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Master Chief holding an MA40 assault rifle in Halo Infinite Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios

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Halo Infinite saves the series by finally doing something different

The magic is back

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

It’s been more than 20 years since Master Chief — and Halo: Combat Evolved — debuted. In that time, the Halo series has become one of video games’ most iconic legacies, while Master Chief has become the symbol of Xbox — and console-based first-person shooters — as a whole. It’s a legacy that developer 343 Industries has struggled to carry since taking over from Bungie, releasing two new games that felt like something of a decline from the series’ previous brilliance. Halo Infinite is intended to be a course correction, described by 343 as a “spiritual reboot” of the franchise, that not only reexamines what makes something feel like Halo, but also finds ways to push those qualities further.

The new direction has paid off. For the first time in years, it feels like 343 knows where Halo is going.

Halo Infinite somehow feels entirely like Halo and entirely not, transplanting the franchise’s traditional linear narrative and mission structure into a semi-open world. It preserves the intensity of the series’ combat while also finding the magic in the act of exploration. Halo Infinite is carrying a heavy legacy on its shoulders, and it’s doing so with confidence.

Halo Infinite begins with Master Chief doing something he hasn’t done much before: losing. The Banished, a group of exiled Covenant followers, have defeated the United Nations Space Command and gained control of Zeta Halo, the big ol’ ring that the UNSC Infinity slipspace-jumped to when escaping Cortana at the end of Halo 5: Guardians. Halo Infinite’s main thrust is in regaining control over Zeta Halo, figuring out what happened to Cortana, and stopping the Banished from whatever bad thing they’re doing. 343 Industries has said that Halo Infinite is a good place for Halo newcomers to start, but that’s not entirely true. There are so many plot threads to pull on here (many of them from the real-time strategy spinoff Halo Wars 2) that even devout Halo fans may find themselves confused.

Accompanying Chief on this journey are the Pilot — a UNSC survivor of the Banished attack that exiled the Chief — and the Weapon, an AI created to mimic Cortana and, ultimately, destroy her. While well-rounded characters in their own rights, the Pilot and the Weapon serve as audience surrogates in two drastically different ways. The Pilot is well versed in the myth of the Master Chief and, like us, can get exasperated when the hero retreads the same habits he has countless times before. The Weapon, unfamiliar with the legacy of the Chief, is curious and skeptical: Who is this person, and why has humanity come to revere him? Master Chief is typically the savior or the demon, depending on who you ask. The Pilot and the Weapon are important prisms through which Infinite interrogates, and reconsiders, the myth of the Master Chief.

Though Halo Infinite still tells a linear story, the structure of its world allows for exploration. When moving between mainline missions, there’s plenty to stumble upon — trapped Marines to rescue, propaganda towers to destroy, high-value targets to take out — and it all encourages you to take the scenic route. (And please, do so: Banished propaganda towers are basically speakers that emit, essentially, a Grunt podcast centered around how terrible humans are, and it’s extremely funny.)

One of the more repetitive side tasks involves clearing Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), which are small hubs stocked with resources and collectibles. As I mentioned in my preview last month, there’s a litany of ways to approach these encounters. Sometimes, I decided to drive a Razorback full of specialized Marines straight through the front door. In one case, I used a sniper rifle I discovered on a nearby cliffside, right next to a voice log from the Marine that, presumably, died there.

Halo is not the first series whose developers have introduced an open-world structure later in its life cycle — Gears 5 and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End also come to mind — but it is the most successful. 343 Industries has created a world in which Halo-style firefights occur organically, sometimes at a busy crossroads and sometimes in the middle of the woods. While testing out my Wasp — an aerial vehicle — I was shot out of the sky, falling directly into a skirmish with a high-value Banished target. In Halo Infinite, these emergent moments are the norm rather than the exception.

Artwork of four Spartans from Halo Infinite multiplayer Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios

One problem with the open-world format, though, is that 343 Industries is dropping a key feature of Halo’s design legacy: the ability to replay story missions. It’s a core part of my own Halo experience. I love adjusting skulls to make bigger explosions, add more challenges, and tweak the combat in unusual ways. I’ve replayed some of my favorite Halo missions dozens of times over the years. I’ve played some of them so much that I can run through them in my head, and I suspect that, given the chance, I’d get to that point again with Halo Infinite.

There are some environments in Infinite that become inaccessible once you’ve completed a mission, meaning that you can’t return to look for secrets. It’s also a shame because certain missions feel like they’re begging to be replayed. One is set in a Banished training facility. There are UNSC weapons and vehicles scattered on recreated set-pieces, and crumbling towers next to beat-up tanks. It’s like a twisted museum that the Banished have created to combat their most hated foes. It feels like the embodiment of Halo as a franchise: a big sandbox brimming with explosive potential.

That was key, for instance, in 2004’s Halo 2. It wasn’t an open game: It was very linear, often choosing long, dark hallways over spacious exteriors. But there was something about its design and story that made it feel massive, like there was an entire galaxy to run around in. The magic of that experience was that Bungie was able to create something that felt expansive, despite the limitations of the time. Halo Infinite’s magic, then, is in fully realizing that vision. I don’t just feel like I’ve got an entire Halo to explore — I actually do, and I can’t wait to see how that evolves from here, especially with co-op on the way.

Though co-op isn’t coming to Halo Infinite until next year, the game’s free-to-play multiplayer component was released in beta nearly a month before the campaign to commemorate the original Xbox’s (and Halo’s) 20th anniversary. The staggered rollout has given 343 time to make adjustments ahead of the game’s full release, and the studio has already done just that: It has made multiple tweaks to Halo Infinite’s slow battle pass since the beta period began.

a Spartan in green camo armor wields an Energy Sword against a Spartan in orange armor holding a VK78 Commando in Halo Infinite multiplayer Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios

Games such as Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Valorant dominate the multiplayer sphere now, and in going free-to-play, Halo is aiming to carve out its own space in the modern landscape. Aside from its progression hiccups, it’s off to a great start. Despite the new release model, the moment-to-moment flow of Halo Infinite’s multiplayer matches is unabashedly Halo, the kind of experience I remember from the era of Halo 3. Smaller maps make games fast paced and exciting, with the grappling hook adding a new layer of acrobatics. It’s a familiar yet thrilling multiplayer experience that allows for both chaotic battles and precise plays.

Unlike Halo Infinite’s campaign, the multiplayer component does feel welcoming to newcomers. One excellent addition is the Academy, a tutorial that teaches the fundamentals before pitting you against AI bots. The weapons drill system in particular is a godsend, and I can’t imagine a game without it. Drills are set up as minigames where I’m testing how many targets I can eliminate in a set time period, and the stakes are low enough that I feel comfortable experimenting with every weapon I can.

Halo Infinite swaps out the loadouts and armor abilities of earlier games for a few new pickups, including the grappling hook, which is by far the most useful of these tools. After relying on it so much in Halo Infinite’s campaign, it feels criminal to pass it by in multiplayer.

In some ways, the grappling hook feels like a perfect microcosm of Halo Infinite as a whole. It’s an addition that somehow shakes things up while also feeling like it belonged the entire time. In Halo Infinite’s design tenets and its iconic characters, 343 Industries has created something that bears the weight of the Halo legacy, and it’s poised to carry that weight into the future. It’s invigorating to be so excited about Halo again.

Halo Infinite’s campaign will be released Dec. 8 on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X; its multiplayer component is playable now. The game was reviewed using a pre-release Xbox Series X download code 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.