Evaluation: ‘Halo Infinite’ is the very best single-player recreation but from 343 Industries

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Master Chief, 2021 edition, and the Weapon. (Halo Infinite screenshot)

Halo Infinite‘s campaign, in its best moments, makes me remember why Halo became popular in the first place. At its worst, it feels like it’s going through the motions, content to invoke nostalgia and sustain the brand. I had a complicated reaction to it.

This is the third original game in the core Halo series by the Kirkland, Wash.-based 343 Industries, a first-party Xbox studio. Halo was originally created by Bungie, which split from Microsoft in 2007 and ceased working on Halo after 2010’s Halo: Reach. Microsoft subsequently founded 343 to continue work on the Halo franchise.

Infinite is the final game in Halo‘s informal “Reclaimer Trilogy,” a new plotline that began in 2012 with Halo 4. Under 343’s development, Halo‘s multiplayer has been as good as it’s ever been, but its campaigns have been in rough shape. I played Halo 4 and 5 in preparation for Infinite, and didn’t really care for either; Halo 4‘s campaign comes off like it was made as a contractual obligation, while Halo 5 tries to do some new things but doesn’t stick the landing.

Infinite, by comparison, feels like 343 made a deliberate attempt to boil Halo down to its essentials, then build on that foundation. It’s meant as a “spiritual reboot” for the series, continuing Halo‘s story but hitting a reset switch on its overall gameplay.

It seems to have worked. Infinite‘s campaign mode is easily the best single-player Halo campaign that 343 has made yet, with a few levels that are among the best in series history. It’s still got a few lingering issues, though, not least of which is how obviously it’s servicing the Halo brand.

Sequel hook

It’s my sniper’s nest now, lunch meat! (Halo Infinite screenshot)

If I had to describe the appeal of Halo Infinite as simply as possible, I’d say “It’s Halo, but now you have a grappling hook.”

If you’ve ever played a Halo campaign before, you should be on familiar ground with Infinite right from the start. You’re once again playing as the Master Chief, up against a force of ex-Covenant aliens, fighting across the surface of one of the ancient alien Halo rings that gives the series its name.

The first of two big differences between Infinite and the previous games in the series is its relative flexibility, courtesy of the grappling hook. You start the game with it, and it immediately redefines how Halo‘s combat works. With the hook, you can scale walls, get onto high ledges, grab distant objects, zipline yourself out of (or into) danger, or pull yourself straight towards an enemy so you can chin-check him with a rifle butt.

You can say a lot of things about the Master Chief, but he’s never been particularly fast or agile, and the grappling hook addresses that. You can even use it to jump onto and hijack enemy vehicles, which is a huge tactical upgrade. I used to hate seeing an enemy Banshee in Halo 4, but in Infinite, I get to hookshot right onto them and kick their pilot in the face.

You can also upgrade the grappling hook into a giant taser, which I can’t stop using. (Halo Infinite image)

I’d go so far as to call the grappling hook the single best thing about Infinite, and I would pay an exorbitant amount of money to have it added to past Halo games as DLC. Even if I could only use it for deviant anti-aircraft purposes, it’d be worth it.

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There are several other pieces of equipment you can find and equip to the Master Chief’s armor, such as a threat detector that counters enemies’ active camouflage and a portable energy shield. They’ve got their uses, especially once cloaked assassins start to come after you, but they don’t have the sheer utility of the grappling hook. As such, I disavow them.

The other big difference between Infinite and its predecessors is that much of its setting, the previously-unexplored Zeta Halo, is also open for exploration. In a first for the Halo series, you’re given downtime between major story missions where you can roam freely across the surface of Zeta Halo, which 343 has said is the biggest map it’s ever built. Zeta Halo is full of secrets, challenges, upgrades, optional fights, and Easter eggs, with a lot to see and do, and a lot of flexibility about how you get around each zone.

And by “a lot,” I mean “running over Jackals in a Banished crotch rocket.” (Halo Infinite screenshot)

That map’s also a little disappointing. While Halo Infinite‘s open world is a solid implementation of the overall concept, it’s also exactly the same implementation as a hundred other games that have come out in the last five years.

In each new part of Infinite‘s map, you capture operating bases to take territory back from the Banished, which unlocks that base as a fast-travel point and reveals nearby points of interest on your map. It’s the same process of gradual takeover seen in Spider-Man, Ghost of Tsushima, and Far Cry 3, 4, 5, and 6, just to name a few other open-world games. At this point it’s ascended to cliché.

Seriously, it’s Assassin’s Creed IV all over again. There’s probably a Piece of Eden somewhere on Zeta Halo. (Halo Infinite screenshot)

This is, I should admit, one of those complaints that only makes sense if you play a lot of video games. For normal people who only play a few games per year, this is a perfectly fine approach to an open-world mechanic. It’s got a nice sense of accomplishment to it, and every base comes with a free opportunity to do something insane during your assault.

As someone who plays way too many games, as it is ostensibly my job, I would’ve liked to have seen Infinite do something new and unusual with the mechanic. In its current state, it feels like Infinite‘s open world is only there due to market forces.

It doesn’t help that Infinite has a bizarre reward structure in place. Whenever you finish any mission, you’re given Valor points, which gradually unlock more weapons, vehicles, and allies for on-demand access at any base you control. This is initially almost useless, but then you gain the ability to whistle up a Scorpion tank whenever you want one and you now rule Zeta Halo.

A complaint that might be unique to me

Now I’ve got a rocket launcher, and I will make somebody pay. (Halo Infinite screenshot)

What’s weird about the Valor mechanic is that it’s got a couple of useless rewards on it, most of which are CPU-controlled human marines.

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In general, Infinite seems to think that having a posse of marines with you is more of a benefit than it actually is. One of the open-world objectives is to rescue squads from behind enemy lines, soldiers often show up in captivity in alien bases, and every operating base you capture ends up staffed by a few marines who’ll fixate on you like baby ducks.

Those marines, to a man, are enthusiastic, reckless, and incredibly fragile. The moment any serious fight starts, you are almost guaranteed to lose most if not all of your marines to stray explosions. There’s even a loading-screen tooltip that says, point-blank, that marines don’t do well against any alien stronger than a basic Grunt, which raises the question of why I’d want to take them with me at all.

This is a problem I’ve had with Halo since Combat Evolved. The second leading cause of death in the United Nations Space Command is “following the Master Chief,” and then I get to feel like a jerk for leading them into harm’s way. If you’re going to make marines follow me around, I should at least be able to give them direct orders, up to and including “Go back to base.”

The marines aren’t entirely useless, particularly if you give them sniper rifles or rocket launchers — I had a great moment in Infinite where an enemy tried to jetpack out of danger and one of my marines immediately shot him out of the air with a guided rocket — but they’ve never been the assets that Halo keeps pretending they are. It’s this weird piece of 2001-era design that’s somehow lingered throughout the entire series to date, and as long as it was refining its gameplay, Infinite would’ve done well to fix that.

While I’m at it, it’s also obnoxious that Infinite‘s enemies all have exactly two states: they either don’t know you’re there, or have an unbreakable radar lock on you. Even if you fire a shot at them from maximum distance, every surviving enemy near the bullet impact will immediately know your exact location. It’s the kind of omniscient AI that I haven’t seen in a shooter for years.

The story so far

Grunts have a methane tank on their back that explodes pleasingly when shot. (Halo Infinite image)

Halo Infinite starts off in medias res. The human starship Infinity is in orbit above Zeta Halo with the Master Chief on board when it’s abruptly attacked by the Banished, a splinter faction of Covenant aliens that were previously introduced in 2017’s Halo Wars 2.

During the fight, the Master Chief takes on the Banished’s leader Atriox and is promptly punched into a coma. Six months later, a human survivor finds the Chief floating unconscious in space, saved by the systems in his armor, and wakes him up.

In those six months, the Infinity has been destroyed, both it and its remaining crew are scattered across Zeta Halo, and the Banished are in full control of the Halo’s surface. As any Halo is also a superweapon with a range of 25,000 light years, the Banished now effectively have a gun pointed right at Earth. The Chief heads to Zeta Halo to do what he can about that.

You may have noticed that this very abbreviated summary of Infinite‘s opening didn’t mention Cortana at all, who was last seen going full-blown galactic dictator in the cliffhanger at the end of Halo 5. It looked at the time like the sixth Halo game would be a bitter confrontation between Cortana and the Master Chief with the universe on the line.

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That is not what Infinite is initially about. Instead, it skips ahead to a new chapter without warning, throwing the Chief into a struggle against the Banished which doesn’t have an obvious connection to the events of Halo 5 at all. I was sure, after I cleared Infinite‘s first two missions, that I’d missed something important, and spent the better part of an afternoon on a Halo lore deep dive trying to figure out what novel or comic I’d need to read to understand what was happening. It turned out that wasn’t the problem.

You do end up getting an early hint as to what’s happened to Cortana early on, when you retrieve a new AI from Zeta Halo, the Weapon, which was made as part of the plan to take Cortana down. This isn’t really a spoiler, as it’s been in official trailers for over a month (above).

The Weapon is a great character, played by Cortana’s actress Jen Taylor as a cheerful newbie with an IQ like a zip code, but I spent my first couple of hours with Infinite wondering why she existed. You do fill in the rest of the story’s blanks by playing Infinite through to its end, which is worth your time, but the way the game starts is a baffling creative decision. This is the biggest video game anticlimax since Resident Evil killed off its primary antagonist in RE4‘s opening credits.

Final word

Another thing I like: kills get confirmed on your HUD. (Halo Infinite screenshot)

Infinite has one thing in common with the original Halo trilogy, maybe the most important thing, which I didn’t experience during my time with Halo 4 or 5.

Every so often, there’s a moment where everything onscreen just clicks. You find the right weapon for the job, a desperate plan actually works, an enemy walks right into your trap, or what-have-you. Halo was built from the start to create that kind of dynamic, freeform, immersive combat, and Infinite has a firm grasp on that.

At the same time, though, Infinite comes off like there might’ve been a few too many marketing folks in the writers’ room. When it’s at its worst, it’s very much Halo presented as a product, packed fat with all the safe and familiar aspects that you’ve grown to recognize over the last 20 years.

Even beyond its deliberate nods to Combat Evolved, Infinite‘s got a lot of obnoxious little references to its own franchise’s history, from tooltips to idle banter to musical stings, each of which put a fist right through whatever sense of immersion I’d managed to build. When a nearby marine told the Master Chief he was looking “iconic as always,” I nearly shut the game off.

That’s led to my lasting impression of, and final word on, Halo Infinite. It’s closer to Halo‘s peak than the series has been for some time, but it doesn’t have the innovation or random weirdness that put Halo on the pop-culture map to begin with. Instead, Infinite is a solid overall shooter with some great moments, some obnoxious branding, and a few missed opportunities.

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