Halo Infinite Review
Great gameplay props up an uneven story
It was obviously not the ideal plan to delay the launch of Halo Infinite in 2020. The game was supposed to come out as the big first-party launch title for the Xbox Series X|S consoles, but following a mixed fan reaction to the previews and trailers, a big decision was made by Microsoft and 343 Industries to postpone the release. A year later, the game is now seemingly ready to be handed over to the players. With the multiplayer component being standalone and free to play – another huge choice – it leaves the Halo Infinite campaign in a brighter spotlight. And while the gameplay continues to hold up, this single player experience still feels lacking in many areas, and its full price is harder to justify.
Having been around for decades, the lore of Halo is becoming quite impenetrable at this point, not to mention all the brand new players likely coming in fresh with the Xbox Series X|S era. And so it is disappointing that the game includes absolutely no introductions to its world, or even a simple recap of what happened in Halo 5: Guardians. Perhaps, this is by design – because while the previous game ends in a major cliffhanger, as the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, Halo Infinite sort of hopes you pretend all that was resolved on its own. If you were hoping for a resolution – spoiler warning – about what happened after Cortana went rogue, took control of ancient all-powerful Guardians, and our heroes narrowly escaped her wrath, you'll be sorely disappointed. Maybe, this was addressed in some kind of video, spinoff game like Halo Wars 2 (where the Banished are first introduced, in fact), or in one of the myriad audio logs you find. But it's completely unsatisfying nonetheless to cut the main narrative thread between two major game entries in this way.
Even as a standalone narrative, Infinite has a rough start. We find Master Chief losing a fight against Escharum, a Banished leader who throws him into outer space. This in itself is weak – instead of finishing off John-117 (Master Chief), he simply lets him fall into the void– as if being in outer space is somehow dangerous to the man wearing thick armor and a myriad of life support systems. Six months later, John is randomly recovered by a stranded pilot who restores his systems and wakes him up, and together they find themselves chasing a signal on the nearby Halo ring named Zeta Halo. It turns out, the signal was sent by an AI named CTN 0453-0, aka The Weapon, who was created to imitate Cortana and lock her down. However, that mission apparently failed, as Cortana was destroyed (confusion reigns here), but somehow CTN 0453-0 was not deleted despite no longer having a mission. The narrative then instead pivots to a different thread – the Banished must be stopped from reconstructing the damaged Zeta Halo so they can use it as a weapon. Escharum also learns of Master Chief's survival, and sends some of his forces to stop him.
Halo Infinite's story is both simple, and a mess. The constant use of names, places and events that players have either never seen (because it happened off-screen and in the past), or can remember the significance of, makes it very difficult to care about the apparent bigger story that's occurring. Characters like The Harbinger, who rambles on about something at the start and who we don't encounter again until an anticlimactic final battle towards the end, does the story no favors. Master Chief is haunted by the memories of Cortana, who is apparently dead now, and yet appears quite constantly through apparent left-over space dust memory data. It makes for an awkward relationship triangle between Master Chief, Cortana memories, and the new not-Cortana AI, who feels like a third wheel to a weird relationship of two parties unable to move on. The story also has no real answer when a question of "why not send the whole army to deal with Chief" comes up.
But it's not all bad – or at least, it's an improvement on Halo 5. Infinite has a few good moments, particularly in the interactions between Chief and his new AI companion. There are also some heartfelt moments with the pilot, who is reluctantly stuck helping Chief solve the situation on this Halo ring before either of them can consider going home. The Chief remains stoic and a man of few words, so the rest of the small cast have to be overly enthusiastic and full of expression, perhaps too much so in the case of the pilot, but just right in the case of Escharum. Still, the quality of the writing fluctuates – from some great jokes and character building, to what feels like copy-pasted scenarios; there are no less than 5 occasions when the AI says "Oh no!", and leaves it there, prompting Chief to ask "What's wrong?"
The notion of copy-pasting extends to the campaign level design, too. Over the course of the game, you will play through the familiar linear levels, typically taking place inside sci-fi structures, with their cold, long corridors and a lack of detail. Inside you will find a variety of enemies to shoot at, before moving on to the next set of rooms and corridors. There are occasional divergences in the paths – but they are simply mirrors of each other, leading to the same door on the other end. The campaign lacks any memorable set pieces or even locations. Once you’ve seen one space-room, you've seen them all. There's no sense of scale or variety, and the game seems to have its most exciting moments in the opening hours. The gameplay objectives feel uninspired, too; anytime you are faced with a problem, you can bet there are three nearby levers you have to flip or a couple of batteries that need to be recovered, before you can proceed.
Infinite's big new promise is the inclusion of open levels. In between the traditional indoor, linear missions you will be able to traverse a few open spaces. It's not an open world, but more like a collection of a few small landmasses, which you can freely run around in – at least as far as the story lets you, as there are impassible gaps that only become reachable after the narrative brings you there. Like the story missions, this land is somewhat lacking variety. Everything is covered in forest greenery, much like other Halo Rings, and so there are no desert biomes or snow areas or any other kind of environment types. There probably can't be, as the landmasses are just very small. You don't even need a vehicle – most items of interest are easily within reach by foot, and there's a fast travel system.
The developers hope you will spend some time here, because Halo Infinite is not exactly a lengthy experience. Beating the story and completing more than half of open world activities clocks in at around just 10 hours. You could stretch it out further by going for full-completion, and seeking out all audio logs and gameplay modifying Skulls. The narrative also seems to hope that's what players will do – because there's a beginning and an end to the narrative, and not much in the way of a middle act. There's even an achievement for beating the game in 8 hours, which is quite easy if you don't worry much about the optional stuff.
Out in these open areas, there are a couple of things to do, most of them boiling down to eliminating all enemies at a location. You could go and capture some Forward Operating Bases, which are just tiny platforms that enemies are guarding. Taking them over means you can fast travel to them, and spawn in a vehicle and weapons. They also reveal nearby points of interest: rescuing a few trapped Marines from the enemy forces, taking out a high value target enemy, destroying propaganda radio towers, and collecting Spartan Cores (upgrade points) or cosmetic armor pieces that can be used in multiplayer. It's all very straightforward and each activity just needs you to eliminate a group of enemies. But fret not, as mentioned, the land area is not very large, so there are just a handful of these to do – Ubisoft need not be worried.
Performing all these optional activities nets you Valor points, which unlocks more and better weapon and vehicle options that can be spawned at FOB's. Random friendly AI marines will also appear, and if you want, they can hop into your vehicle and join you on adventures. You'll perhaps need them to tackle the most involved open world activity, taking out the seven Banished outposts, which are proper bases that you can approach from most any angle thanks to the grapple. Given the lack of silent weapons and stealth mechanics, you can't Far Cry your way through them, so it'll be a gunfight. Conveniently, the levels are littered with fusion coils – explosive canisters of energy that deal great damage and cause lots of chaos, which you can shoot when enemies are nearby or just throw at them.
Where Infinite continues to unquestionably succeed is in its core gameplay. The shooting is trademark Halo, having the same refined feel and weapon variety that fans have come to expect from the series. With two weapons available at a time, your arsenal features everything from the Bulldog shotgun and VK76 Commando, to the Mangler hand cannon and satisfying Sentinel Beam. Every gun feels satisfying to use, and your ammo is still limited, so you'll have to constantly cycle between the entire arsenal as enemies drop their guns on the battlefield. The action pushes you to stay mobile when possible, in order to get to the next weapon rack or dropped gun. The combat remains an enjoyable, very smooth and polished part of the experience.
Master Chief gets a few new toys this time around, in the form of gadgets. The most game-changing one is the Grappleshot - which, by the way, has no introduction and it's something that Chief has already in the opening cutscene, leaving more gaping holes in the story. This grappling hook adds a stack of versatility to the gameplay. You can pull yourself up to ledges, or zip towards enemies to deliver a punch to the face. You can grapple onto enemy vehicles to hijack them, or even just grab nearby weapons from a distance. It's a great tool, that's continuously fun to use and adds another layer of flexibility to the gameplay, not to mention the newly found vertical freedom of movement. It does have a cooldown, so you can't exactly become Spider-Man, but used strategically it can be quite great.
The other gadgets are less prominent. There's a deployable shield, an ability to dodge, and a threat sensor that will reveal all enemies around it. They have situational uses, but because you have to manually swap out between them using the D-Pad, it's cumbersome, and you might as well stick to the grapple for most of the time. Each of the gadgets – alongside your shield – can be upgraded through a basic system. You will discover Spartan Cores (upgrade points), and assign them into each gadget to improve its durability, or perhaps add a function, like making the grapple hook zap enemies. There are just a few upgrades, so it's not exactly a deep system.
The game has a few traditional difficulty options to choose from, and on Normal things are a bit uneven. Most of the time, it's actually fairly easy - that's mostly due to the very basic enemy AI, who sort of run around and take shots at you, as well as throw the occasional grenade. If they lose sight as you take cover or zip around, they just sort of stand there. That's not to say that you will never die; you will probably perish quite a few times, because while the AI isn't smart, you are always vastly outnumbered and they are good shots, including leading their aim and accurately tracking projectiles. Dying is thankfully not a big deal. The game auto saves very often, even out in the open levels.
However, there are difficulty spikes, largely due to poor design. For example, an early boss battle puts you into a small room with a melee enemy, and this is before the story lets you unlock the ability to dodge, which proves to be frustrating. In a similar late-game example, you get locked into a small room with two Hunters, with little cover against their overwhelming firepower and maneuverability. In the game's open levels, enemies are very inconsistent at the range at which they can detect and shoot at you, which results in having to dodge incoming fire from what feels like a mile away, while you try to aim at distant pixels.
The enemies themselves are the standard fodder Covenant. From Grunts, to Jackals and Elites, these familiar enemies look and behave the same. Instead of Promethean troops from Halo 5, they are now joined by the Banished, who have even less variety – they are all just Brutes with different weapons, and occasionally shields/more armor. Some may have jetpacks, and give off strong Destiny 2 vibes. The boss battles against the leaders of the Banished are fairly simple in their design, and there are no complexities here like targeting weak spots (except headshots, obviously). They are entertaining in the moment, but are largely forgettable.
Like its traditional and time-tested gameplay, you can also count on Halo to perform well. The game was supposed to launch a year ago, alongside the Xbox Series X|S, but the decision was made for more development time, and the experience likely benefitted from it. While the visuals and textures are sharp, the game world is not particularly detailed or rich in color. Instead, the focus is on great performance, with the Xbox Series X holding a steady 60 frames per second for the entire experience, no matter the situation, which helps the already fluid shooting feel great. The limited helmet vision from Halo 5 is replaced by a standard view with the transparent UI elements, as it should be. Loading times are decently quick, but are surprisingly quite numerous, even during linear indoor missions. In a bit of strange design though, opening the map/upgrade menus does not pause the game.
The music is also excellent, not just the main theme, but also many of the other tracks – which seem to play at cleverly setup triggers, helping make the action feel more immersive. When you are not in combat, you can also take in the quiet ambience of this Halo Ring, when there is no gunfire, no music, and just you and the local critters scurrying around the forest. It's strangely idyllic; the day and night cycle helps add a little variety to the setting.
Halo Infinite's campaign is good, but there are too many obviously missed opportunities to be better. With the multiplayer now being standalone and free-to-play, you're paying full price for a campaign that feels lackluster. Not unlike Gears 5, Halo's foray into a more open-level design is quite basic and by the numbers, taking no risks and offering few thrills. It also lacks co-op, obviously due to the new open levels. The experience is largely carried by its great shooting mechanics, the addition of gadgets, and the occasional exciting mission. But on the whole, it's a safe effort and one that could really use some better and more consistent writing.
A digital code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.