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‘Halo Infinite’ Is the Open-World Wonder ‘Halo’ Always Wanted to Be

After more than a year of delays, the flagship Xbox franchise has arrived on Series X consoles with a new title that’s every bit as gripping as its influential predecessors

Xbox Game Studios/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In late 2001, everything about the brand-new Xbox was big. The system itself was a whopper—the largest, heaviest, and fastest gaming machine on the market. The controller it came with was so strangely rotund that children had trouble reaching its thumbsticks while grasping its bulbous sides. And then there was the system’s helmeted mascot. Most video game characters associated with certain consoles—even the ones with an attitude—were cute, cuddly, and a few feet tall: Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, Pikachu, Kirby. Master Chief, the protagonist of the Xbox’s breakout launch title, Halo: Combat Evolved, stood 7 feet tall and weighed 1,000 pounds in his armor (even more than the Xbox). The Xbox and its flagship franchise were behemoths worthy of Microsoft’s market cap.

Even aside from the size of its famous Spartan supersoldier, Halo has always felt huge. When Xbox players took control of Master Chief for the first time on November 15, 2001, they discovered vast environments that sprawled above and beneath the exotically landscaped skin of the game’s titular alien ringworld. From any spot on the surface, the rest of the ring stretched outward and upward, a gleaming invitation to examine its mysteries. Master Chief may have looked like Doomguy, but Halo didn’t look like Doom. Halo helped kill the murky, claustrophobic corridor shooter of old and drag the genre into the 21st century, via a trip to the 26th.

Twenty years later, Microsoft’s market cap is bigger than ever, and the company’s latest, greatest Xbox system, the Series X, outweighs the trailblazer by a pound. Now Halo has sized up, too, adopting a newly limitless title to go with an extra-expansive setting. Halo Infinite, released on Wednesday for Xbox systems and Windows, has the Halo feel that instantly transports longtime players back to 2001: the floaty physics, the gratifying gunplay, the existential stakes. But it also comes closer to qualifying as “combat evolved” than any entry in the series since the trilogy that concluded 14 years and two console generations ago. From the start, the series strained to deliver a less restrictive experience than the technology of the time typically allowed: Even in 2001, Halo had the spirit of an open-world game. In Infinite, it finally has the map to match.

Then and now: ‘Halo: Combat Evolved’ (2001), top, and ‘Halo Infinite’ (2021)
343 Studios

For those just joining the fun, Infinite is Halo’s eighth FPS installment, following five titles developed by Bungie and two previous games made by the current steward of the series, 343 Industries, which inherited the Halo IP when Bungie split from Microsoft to develop Destiny. Although there’s never been a bad Halo game, Infinite faced pressure to restore the series’ once-unparalleled reputation after the relatively humdrum Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians, which many fans felt lost some of Bungie’s secret sauce in the studio switch. Even Bungie’s last two Halo titles, Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, seemed to suffer from some lack of inspiration compared to their groundbreaking forerunners. (Wait. Precursors? Strike that. Predecessors? That’ll do.)

Part of the series’ perceived stagnation stemmed from the standard set by the first three games. The original Halo provided proof of concept for intuitive, dual-stick controls in console shooters and almost single-handedly established the Xbox brand. In addition to adding key mechanics like hijacking vehicles and dual-wielding weapons, Halo 2 took the series online, demonstrating the capacity for satisfying, functional multiplayer matchmaking on Xbox Live and jumpstarting professional gaming. Halo 3, the franchise’s first foothold on Xbox 360, improved upon every aspect of Halo 2’s multiplayer package debuting new modes, a map-editing tool, and a means of capturing and sharing footage and screenshots and that created a robust community. 343’s first two numbered games couldn’t live up to those legacies. Halo 4’s trend-chasing tweaks to the franchise’s simple multiplayer model alienated Halo lifers. Halo 5, the lone full-fledged, original Halo release on Xbox One, corrected some of those multiplayer missteps but drew fire for shifting focus from the Chief in the disappointing campaign, which contributes to its habitual last-place showing in rankings of mainline Halo games.

Many fans felt that Halo 4 and Halo 5 either failed to feel like Halo or didn’t innovate enough (or a bit of both). As a “spiritual reboot,” Halo Infinite tries to check both of those boxes, and mostly succeeds. Unlike the first few Halo games, Infinite doesn’t really lead: It breaks boundaries for the franchise, but not for console games or first-person shooters. Instead, it borrows, synthesizes, and sometimes perfects elements of other games, which fuse well with the qualities that made Halo fun in the first place.

Infinite was originally intended to be Microsoft’s system seller when the Xbox Series X/S launched last November. But audience backlash to the look of a trailer released last July, coupled with production setbacks stemming from COVID-19, a rebuilt game engine, and the open-world overhaul, conspired to push the game more than a year past its target and led to the longest release gap between Halo games. Multiple top directors were pulled from the project midstream, and former Bungie bigwig Joseph Staten, who had worked on Halo 1 through 3, took over as head of creative. The extra time and turnover apparently paid off.

The biggest knock against Infinite today is that the game still isn’t finished: Its level editor, mission replays, ray-tracing update, and co-op campaign mode (a Halo specialty) aren’t due out until mid-2022. The multiplayer playlist is still light on maps, modes, and customizability, and some players are still let down or Reddit-enraged by matchmaking woes and the pace of progression in Infinite’s battle pass, which 343 has already started to address. (“In my day, we didn’t need no unlockable cosmetics to waste all our time playing Halo,” my inner aging millennial grumbles.) But what’s there this week is special, which bodes well for what the work in progress will look like in its final form. Infinite isn’t a lightly chosen name; this game could be the backbone of the franchise for a decade to come.

With Call of Duty: Vanguard publisher Activision mired in a series of workplace harassment scandals and Battlefield 2042 suffering a rocky launch, Infinite appears poised to be the least problematic and most polished of the holiday season’s blockbuster shooter trifecta. (With the Battlefield brand in disarray, Electronic Arts is reportedly turning to an ex-Halo hand for guidance.) Infinite extends something of a hot streak for Xbox Game Studios, which has also published Psychonauts 2, Deathloop, and Forza Horizon 5 since late August and has hotly anticipated exclusives slated for next year. But Halo, whose TV adaptation is finally nearing release, is still the mainstream, crossover star that wears Microsoft’s Mantle of Responsibility.

In a first for the series, Infinite launched simultaneously on Xbox and PC and offers free-to-play multiplayer. (The game’s single-player campaign can be purchased separately or accessed with a Game Pass subscription.) In matchmaking—which has been in open beta since its semi-surprise early launch on Halo’s 20th anniversary last month—the game remains a somewhat stripped-down, accessible, and pleasingly paced alternative to frenetic, complex shooters with steeper barriers to entry. Infinite features power-ups aplenty, but those temporary boosts only supplement, rather than supplant, the so-called “golden triangle” of guns, grenades, and melee that has served the series well for decades. A veteran of vintage Halo who’s skipped the past two games could come back to the fold and still find themselves blissfully free from armor classes, customizable loadouts, and confusion or feelings of unfairness after deaths.

Unlike Vanguard and Battlefield, Infinite’s multiplayer gameplay has been hailed as a fundamentally balanced, sound, and “just one more match”–type experience bolstered by a wide array of weapons that are viscerally satisfying to fire. If the multiplayer thrives because of its back-to-basics approach, the campaign leavens its nostalgia with novelty. As usual, Chief (who’s returned to the spotlight) is the last hope for humanity. This time, though, he’s fighting not on his home turf (as at the outset of Halo 2), but on another, even more mystifying and dangerous alien loop, Zeta Halo. With the local UNSC forces scattered or destroyed, Chief can count on only two sidekicks in his quest to kill countless aliens: Echo 216, a Pelican pilot, and “The Weapon,” an AI successor to Cortana.

By the standards of gravelly voiced, strong-and-silent-type protagonists whose faces are always obscured, Chief gets a lot of lines here. He isn’t exactly sensitive, but he shows more emotional range than Halo fans are used to seeing, ranging from empathetic and vulnerable to cold and closed off. Even so, The Weapon sorta steals the show. I won’t pretend that I’ve followed all the ins and outs of Halo lore over the past 20 years and 30-plus novels, so I largely relied on callbacks and context clues to understand the story, but it’s touching at times. The plot picks up in medias res and fills in the blanks as it goes, with Echo and The Weapon serving as audience stand-ins for first-time players, so Infinite’s early events aren’t quite as bewildering as they initially appear (though the game’s one-note main antagonists won’t be familiar to those who haven’t played Halo Wars 2). Honestly, most of my motivation for firing at the bad guys was “because the targeting reticle turned red when I pointed it at them,” which in this case sufficed for me.

(As an aside: Yes, YouTube and written explainers exist, but more video game sequels—especially sequels to six-year-old games—should lead with a “Previously on” recap, like every episode of every streaming series. I’ve overwritten my memories of what happened in Halo 5 with umpteen other sci-fi/fantasy epics since 2015.)

After all these years, Warthogs are still seriously fun and extremely unsafe to drive. Chief (who’s still voiced by Steve Downes) can still see the Covenant’s energy bolts coming in time to step out of the way. If he doesn’t, players will still hear the same sounds as always when his shield depletes and, after a few seconds, regenerates (not to mention the same stirring main theme). The Grunts are still as talkative as Trade Federation battle droids, and equally easy to kill. It all seems so exquisitely Halo that I can almost feel my phantom 14-year-old hands sweatily losing their grip on The Duke. But in a departure from prior campaigns, Chief has the run of the place, with the exception of some areas that aren’t unlocked until later in the game.

Instead of a series of self-contained, largely linear levels, Infinite offers an open world where players are often free to tackle mandatory missions and optional activities in the order they choose. When he’s not advancing the story, Chief can capture FOBs, shut down enemy installations, assassinate marked targets, rescue squads in distress, and collect the cores of Spartans’ armor, cosmetic armor modifications, and audio logs. Most of these diversions, which yield achievements, fast-travel points, and souped-up weapons and equipment, basically boil down to killing things. But in Halo, that’s hardly a bad thing, and the map is more manageable than its cluttered counterparts in many an overstuffed Ubisoft game.

For all of the merciless slaughter, half the fun of exploring Infinite’s (mostly) open world comes not from killing, but from traversing the terrain. On Series X, Zeta Halo looks phenomenal, if a little lacking in diverse scenery, but forget the graphics: The real highlight here is that Chief is exponentially more mobile than ever before. Halo (and some of its sequels) had fall damage; the Chief couldn’t sprint until Halo: Reach or mantle over objects until Halo 5. In Infinite, he can sprint and jump from high peaks with impunity. Better yet, he can grapple, an option that previous games in the series tried and failed to implement.

The Grappleshot may be the best addition to Halo since the Battle Rifle (which, along with many other offensive staples of the series, reprises its celebrated role in Infinite). I considered writing an ode to the Grappleshot in lieu of a review, because it’s the kind of mechanic that immediately makes games that don’t have it seem incomplete. There are other items in Infinite’s campaign, including a Threat Sensor that exposes hidden enemies, a Drop Wall that provides instant cover, and a Thruster that allows the Chief to dash in different directions. But I only had eyes for the Grappleshot. Tutorials aside, I never equipped anything else, and I used all of my available upgrades—another new wrinkle, earned by spending Spartan cores—on the Grappleshot and shield.

Infinite isn’t the first shooter to get its grapple on; other recent standouts such as Titanfall 2 and Doom Eternal included grappling hooks of sorts (in multiplayer, at least). But none has nailed it like this. The Grappleshot is a versatile tool: Depending on the situation, Chief can use it to stun an enemy, disable its shields, or pull himself toward it to land a melee blow. He can also pick up and fling energy coils placed liberally around levels, which do more damage than grenades. Finally, he can use it as a climbing or platforming aid, effectively flying forward, upward, or side to side. Few areas are off limits to a 7-foot soldier packing a Grappleshot. Players can choose from multiple approaches to most open-world objectives, and grappling up an undefended cliff is often preferable to a full frontal assault.

In contrast to Uncharted-style games with clearly marked handholds, climbing in Infinite feels like a physical and intellectual test that requires strategic routes and a touch of trial and error, along the lines of Breath of the Wild. Both outdoors and indoors, Halo levels feel bigger than they need to be, in an organic way. Some extra scraps of real estate don’t have a hidden purpose; sometimes a spare room is just a room. Those negative spaces make Zeta Halo look like an alien world that existed before players appeared, not an artificial playground built for their personal power fantasies.

The only downside to Infinite’s ambitious sprawl is that some of the inside sequences are confining and drab by comparison. The ring’s Forerunner facilities are full of monotonous hallways and tedious tasks, à la “The Library” from Halo: Combat Evolved. Get ready to repeatedly activate or deactivate three something-or-others to trigger a thingamajig, especially later in the narrative, when the game gets less flexible about where Chief can go. On the whole, though, Infinite’s new structure suits the series well—probably better than the open-world conversion of another Xbox tentpole, Gears 5, which had its virtues too. Not every game needs to be an open-world one, but Infinite is the open-world wonder that Halo always wanted to be.

After finishing Infinite’s campaign—with a lot of scattered content to return to—I replayed the second level of Halo (the first time Chief sets foot on the ring), as well as a couple of classic missions that echo in Infinite: Halo’s “The Silent Cartographer” and Halo 2’s “Delta Halo.” In the early 2000s, those missions were mind-blowing, stuffed with exciting set pieces, varied environments, lifelike AI, and unusual freedom to roam. The best compliment I can pay Infinite is that those touchstones of the series seem small-scale and static next to the newest incarnation, which plays all the Halo hits but has its own identity and drive.

I started high school in 2001, so my adolescent experience is inseparable from the first three Halo games. I’m still close with some friends from those days, but I’ve lost touch with the ones I once drove off a cliff in a Warthog with. I don’t have a Halo clan anymore, and I feel those phantom friends I’ve lost like I feel that phantom fat controller. Their absence from my friends list (and more so from my life) makes me sad: You can’t go home again, even if Infinite feels like home for Halo fans. But what the first few Halo games were for me and my friends, Infinite will be for a fresh crop of players. Infinite let me re-live the rush of system link LAN parties, those laggy first forays onto Xbox Live, and swapping stories about intense emergent moments. But in bringing me back, it also carried me forward to a time when Halo actually plays like we dreamed it did two decades ago.