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Halo Infinite’s Winter Update is the boost the shooter needed

It’d be an understatement to say it’s been a rough run for Halo Infinite. The latest in the classically Xbox-centric first-person shooter series, Infinite was released in November 2021 to a steady stream of positive reviews, though its popularity quickly died off due to an unintuitive progression system, a mountain of bugs, and a disappointing lack of fresh content delivered on anything resembling a consistent release schedule.

Instead of becoming one of the quintessential multiplayer games of 2022, Infinite went out silently with no more than a whimper as its concurrent player count fell below that of its predecessor, Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Longtime Halo had fans feared this would be the case, given how Halo Infinite developer 343 Industries handled its predecessor — the largely middling Halo 5.

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Even though I enjoy Infinite’s far more modern, Call of Duty-inspired take on the signature arena shooter style, it hasn’t been quite the same without a few of the key features that fans have come to expect, like the Forge map editor and the economy of custom maps and modes that normally accompany it. That all changed on November 8 when 343 Industries dropped the Winter Update. It includes Forge Beta, campaign co-op mode, and a free multiplayer season with 30 progression tiers including sleek new Spartan customization options and several new maps, plus some other quality-of-life improvements like match XP. Those are all things that Halo Infinite sorely needed, giving disappointed fans a real sign of 343’s dedication to Halo Infinite’s ongoing development as a live service game.

Forging ahead

The greatest draw of any Halo game — post-Halo 3 — is the series’ highly-scalable approach to multiplayer. Up until the Winter Update, Halo Infinite hadn’t had any sort of in-game custom map support or campaign co-op, leaving social players at the mercy of whichever static matchmaking playlists existed at the time, including the famously broken Big Team Battle playlist. Even so, Halo Infinite still lacks any sort of split-screen multiplayer. So far, it appears that there’s no such feature on the way for either Xbox or PC players (at least, not anytime soon). But with the Winter Update, all the other missing pieces of the traditional Halo experience are finally included.

Halo Infinite Forge Beta banshees
You can do (almost) anything in Forge Mode.

That includes the long-delayed Forge mode. I’m not the biggest fan of the process of making my own maps in multiplayer games, but I do recognize the importance of a high-quality map editor and talented designers within a game’s community. Forge already leaked a few months ago, resulting in some positively wild maps like this one, but let’s be honest: A Halo game without a built-in Forge mode feels wrong. It’s a huge deal that Halo Infinite finally features the fully functioning editor built directly into the game.

Granted, the Forge Beta is currently feeling pretty unintuitive for me, but it does look like it could become deeply encapsulating if I were to learn the ins and outs of its interface. What’s immediately clear, though, is just how much stuff you can do in this new editor, including plop down your own map geometry and turn the skybox completely purple. You can build entire maps from scratch if you want, but I’m satisfied just using the Forge editor to spawn 10 banshees above a gravity launcher, something you couldn’t do conventionally before the Winter Update dropped.

I’m more inclined to play with the custom maps that other people create, and though I’m just getting started on that front, I’m already wildly impressed with the amount of creativity I’m seeing. If you’re curious about seeing some of these maps for yourself, you can view the best maps made by the Halo Infinite community at Forgera.

Multiplayer refresh

Halo Infinite’s recent updates to multiplayer matchmaking are far subtler, but they’ve kept me thoroughly entertained over the last few weeks. I haven’t played with any of the new unlockable gear in the progression path for the Winter Update season pass, but I have spent an inordinate amount of time matchmaking in the highly entertaining Rumble Pit playlist. The latter is basically a free-for-all mash-up that includes classic game modes like King of the Hill and Slayer, but often with a few twists like only having swords and grappling hooks at your disposal.

Halo Infinite Covert One Flag
Covert One Flag is one of the new game modes added to Halo Infinite via its Winter Update.

There are new game modes as well, such as the new Covert One Flag mode, which is basically asymmetric CTF. In this mode, one team gets cloaking devices and needs to infiltrate the enemy team’s base to capture a flag, but the defending team can almost immediately kill members of the infiltrating/invading team if they’re quick enough to see through the infiltrators’ invisibility. I’m a huge fan of these fresh twists on classic Halo action, but even more important to me is the inclusion of match XP, which translates to a steady tick of progression. That leaves me feeling like I’m improving all the time instead of only when I’m meeting the criteria for certain challenges.

Wrapping up the Winter Update is the inclusion of campaign co-op, which means you can finally run around in the Zeta Halo’s open world with your buds if that’s what you want. I was never that big into Halo Infinite’s campaign to begin with, and I don’t personally care to return to it any time soon, but it’s nice knowing that if I do choose to come back, I can bring a friend or two.

Regardless, 343 Industries seems poised to put the “Infinite” back in Halo Infinite, and I’m ready for it. Forge, and the flurry of multiplayer content that accompanies it, will inevitably bring players back to Halo Infinite once the holiday season zeitgeist is over. Until then, I’m mostly just glad that we finally have some fresh options.

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The Finals is the shake-up the competitive first-person shooter scene needs
A player stands up against a wall in a The Finals screenshot.

While I enjoy playing first-person shooters occasionally, it's a genre I've struggled to become a hardcore fan of. To me, it has stagnated, with recent Call of Duty and Battlefield games feeling like little more than rehashes of the same quick-kill-focused gameplay on maps that all blend together after a while. That's why The Finals' longer time-to-kill, unique match objectives, and focus on level destruction all feel like a breath of fresh air.
THE FINALS Closed Beta Trailer
Developed by Embark Studios, the new multiplayer shooter is a notable change of pace for a stagnating genre. Because it takes a lot of effort to defeat an opponent, and the map is continuously changing as you do so, no two matches feel quite the same. I can attest to that, as I recently went hands-on with it and had that exact experience. Lots of thrilling, emergent moments organically happened during each match, leading to some of the most memorable matches I've had playing a first-person shooter in years.
If you've always enjoyed destructible environments in your FPS games and enjoy inventive competitive shooters that aren't just trying to chase what is popular, then you'll want to check out The Finals.
Map mayhem
The Finals' primary mode, Extraction, is framed as a game show where four teams compete to earn the most money during a match. Players do this by locating vaults on a map, obtaining cash boxes, and delivering them to a cash-out station. Extra money is rewarded for kills and a team's total is halved if they are completely wiped. The basics of the FPS gameplay are approachable enough for anyone who has played a game in this genre before. That said, its longer time-to-kill also helps that mission and gives players time to appreciate just how reactive its world is.
In the Closed Beta preview build, I played on two maps based on Monaco and Seoul. Each contains points of interest connected by some indoor arenas and long outdoor corridors that you'd come to expect from an FPS map. But it only stays that way for a short time. As soon as explosives get involved, the map transforms as buildings crumble and the environment reacts to the players. It stays that way too, as developer Embark Studios' server-side technology tracks and accommodates any changes to the map.
Last year, the developers at Embark Studios told Digital Trends that they hope this technology would make other developers panic. While we don't think The Finals will go that far, it certainly handles destruction better than other games that have tried to boast similar strengths, like Crackdown 3 or Battlefield 2042. It's not only a neat technical feat, but it also opens up many organic situations you don't get in other FPS games.

For example, a building was crumbling as I retrieved a cash box and headed to a cash-out station. I was under fire, and an opponent's rocket completely destroyed the pathway to get me to the building my teammates were in. I knew I didn't want the team chasing me to get ahold of the cash box, so I sacrificed myself by throwing the vault across that gap to my teammate before proceeding to hold enemies off as they delivered it to a station.
Even the greenery reacts to the player, especially when they have a flamethrower or flame grenade. At one moment, the station my team was delivering to was out in the open in a park. Other teams were coming at us from all angles, so I threw several fire grenades, and my teammate used a flamethrower. Doing this, we set most of the park aflame, forcing our opponents into pathways where we could pick them off more easily. Floors can crumble beneath you, staircases that get you to objectives can be destroyed, and a lot of map mayhem helps define each match of The Finals.
Leaving your mark
The Finals' destruction creates some compelling dynamics, making the player feel like they are shaping the world that each match takes place in. Players can customize their characters with outfits and special loadouts ahead of matches, and some of these options allow them to set down jump pads and ziplines or use a grappling hook to improve mobility. Turrets, barriers, and mines are also equippable, which can be used to direct the flow of battle and herd opponents into certain sections of the map. One particularly memorable moment saw my team calling two elevators in Seoul, only to find that another team had put a turret in one and all of themselves in another.

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Download these rare Wii U games before they disappear

Nintendo's Wii U is notorious for how hard it flopped and for providing the Switch with some of its best ports, but that doesn't mean it didn't have worthwhile games that are still exclusive to it. While many Wii U games have escaped to other platforms and Game Boy Advance games are now coming to Nintendo Switch, some experiences are uniquely suited to the Wii U GamePad or aren't able to make the jump elsewhere due to other outside factors.

As such, when the Wii U and 3DS eShops shut down on March 27, there are some unique Wii U games that will become significantly more expensive and tougher, if not outright impossible, to play. If you're one of the 13.5 million people who actually have a Wii U and are wondering what to pick up before the eShop closes, we recommend these stranded games.
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Character running past a chocolate factory in Haunted Chocolatier.

In latte 2021, indie developer Eric Barone (commonly known as ConcernedApe online), famed for single-handedly creating the magical Stardew Valley, officially announced that he was developing an all-new game. That game is called Haunted Chocolatier, and it looks like a whole other world of fun, casual simulation, and finding out the secret desires of every single member of your community.

Details are still limited: “I just like working in secret,” ConcernedApe reported in his last official progress update -- but don’t worry, plenty of info has already dropped, and we’ll keep you updated about every detail so you know what’s going on.
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