Stepping Back To Move Forward
Twenty years into the evolution of Xbox, no game evokes the brand quite like Halo. It was there from day one, and even after twenty years of industry changes, it is the Xbox game. In recent years though, really since the departure of the series’ creators at Bungie, Halo has felt adrift, without an identity. The last several Halo titles weren’t bad, but they also weren’t the sort of game that left players demanding more.
Halo Infinite turns this around, mostly by reverting to what the series is known for. Gone are most of the characters and gameplay changes we’ve seen in recent titles. Instead, this is Halo, as you remember it, with a few new twists. And while it might not be ideal that a twenty-year-old series is only finding its footing thanks to reverting to what’s worked in the past, in this case, it feels a lot like coming home.
Back To Basics
This time out, there’s no new protagonist or attempt to get away from what Halo is known for. Infinite puts you in the shoes of the Master Chief, in a story deeply tied to Halo lore, pulling in elements from the extended universe and having strong ties to even the Halo Wars games. While things are often big and bombastic, involving a Halo ring and a huge war, at its core, this is about the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana, the two most important characters in the series.
For being about their relationship, though, you won’t see a lot of Cortana early on. Instead, the Chief is joined by a new AI called The Weapon. The moment-to-moment emotional core of the game is about their growing relationship, trust, and what drives different people to go to war. A pilot who saves the Master Chief’s life early on is along for the ride, creating a strong central trio who drives the plot.
Early on, you’ll likely be confused. After an opening that feels like the middle or end of something else, you’ll wake up six months later with things in disarray. It’s easy to feel like you missed something, or aren’t remembering parts of the last game. Don’t worry, this is intentional. A lot of Halo Infinite’s campaign is spent reconstructing a past mission that didn’t go the way you intended. While the Master Chief knows a bit more than the player, even he’s piecing things together and figuring out how things got the way they are.
Opening Things Up
Instead of changing how Halo plays, 343 Industries instead decided to change how you play Halo this time around. Unlike past titles in the series, Halo Infinite drops you into an open world, an entire Halo ring for you to explore. Well, sort of. After a couple of very linear missions to start the game you’ll emerge into a vast world you can explore, with tons of side content to take on. This isn’t the sort of world where you can just go anywhere and do anything, though. Story missions still occur in a very specific order; this isn’t a situation where you can tackle major tasks in any order though a few specific missions give you multiple objectives you can take on as you see fit. You’ll be locked to new areas frequently as well, meaning that you should put off the story missions until you’re ready to move on from your current location. It’s less one big open world and more a series of multiple open areas.
Those areas give you a lot to do, though. Take over enemy bases, rescue squads of humans in trouble, track down high-value targets who need dealing with, and of course, hunt for secrets like the series’ signature skulls or locate a bunch of audio logs which help fill in the Master Chief’s missing six months. Bases allow you to summon specific troops, vehicles, and other useful things as you go deeper into the game and complete more activities. There’s a real sense of progression throughout the game. While you can certainly run through Halo Infinite without engaging with a lot of this, you’ll be missing out on a lot of the best parts. These missions offer a sense of creativity and openness that isn’t always present in the main campaign missions.
A Few New Tricks
While Halo Infinite works hard to adhere to the Halo formula, almost to a fault, it does add a few new options, which thankfully pay off. You’ll unlock four special Spartan abilities throughout the game, such as a motion tracker to help you find hidden foes and a drop wall that allows you to create your own cover when there’s no natural cover available. These options are excellent, though it is a bit awkward to switch between them on the fly. These new tools show up in multiplayer, too, though there you’ll have to gather them, and they won’t replenish on their own. Spartan cores you gather allow you to upgrade these abilities and your armor, adding a bit of progression and customization to your version of the Master Chief.
Easily the best of these new additions is the grappleshot. This grappling hook has a wide range of uses both in combat and exploration and feels downright essential throughout the game. You’ll find areas you simply can’t get to without it and others where the best way to enter and take enemies by surprise will be to use it. Outside of moving around different areas, it can get you out of trouble in a pinch. While running in certain situations may just get you shot in the back, a well-timed grapple can send you swinging through the air or around cover, making you much harder to hit in the process. It even has combat uses. Pull weapons to you, knock down enemy shields, pull yourself to a foe, and melee them when you get there, you can do a ton with it, and it fits in perfectly with the rest of Halo’s mechanics.
Back On Track
When you do get down to the actual campaign missions, you’ll find a solid set of objectives that at times mix in the game’s open-world mechanics, but which perhaps feel the strain of shipping a game of this size. Through fifteen missions, the Master Chief will go through a wide variety of objectives on his way to take on The Banished and figure out what happened to Cortana. There are some genuinely excellent ones with high stakes, challenging enemies, and which make strong use of the game’s more open areas. Boss battles, in particular, are a highlight, sending fierce opponents at you who you’ll need to use your full arsenal against to come out on top.
A bit too often, though, these missions devolve into walking through endless identical-looking corridors and later on spitting you out into large but generic rooms filled with indistinct foes for you to slaughter. A lot of the middle and second half of Halo Infinite’s campaign runs together, though it ends well. A few more bravura moments, highlights to remember long into the future, could have really pushed this forward. An increased focus on vehicles, long a significant part of Halo’s identity but here mostly pushed aside outside of a few missions or as a means of traversal, might have helped. As is, the excellent gameplay and ability to get creative in combat keep things from growing stale, but it also doesn’t reach the heights some of the series’ best campaigns have.
Party Like Its 2007
While players will have fun with the campaign, most will spend the vast majority of their time with Halo Infinite online. This is easily the best multiplayer experience I’ve had with Halo in years and my favorite online shooter since Apex Legends. Featuring a wide variety of modes and options, things are kept fresh, and the massive number of new and returning guns and vehicles will allow every player to find their own style.
Right now, you have two main ways to play, though already we’ve seen a special event mixing things up. Quick play drops you into a four on four match while big team battle increases that to twelve vs. twelve. Somehow after playing for dozens of hours, I don’t have a favorite yet. Smaller-scale matches are great for when I have a shorter time to play and just want to knock a few games out, while the enormous maps and vehicular focus of big team battle feels the most like Halo.
I want to make a special point of calling out the absolutely fantastic map design on display here. Maps large and small are filled with interesting choke points, ways to slip past foes, secrets to be found and exploited. There’s no map that I dread coming up in a match. I can’t remember the last time I could say that about an online shooter. The balance is outstanding, and while the new features do make an impact, it feels so familiar that it only took an hour or so before I started to feel my skills coming back, even after nearly a decade since the last time I put significant time into multiplayer Halo.
Complaints about progression have been rampant online, but 343 Industries have already made excellent moves to address fan concerns, significantly upping the rate of progression, which was very slow in the early days. A lot of the customization options fans love are locked behind either the paid battle pass or just need to be purchased, which is a bit of a bummer, but I have a harder time feeling angry about it when the game is this good, and the multiplayer is completely free to play. I don’t mind spending a few dollars to support a game this good. Even without that, I found just enough customization unlocked by default that I could put my own stamp on my character.
More playlists would definitely be nice, to allow you to pick the specific match type you want, but that’s on the way. Matches are quick to get into, and I have had no complaints about online performance. I actually had a bit more trouble with performance in single-player, where the entire game locked up on me several times, though it worked itself out with a bit of patience, and I never had to reset the game. My biggest complaint is that somehow a series as big as Halo hasn’t figured out how to work with the Xbox’s quick resume feature yet. Having to go out to the system menu and restart the game every time I turn my system on due to the game not seeing I’m online is a drag. It loads quickly enough, but the repetition gets old. A reconnect option in-game would seem an obvious inclusion, and I’m not sure why that’s not here.
What Isn’t Here
I’d be doing fans a disservice if I didn’t spend a moment talking about what isn’t in Halo Infinite today, but I also don’t want to labor over it too much. When a series is twenty years old, fans have an expectation about what modes and options will show up in a new entry, and that’s perfectly fair. Some of the modes that didn’t make it to launch, despite a year’s delay, are disappointing. There’s a risk in focusing too much on what isn’t here, though that it will overshadow the fantastic game that is, and I wouldn’t want that. Halo Infinite is an outstanding game in 2021. We can only hope that 343 Industries will keep working to make it an even better one in 2022.
Still, I would love to play this with friends. The co-op has, for many, been the defining way to make it to the end of Halo campaigns, and no version of it being available at launch is a shame. Even two-player would have been nice for those who would instead work together than compete. I’m a little more forgiving of the Forge, Halo’s powerful creative tool, being missing at launch. While in the long term, it should hopefully be an important part of the game, there’s enough here at launch to keep players busy. When that starts to not be the case, hopefully, the Forge will arrive to keep things fresh.
Halo Infinite isn’t a perfect game. It has some rough edges, and you can absolutely feel at times where compromises had to be made to get it out this holiday season. Normally I’d want a game to take its time and release when it’s ready, but this is a case where I’m glad the developers didn’t do so. A year from now, Halo Infinite may be even better than it is today, but right now, it’s still one of the best games of 2021. After many years of trying to find its footing, Halo is back on solid ground. While in the long term, a series of this age will need to try innovating again, after years of struggling to find the right feel, letting players come home to a game that simply feels like a modern version of what they love was the right choice.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Xbox Series X(reviewed), Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Xbox Game Studios; Developer: 343 Industries; Players: Up to 24 (online); Released: December 8th, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99 (campaign), free (multiplayer)
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Halo Infinite.