Single player experiences in the 2020s are at a crossroads with replayability.
Longer narratives deter players from jumping into their favourite scenes. For newer campaigns, it takes a journey to replay special moments. Single player driven experiences are welcome to break up a dominant multiplayer scene. While developers behind anticipated campaigns shouldn’t wait for a wake-up call to add replay value to their games.
343 Industries heard Halo Infinite players loud and clear following their late 2021 campaign launch. At the time of writing, it doesn’t let players jump into their favourite levels at launch. Infinite’s campaign kicked off a new laundry list for 343 with their multiplayer suite in 2022. The studio later confirmed to Polygon it would add the staple feature later in time.
Level select isn’t the biggest tradition Halo Infinite breaks in order to evolve. Its vast, open world somehow takes players back to the Combat Evolved era of wide level designs. Every outpost and battlefield naturally breathes with 343’s seamless world. The Master Chief has plenty of nooks and crannies to explore on Zeta Halo. But Infinite’s main campaign missions suffer from a clear identity crisis. Each level adds something new to the narrative with a change of scenery. Players are given a break from the open world to enjoy a bit of linear Halo action.
But something feels “off” with Halo Infinite’s levels. The Master Chief is grounded on Zeta Halo this time around. Players are also tied to Halo Infinite’s familiarity when they progress. The campaign doesn’t exactly share the planet-hopping or globe-trotting approach previous games had. That constant change of scenery isn’t found in Infinite. Making campaign missions feel somewhat dull and reflective of open world fatigue. In other words, Halo Infinite’s campaign wasn’t built for a level select in the first place. Developers at 343 face the challenge of letting players experience Infinite’s unique levels. Its first step includes defying the game’s non-linear nature and restructuring it to make mission select work.
“…Something feels “off” with Halo Infinite’s levels.”
I hated rewinding my Return of the Jedi VHS tape as a kid in the late 90s. Work came from sitting back through two hour’s worth of film. It had to be the worst way to see Luke’s green saber for the second or third time. The Sarlacc barge fight was something I couldn’t rewatch without seeing everything in reverse. But I adapted to a digital-free streaming world. Luke would still have his three minutes of fun annihilating Jabba’s gang. Even if it took me longer to revisit that scene a few times via that damn VHS rewinder.
Video games are miles ahead of that harrowing time. The medium slowly overtook a cinematic joy once felt in theatres. DVDs, Blu-rays and feature-length acting made their way into gaming as naturally as technology advanced. Games would have their very own scene select feature found in movies. Players had the power to jump into their favourite moments without a VHS rewind box in sight. Until gaming brought those dark times back in a number of recent releases.
I beat Halo Infinite’s campaign once, as any player would. Feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment washed over me. My respect for 343 was bolstered by a journey that I haven’t been on since Breath of the Wild. Save for a few outposts and side quests, Zeta Halo was finally exhausted. Yet, I sat in front of the most cutting-edge Halo instalment with two options. A Continue button only took me back to Infinite’s exhausted open world. New Game lets me play each of the 15 missions once. To reiterate, I had to endure a journey just to re-experience favourites like The Tower, Pelican Down, House of Reckoning and Silent Auditorium once.
“Halo Infinite’s lack of a level select isn’t new for single players.”
As you can tell, I immediately went on YouTube to watch Luke’s Sarlacc fight a dozen times. Just because I could. Until 343 finishes its baffling scramble for a level select.
Halo Infinite’s lack of a level select isn’t new for single players. In fact, it’s almost impossible for games like Metroid Dread and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Both games take on a Metroidvania design to levels. Progression would only happen when the games deemed it was time. Levels in Fallen Order were structured across planets. Bogano, Zeffo, Dathomir and Kashyyyk did feel linear. Each planet also changed when Cal Kestis acquired a new ability. Players got that change of scenery by using their new Force powers to literally push Fallen Order’s story forward.
In a 2019 interview with GameInformer, director Stig Asmussen justified the lack of replayable features like New Game Plus. “If you start the game with all your abilities, you kind of break things,” he stated, suggesting players aren’t meant to play the game in any order they want. Respawn would later cave in with an update, announcing on Star Wars Day it would add a somewhat half-baked “New Journey Plus” with a replayable training mode.
Infinite’s 15 missions aren’t held back by Fallen Order’s style of narrative progress. Almost every level spawns players into a new setting within Zeta Halo. Players can even skip side missions and travel to the next main level. Of course, new upgrades are acquired by Chief, but only serve to give players more creative ways to play over unlocking areas.
Marvel’s Avengers Reassemble campaign would also sport a stellar campaign. But the one-and-done story structure deters players from jumping back in (among other shortcomings). Studio Crystal Dynamics would try to patch things up with post-launch content. Luckily, levels can be replayed in its Taking Aim and Future Imperfect DLC. The War for Wakanda expansion strangely leaves it out in favour of operations.
Studios like Crystal Dynamics would eventually let players replay Avengers’ Reassemble campaign. But the feature dances around the ability to jump into different story missions. Instead, players are forced to reset their campaign progress. Marvel’s Avengers still saves its most memorable and cinematic moments for the campaign. An issue still persists by making each level instantly inaccessible after beating it once.
Without spoilers, Marvel’s Avengers does follow a journey-driven narrative. Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel slowly reassembles the Avengers one level at a time. But this focus is quickly tossed with customization. The non-story Operations can be played with any hero. While replayable DLC story missions easily lock out other Avengers to fit the narrative. The open-ended structure gives Crystal Dynamics less of an excuse to add chapter select. Sadly, resetting story progress is a half-solution which doesn’t merit replayability in modern single-player experiences.
Completionists might have an even harder time finding collectibles across Halo Infinite’s campaign. Each level marks one chance to scour special areas for Skulls. Unfortunately, any missed collectibles are locked out with campaign levels. Making it much harder for players to like particular missions without getting as many chances as they need.
A new game release decides the next nail in the coffin for replayability. Replay value is a foggier vision for full-length single player experiences over multiplayer-only ones. Unrepeatable missions only hurt the interest of jumping back into a campaign. Halo Infinite’s own menu of accessible missions won’t just be a reminder to balance linear and nonlinear design. The campaign will also feel less sparse with locations when compared to other Halo games.
Open world connoisseur Rockstar Games would make the Mission Select feature a feature in modern titles. 343 Industries has less of a reason to justify its challenges, as Rockstar neatly makes Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 instantly replayable. Both games also feature a non-linear open world. But levels are also derivative from its worlds. Players are taken to a variety of locations exclusive to the story.
Mission Select detracts from the post-game state of both games. As such, Rockstar manages to give players options for its linear and non-linear sides. The studio manages to separate the two different designs through open-world activities and its unique missions. Halo Infinite instead tries to blend the two aspects seamlessly. Mission Select is lost in 343’s vision of an unwinding world which can’t be undone after completion.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales is one of the more recent titles to break the cycle. It’s a light sequel to 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, which was a purely single-player driven experience. Peter Parker’s adventure didn’t let players revisit the game’s most exciting moments twice. A New Game + was added to let players back into its prologue, helicopter sequence, train fight and prison break. But this half-solution wouldn’t be remedied in the Remastered version for the PS5 in 2020.
Instead, Miles Morales would add a few tweaks for players after completion. The biggest includes replayable campaign missions and even previous side quests across NYC. For some reason, the swift changes were easier to make in a sequel game. By separating Spider-Man’s open world from its campaign, Insomniac was able to improve on the replayability of Miles Morales.
343 is expected to go “rewind their own VHS tape” along development. Its anticipated update for Halo Infinite starts by looking back at the overall nonlinear design. Developers would turn each nonlinear level around to fit that old-fashioned Halo experience. In other words, 343 would have to redo one step in development. Rockstar and Insomniac managed to add this separation of open world and linear level structuring along development. But Halo Infinite players would have to wait if they don’t want to restart the journey all over again.
The latest Halo separates itself thematically from previous instalments in worse ways. Fortunately, Halo Infinite’s oversight for a level select is a much-needed kick for AAA studios. With 343 Creative Director Paul Crocker confirming the feature’s rollout with co-op and telling Stevivor “It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just that it’s not finished.” While player feedback from communities suggests replayability is more than expected of the biggest AAA single player experiences.
Players beating a level shouldn’t come at the cost of never seeing it again (without restarting). Instead, studios need to factor in levels as an unlockable reward in itself. Players investing their time in a fully-priced game deserve to revisit any part they wish. The traditional feature shouldn’t be a head-scratcher for studios diving into next generation narratives across the 2020s.