches" or "destroy an enemy Wasp three times." The second is by clearing all available challenges in a week to earn the weekly Ultimate reward, a cosmetic item you seemingly can't get any other way.

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That second one seems like a fun idea, at least at first. Once you complete all the other weekly challenges, you're faced with one final capstone challenge to unlock your weekly Ultimate. This is a tougher challenge, with a bigger reward of experience points, to really test you.

The trouble is, the challenge system is a pain in general, and the Ultimate challenge is particularly bad. Instead of creating an exciting trial to defeat and earn a cool reward, it added a big time-crunch of frustration to Halo Infinite. And ultimately, it's a good example of why 343 Industries needs to overhaul its whole challenge system.

The ultimate challenge was to rack up five killstreaks in Fiesta matches during the Fracture: Tenrai event. Fiesta is a cool mode, which puts you into Slayer games with randomized weapons and equipment. Every time you respawn from a death, you come back with a new batch of gear. Sometimes you luck out and start with a rocket launcher and a sniper rifle, or a Gravity Hammer and Skewer. Other times, you're sporting a Plasma Pistol and a Needler. The mode is predicated on the luck of the draw, with opportunities to snag weapons from fallen players or re-roll your gear when you die.

As soon as I saw the capstone challenge, I groaned. I'm not an amazing Halo player, nor am I a terrible one. The trouble with chasing killstreaks was that I knew, for me, it'd be time-consuming. In Fiesta, streaks are maybe easier to get than in other modes, since there's a better-than-zero chance you'll just start a life with a rocket launcher or some other devastating power weapon. There's also a very good chance that you might round a corner to face off against a player, only to discover belatedly that they also have a rocket launcher, drastically slashing your chances of survival. Many moments in Fiesta, therefore, are chaotic coin-flips that don't play super-well with the challenge system. And with capstone challenges, unlike the others that Halo Infinite throws your way, you can't employ one of your swaps to find something that might be more manageable. You have to power through.

Most challenges aren't that big of a deal, but when they become skill gatekeepers, disrespect your time, or fall out of sync with making the game fun for a team, they become a problem.
Most challenges aren't that big of a deal, but when they become skill gatekeepers, disrespect your time, or fall out of sync with making the game fun for a team, they become a problem.

The point is, five killstreaks can be a pain to acquire, and that was after completing something like 15 previous challenges during the week. When I hit the capstone challenge, I had only two days left to unlock that Ultimate reward. So not only did I have to rack up five often-tough-to-get medals in Halo matches, but I had limited time to do so. If I failed, or took a break, or had something come up that kept me from playing a few hours of Halo, well, all that time previously spent would wind up wasted, to some degree.

I did, eventually, power through and get my killstreaks, but not without a lot more annoyance than I wanted added to the experience. The thing about challenges is that they don't add excitement to Halo Infinite; they add frustration. Every time I got a run of three or four kills in Fiesta, I started to sweat. Every time I managed to rock a group of enemies, only for one last person to appear with a sword, my blood pressure spiked. Every time a match ended and I hadn't managed to put a killstreak together, it felt like time I'd wasted, rather than time I'd spent having fun. The challenge wasn't challenging me--it was highlighting failure and making me angry about bad luck.

There's an argument to be made that challenges can help you learn to play Halo Infinite a little better. One killstreak I earned came from carefully camping out in the tunnel beneath the center of the Live Fire map with a Gravity Hammer, waiting for enemies to happen into the area so I could ambush them in tight quarters. That strategy was antithetical to the way I usually play Halo, in which I try to stick close to teammates and kill enemies with crossfire, or sneak around for a flanking action. I do think I got better at using melee weapons more intelligently than I usually do in order to earn that streak.

On the other hand, that challenge had the effect that many players complain about with the system: It stopped me from playing the game to win, and pushed me to play the game to complete my personal goal. I didn't mark enemy positions with the ping system, and I didn't stick with a group to help them stay alive by team-shooting opponents. I sat in my corner and waited for prey to happen into my trap. Lots of other challenges highlight using particular guns or particular vehicles to get kills, and those things can incentivize players to ignore what it takes to win a match in favor of knocking out their personal goals. When individual challenges don't synergize with team directives, they add friction that weakens the experience for everybody.

Sometimes you can pop off with the Shock Rifle, and sometimes you just can't.
Sometimes you can pop off with the Shock Rifle, and sometimes you just can't.

But what I dislike most about the challenge system, apart from the fact that it can feel disrespectful of my time, is that it's a big skill gatekeeper. While top-tier Halo players are going to look at a requirement for five killstreaks without batting an eye, for a more average player like me, that's a big obstacle. I get killstreaks here and there in matches, but not reliably, so I knew immediately that five streaks was probably going to take a whole lot of matches to accomplish--a decent chunk of a Sunday, as it turned out.

Even worse, though, is there are plenty of Halo players who enjoy the game but who are going to see a requirement for five killstreaks--and all sorts of other challenges--and instantly know they're out of reach. I have a few friends in my regular Halo rotation who just aren't especially great kill-getters in this particular game, for whatever reason. Their kill-death ratios aren't great. We've been having a blast in Halo Infinite as a group because there are lots of ways to make up the difference, however. You can contribute to a team quite a bit just by sticking together and combining your shooter efforts, nabbing a ton of assists rather than a ton of kills. You can be the designated vehicle driver, developing an invaluable skill that absolutely helps win matches, but doesn't show up on the scoreboard. Or you can play the objectives, gathering power seeds in Stockpile or throwing yourself into clutch Stronghold captures that can also have a huge effect on whether your group wins or loses.

I have friends who do all these things, and they're essential to our team even if they're not popping off and racking up 20 kills in every match. But for them, many challenges are out of reach.

The purpose Halo Infinite is fulfilling with challenges--giving players something to strive for while keeping them in the game as much as possible, both to maintain matchmaking player counts high and to encourage spending through microtransactions--can be achieved just as well without challenges like these. Halo should be rewarding people for the time they put into the game, not for bringing a specific skill to it. The game should encourage you to engage with it in a lot of different ways, with a lot of different skills, instead of pushing you to use certain guns or vehicles to meet arbitrary kill requirements. It should incentivize spending time with the game while also respecting time already logged. And it should avoid creating situations that build frustration with losing, or that push people to blame their teammates for not playing the "right way."

Playing support roles or working on objectives can be just as important as racking up a ton of kills in Halo Infinite, but challenges don't really respect those playstyles.
Playing support roles or working on objectives can be just as important as racking up a ton of kills in Halo Infinite, but challenges don't really respect those playstyles.

I'm sure 343 has a vision with the challenge system, but I don't think the system takes into account a lot of realities about how people play these kinds of games and how much time they have to spend, or the breadth of different kinds of play and the skill levels within them. Already, the developer has made adjustments to its progression system so that players earn experience points for playing matches, not just clearing challenges. But the system doesn't need tiny adjustments like dishing out a little XP just for playing--it needs a total rethink about how challenges work and what they add to Halo Infinite overall.

Halo Infinite has been a refreshing blast of mayhem in the first two weeks of its multiplayer beta. As it stands right now, though, I'm doubtful I'll ever engage with the progression or challenge system again without a complete overhaul. It doesn't add to the fun of the game; more often than not, it detracts from it.

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philhornshaw

Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw has worked as a journalist for newspapers and websites for more than a decade and has covered video games, technology, and entertainment for nearly that long. A freelancer before he joined the GameSpot team as an editor out of Los Angeles, his work appeared at Playboy, IGN, Kotaku, Complex, Polygon, TheWrap, Digital Trends, The Escapist, GameFront, and The Huffington Post. Outside the realm of games, he's the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero's Guide to Glory. If he's not writing about video games, he's probably doing a deep dive into game lore.

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