I know 343 has done something right with Halo Infinite multiplayer because I was still playing at 4am this morning.
Over the weekend, 343 held limited-time matchmaking sessions for 4v4 arena. These included just a few core multiplayer modes (Slayer, Strongholds and Capture the Flag) on just a few maps (Live Fire, Recharge, Bazaar and, for Sunday only, Behemoth), but it was enough for me to come away convinced Halo Infinite's multiplayer could be something special.
A lot of it has to do with rekindling that classic Halo multiplayer feel. What is video game fun? It's hard to pin down, but during Halo's heyday it could be summed up by the "golden triangle" design. This is Halo's combat, crystallised: shoot, grenade, melee - each method of damage-dealing playing its part in the eternal Spartan dance.
Infinite leans heavily on the golden triangle and, last night, I was a willing participant, bouncing about as Halo Spartans do, lobbing grenades to drop enemy shields, pumping rounds of the ever reliable assault rifle from close to mid-range into my opponent. There's a real 'in the zone' feel to good Halo multiplayer, and last night I was very much in it. A handful of times I saw The Matrix for what it was, instinctively knowing how to combine the three points of the golden triangle to form a single, hyper efficient arrow that drove each KILLING SPREE! Am I at the right distance to engage? Yes. I know because I know. Do I know the correct timing to end this engagement with a successful melee? Yes. I know because I know. And do I know how many shots of the battle rifle it takes to score a frag on a fully shielded enemy? Yes. I know because I know. I lost myself to multiplayer last night, as I used to do with Halo 3 multiplayer in 2007, and it was great fun.
343 has, bravely, added a few new toys into the mix, and I'm glad it did. The grappling hook is hardly a new video game idea, but it's wonderfully executed here, and adds so much to the famous Halo sandbox. Use it to grab a power weapon? Check. Use it to pull yourself towards an enemy for a quick melee? Check. Use it to capture the flag then fly across the map like a Spartan Spider-Man for a score? Check.
Then there's the repulsor equipment, which is so much fun I wonder if it's a tad overpowered. I've already covered some of the incredible trick shots Infinite players were able to land over the weekend - a lot of what's on show is beyond me, a plucky average at best Halo player - but I was able to use the repulsor to deflect the odd grenade or two, and even push a Warthog off the map.
Speaking of maps, 343 has done a good job with the limited number we've seen so far. Live Fire has that classic training ground feel, with good visibility and plenty of nooks and crannies to help you get the jump on the enemy. Recharge is a multi-level map set inside a hydroelectric facility that reminds me of Halo 2. And Bazaar is a relatively straight-forward market map, with clear sight lines and a central area that acts as a kill zone.
My favourite playable map so far, though, is Behemoth, which is larger than the others and feels perfect for Capture the Flag. With a few vehicles available and jump boosts on either side of each base, Behemoth has a sickly sweet game flow. Add in the grappling hook and the repulsor into the mix and Halo's sandbox does a song and dance.
A long list of positives, then, although Halo Infinite's multiplayer is not without its niggles. Some of the weapons seem underpowered. For example, Infinite's Needler doesn't pack enough of a punch and could do with a leg-up (the audio on the weapons across the board need a shot in the arm). Infinite feels skittish on a controller, especially when shooting specific weapons such as the recoil heavy Commando. I'm a little worried about going up against mouse and keyboard players on PC via crossplay! But these are niggles I hope 343 will address before Halo Infinite launches in December. More concerning is all the stuff off the battlefield.
343's decision to make it so Halo Infinite doesn't have per-match XP, with battle pass progression tied to challenges instead, was controversial before this weekend's technical preview, and now it's pretty much universally criticised. I understand why. While you never run out of challenges to work on, it feels bad to have battle pass progression limited to them. On occasion it felt like I didn't make any progress at all because I didn't complete a challenge after a match. That's not right.
The pace of battle pass progression during the technical preview is not what it will be at launch, but still, it feels like 343 should think again on this. It's not a good look to limit progression to challenges while in the same breath sell battle pass tier skips. It makes the entire progression system hard to trust.
And, of course, none of what we've played so far has had anything to do with Halo Infinite's campaign, gameplay of which we haven't seen since last year. I suspect Infinite's multiplayer - however good it may turn out to be - will be overshadowed if campaign is a disaster.
For now, though, I'm just delighted Infinite's multiplayer has rekindled memories of long summers spent climbing the Halo ladder on Xbox Live. I am lock step in the Spartan dance, lobbing grenades this way, gun bucking that way, spraying assault rifle bullets in a slow floating circle of death. Bring on next weekend's shenanigans, and Big Team Battle.