Halo Infinite's move to sort-of open world is a largely successful jumping off point for Halo's bold new future.
It's a leap of faith, Halo Infinite. 343 took that old, reliable Halo formula, that magic golden triangle of combat its predecessor perfected, and dared to spread it across a sort of open world. It could have gone horribly wrong. Based on how the campaign looked just a year ago, I thought it had done. But I'm delighted to report 343 stuck the landing - like Master Chief slamming into the new and mysterious Halo ring upon which Infinite is set.
I thought Halo 5: Guardians did a lot right, but I get the feeling 343 has tried to leave it behind as it plots out Halo's future. Infinite is a spiritual reboot of the franchise, set chronologically after the controversial events of Halo 5, but taking inspiration from Bungie's seminal Halo: Combat Evolved not just in gameplay feel, but in tone, aesthetic and setting.
It's initially bemusing, too - and I say that as a Halo fan who's read one of the books. Infinite starts with Master Chief floating in space near Zeta Halo, one of the oldest and most mysterious Halo rings in the galaxy. A pilot drags him into a Pelican and dusts him off. "Status report," Master Chief asks in typical matter-of-fact fashion. Infinite spends the next 15 or so hours procrastinating before it makes a serious attempt at providing an answer.
Six months have passed since a war took place on Zeta Halo between the UNSC and the Banished, an offshoot of the Covenant alien force led by a particularly grumpy War Chief called Escharum. It's not clear what happened, why it happened or who it happened to, but Master Chief ends up fighting his way off a Banished spaceship and landing on Zeta Halo to spark a fightback.
Halo fans will feel right at home here - this setup mimics Halo: Combat Evolved's iconic opening handful of missions. Silent Cartographer, one of the greatest first-person shooter missions ever created, courses through Halo Infinite's veins - and it's all the better for it.
Master Chief's initial mission is to retrieve The Weapon, an AI that was built to defeat Cortana and then, once done, delete herself. For some reason this didn't happen. The Weapon becomes Master Chief's companion, a relentlessly chirpy voice in his head and, quite often, holographic projection that pops out from his hand to make doors open.
It's not long before Halo Infinite settles down and you understand the kind of game it is. You are placed on the broken bit of Zeta Halo, which is riddled with Banished who are up to no good. Comparisons to Ubisoft open-worlds are only valid in so much as there are objectives on the map to hoover up, but Halo Infinite's play space is nowhere near as big as those you get from an Assassin's Creed or a Far Cry. And it's not truly open-world, either. The various "islands" of the ring are initially unconnected - there's an element of Metroid Prime here in that as you complete key story missions you unlock new abilities and new areas to explore. Eventually the entire world becomes yours to traverse as you see fit, but the journey there isn't quite Breath of the Wild.
I think this is a good decision, given Halo Infinite's heavy reliance on its wonderful combat. Oh, the combat! This is as good as Halo's combat has been since Bungie left the franchise behind for Destiny. It's easily 343's best work, a back to basics approach to fighting aliens that leans heavily on delightful physics systems colliding with each other. The vast majority of the weapons feel and sound spot on, and have their place within the sandbox (even the much-maligned Disrupter has its use). Master Chief's iconic assault rifle peppers enemies with bullets like a drummer rasping a snare. There are even a few fan-favourite weapons that make a welcome return from previous entries in the series.
The best way to explain Infinite's fighting is to say it makes you feel like you're a super soldier running amok. The combat bowls are spread out across the map, so you can pick and choose your battles and how you approach them, but Halo Infinite is at its best when Master Chief leaps into the fray, against insurmountable odds, and cleans house. Halo Infinite, brilliantly, reassuringly, satisfyingly, makes combat work on this brave new world. What was it Rorschach said in The Watchmen? "You're locked up in here with me." It's like that, but across the broken shards of a Halo ring instead of a prison.
343 has, smartly I think, littered Zeta Halo with power coils of varying potency. These exploding barrels are freely available for you to shoot, lob and generally have a blast with. Chuck one into a group of Banished and watch the sparks fly. Infinite has a lot of sparks! It makes no sense that these coils should even be here. If I were the Banished and I knew Master Chief was out to get me, the first thing I'd do is hide all the things that he's likely to use to blow me up - perhaps even accidentally.
There's a purple coil over there - I'm going to pull it towards me like Scorpion doing his famous "Get over here!" move. Yep, Master Chief has a fun new toy: the grappleshot. This expertly executed plaything turns Master Chief into a tanky Spider-Man. Pull yourself to enemies, pull guns towards you, fling yourself into the air then fire a rocket at your victims. Even better, grapple onto a vehicle, boot out its pilot and devastate the combat bowl below. Leap out before the vehicle blows up and grapple towards a Brute for a melee finisher to the face. It's the heroic death Craig deserves.
The grappleshot is so good it's easy to forget Master Chief's other new toys, such as the thruster and the threat sensor. They're always available at the push of a couple of buttons, but I hardly ever use them because the grappleshot feels so essential and, simply, it's more fun. And fun is the name of the game.
It's a good thing, too, because the campaign can at times feel repetitive and, during its final third, a bit of a slog. There are a few things contributing to this, I think. The first is that Halo Infinite is confined to just the one biome. That northwestern United States environment, classic Halo of course with its trees and streams and hills and cliffs, is only broken up by Forerunner-built interiors you visit during main quest missions (got to love those Forerunner doors, though!). 343 adds variety with bespoke Banished outposts, but these play spaces don't set the world on fire. Infinite is set on and inside a Halo ring and you get what you'd expect from that.
Then there are pacing problems. Halo Infinite is packed with side missions and collectibles that unlock weapon variants, new vehicles you can spawn and more powerful abilities (you can improve that wonderful grappleshot, for example), but they're not interesting or exciting beyond the thrill of gameplay. Rescue a group of UNSC prisoners, liberate a Forward Operating Base (FOB), kill a high-value Banished target - these optional objectives are a tad one-note.
Main quest missions offer a more traditional, linear Halo campaign experience with some brilliant set-pieces, but these are mostly set within interior locations. And some of the main quests feel like busywork. There's a lot of 'go here and do this' to Infinite's campaign. At one point you have to repeat the same objective four times inside four identical Forerunner structures placed across the map. 343 hasn't quite managed to create a truly memorable Halo mission outside on the open world, which is a shame.
The story is complete nonsense, too. Alas, such is Halo! Ancient aliens and rampant AIs who whisper in riddles while Master Chief hardly talks at all. Escharum, the big bad guy, periodically turns up in ginormous holographic form to taunt Master Chief like a bulging WWE wrestler trash-talking before a bout. That Master Chief never responds is kind of hilarious. There's a cutscene where one key character bares their soul to Master Chief. All Master Chief does during this "conversation" is keep schtum, but that silence is enough to spark a dramatic confession. I'm kind of impressed - Master Chief would make a good journalist, I think.
And Infinite has that thing some games have where everything the story has you do is basically the work of an engineer. Master Chief brings loads of guns to the job, as is his want, but you do spend hours listening to The Weapon tell you she doesn't quite understand why a thing is doing the thing it's doing, but you should definitely blow it up anyway while she works to sort it out. Master Chief always agrees without saying a word, and off you trot, plasma grenade in hand. Things certainly do happen in the story, but I wasn't that bothered by any of it beyond the challenge it posed, the spectacle of my surroundings and the thrill of the fight. I found the ending an exercise in frustration, failing to properly answer the burning questions Infinite poses, instead opting to set up what I suspect will be story DLC coming later. This Halo is Infinite, remember.
The key question I had about Halo Infinite's campaign after playing it for preview was whether it had the kind of spark needed to justify the shift to sort-of open-world. Why explore if there's nothing interesting to be found? Thankfully, I think that spark is in Halo Infinite, although you have to work to find it.
On a few occasions, amid the hoovering up of map icons, I stumbled across unmarked areas of interest: caves and Forerunner rooms that warranted a closer look. 343 has dabbled in environmental storytelling in some of these spaces, and they made me wonder what else the ring might have to offer. I won't spoil any of these here - the magic is in their discovery. But the point is they are there. And there are a few hidden surprises for Halo fans, too, which is lovely.
This is the main reason why I jumped straight back into Halo Infinite's campaign after I finished it. Somewhere between those map icons is tantalising mystery, and that's what Silent Cartographer was all about, wasn't it? Being on an alien world, not knowing the whys or the hows or the whos. Working things out while finishing the fight. Halo Infinite, underneath it all, is about just that.
And, if nothing else, you can always rely on that golden triangle - Master Chief and his gun, grenade and Gravity Hammer - this time on your own terms, the best it's been in a decade.
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