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Halo Infinite is Polygon’s No. 3 game of the year Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Halo Infinite fulfills promises that were two decades in the making

Halo finally found a new way to evolve

Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

Halo: Combat Evolved’s second level — fittingly just called “Halo” — was a revelation when it was released in 2001. The wide-open level put Master Chief and Cortana on the surface of one of the series’ titular ring-worlds in search of UNSC marines who survived the Pillar of Autumn’s crash. It wasn’t exactly open-world, yet it outlined what the future of the series could be. But the series’ full potential wasn’t fully realized until Halo Infinite.

Halo Infinite is Polygon’s No. 3 best game of the year
For our 2021 game of the year coverage, Polygon is celebrating our top 10 video games with a collection of essays. You can see our full Top 50 list here. Throughout December, we’ll also be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and more!

In “Halo,” you can take the Chief on his journey however you want, wandering the massive (at least by original Xbox standards) level, finding small Easter eggs, pockets of enemies, and of course, the marines you’re searching for. The level was the first clue that Halo was something different from the corridor-shooters of the 90s. It also served as a promise for what the series could become: A sprawling sandbox of improvisational combat and alien worlds. Of course, the problem with that promise in the original game was that in 2001, a world could only be so big.

Halo has always been at its best in its biggest and most wide-open levels. Whether it was Halo 3’s “The Ark,” Halo 2’s “Metropolis” and “Delta Halo,” or Combat Evolved’s unparalleled run of levels from “Halo” to “Assault on the Control Room,” Master Chief has always thrived in open spaces full of vehicles or areas to explore. The games since Halo 3 have never quite been able to match them or bring something new to the table.

Big Banished base in Halo Infinite Image: 343 Industries, Microsoft via YouTube

Halo Infinite sidesteps the comparison by making the whole game out of those levels. By widening the scope to the actually massive open-world of Zeta Halo, Infinite lets players constantly play out the series’ best moments. Taking over alien outposts, rescuing stranded marines, killing bosses to get their specially customized weapons, and calling in vehicles from your own bases at-will feels like the series expanded to its most fully realized form.

Between adventures in the open world, Halo Infinite brings players to carefully-designed levels that fit into the Halo series’ standard Forerunner (the race who built the rings) architecture. These mostly interior-set levels are also central to every Halo game’s foundation, and Infinite’s versions are better designed than any since the original trilogy. There are cavernous rooms, gloomy hallways, and dozens of interesting, well-designed spaces for classic Halo firefights — which usually means plenty of cover to make you feel safe, but still enough enemies to make you sweat.

Halo Infinite guide: Redoubt of Sundering collectibles Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios via Polygon

Infinite even finds ways to improve on these firefights. Halo’s excellent combat has always been defined by improvisation. Levels and engagements are carefully designed to give you the opportunity to start fights, but to let the aliens’ AI carry skirmishes into an unexpected direction. Halo Infinite captures this improv as well as any Halo game, but its new movement tools turn the combat experience into something truly special. Sprinting and sliding feel like pitch-perfect additions, with low-height cover options and wide open spaces where funneling you toward either maneuver.

But the true star of Halo Infinite’s combat is the grappling hook. The ability to swing your way into and out of fights turns Halo’s traditionally slow but chaotic combat into something frantic, quick, and kinetic. Grappling from one kill to the next eventually starts to feel like stringing together combos in an action game, and, like everything in Infinite, it feels like a natural fit for the series.

master chief looking at cortana Image: 343 Industries/Microsoft Game Studios via Polygon

Of course, Halo Infinite isn’t perfect. Its story is still a jumbled mess — a more emotionally effective mess, but a mess nonetheless. And its otherwise stellar multiplayer got an exciting early launch that was marred with setbacks, like missing playlists (some of which were added on Dec. 14), as well as a slow and overly grindy battle pass with disappointing cosmetics. But this was easily 343 Industries’ best run at a Halo narrative so far, and (as with all living games) a rocky launch fades out of memory surprisingly fast as long as everything gets fixed eventually.

Halo is a series that has been treading water for almost 15 years. But in a year where numerous games remixed mechanics, Halo improved on its best mechanics and finally centered a whole game around them. While games like Inscryption and Unsighted used their twists to subvert genre expectations, Halo Infinite changed up the formula to better realize the series’ untapped promise. Walking around the surface of Zeta Halo, exploring its mountains, valleys, and Banished bases filled me with the same kind of wonder that walking around “Halo” did all the way back in 2001, but with enough modern updates to make it feel new and exciting. After 20 years, the series took its biggest leap yet.