As the franchise celebrates its twentieth year, the latest Halo arrives at a make or break moment. Since taking stewardship of Halo, 343 Industries has struggled to put their own stamp on the formula. Halo 4 and 5 took gameplay and story in new directions, but in ways that disrupted Halo’s infamous “golden triangle” of guns-grenades-melee, not always for the better.
There are crushing expectations on Halo Infinite. It has to be a spiritual reboot that’s accessible for new players. It has to refine a formula that’s felt rudderless AND add an open world layer to Halo’s traditionally linear campaigns. And the writing must contend with the severed bonds between Master Chief and his AI partner Cortana that have served as the franchise’s emotional core.
Halo Infinite’s six years of development were trailed by murmurs of trouble and had me deeply worried, appearing at a distance like a wounded Banshee trailing smoke before it crashes. Amazing then that 343 Industries sticks the landing, with the Master Chief popping the hatch open and striding with resolute confidence.
Infinite begins with the Chief picking up the pieces of a massive UNSC defeat over the mysterious Zeta Halo. Comatose and drifting for months, the Chief is awoken by a marooned pilot and barely has time to get his bearings before taking the fight to new foes: The Banished, a splinter faction of the Covenant foes of old.
The best of Halo Infinite’s gameplay innovations is available right from the start: the Grapple Shot, a versatile grappling hook that can be used to zip around and traverse maps, dive into cover, grab weapons, gear, or explosive power coils from a distance, or even pull the Chief towards an enemy trooper or vehicle for a devastating melee attack or hijack.
It’s a credit to the designers how well the Grapple Shot slots into Halo’s golden triangle, allowing the Chief to quickly zip to flanking or optimal shooting range, grab more guns, turn the environment into new weapons or zip close into melee.
The polish put into the Grapple Shot elevate it from mere gimmick, and it’s a credit to 343’s designers how well it slots into Halo’s golden triangle, allowing the Chief to quickly zip to flanking or optimal shooting range, grab more guns, turn the environment into new weapons or zip close into melee. Familiar weapons and foes combined with great gunplay and modern maneuvers like terrain mantling and powerslides make Infinite feel great.
The opening act also introduces players to their new companions: the traumatized and anxious Pilot, and the chipper and awkward AI companion known as The Weapon. All this before Infinite introduces players to the series’ new twist, the semi-open world surface of Zeta Halo.
It’s here on Zeta Halo where Chief begins his war against the Banished. The Master Chief can rescue UNSC squads under Banished attack, shut down installations across the drifting “islands” of its shattered surface, or recapture Forward Operating Base platforms to create resupply and fast travel nodes for his (mostly) one-man guerrilla campaign.
Zeta Halo’s semi-open world is the most intriguing addition to the Halo formula. Rather than fundamentally mess with the micro of Halo’s golden triangle as in recent installments, Infinite innovates with the macro playing field of the campaign, breaking up traditional missions with a freeform environment. It’s as much a gigantic combat playground as it is an open world to explore, and the traditions of Halo shine, such as the joyously janky vehicle physics of the Warthog truck and the simple fun of just hoofing it around rolling hills or the new traversal options of the grappleshot.
The open world channels some of the magic of the best missions of the original Halo, such as the magnificent Silent Cartographer which balanced vehicle-friendly open spaces with built up wilds and indoor settings to encourage different types of firefights and playstyles, with vehicular mayhem, sneaking, and close quarters combat transitioning seamlessly into a glorious whole.
The open world channels some of the magic of the best missions of the original Halo, encouraging different playstyles, with vehicular mayhem, sneaking, and close quarters combat transitioning seamlessly into a glorious whole.
At the same time, the open world environment doesn’t feel too dense. There are reasons to go on foot or by vehicle, but you aren’t thrown a torrent of map icons, side missions, and busywork. There’s a satisfying density, but map completionism isn’t strictly necessary: you can move from story mission to story mission without needing to pick up every side quest or extra weapon to proceed.
The open world maintains interesting tension with the linear story missions. Some of the best moments are when open world and linear environments blend together. An early mission has you storming a fortified Banished prison tower. You enter from the open world with the freedom to choose to storm through the gates with a vehicle, sneak about sides, or bring in a squad of marines for a small-unit firefight. You’ll inevitably find yourself in a claustrophobic battle within the tower itself, blasting through mooks to get to the head jailer and his prisoner. Other story moments where the demarcation between mission dungeons and open environments aren’t quite as smooth, but there are moments, as at the prison tower, and later on in the mission called The Road to the House of Reckoning where it sings.
The biggest casualty of Infinite’s move to an open world structure between missions is the ability to replay the story missions themselves. One of my favorite aspects of previous Halo games has been replaying discrete chunks of the campaign, tweaking the difficulty, skull mutators, and figuring out new ways through a level or trying out new playstyles. The open world structure nixes that aspect of the campaign, and the only way to replay a story mission is to start a new campaign entirely. Halo’s mutator skulls, fun collectibles that change the fundamental rules of the game, also feel like an afterthought in Infinite, with players only able to turn them on by reloading the game, disabling open world progress and achievements in the process.
Another weakness of Infinite’s open world is the lack of environment diversity. While Zeta Halo is wonderful at generating varied combat encounters, the hills, trees, and Forerunner hex-pillars get pretty monotonous. The views can be spectacular especially in the golden hour as shadow and light spills across the wilderness and archaeotech megastructures, but biome variety is lacking in the slice of the ring that you fight over, a temperate pine forest that’s a far cry from the mix of jungle, arctic highland, desert, and archipelago we’ve seen in previous Halos, and it’s a lack I’d love to see addressed in future expansions.
A weakness of Infinite’s open world is the lack of environment diversity. While Zeta Halo is wonderful at generating varied combat encounters, the hills, trees, and Forerunner hex-pillars get pretty monotonous.
Infinite has done what some feared to be impossible, adding fundamentally new elements to Halo while bringing back the series’ core gameplay magic. The other tall order that 343 Industries needs to fulfill is the reintroduction of Master Chief to new and returning players while identifying a new emotional core to drive him forward.
In previous games, the sardonic Cortana and the laconic Master Chief played off wonderfully against each other, and the battle-forged bond between the two possesses a genuine intimacy. Cortana’s “death” at the end of Halo 4 was a heart-rending moment, and her return and heel turn as nemesis in Guardians was a fascinating direction for the series, but left the Master Chief emotionally unmoored. Laconic characters work when you’ve got someone to bounce quiet quips off of, but are otherwise quiet emotionally constipated shells without that.
Enter The Weapon. This new AI partner in Infinite is an eager companion, always curious and endearingly so; a young mind finding beauty in every Forerunner wonder and super-weapon you stumble over. She’s also an information warfare tool built to find, trap and destroy the rogue Cortana.
The contrast between her super-intelligent child-like wonder and her mission adds tension to her relationship with Chief, still hurting from Cortana’s betrayal and now responsible for this little wunderkind AI so like his old partner, and yet also tasked with her destruction. This tension is not one-sided though, as the Weapon still seeks to earn Chief’s trust. It’s from her inability to understand his pain – stemming as it does from his self-perceived failure to protect Cortana – and how it plays off his fear of helplessness that the most layered interactions between them emerge.
The dynamic between The Weapon and Chief resets the core relationship for this Halo from romantic to paternal. Yeah, Halo Infinite is a dad game. The Weapon and your other companion, the pilot Echo-216, a nervous, anxious wreck of a man traumatized by the UNSC’s defeat, force the Chief to confront his insecurities and failures, giving some human moments for the normally quiet quip-machine to build new connections. It doesn’t always work, and some resolutions feel too easy, but it breathes new life to Halo storytelling.
The dynamic between The Weapon and Chief resets the core relationship for this Halo from romantic to paternal. Yeah, Halo Infinite is a dad game, and forces the Chief to confront his insecurities and failures. It doesn’t always work, but it breathes new life to Halo storytelling.
I wish there was more work done with the villains you face in the campaign though. Your primary antagonist, Escharum, spends a lot of time monologuing at the Master Chief and there’s a satisfying villainous rumble to him. The great stage presence he demonstrates on holoscreens evokes the malevolent charm of a pro-wrestling heel relishing his role. There’s an attempt to cast Escharum as a dark mirror to the Master Chief: an old warrior concerned about legacy and in search for one last glorious battle, but it feels shoehorned in too late in the storytelling. So while he’s a satisfying foe to pit the Chief against (and a wonderful boss battle) the attempt to build depth or pathos in Escharum comes too late to have a solid effect.
Your other main antagonist, the Harbinger of Truth, is left too much of an enigma with a nebulous resolution in the endgame. Story previews of the Harbinger promised much mystery, but what you get is…well, not a lot. Infinite’s finale is a fantastic array of set piece battles in true Halo fashion, but the ending feels far too open-ended, even for this series lorehound. Part of this is I assume an element in the plan to make Halo Infinite a platform for Halo’s future, a foundation that can be expanded upon with more campaigns and content. I just hope we’re not left hanging for six years for the next part of this story like we were at the end of Halo Guardians.
Halo Infinite is fantastic. It reclaims a lot of Halo’s old magic. The moment to moment mayhem you unleash as the Master Chief feels incredibly satisfying, a power fantasy freedom that the open world element of the game builds upon without unnecessarily crowding with busy work. The dad game narrative direction is an interesting direction to take the Master Chief, and the Weapon is an endearing companion to have and one who I’d love to see mature with the series.
While the big picture story of the sins of the Forerunners and the threat posed by the mysterious Endless isn’t resolved well, the character beats between the Chief, the Weapon, and the Pilot come to a satisfying conclusion. It’s fantastic to see 343 Industries demonstrate they can make an unambiguously “Halo” game. Infinite’s free to play multiplayer was a fantastic tease of the single player campaign’s gunplay and gameplay, and Infinite’s campaign module delivers.
Halo Infinite is the shot in the arm the franchise needed, and with plans to make it a platform for more releases down the line, I’m excited to see what’s next for the Reclaimer Saga.
Halo Infinite (Campaign)
About The Score
An impressive accomplishment. This amazing game will likely endure as a classic of its genre and easily a highlight of the year.
Halo's “golden triangle” of guns, grenades, and melee has never felt better.
Zeta Halo is a wonderful open world combat playground.
New emotional dynamic makes for fresh storytelling
Zeta Halo is one big temperate forest that could use more variety
Story missions can't be replayed.
Skull mutator collectibles, a series staple, feel like an afterthought