Halo: Combat Evolved came out two decades ago, and its legacy as one of the most important releases of all time has cast a shadow that the rest of the franchise lives in every time a new game releases. Halo is dumb. It’s also awesome. The main challenge, I’d think, in making a new game in a long-running franchise, especially if you aren’t the original developer, is giving the players all the awesome things that made them fall in love with the series without pissing them off by leaving out the dumb shit that they also love for some reason. It’s a challenge that 343 Industries has appeared to struggle with ever since taking over for Bungie, especially when it comes to the question of what to do with Master Chief. But Halo Infinite, the latest in the franchise, feels like both a concession to what fans want and a big, meaty, green-gloved middle finger to the pressures that come with making games in the series.
John-117 (Master Chief’s “real” name) isn’t an interesting character. He should be interesting. After all, he was kidnapped by the UNSC as a child, replaced with a clone that would die soon after so that his parents would simply think him dead, and conscripted into the Spartan program to become a super-soldier on the frontlines of a seemingly never-ending war against extraterrestrial monsters. Given everything Master Chief went through, the deeply weird codependence that developed between him and his AI companion, Cortana, makes a whole lot of sense. But even after all that, Master Chief somehow still manages to be boring.
There are moments in Halo Infinite’s exceedingly fun and, yes, exceedingly dumb campaign when 343 pokes and prods at the myth of Master Chief and the reasons that fans think they care about a walking, talking suit of armor. These moments occur when Chief’s new AI companion, The Weapon, tries to get him to open up about his feelings around Cortana and why he refuses to trust yet another glowy hologram lady. The Weapon balks at Chief’s stoicism. Is fighting aliens the only thing he cares about? Doesn’t he want friendship? Doesn’t he want a loving, trusting relationship? Is there something that motivates him and gives him a reason to live other than saving the human race time and time again? What about, I dunno, trauma?
The answer to all of the questions, as you might expect, is no, not really. Halo Infinite’s campaign does everything it can to give Master Chief a clean slate so that all that emotional ickiness is put to rest, and future games in the series can have John-117 doing what he does best, which is killing aliens without any emotional baggage weighing him down. Players like Master Chief for the same reasons that they like Mario and Sonic: He and his circumstances never change. If Nintendo suddenly injected some kind of Marriage Story plot between Peach and her mustachioed, red-hatted knight into their next Super Mario game, it might be fun one time, but dragging it out would get old. As interesting as the stories in Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians were, especially considering they had to follow what was a pretty cut-and-dried ending to a fairly straightforward trilogy, they also lingered too long in a territory that Halo is uncomfortable with, namely moral ambiguity and Chief’s and Cortana’s messy professional-turned-personal relationship.
While Halo Infinite might get the series back to where it’s most comfortable, it does so elliptically. The story picks up sort of where Guardians left off, with humanity aboard the Infinity, just trying to figure out how to survive. Specifically, the opening shows the Infinity getting torn to shreds by the Banished, a Covenant splinter group. After a visually confusing battle, Master Chief is defeated and thrown from the ship, to be left floating in space above Zeta Halo. Months pass, and Master Chief, somehow alive, is discovered by one of the only surviving human pilots. Resurrected, Chief heads with the pilot to the surface of Zeta Halo to stop the Banished from fixing the broken Forerunner weapon and killing all of humanity, though at this point it’s unclear how much of humanity is even left.
The problem with Halo Infinite’s story is that it’s trying to be two very different things for two very different audiences. It wants to give newcomers a relatively straightforward tale of a guy in armor saving humanity, while also somehow wrapping up a sprawling narrative that spanned five games, a handful of spinoffs, novels, comics, and everything else in between. The main issue with this approach is that it wraps up the story of the second Halo trilogy before Infinite’s tale even starts. Everything that you might expect to happen at the end of the Forerunner trilogy is told as backstory while Master Chief fights the Banished on Zeta Halo. It would almost be like if Return of the Jedi was told entirely in flashbacks while Luke Skywalker was trapped on Pillio. If anything, Infinite feels like an epilogue to the main narrative, a liminal entry that’s stuck between the past and the future of the franchise. This bizarre approach robs dedicated fans of the payoff that they were probably expecting while leaving newcomers completely adrift in an indiscernible soap opera jam-packed with jargon and a faceless protagonist horny for the memories of a holographic AI woman.
I wonder about the haphazard way that Halo Infinite’s story unfolds and whether that has something to do with 343 turning it into an open-world game. If that was the tradeoff, then I believe the developers made the right call. If any formerly linear shooter deserves to be an open-world game, it’s Halo. As much as I enjoyed the more exploratory sections of Gears 5, The Coalition was smart not to dive headfirst into the waters of open-world design. Considering the characters can’t even jump, you don’t want them kicking around in the sandbox for too long before giving them a piece of waist-high cover to duck behind. Big brother Halo, meanwhile, has always been something of a sandbox shooter, especially in its multiplayer arenas, and that formula translates perfectly to an open-world environment.
Basically, 343 combines the feeling of Big Team Battle with just enough Far Cry–style design (thankfully avoiding any desire to inject stealth into a Halo game) and sets it on a map that is awe-inspiring in scope without trying to do too much visually. All of the good Halo stuff is there, and you get to decide when and how you want to approach it. You can hijack Ghosts from patrolling Grunts, cause a chain reaction of explosive barrels, snipe Elites from a cliff, and do your best Rambo impression with a detachable Heavy Machine Gun, all while storming the same outpost. Infinite’s campaign is structured in chunks, so that you’re never out in the wilderness for too long before it drags you back into the main story. You won’t explore all of Zeta Halo, but what’s there is enough, and you can travel anywhere on its destroyed section that you are allowed to explore whenever you want. The first time you take back a FOB for the UNSC and see a bunch of icons pop up on the map, you might roll your eyes, but completing your checklist of side material and secondary objectives never feels as arduous and gratuitous as it might in a modern Assassin’s Creed or any other Ubisoft title.
But there’s something else new to Halo Infinite that feels like an even bolder choice from the game’s designers, something that even more fundamentally changes the scope and style of the game, to the point where you even begin to question whether or not you’re still playing Halo and why no one thought of this mechanic earlier. I’m talking about the Grappleshot.
The Grappleshot is basically a combination of the grappling hook in Just Cause with the Super Shotgun’s Meat Hook in Doom Eternal. It functions as both a traversal tool and a weapon. You can reverse-Scorpion your way to enemies and clock them in the face, propel yourself into the air and snipe enemies on the way down, or grab an explosive barrel to chuck at a mob. At one point while exploring Zeta, I was presented with a hundred-foot wall. I could spend precious minutes trying to navigate a Warthog around the wall, but instead I used the Grappleshot and Infinite’s physics system to catapult myself up and over the wall like I was goddamn Spider-Man.
You can, of course, play through Halo Infinite, save for a few segments, without ever using the Grappleshot. It’s merely another tool that the game gives you, just like the Thruster, Threat Sensor, and Drop Wall. But why would you do that? Whether I was in a tough fight or simply bouncing around the open world, I found myself incapable of not using the Grappleshot. I am not overstating the case when I say that it became just as important in fighting the Banished as any of the other weapons in the game, of which there are many. I never enjoy playing Halo campaigns without friends, and the fact that we have to wait until we can play Infinite co-op is a huge downgrade for me. But, thanks to the Grappleshot, I forgot I even had friends to play with in a matter of minutes. It’s just that fun to use.
The Grappleshot became so fundamental to my experience with Infinite that, when I went back to playing the multiplayer and didn’t have access to it all the time, I felt like I was playing an entirely different game, and a lesser one at that. While Halo Infinite’s multiplayer might share its name and mechanics with the single-player campaign, it truly feels like its own thing. Considering the multiplayer launched (albeit as a “beta”) just under a month ahead of the single-player campaign, and considering it’s free-to-play, most of the people reading this will probably already have formed an opinion on it. For what it’s worth, I think Infinite’s multiplayer is fine. As far as 343’s Halo multiplayer attempts go, it’s easily my favorite, mostly because it feels the most like classic Halo. But, even just a few weeks later, I already find myself getting bored with what the multiplayer offers, and that’s doubly true now that I’ve experienced the campaign.
As much as players are rightfully slobbering over Halo Infinite’s multiplayer design, I find it to be safe, and given everything else that 343 changed about Halo with this game, “safe” is a disappointment. There are some subtle choices that make Infinite feel like a good step forward for the series, like how it’s handled sprinting, sliding, and mantling. The weapon balance also seems to be in a pretty good place already and most of them are genuinely fun to use (save the Bulldog, which feels like a crime), and the gadget system mostly works. But having become so accustomed to the Grappleshot, and seeing how deep of an impact it had on the game’s overall feel and design in the campaign, I now feel bored with the multiplayer’s “golden” shoot-melee-grenade triangle. All of my favorite clippable moments so far involve the Grappleshot (and sometimes the Thruster). Oh, you went on a sniper frenzy? That’s quaint. I grappled behind a guy and threw an explosive barrel at the back of his head.
Maybe giving players the Grappleshot all of the time would have been too much of a good thing. The multiplayer is already fun, and I will continue to have fun playing it, despite not always having access to the most fun thing about the game. Halo Infinite’s multiplayer is fun, it works, and it feels like Halo, and at the end of the day, that’s what 343 set out to do.
Still, I wonder if 343 could have been a little bolder. Maybe they were scared that Halo fans wouldn’t approve, and maybe the overall positive reaction to the multiplayer so far proves that the developers made the right call. I know, I know: Every time 343 made major changes, it messed the game up. At some point, I would love to see a 343 Industries Halo that wasn’t fully bowing to fans while also not completely missing the point about what makes Halo fun in the first place. So far, it’s either been one or the other.
When I think about Halo’s infinite future, I want to see more of the Grappleshot, or at least what the Grappleshot represents. It’s not a hand-me-down mechanic from Bungie. It’s also not completely out of left field. It’s taking something that’s worked in other games and reclaiming it entirely for Halo. It’s giving players the option to zip into the future or to stay firmly planted in the past. Halo Infinite is a fantastic mainline entry in the franchise, maybe the best since Halo 3, but it also feels like a game still too often grappling with its past. Hopefully, after this third attempt, 343 will have earned enough trust to follow its own vision for the franchise.
Images: Xbox Game Studios
Halo Infinite handles the burden of the franchise’s long history gracefully. At times, as with the campaign’s story, it can feel like developer 343 Industries is weighed down by Master Chief’s Mjolnir armor. But Infinite’s bolder design choices, like its open-world environment and Grappleshot, make it feel exciting and new. The multiplayer might play it a little safe to appease longtime fans, but if the worst thing you can say about it is that it feels like old-school Halo, then it’s doing something right. It’s Halo made for Halo fans, but there’s enough novelty to keep it feeling fresh.
Xbox Game Studios
T - Teen
|Halo Infinite is available on Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox Series X. Product was provided by Xbox Game Studios for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|