Halo Infinite, once the crown jewel of the Xbox Series X|S launch slate, is now almost ready to ship out with a whole year of extra development time under its wing. Two years ago, Halo was anchored as an Xbox console exclusive franchise with a couple of abandoned PC ports. It's hard to believe that now, the latest entry is launching simultaneously across all Microsoft platforms.
Developed by 343 Industries, it functions both as a direct sequel to Halo 5: Guardians and a soft reboot for the franchise so new players can jump in without worrying about missing out on two decades worth of games and lore. My journey with Halo has only been on PC. I've gone through all the mainline games ending at Halo 4 as well as the Halo Wars real-time strategy spin-offs. Without Halo 5 under my wing, I was interested to see how Infinite handles itself, also giving me a small glimpse at the new-player experience.
Halo Infinite does start fresh, offering a new AI ' The Weapon', a mysterious Halo ring, and a new enemy force, the Banished. It was still a bit of a doozy coming in straight from Halo 4. Cortana has gone from being Chief's greatest ally, to the universes' greatest threat, to just being gone. 343 Industries is trying new things here from a gameplay perspective as well like having much more open-ended environments and a Master Chief with a lot more agility.
My time with the Halo Infinite Campaign on PC has been one hell of a journey, definitely my most enjoyable gaming experience of the year. Here are my thoughts without story spoilers.
Halo Infinite begins with Master Chief stranded in space and getting rescued by The Pilot, the very expressive and rightfully exasperated companion Chief will rely on to remind him what he's fighting for throughout the story. Zeta Halo is the busted Halo ring the entire adventure takes place in. Save for some survivors and prisoners, the Banished had utterly decimated the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) human forces on the ring in the months Chief was MIA in space. With his fellow soldiers wiped out and the remaining legendary Spartans tortured and killed, the regret Master Chief feels for joining the fight so late and failing to save those who fought alongside him is shown mostly through actions, not words. Even the new MJOLNIR armor equipment Chief obtains like the Threat Sensor or Drop Wall are taken from his fallen comrades' bodies to keep a part of them with him. The big guy has never been the talkative type, but his moments of deliberate silence are felt deeply. 343 has done well to showcase his humanity.
As I mentioned before, Chief's AI partner in action this time is The Weapon, a cheery new artificial soul that's excited and intrigued about everything. Her overall ignorance surrounding the events and wars of the past is used as a vessel to retread through them, offering brand new players to the franchise or PC fans who never got to play Halo 5 (like me) summaries of what went down and how everything led to this point. It's a good tactic, but it does take hours of gameplay before some sections are explained in detail.
Chief's ability to inspire others even in hopeless situations is touched on heavily in the story. This is seen in the open world when interacting with NPC soldiers scattered around Zeta Halo, whose voices change from defeated to jubilated when they see the Master Chief rolling in to back them up. In peaceful stretches these UNSC soldiers share stories about hiding in caves for months eating scraps as the Banished took over, but with the re-appearance of their favorite Spartan, there's a chance at winning again.
The Banished are a new threat to the mainline series, but in Halo Wars 2, the RTS spin-off, they were a fantastic antagonist force led by Atriox. Essentially, it is a splinter faction of the original Covenant that broke off and waged war on their former masters, splitting the Covenant's forces between the human and Banished resistances, leading to their demise.
The Brute war chief Escharum leads Banished forces in Infinite, the mentor to the legendary Atriox. Being a challenge-loving Brute, he's even willing to let Master Chief retake parts of the ring to prove himself as a worthy adversary. Alone, Escharum would have served as a mildly amusing villain with another obsession towards monologs. However, Infinite throws in another antagonist, The Harbinger, an ancient being that somehow shares an ambition with Escharum. Escharum and The Harbinger's ultimate motives, Zeta Halo's mysteries, Cortana’s dark past, and a few more surprises keep the storyline's pace rolling and interest levels peaking at all times.
I have always loved the open-ended 'do what you want how you want' stages like the Silent Cartographer from past games, and Halo Infinite manages to deliver that experience so consistently, it's remarkable. To elevate things even further, our favorite super soldier is now more powerful than ever thanks to his latest armor equipment.
The best of the bunch is the Grappleshot, which fits like a glove (heh) on to Master Chief's playstyle and it is hands down the finest grappling hook I've ever used in a game. This is coming from someone who loves the Titanfall 2 grapple to death. Similar to that, the implementation in Halo Infinite allows you to make adjustments to the trajectory while being pulled using the direction keys and the mouse. Combining those, it's possible to travel great distances extremely fast by using the momentum of a swing instead of it simply being a point and shoot "take me here" type of resource. Hooking into an object like a weapon or a throwable container brings it back to the Chief, while grappling the environment, an enemy, or a vehicle pulls the Chief to the hooked point, allowing for a vast array of defensive and offensive strategies.
Spartan Cores are tucked away all across Zeta Halo and in story missions, a collectible allowing for useful upgrades for Master Chief's MJOLNIR suit. Right after the game opens up into Zeta Halo, enough Spartan Points are handed out to upgrade the grappling hook for a lower cooldown or the energy shield for more survivability depending on your playstyle. Obviously, my choice was the grapple, and oh boy was it the correct one.
The upgraded gadget lowered the cooldown by 40%, offering a hook every 3 seconds. This was the moment I realized the breadth of its usage, like when Breath of the Wild lets you know anything is a climbable surface if you're determined enough. To elaborate, early in Halo Infinite, I came across a giant mountain with a side-objective on the other end. Instead of using the scenic path charted out on the map, I decided to try Spider-Man-ing my way "through" the mountain, as there was a massive crack made up of forerunner pillars going through the middle and a deadly abyss below. I was praying for no invisible walls during my journey, and none came. Even a Banished dropship saw my efforts and came by wish me luck with blasters, but after realizing a safe drop zone was not available for its troops, it veered off. At the end of my swinging journey, I was smiling ear to ear. It was a special moment as I fully realized the sandbox I had in my grasp.
All this wouldn't matter much if shooting aliens didn't feel good, and I am happy to say the gunplay here is the best Halo has ever felt. From the UNSC projectile weapons to alien energy weapons, each gun feels great to use and sounds even better, with crisp effects that cut through the air. While ammo restock points are common, swapping to whatever is available off a weapons rack or an enemy gives the most satisfaction when raging through enemy camps.
The game also doesn't suffer from bullet-spongy adversaries, something I disliked in Halo 4's Promethean enemies. Enemies flinch based on the body part they are shot in, and armor pieces can be broken off if you focus fire on them. A rushing enemy can be made to stumble by shooting them on the legs, for instance, allowing for an easy takedown. Considering Master Chief's "walking tank" status, stealth is not really an option unless you meet sleeping Grunts, who are still great targets for punching.
Boss fights require more thought than pure firepower, as observing these tough adversaries reveal weaknesses you can exploit. I won't spoil the encounters, but I will say that while the tactics expected from you in these fights aren't revolutionary ones, their implementations, and the realization that a strategy 'worked out' is highly entertaining.
The NPC AI is surprisingly clever too. Things like searching for new routes instead of walking into blocked terrain indefinitely and even jumping across gaps or down a rock face sound small but are still impressive to see from a game's AI. Driving into a Banished base with a full complement of rescued UNSC soldiers equipped with rocket launchers is a sight to behold. Compared to most Banished, they don't have much health, but in numbers they are a force to be reckoned with.
On the other hand, the Banished don't make the fight easy, especially in the Heroic or Legendary difficulties. Enemies try to take down your shields with long-range attacks before closing distance using multiple flanks, often trying to flush you out of cover with grenades as snipers take potshots. Elites can cloak and patiently wait for you to pass by before attempting a backstab, and even switch weapons depending on the situation.
Combat creativity is rewarded not with XP counters but with the realization of you just pulled off something cool, planned or not, and the number of routes available for any kind of strategy is mind boggling.
World of Zeta Halo
The playground 343 Industries has made for Halo Infinite is vast, beautiful, and functional, creatively marrying an open world setting with classic Halo mission structure. Heading into a main mission can mean going underground into Forerunner structures for extended periods as the narrative requires it. Maybe all those ancient aliens had grappling hooks because the verticality and crazy geometry with no regards for guard rails finally makes sense with one equipped.
Every single time, coming out from these deep ventures into the open world at the end feels like a reward for enduring the chaos beneath. I never thought I'd miss seeing a Halo ring so much after spending just a couple of hours underground. Its greenery, sporadic trees, distant mountains, alien geometry, and even the soundly sleeping Grunts stick with you.
While there's not much in the form of biome variety, Zeta offers stellar visuals to take in. Peering over the edge of an island and seeing space underneath, watching the sunrise from behind the distant curve of the ring, or climbing the tallest mountain to realize just how small this 'vast' chunk of the Halo ring we are exploring, all feels amazing. It is possible to fast travel across captured locations, but I tried to avoid it at most times just to experience the landscape more.
While I just called Halo Infinite an open-world experience, technically, it takes a while to truly get there. The game opens up with 'islands' that are separated by vast distances with the abyss of space beneath. Early on, Banished bridges come online to span the distances between smaller islands once relevant story missions are completed, However, this isn't a GTA situation where bridges keep you from exploring. Once flying vehicles become available, it's open season for traveling. Moreover, as the story progresses, it takes the Chief all over Zeta Halo, from crash-landing on an island in the middle of nowhere for an open-ended multi-stage objective, to dropping him in a completely new corner of the ring to start the liberation journey from another angle.
Coming into the side objectives and collectibles, this isn't a Ubisoft-esque affair. I'm glad to say Halo Infinite does not pressure the player into any side activities and nothing is gated behind arbitrary levels. The map shows all interesting points, and the AI casually mentions nearby activities when going past an optional objective, and that's the extent of it. There aren't a dozen blips on the UI trying to get your attention for everything under the sun. In fact, other than when scanning for nearby points of interest or having a custom waypoint, the view is lean and completely clutter free. A breath of fresh air for a modern game.
The Banished has the ring locked down with massive bases, bunkers, prisoner holding facilities, factories, and various other operations. The side missions are where players can tackle these at their own pace and give the remaining UNSC forces a fighting chance. Other than feeling good inside for saving prisoners, Valor is the reward for completing side content, a sort of reputation system which translates to better equipment and vehicle call-ins from our friend The Pilot.
Scouting out the outer edge of an objective always nets fantastic goodies, mostly in the form of guns, lots of guns. It could be a turret from a long dead warthog, equipment from an old sniper nest, misplaced Banished weapon crates, or if you're lucky enough, even some UNSC soldiers who've been scouting the location, who will happily join the Chief as if his arrival was an act of providence. One of my favorite optional activities has been taking down high profile Banished targets hiding out at various points on the ring. Killing these tough enemies rewards special weapon variants with a tweaked element or two. For example, a rocket launcher variant I picked up from a target named Zeretus has lock-on capabilities that the base variant does not.
Graphics, audio, and performance
When talking about Halo Infinite's graphics, I think it's necessary to mention the original showing over a year ago that brought so much change to the game. That single demo paved the way to the massive delay and the changes we are now seeing. It is a beautiful game filled with visual feasts from the environments and fantastic models and animation work for the characters. However, Halo Infinite doesn't look the part of a 'next-gen' game even now, though I don't think going for an ultra-realistic look was ever part of the plan.
The visually pleasing art style with bright and sharp colors will definitely age extremely well. There are sights to see around every corner of the broken ring, from critters running across the lush landscapes on the surface and ominous Forerunner ruins poking out and into the ground, to Banished bases in defensible locations that look the part of a militarized operation. Getting distracted by alluring locations while speeding across the landscape has been a very common occurrence in my playthrough.
The performance could be better though. While I admit my AMD Radeon RX 580 is now an old graphics card, it is also above the developer's minimum requirements. In the open world, my frame rates stayed stabilized mostly in the 'plummeted' state of around 45 FPS no matter what graphics settings I selected but received a massive jump whenever inside a story mission with much more confined environments. Until optimization updates come through, anyone near the minimum side of the requirements scale may want to give up hope on hitting a stable 60 FPS.
The audio is where the game knocks everything out of the park. The iconic Halo theme is complemented with a vast range of new tracks to accompany Master Chief in his heroic mission. Taking down bases in the open world with drums banging and cellos doing their thing elevates the badass levels of everything by countless notches. The Battle Rifle's burst fire, the shotgun's satisfying kick, the crackling of an energy sword, the distinct arrival sound of enemy reinforcements, and more are all clear and can be heard precisely even inside massive fights. Gunshot sounds even echo across the land and come back when you're fighting in valleys. It's so well done.
The voicework is stellar as well. The main characters and NPCs of all sides, and even the familiar voices in collectible logs always bring their A game. I was especially impressed by the performance of Jen Taylor as The Weapon AI, who already performs the roles of Cortana and Dr. Halsey in the series, but now offers a new take on a happy-go-lucky attitude character.
Brutes yell threats, Elites bark orders, and Grunt trash talk all the way through fights to great effect. These turn into brilliant, panicked versions as Master Chief coolly begins picking off targets too. The Grunt voice lines are still the most hilarious. Hearing a guy that ran away in the middle of a fight yell out "Spartan, are you there? Are you still mad?" from around a corner will never get old.
I have enjoyed my time with Halo Infinite immensely, from the wild sandbox experience to the twists and turns of the storyline, it is packed full of action, interesting villains, and just the right number of somber moments for my tastes. Going for an open sandbox for this incarnation was definitely the right path to take when such satisfying exploration, gunplay, gameplay elements are present to offer a balance of familiarity and novelty.
I also don't think this is a Halo that needs extensive prior knowledge of the franchise. 343 Industries has stayed true to its original goal of making it a great jump off point for newbies looking to see what's all this hubbub about a walking tank and his holographic friend. If you are a returning fan though, there's a healthy number of nods to satisfy your inner need to get your Halo knowledge validated.
Performance issues aside, which I won't judge the game too harshly on due to my aging graphics card, if there is one thing I could add, it would be cooperative play at launch. Every Halo before this I played with friends, and it's a shame we have to wait six more months to get the feature when there's a whole open world waiting.
It is still an extremely easy buy recommendation from me. This is the most fun I've had playing a game this entire year, and it was quite difficult to tear myself away whenever I was in the middle of a session, even forgetting to take notes for the review at times.
343 Industries has called Halo Infinite a 10-year journey, and if this is how it starts, we are all in for a wild ride.
Halo Infinite Campaign launches on December 8 on PC across the Microsoft Store and Steam, as well as Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S systems for $59.99. It will also be available on the Xbox Game Pass for Console, PC, and Ultimate (with cloud support) subscription services on day one.
This review was conducted on a pre-release Halo Infinite build provided by Microsoft.
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