Halo Infinite is both great and terrible, a real study in contrasts.
It’s a serious leap forward for the series, and in a way that feels like developer 343 Industries is finally putting its own stamp on the series that Bungie created and stuck with through 2010’s Halo: Reach. But it remains hopelessly rooted in the past for vast stretches of Master Chief’s latest adventure, and not in a good way. That also says nothing of the technical mess of bugs and missing features currently weighing the whole production down.
Yet for all of that unevenness, I really have loved the time I’ve spent with Infinite. The campaign’s stronger moments outnumber the weaker ones by a wide margin, and the multiplayer — which some fans consider the real heart of the Halo series — is the best it’s ever been for me. It’s undeniably an incomplete experience at launch, but Infinite gives good Halo nonetheless.
A new vision
A big part of what makes it so good is how much certain fundamentals have shifted. Infinite isn’t quite an open world game à la Far Cry, but there is a newfound focus here on letting players explore, discover, and forge a path of their own through the story. It’s not just the way the world is built, but also the tools at Master Chief’s disposal.
The setting is Zeta Halo, one of the series’ eponymous ring-shaped superweapons with a planet-like surface running along the entire inner ring. This particular Halo has been through some tough times: It’s no longer functional as a weapon, and a section of its surface — where the bulk of Infinite unfolds — has shattered.
This collection of floating space islands is of particular interest to the Banished. The new hostile faction is a rebellious offshoot of the Covenant, a theocratic empire of religious zealots whose society breaks down along strict species-distinct class lines. The Banished are led by a group that’s at the lower end of Covenant society, and they’ve traded zealotry for the pursuit of raw power. A working Halo would give them quite a bit of power. They want to fix Zeta.
Credit: 343 Industries
So when Master Chief touches down on the broken Halo’s surface, he’s stepping into occupied territory. The landscape is dotted with Banished encampments and captured United Nations Space Command (UNSC) outposts. Wresting these locations away from the Banished is a sort of ongoing secondary (and somewhat optional) objective throughout Infinite. But the more land you reclaim, the more potent gear you can later call on at reclaimed Forward Operating Bases (FOBs).
It’s a foreign concept for a Halo game, this idea of slowly expanding Master Chief’s power base. Most of the previous games put a premium on tactical improvisation, forcing players to claim whatever weapons happen to be available nearby and swap them out for new ones regularly due to resource limitations. Infinite, on the other hand, slows things down and gives players chance to lean on their individual preferences and style of play.
It’s evident in the way FOBs offer an increasing array of weapons and vehicles for Master Chief to call on as you take Zeta Halo back from the Banished. It’s also evident in the addition of ammo stations where you can resupply your weapons instead of constantly swapping over to new ones. But the most impactful change by far is the addition of permanent tools to Master Chief’s inventory.
You’ll be able to use Drop Shields to toss out temporary cover in pretty much any location, giving Master Chief a fighting chance when he’s caught out in the open. Thrusters allow for quick dodges on the ground and in the air; they’re an incredibly handy counter to major threats like energy swords and fearsomeHunters. A Threat Sensor becomes vital later on as you run into a growing number of threats armed with cloaking tech. But the best tool by far is the grapple.
343 Industries is finally putting its own stamp on the series that Bungie created and stuck with through 2010’s ‘Halo: Reach’.
It’s exactly what it sounds like: An extendable cord that latches on to a surface (or living being) and pulls Master Chief straight to the point of connection. It turns the hero Spartan himself into one of Infinite‘s most potent weapons; I won many a battle by simple grappling a foe, punching its lights out, and moving on to the next one. The grapple can yank dropped weapons and throwable explosives straight into Master Chief’s hands, and it gives him a way to more easily hijack vehicles that are otherwise out of reach.
Mostly, though, it’s a tool for getting around. Zeta Halo is a mountainous landscape of soaring cliffs and sky-scraping plateaus. The Banished rarely set up shop in easy locations, so figuring out how to get to any given destination is often a big part of the fun here. But the grapple also follows the basic rules of physics, which turns it into a tactical tool for quickly zipping around corners or ducking behind cover.
I never got tired of softening up a shielded foe and then finishing the job with a quick grapple-facepunch combo. Those moments hit even harder when you start stringing moves like that together with others like it. I never imagined myself Spider-Manning my way around a Halo battlefield, but that’s what the grapple feels like once you get a handle on it. It’s absolutely thrilling.
Those highs aren’t without their lows, however. A not-small chunk of Halo Infinite‘s campaign sends Master Chief into labyrinthine facilities that are all hallways and nondescript rooms. These stretches cut closer to Halo games of old, and it’s not a happy comparison. Some set pieces serve up tactically complex spaces where Master Chief’s tools have room to shine. But more often you’ll find yourself running through a repeating set of rooms for just a few beats too long. In these moments, tedium inescapably creeps in and all those forward steps start to feel like stumbles.
It’s never too long before a new twist comes along to remind you that this is still a decidedly different Halo than we’ve known before, however. Sometimes it’s Spartan Cores that Master Chief can use to upgrade(!) his tools. Sometimes it’s a full-blown boss fight, complete with a health bar hovering over the Big Bad’s head (a downright odd thing to see in a Halo game). For any missteps, Infinite‘s campaign still succeeds far more than it fails.
I still haven’t said much about the story. That’s partially because some big spoilers await for deeply invested fans. Infinite is, without a doubt, a direct follow-up to 2015’s Halo 5: Guardians, for better and for worse. It’s got some strong character moments with Master Chief and his two companions, not to mention the broad beats of his struggle with the Banished. But Infinite also leans heavily on the series’ deeper history and lore for some of its most important story beats.
Credit: 343 Industries
I’ve played every one of these games over the years and I still struggle to keep up with the ocean of proper names and backward looks to past events. Too often, Halo Infinite‘s dialogue devolves into a word-gumbo of fictional terminology. The scenes with Master Chief and his pals maintain a strong emotional core in the story, but only the most dedicated fans will understand every plot point by the time the credits roll. It doesn’t take away from the inherently fun play, but it’s a choice 343’s writers continue to make, going back to Halo 4, and I’m still not a fan.
Sitting alongside all of this is a newly free-to-play PvP mode that’s been out since its surprise launch on Nov. 15. I’ve already talked at length about the growing pains of Halo’s leap into free-to-play, so I won’t harp on that any further here. But this is great online Halo. All of Infinite‘s new tools and weapons really come to life here, showcasing the intricate balance 343 aimed to strike in the game’s arsenal. There’s even a mode for that: In Academy, players have a chance to take on challenges that introduce every weapon in Infinite‘s arsenal.
Every tactic seems to have a counter in this new vision of Halo multiplayer. Grapples give Wasp and Banshee pilots something new to fear as they’re no longer safe from being hijacked while they’re in flight. Disruptor weapons level the playing field where all vehicles are concerned, giving teams a way to disable the Warthog that just came barreling into home base. Even the lowly Threat Sensor has its uses, creating a way to reveal foes masked by cloaking tech.
Unfortunately, the multiplayer mode also feels decidedly half-baked as Halo Infinite launches. All modes are lumped together into three playlists for 4v4 small-team matches, 4v4 ranked small-team matches, and 12v12 big team battles. If you prefer to play only Capture the Flag, or Slayer (Halo’s take on team deathmatch), or any other singular mode, you’re out of luck unless you create a custom game and have enough players on hand to fill it up.
This is half the game that ‘Halo Infinite’ is meant to be, if even that much.
It’s not just multiplayer that falls short, too. Co-op, a staple of Halo games, is completely absent from the campaign mode at launch andit’s many months away at this point. The newly opened up setting feels like a perfect recipe for creating chaos with friends, but it’s simply not ready yet. The same goes for The Forge, Halo’s creative mode. This core feature of past games is a similarly long way off.
It’s easy to see why some of these things are coming late as you play, too. Halo Infinite has lots of technical issues. On the PvP side, I regularly get kicked out of parties or dropped from matches. The latter is especially annoying because of an auto-ban feature that locks players out from matchmaking for increasingly long periods of time if they repeatedly quit games early. There’s nothing more frustrating than a game telling you you’re temporarily banned as a result of its own technical issues.
The campaign is in a similarly rough place, at least on the review build I played. I had multiple crashes over the course of the story where the game would just freeze up, at which point I’d have to quit and reload. Infinite also doesn’t play so nice with Xbox Series X’s Instant On feature. I frequently found that the game would start acting funny after playing a few sessions without quitting the game. In the worst instance, I played for a full 10 minutes before I realized that enemies simply… weren’t loading into the world.
An unfinished fight
With so many technical headaches and absent core features, it’s awfully strange that the Dec. 8 release is still happening. There’s no nice way to put it: This is half the game that Halo Infinite is meant to be, if even that much. I’ll be the first one to say that 343 built something very special here for Halo fans. Why squander that easy win by putting this out into the world when it’s clearly not quite there yet?
The likely answer, of course, is the business reality of releasing video games on a schedule demands it. I’m not getting into all that here. But I do feel bad for the team that spent multiple years working to build this legitimately transformative take on Halo, only to have a less-than-complete version of their vision serve as every day-one player’s first impression.
Hopefully, for 343’s sake, the anger and frustration some are feeling abates over time as the rough edges get smoothed out and the feature holes get filled. Even in its rough 1.0 form, this is the most fun I’ve had with Master Chief and his Spartan pals in years.
Halo Infinite releases on Dec. 8 on Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X and S. Multiplayer mode is in open beta now.