Splat. The Pulse Carbine in Halo Infinite makes a quiet, satisfying sound when its little blue projectiles collide with an enemy. Halo Infinite’s new, open world is filled with these small, carefully crafted details that at once feel both familiar and foreign. These sights, sounds, and secrets fill out the world around Halo Infinite’s more linear campaign, making for an experience that’s nothing like any Halo game I’ve played, but somehow evokes feelings reminiscent of the earlier games.
Ahead of Halo Infinite’s Dec. 8 release date, I played a preview build of the game’s campaign, encompassing the first four story missions, as well as access to the open world surrounding them. I cautiously landed on Halo Infinite’s new Zeta Halo ring, unsure how the storied franchise would fit into an open world. What I found was a landscape teeming with life and action.
Halo Infinite begins with Chief, a pilot, and a new AI partner called The Weapon setting off into Zeta Halo to figure out what’s happened after Halo 5. On Zeta Halo, at least, the trio are left in a wake of destruction: Between Cortana and The Banished, a group of exiled, former Covenant followers last seen in Halo Wars 2, the world is in a bad place. So is Master Chief, in the moments before you find his pilot companion.
Chief’s first major goal is to start gaining some sort of control on Zeta Halo. This is largely done by taking over FOBs, or UNSC Forward Operating Bases, that were overrun by The Banished when they defeated the UNSC. Re-capturing these spaces means gaining “safe zones” on the Zeta Halo, small areas stocked with weapons, tools, vehicles, and even UNSC Marines. The options on offer are limited at first. However, by destroying The Banished propaganda and saving groups of captured marines, I earned more tools to choose from: basic weapons, modified vehicles, and more powerful and specialized marines following me into combat.
Halo Infinite’s world isn’t completely open from the start. Portions are sectioned off into small “islands,” for lack of a better word: Zeta Halo is basically a space archipelago. At first, there’s no easy way for Chief to cross the large chasms of space that separate the land — you can see the other sides, but can’t actually easily reach them right away. The storyline missions are also gated off by each other. To access story missions, you don’t have to simply stumble upon certain locations. Instead, they’re specifically marked on the map — different from any other objective — with the Weapon often nudging you toward them. Side missions may be freeform, but story missions unlock chronologically. Some of these story missions are in portions of the map otherwise hard to reach, but story missions “unlock” these areas, so to speak, by dropping Chief around the map via Pelican. Once they’re unlocked, I can fast travel any time.
Similarly, capturing bases reveals more of the map, including areas where I can collect some of Halo Infinite’s new collectibles: Spartan Cores, which upgrade armor with abilities like the grappling hook; and pieces of Mjolnir armor, which act as cosmetics in Halo Infinite’s multiplayer. There are also larger side missions — assassinating high-profile Banished leaders or clearing important Banished bases, to name a couple — that sometimes grant unique, customized gear.
These tangential missions are new territory for the franchise, but developer 343 Industries nails the Halo feel in these smaller encounters. These aren’t the side missions or fetch quests I’ve come to expect from a 2021 open-world game; I’m not running from quest-giver to quest-giver to deliver items or news. I’m battling my way through the powerful and sometimes daunting hierarchy of the Banished forces, using every tool at my disposal to get the job done. It’s Master Chief doing Master Chief things, scaled down into Halo-esque moments that break up the open world.
This is where the small details — those familiar sights and sounds — make a huge difference. It’s the satisfying whap of a carbine blast hitting an enemy. The funny and often ridiculous dialogue from Halo Infinite’s grunts. The small scenes set up at offshoot camps with weapons and hidden sound bites, ways to eke out more story centered around the other people in the world. Halo Infinite is, largely, about Master Chief and his journey, but that doesn’t mean that everything else is neglected; some of my favorite moments playing Halo Infinite during this preview were stumbling upon small Banished outposts while driving around with a car full of eager marines. I loved navigating our doomed Warthog up rocks — and sometimes off of cliffs — marines egging me on as I (sometimes) made a perfect landing. Other times, I wandered into shockingly hard battles that weren’t even plotted out on the map: Where I thought I was simply clearing a propaganda tower, I ended up taking on waves of reinforcements with high-level troops.
In the early hours of Halo Infinite that I played for this preview, I found a few of the base-clearing missions to be repetitive. But, as counterpoints to the more linear, sometimes corridor-heavy story missions, these side quests serve as refreshing changes of pace. Even after this four mission preview, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Halo Infinite’s newly unfurled world.
Halo Infinite’s campaign will be released on Dec. 8 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X, but its multiplayer component is playable now. The game was previewed using an Xbox Series X pre-release download code for provided by Microsoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.