Since 2015, Microsoft and Xbox Game Studios have been pushing for greater accessibility not just on their platform, but in their titles as well. With the introduction of Narrator and CoPilot, through to the Xbox Adaptive Controller and with games like Sea Of Thieves publishing 52% of updates containing accessibility features in the past year, it's clear that they want to open up gaming to as many people as possible.
With Halo 5: Guardians launching right at the start of this shift in the games industry however, the series had to wait another 4 years or so until Halo: The Master Chief Collection was patched to introduce narrated menus and UI (along with the update that also brought Halo: Reach to PC).
Now, in an age where The Last Of Us Part II is still cited as the most accessible mainstream game as a gamer without sight, with it being able to be not only completed start to finish but at the highest difficulty levels (including runs on both Grounded and separately, Permadeath in my case), just how much does Halo Infinite have to offer for gamers without sight to let you "Step Inside" and "become" a Spartan, without needing any sighted assistance?
Starting a new game was made all the easier by the narrated menus, allowing me to select my difficulty and even read the tooltips associated with each one. As much as being able to read "Easy", "Normal", "Heroci" and "Legendary" and select it is great, it's even better when you can read amusing flavour text like "Run, little demon: Recommended for fans of Jackal Snipers" (when highlighting Legendary difficulty), which brought an unexpected but delighted chuckle from me.
Of course, I was never going to play on Legendary, but I felt included, able to share in the jokes and references I'd spent years reading about and having sighted assistance to experience.
Even seeing references to skulls was intriguing as I'd heard so much about those as well, such as the famous "I Would've Been Your Daddy" skull (or "IWHBYD") which allows rarer dialogue to become more commonplace, or the Acrophobia skull that allows you to fly. I was interested to see if I ended up finding any of those during my time with the game. All that remained though was to actually hit Play and see where Chief's adventure kicks off.
During this opening sequence, the game did not narrate a prompt to press X. Instead, it narrated some other text that, whilst potentially important, was not contextually relevant and didn't inform me that I had to do anything to proceed. This left me stuck on the screen until I started pressing buttons thinking the game had either locked up or was, as previously mentioned, prompting me for action. Though I did figure out what to do without assistance, this didn't really bode well in my mind.
Once I got into actual gameplay, what I'd feared most happened: I was unable to progress at all, even in what appeared to be a linear level, with no navigation or aim accessibility features to assist me.
With all the highly advanced tech this game has to offer in its fictional universe, as well as menu/UI narration that seemed pretty promising (including narration of tutorials, which has been present in other Xbox Games Studios Titles), it frustrates me that nothing appears to have changed in terms of improving the series accessibility as a gamer without sight, even in a non-competitive mode where such features could have been easy enough to add.
As a side note, there are a few different types of collectables that I've already seen through the course of my time with the single player campaign, including audio logs. Without spoiling too much, I'll say that the ones I have seen provide differing audio cues that make it possible to know they are in your vicinity, which is a useful element that most games often ignore.
The only issue with these is that when they are playing, the game will fade out your audio, making it virtually impossible to hear enemies or where weapon fire is coming from with them open. As a result, you shouldn't opt to play them immediately unless you are in a completely safe area with no enemies.
You'd hope that these two prompt types might be tied into each other, with checkpoints being smaller elements and progress being connected to, for instance, cutscenes. However, this is definitely not the case, as we discovered during our first session. When we spent around 40 minutes playing, saw "saving checkpoint" and thought it was fine to end the game (as Doom Eternal and other titles use "checkpoint" to mean a point at which your progress will not be lost), we decided to hit "end game".
The dialogue itself did not include any information on how saving worked, when the last save actually was (as seen in Bioshock Infinite for example) or anything of that nature. As a result, on loading back into our save and seeing the time stamp on the game, we were, in a word, furious. Why? We were set back at least half an hour, if not more, to the last point where the game had said "saving progress", which was right at the beginning of the level. This meant we had to go through everything we'd already done, which had been annoying in places the first time round, but now felt like a chore (which was a real shame as I definitely enjoyed what I played).
This game will definitely test your patience as well, since even on Normal, we discovered that enemies hit very hard when they're in numbers. It might mean that either we weren't great at the game, or some difficulty scaling might need to happen. Maybe a combination of the two. Nevertheless, if the game doesn't allow you to earn campaign achievements on Easy difficulty (as was the case with Halo 5: Guardians), then I would be very disappointed indeed.
I, like everyone else who is a fan of the series, want to be able to enjoy the experience of donning the Mjolnir armour of the Master Chief and battling the greatest threat to face the universe yet. However, if I need sighted assistance to do that, it could be argued that I might as well watch someone else play through the game without even diving in myself, which is saddening to me. Halo is all about the experience, the immersion and learning first-hand all you can about how everything works, then capitalising on it in cinematic, epic-scale encounters with deep lore to go along with it.
If I don't get to do that along with everyone else, requiring constant sighted assistance to get absolutely anywhere, my only question is: "how long will I have to wait until I can?"
With campaign covered, let's cast our minds back to November 15th, 2021 and look at the "multiplayer beta", including to see if anything has changed from the Technical Previews.
Also, some screens don't appear to have all elements narrated (such as the post-match results screen not allowing you to read your kills and deaths in a list-style format), but it's definitely a step up over the implementation in, say, The Master Chief Collection. These issue could, I hope, be ironed out in the future and, given there are channels for reporting bugs and providing feedback, making these issues known to 343 Industries as you encounter them is highly recommended.
The game can be launched and set up entirely without assistance, though proceeding through screens can be a little confusing as there is no clear indicator of what you should press to continue.
Once you're in though, pretty much all the menus read and diving into games, including customs, is the easiest it's ever been.
Unfortunately, even in the final launch build, nothing appears to have changed. I've spent most of my time sliding around the map (as that seemed to be the most straightforward way to cover large amounts of distance for me) and getting kills with luck rather than judgement (as well as the assistance of sighted teammates).
All in all, this is a sad state of affairs and, while I'm aware that aim assist options could be misused by bad actors and thus skew the multiplayer experience, I feel that the discussion of these options in competitive and non-competitive environments is long overdue and needs to be addressed.
I've enjoyed levelling up the Battle Pass through the daily XP gains for matches played, but just doing that isn't getting the full experience. This has been touted as "the Halo game for everyone" including through elements like customisation, but yet again, as a gamer without sight, I feel excluded from the game that everyone else is able to play, having to navigate maps differently, being unable to complete challenges as quickly if at all, etc.
Xbox Game Studios and Microsoft have been releasing several titles that have been progressing towards full accessibility for a number of years, more specifically moving their associated genres towards a better future for the playability of their titles. However, since Gears 5 in 2019, I can confidently say that there's been nothing in terms of a shooter that's been as playable in a multiplayer setting (or even a single player one on Xbox platforms) that I can think of.
Though I completely understand it's only been a year since The Last of us Part II and consequently learnings from that title will still take a while to be implemented in newer games as they take multiple years to develop, I am saddened to say that, both on the single player and multiplayer front, Halo Infinite is not the accessible game I and so many others have been hoping for. However, as much as this is the case now, I do have some level of hope that over time, accessibility for the required elements could be added, though as we all know not only do accessibility features take time, they are best added in during development as early as possible, not after the game has shipped, for best results.
It seems like, whatever the outcome of the campaign, chief won't have me controlling him to finish the fight.
To quote Halo 3, "one final effort is all that remains". As to what that is? To keep battling for accessibility as a gamer without sight, even in the Halo universe where pretty much anything could be possible.
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