Halo Infinite’s single-player campaign, like a new generation of Master Chief’s MJOLNIR armor, powers up a 20-year-old series, by both returning to its roots and blazing new trails to build off of. By shifting to an open-world map while retaining the classic gameplay both on foot and in its iconic vehicles, it offers a level of freedom in combat not seen in any prior Halo game. There’s a lot to do in this expansive playground, and completing its never-dull-or-overwhelming list of activities earns more combat options and, ultimately, more fun. It doesn’t quite recapture the environmental variety or memorable story of the original trilogy, but it’s still a thrilling return to form for one of gaming’s most beloved series, and for Master Chief himself.
It’s Got a Nice Ring to it
The change from the traditional linear series of combat arenas to letting you freely explore the Zeta Halo ring where Infinite takes place marks the first time developer 343 Industries has broken from the blueprint that Bungie drew 20 years ago. All of that space proves to be a natural fit for what’s always been a sort of sandbox-style shooter at heart, where unexpected things happen. In Infinite, that same thing is true on a grander scale.
But you aren’t dropped straight onto the ring and set loose. Instead, the first couple of the 25 hours I spent completing it on Heroic difficulty take place indoors, and that intro works well as a way to get acquainted with Halo’s literal new gameplay hook, the Grappleshot, as well as the first of many delightfully challenging bosses.
And sure, the Grappleshot might feel quite familiar if you’ve played games like Just Cause or Titanfall, but it feels right at home in Halo. This fantastic tool can be used to grab weapons from afar, escape dire combat encounters when your depleted shields are screaming at you for a recharge, or launch you directly into the bad guys for a finishing melee attack with your full weight behind it. It’s a natural extension of the equipment idea introduced in Halo 3 – and that’s part of why Infinite’s moment-to-moment gameplay feels most like a cross between Halo 1 and Halo 3, which is very much a good thing.
Meanwhile, the bosses make up many of Infinite’s best encounters, excluding those that you organically create for yourself out in Zeta Halo’s sandbox. The first, against the Banished Brute lieutenant Tremonius, showcases extra-challenging AI that will require you to keep your wits about you, not just extra ammo in your back pocket. He uses a jetpack as well as a lightning-quick ground-pound attack that will rock you if you’re not ready for it. It’s your first indication that each boss fight will keep you on your toes, and in total, Infinite features Halo’s best implementation of them yet.
This warm-up serves as ample prep for the open world, and when you get out there, that’s when the Halo 1 feeling kicks in. You’ll need to get around on foot at first, and thus learning to grapple onto trees or into the ground ahead of you to propel yourself onward becomes the most fun way to navigate the world. You’ll encounter all sorts of opportunities to get into trouble on Zeta Halo, from rescuing groups of captured UNSC Marines to taking down propaganda radio towers to infiltrating massive Banished strongholds to reclaiming UNSC Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). While there’s nothing that feels wholly original here relative to games like Far Cry or Just Cause, the feature fits Halo in a very natural way, and the tasks are both varied enough and not so frequently repeated as to ever feel monotonous or annoying.
Every IGN Halo Review
But, in the grand tradition of Grand Theft Auto 3, you can’t go everywhere straight off the bat. Instead, Zeta Halo unlocks section by section, with key story missions opening up new lands to explore – though I do wish those new lands had a bit more variety. Or really, any variety at all. There’s no snowy area like in Combat Evolved, no urban area like in Halo 2 (or in Infinite’s own multiplayer maps like Streets and Bazaar, for that matter), or really… anything other than the mix of forest and stone monoliths. It’s as if 343 didn’t take its artistic inspiration from the whole of Halo 1, it took it specifically from “The Silent Cartographer” and nowhere else. That’s a bit disappointing, especially after a couple dozen hours.
On a related note, I also wish Zeta Halo was a bit prettier. Halo games, like many major first-party efforts, have often been graphical showcases for their respective consoles – including 343’s own Halo 4, which elicited a late-in-the-generation “How did they do this on the 360?” kind of reaction to its gorgeous graphics back in 2012. While Infinite’s indoor spaces did wow me at times and there are certainly some impressive vistas across its outdoor landscape, Infinite looks perfectly good at best, but not jaw-droppingly so as Halo 1, Halo 2, and Halo 4 did before it.
“Hey Cortana, What the Hell Is Going on in Halo?”
Speaking of previous Halo games, the only concern I had heading into Halo Infinite that I really had to worry about was the story. Halo 4 certainly has its issues, but its focus on Master Chief’s relationship with a Cortana who was rapidly succumbing to rampancy gave it a memorable and commendable emotional core. Halo 5, unfortunately, followed up by derailing any momentum that 4 had built by, among other narrative crimes, barely letting you play as Master Chief. It dug a deep hole for Halo Infinite to try and climb out of – particularly given that Infinite tries to both tie up 5’s loose ends and keep the existing storyline going, while also serving as the aforementioned “spiritual reboot” meant to welcome in new fans. In the end, it’s too tall a task.
It’s not a Halo 5-level disaster by any stretch – for starters, Infinite doesn’t waste time with any playable characters who aren’t Master Chief – but it probably isn’t going to really make most players happy. Its tale focuses on the splinter Covenant faction The Banished (last seen in Halo Wars 2) and was not particularly satisfying for this longtime Halo fan, and the new players Infinite is hoping to bring in might be outright lost. If you’re in the latter group, you’re going to ask the following questions (and plenty of others) that Infinite never answers: Who are the Covenant? Why is Cortana evil? What are the Guardians? None of that old ground is covered.
And even if, like me, you’ve played every Halo campaign multiple times, the fact is that it’s been six years and the last one was the most convoluted Halo story ever means that it’s not easy to get comfortable with Infinite’s plot. This sixth Halo should’ve come with a “Halo’s Story So Far” cinematic that rolls before you start playing, as we’ve seen other long-running series do (most recently, Microsoft’s own Psychonauts 2). Maybe 343 ran out of time or maybe it never came up, but it’s a failure that could’ve been avoided.
Still, there are really good aspects of the story too: namely, the relationship between Master Chief and his new AI companion, who we only know as The Weapon. She is voiced by Jen Taylor, who also stars as Cortana as well as Spartan program creator Dr. Catherine Halsey. You don’t need to be a hardcore Halo fan to recognize Taylor’s nuanced performances in playing three similar but distinct roles; she effortlessly separates the three, playing brilliantly off of the fact that The Weapon doesn’t know the Chief at all (though that makes it even stranger that basic Halo concepts aren’t spelled out for new players by using her as their proxy). We get to watch their partnership be born, then strain, and later strengthen. They get sarcastic with each other, they argue, and they build an unsteady alliance. Steve Downes, meanwhile, is fantastic in his sixth turn as Master Chief, who psychologically struggles through Infinite as an emotionally broken and lost man who blames himself for the sad state of humanity – the details of which are made painfully clear over the course of the campaign. I truly hope 343 never recasts either of these two wonderful voice actors.
Getting back to gameplay, the FOBs are the real key to everything in Infinite’s open world. Recapture them and your map will populate with many of the aforementioned activities, along with other notable map icons like Spartan Core locations – the bounties of which allow you to upgrade your equipment in ways that let you tailor your playstyle. I pumped all of my points into the Shield Core at first, which made the bit of extra punishment that Heroic difficulty doles out feel plenty manageable. (If you’re going to tackle Legendary, I’d highly suggest this strategy.) The Grappleshot can be upgraded to add a paralyzing electric shock attack, boosting the Thruster will let you go invisible for a short time when you dash, and maxing out the Drop Wall gives you your own protective electric fence. I prioritized them in that order, ending with everything maxed out aside from two missing upgrades on the Drop Wall, and not only did the equipment add variety to how I handled abolishing the Banished, but many of the key boss fights cry out for one of them or another. (Thankfully, Infinite is never too heavy-handed about suggesting which one is best for each battle.)
Completing the open-world activities also earns you Valor points, which do you the big favor of unlocking additional weapons and vehicles you can instantly summon from reclaimed FOBs. (Usefully, you’re also able to fast travel to any FOB you’ve unlocked.) This became vital – not to mention extremely fun – as I approached the 15 optional High-Value Targets (HVTs) scattered around the ring. For instance, one HVT – well, technically two – is a pair of heavy-hitting Hunters who are flanked by a legion of supporting Banished (along with some mid-battle surprises). I surveyed that scene, saw the challenge I was up against, then fast-traveled back to the closest FOB so that I could order up a shiny new Scorpion tank I’d unlocked access to, and then slowly rolled back to the HVT Hunters’ turf, trained my tank turret on them one at a time, and gleefully eliminated them. Even these heavier vehicles aren’t “I win” buttons, though, as bad guys on higher difficulties will quickly and repeatedly disable your vehicle with Shock Rifle blasts, often forcing you to try another strategy.
This kind of freedom to fight how you want has always been a foundational component of Halo’s gameplay, but it arguably started diminishing after Halo 3 in favor of more structured battles with a slim choice of weapons. Infinite recaptures that signature freeform action in a big, fun way thanks to the diversity of locations and the ability to approach them from any angle and with any gear. Battles take place everywhere: in rivers, indoors,” in midair, and you’ll even have to fight uphill in scraps that feel like early 20th-century wars of attrition in the Halo universe (particularly on Heroic or Legendary difficulty). That encouraged me to use lots of the huge Halo arsenal rather than simply falling in love with one weapon (which would’ve been the trusty Battle Rifle, of course) for the entire campaign. Sometimes I’d want a charged-up Ravager plasma grenade launcher to stop charging Brutes in their tracks, other times a scoped weapon might be best for quickly headshotting Elites to drop their shields, and Grunts… well, they’re still hilariously pathetic (mostly), though Infinite offers more ways to blow them up than ever thanks to new attachments on their backs.
Vehicles, meanwhile, are of particular importance in a Halo where you can wander all over the entire ring. The Mongoose is the first ride you’ll unlock, though without a co-op buddy, its only real purpose is zipping from point A to point B faster than you could run. But once you get into the meat of the campaign, you can call in a Warthog at a FOB, load it up with well-armed Marines, and stroll right up to a Banished stronghold and take out as many bad guys as you can from the perimeter before heading in. Or you can bring the Wasp in from above, clearing out significant numbers of Banished from the relative safety of the sky. Thanks to the large scale, vehicles have never felt more vital in Halo, which is probably the biggest compliment I can give because they’ve always been a high point of this series.