It looks to signal a glorious return for Master Chief.
Brutes are brutal, perhaps the most ruthless enemies the Halo series has ever had. We got clear proof of that last year when it was finally time to show off Halo Infinite gameplay after years of teases and promises. As it turned out, not only were the Brutes troublesome for Master Chief, but Craig the Brute led to the game being delayed by a good year.
After years of development, promises, and gorgeous trailers, it was a major disappointment for developers and fans alike. But it was also the start of something new. Halo veterans were called into the development, and the team has been transparently communicating with its community, sharing its thoughts, and taking feedback. Little by little, it's looked more and more promising, including the initially really poor lighting effects.
Halo is my favourite series ever, and so it was with mixed feelings that I recently started my Infinite adventure. Was it going to be one of the worst disappointments I've experienced or had the extra year of polish meant that Master Chief's long-awaited comeback lived up to its full potential? Well, I am going to try and keep this preview as spoiler-free as possible not to ruin the fun of you getting to explore the game for yourselves, but let me say right now that it's actually leaning towards the latter answer.
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Because from the moment Master Chief makes his grand entrance (How you ask? No spoilers as I said!), it finally feels like Halo under 343 Industries' direction feels like... Halo. The game's first few levels take place mostly indoors and provide a good opportunity to get familiar with the game controls and the new grappling hook. Master Chief also retains his sprint feature, which is now noticeably slower in a way that I think all Halo puritans will appreciate.
The levels are set up in a playful way that makes it obvious that this is a video game, where the focus hasn't been on realism, but on enjoyable gameplay where you'll get the chance to learn the basics. Master Chief himself is customarily silent, but once he speaks, Steve Downes gives perhaps his best performance yet as the legendary Spartan warrior, proving time and time again that this is practically a superhero we're talking about.
The story slowly creeps along the first few hours of the adventure, where we're supposed to visit Zeta Halo for various reasons. A cracked ringworld where the Banished have plans that threaten the entire universe. We already met the Banished in Halo Wars 2, and if you played that, you know what unreasonable full-blooded psychopaths we're dealing with. The group is also a perfect excuse to dust off old familiar Covenant enemies again, which means you'll once again face everything from Elites to Jackals and, of course, Grunts. Besides Brutes of course and a couple of newcomers as well. And this is entirely positive because I was never a fan of Prometheans from Halo 4 and 5.
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When I finally land on Zeta Halo, pleasant shivers run down my spine. The design and graphics are top-notch, and the soundscape even better. The feeling of visiting a new ring hasn't been this strong since I took my first stumbling steps on the ringworld in Halo: Combat Evolved. It's a whole world that lives and breathes, and it's immediately clear that there's a huge amount to explore - once I've established a base of sorts. In reality, that means clearing out a hefty area of Banished warriors so supplies and the like can land when needed.
A quick look at the map reveals that there are several other locations nearby. These include Marines in need of rescue, Banished strongholds to be blown up and, of course, bosses holed up. Then there are story missions and lots of other stuff. I've spent hours and hours exploring the giant world, and there's a real sense of discovery in finding little caves in the mountains, crashed shipwrecks filled with treasure, or other oddities.
Basically, that particular sense of discovery when I first got on the Halo ring is back. I love to see what's hiding in the world, but this time I get to take the rescue of the marines in the order I want, instead of a pre-determined way. Thanks to the SSD, there's a very slick Fast Travel feature that takes you between locations in the game world in a matter of seconds, but in Halo Infinite the vehicles actually feel more motivated than ever before, so I've opted to drive around mostly.
In previous Halo titles, there were distinct Warthog levels, a Ghost level, a Banshee level, and so on. Now I use the Warthog to actually move around a giant world. The vehicles aren't just there to give me a cool experience but to actually give me smoother transportation and see more of the world than when I use Fast Travel. That said, 343 Industries chooses not to call Halo Infinite an open-world game. During a Q&A session I participated in recently, it was explained that it does bring up certain associations, and Halo is still Halo, although now you can tailor your own adventure in a different way.
This was also something 343 Industries pushed for. Because there is an incredible number of ways to solve problems and puzzles in Halo Infinite, but they should all feel like basic Halo and no way should be wrong. So the strategies, weapons, and tools you choose to use should work, although of course, some can be better or worse. Also, the goal has been to make it feel fun. Whether you arrive in a battle doing maniac jumps with a Warthog, is stealthily sneaking around, looking for secret paths, or smashing through the main entrance with the SP4NKR rocket launcher - it should be good Halo entertainment.
The freedom of choice also spills over in that this time the Master Chief can be modified by you. The grappling hook you have can be improved, but there are also other features that can be upgraded, which also help to bestow extra game depth and strategy. The ones I've been able to test so far have all felt rewarding, but I can see from the list that there are very many more slots, and how well everything will work out, in the end, remains to be seen.
If you don't want to bother with side quests and modding Master Chief, you rarely have to though. You can always move on to the next mission in the story to get ahead. These seamlessly slide into each other and mean that there are never any interruptions other than cutscenes. The last mission I get to tell you about takes place in a huge tower I saw on the horizon when my adventure on Zeta Halo started. There, of course, is a hefty boss fight is waiting for me after a really major battle - and some important story material.
We'll be back with our review of Halo Infinite closer to launch day. But so far it's very promising. It's bigger on all fronts than the series has ever been while still being cohesive and never unclear about what to do next. From what I've heard so far, though, the soundtrack doesn't quite live up to Martin O'Donnell's original Halo score, but in fairness, extremely few games do. And how well the story holds up throughout is something I simply do not know yet.
For now, though, I'm both relieved and excited. Relieved that 343 Industries seems to be delivering their best Halo yet by a wide margin, and excited to discover more of the secrets of the wonderful Zeta Halo world.