The expectations for the Halo Infinite campaign are wildly varied. For many, the full-circle nature of the game’s setting is an assurance that developer 343 Industries knows what it’s doing. For others, the fear is that 343 will tread all over the things that made the original Halo so great.
After playing through the campaign’s first few hours, the overriding impression is of a studio attempting to recapture a very specific vibe. One that is, perhaps, not its own. I want to spend most of this preview talking about game feel because I think this better informs any discussion around Halo better than trying to edge my way around embargoed story aspects.
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343 has now developed fully four Halo titles, and collaborated on many more, including the Halo Wars series. It’s worked on Halo mobile games. Tie-in apps. It got the Halo Legends anime series off the ground. It’s driven scores of novels and comics expanding the lore of the Halo universe.
No one knows more about Halo than 343. No one has done more to keep it alive than 343.
And yet, try as it might, 343 has never been able to escape the shadow Bungie casts over the series. The mark Bungie left on the series, particularly in the series’ blockbuster first entry, is indelible. You can’t make a Halo game that doesn’t include the fundamentals that Bungie established or it won’t feel like Halo. In Halo 5: Guardians, you could feel 343 straining against the confines of those fundamentals, desperately looking for a way to plant its flag.
343 has what is, in many ways, an unenviable creative task. Just go out there and create a Halo game so good that players could believe that it came from Bungie itself. Because Halo: Combat Evolved, 20 years later, is still the yardstick they all have to measure up to.
It’s a bit like trying to form a Rush cover band. You can certainly do it, but you give yourself a mountain to climb if you want to impress anyone who knows anything about Rush.
So, what can you do in that situation? If you’re 343, you get really good at playing Tom Sawyer.
343’s solution to the problem before them looks to be fairly simple. Go back to the first game and evoke it, heart and soul, but do it their way.
Halo Infinite has frequently been referred to as a soft reboot. That’s apt, considering the game’s first few hours.
Right from the off, the campaign evokes the original game’s opening mission with Master Chief aboard a Banished warship that is disintegrating around him. The journey down to the shattered Halo ring nearby is a bumpy one, with Chief and his new friend Echo, the pilot, finding themselves stranded and surrounded by Banished forces.
Chief arrives on Zeta Halo with a lot of questions and few answers. Surrounded by enemies and with no other alternative available to him, Chief picks up a rifle and begins making enquiries.
This is where Halo Infinite reveals its open world. The map is surprisingly large, and the early stages faithfully recreate the verdant environment of Halo: CE’s second level “Arriving on Halo”. It feels like it takes a minute to hoof across it on foot if you have to, which encourages finding vehicles for more rapid transit. There are icons scattered across the map that tell indicate certain points of interest, many of which lead to a stockpile of UNSC weaponry. It’s all fairly straightforward open world stuff. You’ve seen this in Ubisoft titles over and over for the last decade or more. The difference is that Halo Infinite doesn’t want you distracted by a doodad hunt for too long. I’ll talk about that more later.
343 has been quite restrained in the number of activities it has included for the player to find. Among them were highlighted Banished targets, powerful units that possess unique or modified weapons. Pushing into new areas allowed me to capture new Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) that provided staging platforms for the Chief’s next investigation. You can requisition vehicles, change your weapon loadout and fill up on ammo at each one. Capturing these FOBs unveils all the points of interest around them.
What’s most interesting about the slice of Halo Infinite’s world that I’ve seen is that captures a feeling of scope in the same way that “Arriving on Halo” did all those years ago. It takes the lessons of that’s level’s design and expands on them. What I mean by that, and you’ll understand when you play it, is it feels larger than it is.
A vibe recaptured.
The core of the Halo experience is, of course, shooting, and you’ll be doing a lot of it. Halo Infinite’s campaign transfers the series’ frenetic combat to an open-world space by being careful about where enemies spawn. Certain scripted battles remain, but by and large, you’ll organically stumble upon clusters of enemies around the map as you explore.
There is an upgrade system involved but is restricted only to gadgets Chief himself can carry. This includes the much-vaunted grappling hook seen in the game’s multiplayer mode, which the campaign uses to great effect. Verticality is important. Taking the high ground and creating the space to launch a surprise attack is great.
Knowing that there’s an upgrade system involved, you might be surprised to know that is not driven by shooting. It’s the first AAA shooter I can remember in a while that doesn’t have numbers flying out of enemies with every bullet. I think 343 is very aware that tying progression to any kind of XP system means edging that little bit closer to Destiny. Considering its existing proximity to Bungie, I think 343 has made a wise move in avoiding it.
Indeed, one of my biggest fears following Halo Infinite’s announcement was that it would try, in some way, to emulate Destiny’s success. Thankfully, it attempts nothing of the sort, and on reflection, I don’t know why I worried. Halo isn’t an online RPG with shooting elements. It’s a shooter. It wants you focused on, and enjoying, the shooting.
Shooting has always been Halo’s primary verb, and its kinetic punch remains the highlight of the experience. UNSC weapons shudder and slam with the kind of ruthless, mechanical efficiency a mass-produced galactic war effort would demand. Pulse and energy weapons sizzle and hiss as their components heat up.
Combat refuses to stray from the Halo fundamentals. Chief still has two weapons and a melee strike. An assortment of grenades. A heavy shield and a short health bar. You manage these things and throw in new gadgets, like the aforementioned grappling hook, to create a bit of extra dynamism. It all combines in a way that makes the player feel powerful. Enemies can easily overwhelm you with fire — you’re a single target and, therefore, focused regularly — but if you stay aware of your surroundings and keep close to cover, you can quickly overcome just about any foe.
That sense of power, of being capable and in control of the situation despite being the only person on the battlefield, is Halo’s beating heart.
Another vibe recaptured.
Halo Infinite won’t be out for a little while just yet, but what I hope you can take away from this preview is that the feeling of the thing is right. The intent is there. An awful lot of work went into the campaign to create a game equal parts homage and companion piece. If Halo 5’s goal was to stand apart from every other game in the series, the early stages of Halo Infinite feel like it wants to stand alongside the original and be a complement to it.
I hope that bears out in the complete game. I hope that 343 has found the key to all of this at last. All the effort 343 has put into understanding this series feels like it’s finally, truly, coming to fruition. I look forward to playing more.
Halo Infinite’s campaign launches December 9, 2021, on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and Windows PC.