Halo Infinite's impressive multiplayer component is now available and based on what we've played in prior test flights, it's highly impressive. However, it's the campaigns that we really love to play and in the wake of last year's controversial gameplay trailer, 343 Industries chose to delay and rework the campaign significantly, re-revealing the single-player component only a couple of weeks back. Despite clear visual improvements, it didn't answer the key question: do we really need an open world Halo? Can a series defined by skilfully crafted combat encounters work in a sandbox format? After going hands-on with preview code, we're optimistic - but there's still significant work to do in polishing the game to perfection.
Let's quickly discuss what we can talk about in this preview phase. Essentially this boils down to the first four missions of the game, two of which introduce the new campaign and take place indoors, so yes, right away we can confirm that 'classic' Halo levels are present in the new game. We can also share our thoughts on a further two missions, both of which take place in the new Zeta Halo open world. Halo Infinite launches on all current and last-gen Xbox consoles and PC, but the code we had runs only on Xbox Series consoles. We'll be looking at all versions in a much more granular fashion closer to launch.
First impressions? We like it. The first brace of missions do not take place in the open world and what you get instead is a classic Halo introductory mission, reminiscent of Combat Evolved. The vast, grand architecture and Forerunner structures we're familiar with return, revamped with the new engine. They look impressive and play very well: Halo's combat has always felt terrific and we're happy to report that it's business as usual. There are impressive set-pieces too - a level breaks up in spectacular style and we're seeing something we've not seen before in a Halo game and it's a great way to introduce the new grapple hook.
In the initial stages we played, the open world also works - because it's not really delivering the kind of tired sandbox format that, say, Far Cry does. It's constricted, and we mean that in a good way. The basic lack of width on the halo itself stops the environment from being too vast and too sprawling, tight enough to funnel the player through a more controlled, curated experience. Think of it more as an Arkham-style game, or a very wide Crysis. Traversal across the world - often a tedious exercise in the modern sandbox game - is also well-handled. One of the earliest missions sees you capturing a base that spawns vehicles which facilitate fast and fun travel. The concept of capturing bases may evoke the weariest of open world tropes, but these look to be well-designed, with a wealth of strategies available in how you take them on. We've not seen too much of the core open world mechanics based on the limited amount of missions we can talk about in the preview, but what we've seen so far looks promising.
In terms of visuals, let's get the basics out of the way. Series X has two modes - quality and performance - which aims for a dynamic 4K in quality mode targeting 60fps, while performance targets 120fps instead, with a substantial cut to resolution. Series S is cut to a surprising degree. Quality mode looks to be 1080p at 30fps, while performance mode removes the frame-rate cap, allowing for up to 60fps at a dynamic 1080p. We'll go into depth on visuals in our full tech review, but the video embedded above should give the impression of a game that has improved massively since last year's reveal. Lighting and material quality is improved, the jarring level of detail pop-in is similarly addressed, and enemy modelling looks good.
However, while there is a big improvement in so many areas, there's the sense that the game still needs significant polish. Halo Infinite kicks off with a cinematic pre-rendered movie that's washed out in HDR and runs choppily, leaving a bad first impression in a game where we really want to see 343 put its best foot forward from the off. Gameplay is mostly very smooth, but cutscenes have profound issues. Interestingly, they do run at 60fps, but elements like camera motion and animation seem to run at arbitrary update rates - and it looks poor. Facial animation seems locked to 30fps, which doesn't make sense for a game that runs at up to 120fps. Looking back at Halo 5, the cutscenes may have been locked to 30fps but they exhibited none of the issues seen in Infinite. It's so jarring that we do wonder whether a 30fps cap may be the best temporary fix to eliminate the many visual discontinuities seen here - and the illusion of a game running its otherwise impressive cinematics at an inconsistent 30fps or even lower.
Watching these jerky cutscenes play out before transitioning seamlessly to a much smoother 60fps in-game just looks bizarre. However, crucially, the motion in-game is smooth and looks so much better, but even here there are issues: key animations like grappling, mantling, reloading, crouching and tossing grenades can all run at lower frame-rates than the game itself. So, while the game runs at a consistent level of performance, visual cues from the game itself don't, giving the perception of bad judder. We've seen problems like this resolved in The Master Chief Collection - in fact, latterly 343 Industries has done a good job in responding to feedback and fixing issues like this. While on the one hand, it's strange to see these problems manifest again in Halo Infinite, there is a high probability that they will be fixed.
And we hope that they are - and soon - because ultimately, the fundamentals are there. Halo's core combat mechanics are still thrilling, the art and the engine are looking great. Most reassuring of all perhaps is that the conceptual concerns we had about Halo transitioning to the open world have been largely abated now we finally have hands-on experience - and with that in mind we can go into the review process much more optimistically.
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