Reviews

Halo Infinite Campaign Review – Dawn of a new Halo?

Halo Infinite certainly opens with a bang, leaping straight into a cinematic that picks up exactly where Halo 5 left us during its cliffhanger ending. We witness the UNSC Infinity being destroyed at the hands of the Banished, while the Master Chief is systematically picked apart by the hulking form of Atriox, a character first introduced in Halo Wars 2. As opening sequences go it’s definitely explosive and attention-grabbing, but it’s also the first example of how Infinite can feel rushed and at odds with itself; you never get to take control of the Chief and join the fight for the Infinity. The destruction of the Infinity, a major part of the Halo lore, is glossed over in a brief cutscene, the death of its crew barely shown. There was a perfect opportunity to create a level built around the desperate fight to save the ship and the inevitable loss you would have to suffer at the hands of Atriox. For some reason, however, 343 opt to tell the players what happened and rarely show, a theme that permeates the entirety of Halo Infinite.

It’s not the only strange thing about the intro; Atriox, the Brute that wrecks Master Chief, vanishes from the rest of the game, replaced instead by Escherum, his former mentor and second in command of the Banished. It’s a baffling choice to have the same big bad who took down the legendary Spartan just disappear. There are story reasons for it but…well, it robs the rest of the game of a strong villain. Atriox’s name is instead whispered, yelled and spoken of throughout the campaign, his presence being relegated to a dialogue ghost haunting almost every scene. Comparatively, his mentor is just another big bruiser of a Brute, but we’ll get back to that later.

Available On: PC, Xbox
Reviewed On: PC, Xbox Series S
Developed By: 343
Published By: Microsoft

That’s not the only thing that feels like 343 doesn’t entirely know what to do with. Halo 5 ended with a big cliffhanger as Cortana went full Emperor and decided to take over the galaxy, all based on her warped version of the greater good. Whether or not you agree with 343 deciding to go down the dark Cortana route, it left a lot of story to resolve. To a point, the relationship between Master Chief and the once gentle Cortana does still form a part of Infinite’s tale, but instead of experiencing anything ourselves, we’re simply told what Cortana has been up to for the past 6-months that led to her defeat and deletion. That’s it!? A few holographic conversations between Cortana and Atriox and a handful of other scraps are what we get to bring Cortana and Chief’s story to a close in a wholly unsatisfying and frankly lazy resolution?

Following his backside being handed to him, the Chief winds up floating through space for a full 6-months above Zeta Halo, eventually being picked up by a man known simply as the Pilot, or Echo 216, if you prefer. All this poor guy wants is to find a way to get the hell out of here, away from the Banished and the base they’ve established on Zeta Halo. Of course, the Master Chief doesn’t do running away and instead demands a weapon and heads out to take on The Banished, because he’s the Chief and this is what he does. He’s the walking, talking embodiment of badassery.

Also aiding the Chief is a brand new AI companion named The Weapon, a suitably mysterious name for a game that has quite a few mysteries at the centre of its story. Who this AI is and whether Chief can grow to trust her following everything that happened with Cortana is what leads to a couple of reasonably effective emotional beats. The new AI is cheery and optimistic, friendly almost to the point of being mildly annoying, but 343 manage to hold her back from ever skipping joyfully over that line.

The Pilot, on the other hand, does venture over the line into being annoying. His whole schtick is that he just wants to get the Hell away from Zeta Halo, a somewhat understandable goal considering the Banished ripped apart the Infinity. And so most of his personality boils down to yelling hysterically at the Master Chief, calling him crazy, telling him they should get out of there and even saying that whenever goes wrong, which it totally will, it’s on him. Like the AI, the pilot is a one-note character, but unlike the Weapon his one note is far less pleasant to the ear. He’s not a bad character: it’s not like I hated him, but I also never cared about him. I liked the Weapon and wanted to see her story, but I can’t say the same about the Pilot.

I suppose part of the issue is that the Pilot clearly doesn’t know Master Chief is like a cosmic force. He thinks the Chief will get them killed, whereas we, the players, all know that the Master Chief is going to wreck shit and kick-ass, especially when we’re in control. That’s the whole point of Halo, after all, so it’s grating to have a character constantly babble about how we’re all going to die even as he watches the Chief single-handedly wipe out armies of Banished. Listen, buddy, we’ve got this. Don’t worry.

Big-boy Escherum is the antagonist you see the most of throughout Infinite since he insists on periodically appearing via hologram to deliver a wrestling promo about how much you suck and about how he’s going to smash you. As villains go he serves his purpose, but he’s also the classic example of how you should show things rather than telling them to the player. Until you meet him in combat Escherum does literally nothing throughout the story, appearing in a few cutscenes where he yells some orders or dispatches a couple of peons to take you out. There’s no reason to fear him, no reason to believe that he could ever best the Master Chief, especially because Escherum’s only strength is his raw power and we all know that when it comes to beating shit up, the Chief is the master. No contest. It’s why a basic writing tip is that your antagonist should have strengths that specifically go against the hero, to present them with a real challenge.

There’s a second antagonist simply called the Harbinger but she gets even less screen time than Escherum. Couple that with the fact that her motives remain unclear until much later and you have a foe that is entirely forgettable. Hell, when she popped up for a fight and was like, “Oh right, you’re in this game, too!”

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In the end, Infinite’s narrative does manage to deliver a few poignant moments, and the Master Chief himself is still a badass, voiced by the iconic Steve Downes who adds a subtle age and weariness to the iconic character. Ultimately, though, the story just didn’t do it for me. It lacked the Halo epicness, and by the end, I felt like we’d done a reset on a big chunk of the story. It came across as more of a setup for the next Halo or the DLC, leaving Infinite with meh villains and a barebones storyline.

I also have to say that the choice to ditch the lavish cinematics in favour of in-game cutscenes is an interesting one. I do appreciate how much smoother things can be when you aren’t swapping from in-game graphics to pre-rendered material, but I do miss the epic, movie-quality sequences that depicted Chief and Spartans being awesome.

Having been established purely to take over one of the most iconic franchises in all of video games, 343 Industries have always had a galactic level of pressure pushing down on them. The key to that is finding a way to push the series forward, to find new ways to keep the Master Chief feeling relevant and interesting. That’s a tricky thing, especially when you consider that the Chief himself is a man of few words wrapped in amour and thus tricky to keep developing. So 343’s first big step in evolving the franchise is Zeta Halo itself, an open world that you are free to explore between main missions. It’s a relatively large area of open green land, trees, cliffs and the occasional wall of Forerunner metal poking out of the surface. Running on PC with the optional high-res texture pack installed, Halo Infinite does look glorious and my first look at Zeta Halo was a beautiful moment. It’s a strange thing to play a Halo game, step out into an area and know that you can go anywhere.

Unfortunately, that wears off pretty quickly when you realise that the first 30-minutes of Zeta Halo has shown you absolutely everything. There are no biomes to explore, no unique architecture, no awesome landmarks. It’s just green grass, trees, roads and the occasional base or Forerunner installation. You could dump me on any part of the map and I wouldn’t have a clue where I was, despite spending a few dozen hours walking, running, jumping and driving across it. There are single missions in past Halo games that show so much more visual variety than the entirety of Zeta Halo. And it doesn’t get any better when you enter the Forerunner buildings where many of the main missions take place; big, metal, silver. That’s the description for all of them, along with copy and pasted rooms and corridors.

Forward Operating Bases (FOB) are tiny outposts guarded by a handful of Banished, and once you capture one it’ll automatically uncover all the areas of interest on the map; Mjolnir lockers, Banished bases, Spartan Cores and Marines in trouble. More importantly, it’s from these outposts that you can request equipment drops, from guns to vehicles, all the way from the humble Mongoose to the mighty Scorpion tank. You can’t just go about getting tanks whenever you like, though, as you first have to earn Valor by tackling the 7 Banished outposts, rescuing stranded Marines or even wrecking Banished propaganda towers, although why the Banished need propaganda I have no idea. It’s a steady progression system, but it’s a shame it doesn’t feed into the main missions more. So many of them take place within Forerunner constructs that you can’t take your tank or Marine squad along.

In fact, it’s a shame that the open world, in general, doesn’t play into the story very much. Half of the missions take place in linear Forerunner structures, creating a sense that the open world and the meat of the campaign are separate things. It seems like 343 wanted to have their cake and eat it, retaining the more standard linear designs of past Halo games and simply having the player running around Zeta Halo outside of those.

Thankfully the map isn’t dominated by hundreds upon hundreds of icons like you might find in Far Cry or any other Ubisoft game. I think 343 have been smart here and there’s probably around 8-10 hours or side-content alongside the equally long main campaign missions. That means all the stuff you can do, like rescuing Marines or hunting down Spartan Cores to upgrade a couple Chief, doesn’t get too repetitive. On the other hand, 343 did miss a chance to create more bespoke content to fill their open world, like side-missions with their own mini-stories or even a couple more Banished bases to tackle.

Perhaps the best way to think about it is how we’ll view the game going forward. Even all these years later I still go onto Youtube and rewatch some of the old missions. I doubt I’ll do that with Infinite because none of them are worth rewatching. I will, however, watch a bunch of clips of people doing more and more insane things in the open world because there’s loads of room there for barmy antics. It’s already a joy to check out compilations, and not one of them features anything from the primary missions.

The choice to build Infinite around an open world as opposed to a linear campaign has come at a substantial cost. Those big, dramatic set-piece moments that have defined the franchise are almost all gone. Years later I can still clearly remember bombing a Warthog over collapsing panels but I struggle to remember a single mission in Halo Infinite. There’s only a handful of missions as it is, and most of them take place in Forerunner structures made of silver metal that quickly that all start to look identical. That’s because some of them actually are, with rooms and locations clearly being copied and pasted. The ones that make use of the open-world are better, like having to take out 4 AA towers spread across the region, letting you tackle each one however you want. The second to second gameplay is great, but there are no memorable moments that sear themselves into your memory.

Whether the loss of the sculpted moments that once were key to Halo is worth it to get the more organic encounters is difficult to say. Personally, I think I would rather have the hand-crafted, memorable missions, largely because open-worlds are a dime-a-dozen whereas linear, well-built and smartly paced linear experiences are much rarer. However, I think it’s also fair to view Infinite as the foundation being laid for something with a lot of potentials. As a debut open-world experience, Halo Infinite plays it very safe in most regards, covering all the basics we expect out of an open world and nothing else. A future sequel or even upcoming DLC should be able to build on this, hopefully integrating the open world and the main missions more, as well as bringing back those big Halo moments that Infinite is so sorely lacking in.

In some ways, the biggest change to the Halo formula isn’t the open world or the new characters. No, it’s the grappling hook, adding yet more proof that a grappling hook done well can improve just about any game it’s added to. Hell, you could probably make those crappy annual football games about a million times between if you swing around the stadium like freaking Tarzan. Anyway, the Grappleshot, as it’s known in Infinite, improves the gameplay in almost every way, slotting so neatly into the gameplay that it feels like it has been in the series since the very beginning. At the most basic level, it boosts movement through the damn roof, especially because the cooldown time is short enough to let you swing like Spidey if you get it just right. Clambering up cliffs or raiding Banished outposts is a pleasure when you can whip yourself into the air, swing around corners and recover from dumb mistakes.

And in a firefight there’s seemingly nothing the Grappleshot can’t do; enemies can be grappled, weapons can be picked up with it, explosive barrels can be grabbed and enemy vehicles can be hijacked. It’s a versatile tool that feels great to use, and it has turned the famous Halo triangle of guns, grenades and melee into a square; guns, grenades, Grappleshot and melee.

In fact, it’s so good that it vastly outshines the other equipment, which is a shame because they’re pretty solid, too. The Repulsor is especially good for some dumb shenanigans, blasting anything in front of you backwards. I’ve spent many happy minutes lining up an enemy ghost purely so I can blast it off a cliff, or hurling Grunts into walls. Meanwhile, the Thruster is for quick bursts of movement, making it useful in close-quarters or for quickly closing ground when you have something like the Gravity Hammer. The final two are the least exciting; there’s a deployable piece of cover that you can fire through, good for setting up with a BR or sniper rifle, and a dart that displays enemy positions in a small area.

Moving onto the gunplay itself, it’s simply outstanding. The Halo games of the past have always tried to give players room to move about. The open-world is perfectly suited to Halo’s slick gameplay loop. The Banished outposts are the best example, giving you plenty of room to approach them however you like. Do you want to grab a sniper and start popping some Brute heads from a clifftop? Or would you rather call in a Scorpion tank and lay seige to the base? You could grab a Warthog and a few Marines, or even a Razorback and a whole squad of Marines wielding nothing but beam weapons for maximum destruction. Or just charge into the place like a one-Spartan army.

Design-wise, 343 have covered their bases well to ensure that nothing feels too easy. If you take a Scorpion tank into the base there’s a lot of tight areas, making it difficult to manoeuvre behemoth a sitting duck. Go in with some air power and there’s always a bunch of enemies wielding weapons that can shut your electronics down and send you plummeting to the ground. Go on foot and Jackal’s from a few hundred metres away will delight in delivering deadly accurate death.

The moment-to-moment gunplay is excellent, with every weapon, new and old, feeling great to use, the movement feeling sleeker than ever and the enemies are still a blast to fight. That said, there’s a real lack of variety in what you’re shooting. All the classics are here – Brutes, Jackals, Hunters etc – but the Forerunners from Halo 5 are gone, replaced by just a few new types of foe. While I do love the traditional Halo enemies and their behaviour patterns, I’ve been killing these guys since 2001 and was hoping for a few new additions to the roster to spice things up. Even the basic enemy behaviour doesn’t seem to have been changed or improved – they leap out of the way of grenades and do everything else you’d expect, and that’s it. I’ve been saying this for ages, but with the new console hardware, we really need to focus on creating new, interesting AI, especially in shooters.

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That smart encounter design is everywhere in Halo. Every base, structure and area contains a mix of enemies designed to keep the player moving and having fun. It feels like every single fight has been playtested hundreds of times to make sure it’s fun. I just can’t gush enough about how excellent Halo feels to play. As soon as you jump into the game it feels fundamentally right, especially on keyboard and mouse. Good God, how did I play Halo for all those years on a controller? How did I ever deal with being unable to quickly glance in multiple directions mid-jump?

Special credit needs to be given to the lowly Grunts, the lowest enemy on the totem pole, acting as nothing more than pure cannon fodder to be massacred en masse. These little guys have always been a source of humour and Infinite takes it to the next level with some genuinely hilarious lines of dialogue. At one point I just stood and listened to a Grunt who went on a rant about how they have just discovered Master Chief’s real name is John, and how could they be scared of a dude called John?

A real crushing blow is that Halo Infinite has launched without the ability to go through the campaign in co-op mode, a huge blow to a series that is so well known for allowing friends to get together and finish the fight. Currently, the only estimate we have is that at the very earliest co-op will arrive in May, but it could also be later. That leaves this package without a big selling point.

343 have been struggling since the very first day they were handed the Halo license and told to continue the vast legacy that Bungie left behind. Halo Infinite feels like they’ve finally found their footing and have a vision of where they want to take the franchise, even if I’m not convinced that it’s the right path to follow. To be clear, Halo Infinite is not amazing. The open-world is an intriguing new addition but also feels hollow and repetitive, while the story has a few good emotional beats but is also lacking in so much detail. It’s ultimately the gameplay that carries Infinite. It’s just fun to play, from the movement to the gunplay, and that alone gave me more than enough reason to finish the campaign and then mop up everything on the map. It’s still not the big comeback of Halo we’re all waiting for, but it’s still a solid enough Halo game and keeps the hope alive that 343 could deliver big yet.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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