The following review contains no spoilers for Halo Infinite. Early review access was provided by Microsoft via a specific review build of the game.
Combat evolves once more in a big way as Halo Infinite drives out the series’ most ambitious project yet. Guns, grapples, and grunt guts galore—Halo Infinite is a thrill-ride of the very best kind and establishes an exciting new launch pad for the series to thrive for years to come. But, once again, in this initial narrative campaign, Master Chief cannot muddy out of a messy, entangled story.
After 20 years as Microsoft’s poster child Master Chief and Halo has been through the ringer more than enough, but with Halo Infinite 343i are looking to take the 7ft killing machine into a whole new era complete with wholesale changes and an all-new way to enjoy Xbox’s greatest franchise. It has been the story of 343i’s helm over Microsoft’s flagship; having come out of the shadow of Bungie’s beloved original trilogy the offshoot Halo centric developer has tried and stumbled to bring new evolution to the sci-fi shooter since their dawn nearly a decade ago. Halo 4 sped things up with faster paced gameplay and more explosive action, and brought in a muddled narrative that delved into deepest depths of Halo lore and history. Results were mixed. Halo 5: Guardians doubled down on that speed and temerity, thrusting jet boosters, hover abilities, climbing mechanics and shoulder charges into the Spartan skill set along with an even more muddied and frankly disastrous narrative. Results were poor.
Halo Infinite, on the other hand, is 343i’s best attempt yet at redefining what Halo can be while still preserving some of that age old magic we all love. It feels exactly like the decade’s long lesson of a company that has tried numerous times to put their own stamp on a beloved series, the weight of which – like Chief in Infinite – has bore down on them all too heavily the last few years. While there are still stumbles here and there, it is undeniable just how spectacular and downright fun this next natural evolution of combat is.
The greatest strength of Halo as a series has always been its fps gameplay. Right back in 2001 Halo: Combat Evolved earned its sub-heading with gameplay mechanics and a world that was far beyond anything else the genre had seen to that point. Halo became a goliath in the market, proving to be the measuring mark for any subsequent first-person shooters thereafter – “Halo Killer” was the heralded advertising slogan for plucky challengers to Microsoft’s tentpole for a reason.
It is no accident then that 343i have felt the need to iterate with each title to keep the moniker of trend setter, rather than a trend follower, and while Halo Infinite is perhaps not doing too much wholly new for its genre (Titanfall was the trendsetter on grapplehooks and free-reigning verticality) it is impressive how free and explorational the scope of this game is. For the first time ever Halo Infinite presents an entirely open world rather than sequential levels, and the ring world of Zeta Halo really is your playground to raise hell in.
After a couple of standard-fare introductory levels the Master Chief is dropped into the open expanse of Zeta Halo, a halo ring now under the control of The Banished hordes. It is up to you to uncover this mysterious ring’s secrets, and ultimately to inspire hope and reclaim the fight for the UNSC. After mission 3 you are free to explore a section of this world at your leisure. There are various activities to help turn the fight against the Banished, or you can just stick to the “golden path” to continue the story. Taking back outposts gives you bases to restock weaponry and call-in vehicles, as well giving you a fast travel hub. Claiming these Forward Operation Bases (FOBs) will also reveal other Banished activity, such as high value targets to assassinate, or UNSC marines in need of help, or, most pressingly, large Banished bases. The bases are heavily fortified and typically require pressing a control panel here or there to then expose a couple of things to blow up, or some variation thereof, to take down the base —pretty standard stuff.
Looking at trailers ahead of time I was concerned that the outpost and base attacking stuff was going to get quite monotonous; that it would just fall into the Ubisoft problem of being too much of a muchness to fill out the map. And while Infinite does step ever so slightly into that trap, it is not as overbearing or laborious as I had otherwise worried. That comes mostly down to the gameplay loop being used just sparingly enough (there are really only a half dozen or so bases in total), and because in itself the combat is mostly fun for these sequences. The open world map is both big enough to be more impressive and open than Halo has ever seen, and small enough to not get bogged down with monotonous like-for-like activities that simply bombard your map. The balance is about right, though it teeter somewhat precariously if pushed any much more. If you like the base attacking then great, there will be just enough to satisfy you – they can get chaotic and do present a significant challenge on the harder difficulties to have a good time with. If you don’t then you can mostly disregard it anyway without much loss—which you may justifiably view as either a positive or negative in itself.
The bold new addition to Halo Infinite is the grappleshot. Equipped with this, Infinite possesses a verticality and movement set not seen at this level before in the series. With the multiplayer already released in beta for players to try many reading this will no doubt already know just how fun the grappleshot is to wing around on, but with the sandbox of the campaign a whole new stratosphere of fun and thrills opens up. In this Halo Infinite shines as a game true to its subheading: an infinite sandbox filled with infinite possibilities. The fun, elastic (and oft ridiculous) physics of Halo truly come to the fore here when paired with the grappleshot, allowing you to whip through corridors, across valleys and even scaling up sheer vertical walls. No destination is too difficult or too far to get to when equipped with this beauty. If you can see a point on the map then chances are you can get to it, and with awe-inducing speed too. This isn’t a Skyrim scenario where you’ll spend twenty minutes painstakingly trying to cheese your way up a vertical mountain; Halo Infinite lets you quite simply spring your way up to the very heights of the world with ease. While the sandbox open world was an ambitious and risky step for the series, the grappleshot is easily its greatest argument for. I have my complaints with the open world activities (rewards are poor; feel generally tacked on; little impact on game overall, etc.), but the grappleshot overrules most of them since it is so enjoyable just to traverse through the world.
In combat too it presents wonderful opportunities to vary how you fight: whip to a wall here; steal a gun from over there; fly fist first at your enemy down there; pluck a fusion coil out the air there ready to launch straight back to your foes—it is exemplary gameplay and precisely what “combat evolved” has always been about. I would cackle with genuine glee from just the ridiculous and fun ways I was soaring around fights and taking down enemies. With upgrades available too (via “Spartan Cores found throughout the world) the grappleshot can soon be used even more often and as a more potent offensive option. The other abilities have their uses but they are nowhere near as integral or as fun as the grappleshot: the drop shield is more useful in the campaign than online, especially as a last gasp option to let your shields recover when close to death; thrusters are a bit of a muchness when the grapple can achieve the same effect anyway; and the threat sensor is really only useful for very specific scenarios. Still however they are not a bad compliment to your arsenal.
On the weapon front Halo Infinite is as typically satisfying as ever. Your arsenal is vast with new additions that have their strengths and weaknesses, but nothing still compares to the Battle Rifle’s satisfying effectiveness at popping grunt heads. To that end too the Banished are much more enjoyable to fight than the monotony that was the Prometheans in 4 and 5. There is personality to the grunts and brutes that descend upon you once again, delivering quips and threats at your expense, making each head pop all that more satisfying in the end.
I would like to have seen a little more variation to the environments in Infinite, however. Confinement to the one planet area leaves everything looking, well, like a halo ring, just as you already know it. At top level the open world surface all looks much the same, though it is at the very least still a very beautifully presented environment; on the bottom levels, where story missions lay inside great Banished and Forerunner structures, things again look largely the same from corridor to corridor. Though magnificent in their presentation, and well-crafted for gameplay, these levels all have the typical Forerunner steely look that we have come to know from past Halo’s, and unfortunately there are no fleshy flood environs or murky swamp lands to switch things up this time.
“We all fail. We all make mistakes. It’s what makes us human”.
Halo 5: Guardians was a massive misstep for the Halo narrative, and Halo Infinite makes no mistake in admitting so. Set 18 months after Cortana’s blowout at the end of Guardians, Infinite largely breezes past the immediate events following, opting instead to just fast forward to a UNSC in complete disarray, and a Master Chief sitting heavy with the pain and regret of his past. Starting off with a brutal and unmitigated loss at the hands of the Banished, this is a Chief that is far more wounded than we have ever seen him before; one who is perhaps beginning to feel the weight of his role as humanities hope and the ultimate killing machine—“I don’t have a choice… maybe it’s my programming”.
Even underneath all the curt stoicism, underneath the several inch layer of heavy plate battle-charred Mjolnir, Chief has never been so visibly vulnerable. In terms of narrative and writing Halo Infinite is a more haunted, intimate Halo than we have seen previously, and to that I can only commend it. Infinite seeks to carve out a new era for the series so that it can move forward with its live service model, but to do so first requires some untangling of the messiness left with Guardians, and a purging of a few ghosts from Chief’s past. Though Infinite largely disregards the immediate aftermath to Guardians, leaving it instead as breadcrumbs to be found through various collectible audio files, Chief’s current state is so intrinsically tied to his sense of failure by his only friend in the universe, Cortana, that it has to confront it one way or another. Armed with a new AI Chief does exactly so with the mysteries of Zeta Halo taking him quite literally through ghostly visages of his past, forcing him to contend with his programming as a killing machine, and the one thing that ever made him the least bit human.
For me, this aspect of the story was some of the best writing that the Halo games have possessed, delving deep for once to more intimate affairs beyond just the usual stock universe-ending stakes. It interrogates both Chief and Cortana in a way we haven’t seen, asking what one is without the other, and what the other is without the one, and seeks to make amends for past wrongdoings in the last decade. The Banished are a good enough backdrop for this, proving to be a formidable foe that contribute to the forsakenness of this particular adventure of Chief’s, with its war leaders pushing him to his limits. This is the best Halo has ever looked as well, and not just because of the obvious graphical upgrades. The direction of the game’s cinematics are a step beyond; the virtual Steadicam camera always sweeping around, behind, and past Chief and his counterparts through some truly awe-inspiring moments—with the classic Halo soundtrack providing just the right topping to help you finish the fight as always.
The problems come, however, when the vague gobbledygook Forerunner/end of the world lore plot that has permeated the 343i stories previously rears its ugly, messy head again. The Harbinger and the [redacted] are ill-defined, not amounting to much more than stock “blah we’re coming”, “blah it’s the end of all things”, “blah haven’t we already done this several times before?”. Since the intention, I believe, for Infinite is to keep running with continued content updates in the future, this aspect of the story is perhaps more purposefully intended as a mechanical postscript to set things in motion for later, but it is ultimately clunky and messy when interwoven with the main plot, detracting from its better aspects, and making for a far more disappointing, abrupt end that leaves you off with a more bitter taste than is perhaps otherwise deserved.
What detractions Halo Infinite may have cannot ultimately bring it down. This is a winner by any definition in just how thrilling and tight the gameplay is. With Halo Infinite intended for longevity through a live service model, this initial outing sets strong hopes for what is to come. Story gets its pass marks, for the most part, but when coming back to Halo Infinite it is always going to be for the exceptional gameplay on show here.
It has been a while since combat evolved quite so brilliantly and naturally, but with a cleansed slate 343i look to finally have found the tonic for their past troubles.
Final Score: 9/10