343 Industries is looking to cement itself as the careful custodians of the Master Chief, and Infinite is their do or die attempt to do so.
While obviously a bit of a cliché by now, it's still fascinating to imagine the last couple of years within 343 Industries. While successful in some respects, such as launching the ever-ambitious Halo: The Master Chief Collection, one could very easily suggest that they, at least in the eyes of the most dedicated of fans, have more misses to their name than outright hits. Whether that's true or not, it seems that for a lot of Halo die-hards, 343 simply haven't been the careful custodians, the stalwart caretakers that they were hoping, and in that respect, Halo Infinite needs, as in really needs, to be a hit.
And when the full gameplay reveal finally came, and we at last got to see the results of millions upon millions of dollars worth of Microsoft investment funds in the brand-new Slipspace graphics engine, it all fell flat. While some of the scorn was wholly undeserved, one cannot understate the disappointment of the very same vocal group of fans, and 343 went, beaten, back to the drawing board, and was subsequently mocked with Craig memes for the next 10 months.
Again, it would've been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall inside 343 during the past couple of years, because their journey as a studio, it all leads to this. To Halo Infinite. The weight on its, and the studio's shoulders, is massive, the expectations are set, and it all comes down to whether 343 really can turn this around, and prove to everyone that they, truly, are the right guardians of the Chief's legacy. So let's find out whether they are just that.
The Halo Infinite campaign, which this is a review of (the multiplayer is reviewed separately), breaks tradition in a number of crucial ways, and it's worth taking some time to properly explain how. First off, the campaign is not a strictly linear affair, far from it. While Chief does go on linear, separate missions on Zeta Halo, he explores a pretty open world on his way to each of these, and the game does offer up classic open-world trappings, like freeing captive UNSC squads, retaking select so-called "FOB's" or "Flight Operations Buildings", and destroying Banished infrastructure like bases, armouries and siege weapon foundries. All the while, there's Spartan Cores to find, which are used to gradually upgrade Chief's armour in a RPG-lite kind of fashion. There are even at least a dozen semi-boss fights with health points to punch your way through.
So while the actual experience of exploring Forerunner installations, punching a hole through enemy defences with returning weapons like the MR40 or the Needler and learning more about Halo rings, Cortana's fate or the Banished plans for Zeta, the experience around that recognisable core is very much expanded upon.
And it's mostly for the better. The world of Zeta Halo is beautifully realised, and while there isn't the visual variety of a traditional open-world, the mountain ranges, the dense wildlife and the pretty incredible draw distance makes for breath-taking vistas and exciting playgrounds. In addition, said FOB's provide you with the opportunity of spawning certain vehicles, and you may also select a precise weapon loadout, meaning that you, quite broadly, can choose how you want to approach a given objective. The diversity of returning abilities like Thrusters, Shield Wall, a variety of grenades and new Mjolnir armour upgrades, as well as the frankly incredible Grappleshot, having more content to engage with, which doesn't necessarily forward the plot is actually a welcome change for the better.
Now that does not mean that the double jump from linear mission design to a much more open sandbox is without flaws. Many will probably find the activities themselves to be rather cookie cutter, meaning they don't exactly break the mould, or break new ground even, with the traditional mix of high-value targets, rescue ops and base assaults. I will say that the general reason established for completing these optional objectives are narratively sound, and there is an inherent satisfaction in gradually expanding the presence of the UNSC on Zeta Halo, seeing as rescuing squads, securing FOB's and weakening the Banished foothold does increase the amount of patrols on the roads, and increase the firepower at your disposal when you really need it. But it is "samey", for the lack of a better word, and Infinite could've used more distinct optional content as it introduces a different take on a Halo world for the very first time.
When all of that's said and done, Halo Infinite remains one of the tightest and most optimised first-person shooters in recent memory. All weapons among the around 22 the game offers, are tight as a drum, the iconic flow of combat is as satisfying as ever. Picking off a few targets from afar, switching to close-combat, Grappleshot to a high vantage point, tossing a well-timed grenade, grabbing a fuel canister, tossing it a charging brute - there's a sense of progression, of grounded but floaty physics and of infinite badassery that's quintessentially Halo, and which 343 has nailed to a tee. It's a game that, more than anything else, makes other first-person shooters feel less tight, less satisfying, less polished. It wholeheartedly embodies the premise that it's not about the sheer amount of mechanics at the player's disposal, but how they can be strung together in a sequence that feels intentional.
Narratively, 343 continues down the path that previous games made by the studio began. To some extent the game does shed some of the excess weight, such as Spartan Locke, Blue Team, Lasky and even Dr. Halsey. While some are gradually reintroduced, and others must make do with references in audio tapes, it is a more lean narrative experience, honing in on a few select aspects of the expansive lore. When I say it continues down the path, it's in the sense that it continues to explore the fraud but caring relationship between Cortana and Chief, it focuses more directly on Chief himself, portraying him as an increasingly world-weary man inclined to fight, but perhaps starting to feel the effects of the repetitive eternal fight for survival. It's well-written, excellently paced and filled with twists and turns, but very much cut from the same cloth as previous entries. What I mean by that is prepare for new foes apart from the Banished, prepare for vague titles like "The Endless", or "The Forge" and "The Key" and prepare for not entirely getting it at first. It's Halo, and it's still really good though.
And the production quality is through the roof too, which does not exactly hurt its efficiency in establishing a mood, a setting. While the Slipspace engine isn't an exact masterclass, benching all other engines used regularly in the business today, it is pretty well optimised, offering up gorgeous draw distance, smooth gameplay and reasonably detailed cutscenes and visual effects. Halo Infinite is about scale more-so than finer detail, but I think I can safely say that the game is both pretty and smooth. Composer Gareth Coker does do wonders with the existing musical universe of Halo, delivering thunderous drums, beautiful strings and pulsing electronica, and combined it makes for quite the sumptuous experience.
Yes, it would've been interesting to be a fly on the wall of 343 Industries during the last couple of years of development, seeing as they probably knew deep down that this, Halo Infinite, was it. It was do or die, make or break, if they were ever to be recognised as the proper, rightful custodians of the franchise. Probably hundreds of millions of dollars and years upon years of work and toil afterwards and here we stand - Halo Infinite is a true success, a valiant development effort and a proper sequel in a series that deserves one. While it's familiar open-world trappings might be nauseatingly familiar for some, it's pacing, touching story, tight gameplay and effective aesthetics will, hopefully, remind everyone that Chief is exactly where he needs to be.