It's been a long wait, but 343 has finally returned the beloved franchise to the top of the FPS heap
The Halo franchise will always have a special place in many gamers' hearts, including my own.
When Halo: Combat Evolved was released to the world way back in 2001, it wasn't just a videogame - it was an entirely new experience, a revolutionary landmark in the medium's history that would change the world of videogames forever.
For myself, I was just a little kid when Halo dropped onto the Xbox, and while I enjoyed playing the likes of Frogger and Disney's Hercules on our PlayStation, I wasn't too much of a gamer.
That all changed one fateful day when I was introduced to Halo on my family's old Dell computer.
One evening in what would have been the fall of 2003, my dad came home while I was using our desktop and told me about a website his friend at work had mentioned his son used, a site that had a bunch of free demos for games. Though I can't remember what that website was called, I do remember visiting this portal to other worlds and immediately being drawn in to an ad at the top of the page.
That ad? It was for a demo of a brand new game on the PC: Halo: Combat Evolved.
Though Halo was of course a launch title for Microsoft's Xbox way back in 2001, it was later ported over to PC and Mac in 2003, and from the short trailer nine-year-old me witnessed on this website, I just had to try it out. I hastily clicked the download button and eagerly awaited my demo (which must have taken quite some time given our internet speeds back then) and before long I found myself joining a squad of marines on a sandy beach with a futuristic assault rifle in hand.
The trial came with just a single campaign mission (which is still regarded as one of the best in Halo's history) - The Silent Cartographer. Within the opening minutes I was blown away; the graphics (despite them being on very low settings given our PC's capabilities at the time), the gunplay, the epic score, the level design, it was like nothing I had ever seen before.
I must have played that mission a hundred times, and though I tried a few other games from that gaming site, none captured my attention for more than a few minutes before I'd return to the beach with my marine pals on The Silent Cartographer.
Not long after, my parents bought me the game from our local EB Games (the Canadian version of GameStop) - a used copy for $19.99, though it was long after my birthday and it wasn't given as a Christmas gift, so I must have annoyed them enough (or perhaps begged) until they bought it for me.
The full game was even better than I imagined and took me quite some time to play through (that damn Library level) but I enjoyed every minute of it. By the time I discovered the multiplayer portion of the game, I was positively addicted.
I poured countless hours into fragging enemy spartans, so much so that my parents would have to force me off the computer since I'd regularly go over the amount of time they had said I was allowed to play and I'd hog the family PC when my sister wanted to use it.
They simply didn't understand - Halo called out to me, demanding to be played.
When trailers for Halo 2 lit up gaming sites and Master Chief's updated Mark VI armour graced gaming magazine covers, I was as pumped as could be, until I found out that it wouldn't be launching on PC; by then I had a PlayStation 2 instead of an Xbox, which I did play but not nearly as much as I still played Halo on that old Dell desktop.
As the game's release drew closer, I then decided that I would save any money I received for my birthdays and holidays so that eventually I could buy myself an Xbox and a copy of Halo 2.
But then Halo 2 launched. Records not only for videogames, but for the entertainment industry as a whole, were shattered. Millions of copies were sold in the first 24 hours - it was all over the news, every gaming site and magazine was raving about how the most anticipated sequel in gaming history had delivered in spades.
That Christmas I received plenty of Halo 2 memorabilia, from the Halo 2 original soundtrack (which is still amazing by the way) to several Halo novels and a badass white-with-blue spartan action figure with dual SMGs - as cool as those gifts were (I still have them by the way), that just made me want to play Halo 2 even more.
So I asked my parents if I could trade in my PlayStation 2 and all my games, as I was sure that, combined with the money I had saved, the trade-in value would be enough to cover a shiny new Xbox and Halo 2 - surely handing over a bunch of games and a console in excellent condition would cover another console and just one game, right? Poor, naive 10-year-old me.
They made me think it over to make sure it was what I wanted, and then came another trip to our local EB Games. I traded in a box filled with a Playstation 2, controllers, and a bunch of games, positively giddy that I was mere hours away from getting my hands on Halo 2.
But after all the trade-in values were calculated...I fell short. The consoles they had at the time came bundled with MechAssault 2, which while it was a cool game I would have liked playing, I wished for nothing except Halo, so the sales associate allowed us to trade that in for credit as well before I had technically bought it, but even with that it still wasn't enough.
I can't remember how much I was short by, but I believe I had enough for the console itself but not enough to also get a copy of Halo 2, with the used copy of it still selling for $50 given that it was so popular.
I was devastated - so close, yet so far. I may not recall what I felt in the moment but I'm sure my miniature self was absolutely heartbroken, and I probably had a look of pure despair over my sad little face - but then dear ol' dad came to the rescue. He pulled out his wallet and covered the difference, and just like that I was back on cloud nine.
Despite all the hype and my sky-high expectations, Halo 2 still managed to blow my mind after I got everything hooked up to the TV, once again moving the entire FPS genre to new heights in the process.
Unfortunately, unlike on PC, multiplayer wasn't free on consoles and instead cost $50 a year for an Xbox Live subscription, but I did however find a way to work around that with the long-since defunct XBConnect Service, which essentially was a service that allowed players to connect to lobbies by spoofing a LAN party. It was usually laggy as hell but hey, it was free and damn was it fun when it worked.
Soon enough I got Xbox Live for my birthday and got to experience the proper way to play, including the good old chat headset so I could hear the early days of trash talking over the internet (which was far more innocent and less psychotic than it is today).
Ever since, I have been fortunate enough to play every Halo game at launch and have thoroughly enjoyed them all; from finally achieving the coveted level 50 in a ranked playlist on Halo 2, to staying up until three o'clock in the morning during the summers to play co-op and custom games of Halo 3 with my friends, to sinking hours into Halo 5's Warzone or reliving all those great moments in full HD with The Master Chief Collection.
So, you could say I'm a bit of an expert when it comes to Halo, and with that comes a lot of expectations.
Though many have felt that Halo has lost its way since 343 Industries took over the iconic franchise after the release of Halo Reach, I did quite enjoy both of 343's entries - Halo 4 was a solid start even if it wasn't quite on par with the original trilogy, and Halo 5, though highly divisive, was still a great game in its own right that did add some new and interesting modes as well (such as the excellent Warzone, which was actually a revival of a mode that ended up being scrapped before Halo 2's launch, or the highly competitive round-based single-life multiplayer mode Elimination).
That said, Halo 5 took Halo's gameplay and made many changes to the tried and true formula that, although they weren't a bad thing by themselves, they fundamentally changed the way combat in the series unfolded and how it felt, and the story took some major missteps that certainly disappointed series fans, myself included.
Despite still liking the game myself, I definitely agreed that 343 needed to take Halo back to its roots - Halo 5 may have been a great game, it just wasn't a great Halo game.
Rather than doubling down on their divisive vision, the staff at 343 Industries took what the fans were saying to heart and designed Halo Infinite from the ground up with that in mind - rather than once again trying to reinvent the wheel, they were determined to bring the classic Halo feel to the modern era, and even with the addition of new features, the core tenets of Halo had to remain intact at all costs.
Thankfully, 343 has accomplished the task they were given and has delivered the Halo game we've been eagerly waiting for.
The (Open) World of Halo
It may not have been as obvious at the time, but one of the biggest differences in 343's Halo 4 and 5 compared to the original trilogy was the tone of its campaign. This difference became more apparent over time to those that played through the series again thanks to the excellent enhanced versions available in The Master Chief Collection after it launched in 2014.
Halo has always tackled serious topics in its story - from religious zealotry to political turmoil to the morality of things like advanced artificial intelligence and desperate military actions - but Bungie's games balanced those heavier subjects with a sense of wonder, comradery and understated humour.
With 343's titles, the tone became notably more heavy and serious, the background humour was largely phased out and even the art direction took on a darker and more "sci-fi" aesthetic.
The result were two campaigns that were simply less fun and less memorable than the titles that came before.
With Halo Infinite, the magic that made Halo what it is has returned and may even be better than ever.
The shift to an open world environment went a long way in re-establishing the sense of wonder that accompanied the original trilogy, particularly the original Halo, and went far beyond what I had expected from the campaign.
Given that 343 made it very clear that they would be making a game faithful to the original trilogy, I expected the open world elements to be much more restrained - something like the Gears 5 campaign, which ventured into semi-open world territory but never really committed to it - that added a sense of exploration to the title and some side missions to add some variety, but instead we got a true open world experience.
From the moment Master Chief is unleashed on the surface of Zeta Halo the scope of the iconic ring's environment becomes apparent, and 343 has clearly taken a lot of time to ensure that exploring its blend of nature and Forerunner architecture is as fun as its signature combat.
It harkens back to those first moments on The Silent Cartographer, the Chief let loose in an environment filled with both danger and beauty alike.
The game looks beautiful on the Xbox Series X, with a quality mode ensuring smooth 60 frames per second gameplay while the performance mode takes it up to a silky 120FPS, though the resolution occasionally dips to allow that - playing on either setting looked great, and I didn't notice any notable performance issues across my playthrough.
It may not be quite the graphical powerhouse that Halo typically is compared to other games released near it (Forza Horizon 5 for instance still boasts the best graphics on the new Xbox consoles), but it still looks great and the art direction is back in line with the original trilogy.
It's also extremely polished for an open world game in particular, though I have heard of multiple issues stemming from the Quick Resume feature on the new Xbox consoles - I simply avoided using the feature as the game loads up in about 10 seconds on the Series X anyway, but it is a bit odd that one of Xbox's most touted new features is broken in one of their biggest releases.
The sound design however is in a league of its own, from the stellar voice acting to the iconic effects of its array of weaponry, to the sublime original soundtrack.
Generally, I'm not one that listens to OST's and usually am of the belief that while being necessary as part of the experience, a game's score usually isn't noticeable during gameplay unless it's either absent or terrible to the point that it stands out.
There are exceptions however; musical scores that can elevate a game to new heights and become an experience of their own, and Halo has perhaps the most beloved and iconic score in videogame history.
With Halo Infinite, that legacy is front and centre; so many of the beloved tracks of prior games are remastered and improved upon here, not to mention the plethora of entirely new tracks that still manage to feel as if they've been in the franchise since Marty O'Donnell created the unique sounds of Halo all those years ago.
Hearing The Road blasting on my surround sound speakers while my Scorpion tank decimates groups of Elites and Brutes is as epic as it gets, just as hearing Zeta Halo for the first time as you step out onto the ancient ringworld inspires the same sense of wonder that captivated millions in Combat Evolved.
The sense of humour that the original trilogy did so well? That's back too, and this time 343 absolutely nailed it.
Breaking up the more serious sections of the game (which, like in prior Halo stories, are presented excellently here) are playful banter between the three main protagonists (Master Chief, his new AI companion dubbed "The Weapon", and Echo-216, a pilot who rescues Chief from being adrift in space), funny one-liners from your marine companions, and absolutely hilarious quips from your enemies.
Particularly while exploring the open world or while in combat with grunts, you'll overhear some genuinely brilliant lines and they'll often be in response to your actions, giving your encounters a sense of presence and uniqueness not found in many other titles.
For instance, after boarding and stealing an Elite's vehicle, you may hear him shout "How DARE you?!" in a suitably offended tone.
On one occassion, after seeing his Brute commander killed, a Grunt shouted "Tactical runaway!", turned, and ran away with his arms flailing in the air.
On another, upon seeing the Master Chief, one Grunt boasted "I trained three DAYS for this moment" before he took his shot at the king.
And another quipped "What kind of 'Elite' gets killed that easy?" after I cut down his comrade with an energy sword.
The Grunts' unwitting humour is even funnier now than it was in the original trilogy, almost to the point where I feel bad for killing the poor bastards.
You'll stumble upon conversations as well if you haven't been seen yet, such as the time I heard a group of grunts debating who they should kill next once they're out of humans to slay (one voted for the Brutes), or another time where I heard a Jackal say to one of his own that he needed more bullets to "fix Grunt problem".
And then there's the propaganda towers strewn about the ring that you can destroy, which typically feature a Grunt comms officer taunting the "filthy" humans or later asking the "Demon" to stop killing all their commanders.
Halo Infinite manages to be genuinely funny quite often, but more importantly, it does so in a manner that doesn't feel forced nor are there poor attempts at jokes at the wrong moments that detract from the tone like in most videogames that try to inject humour into the experience.
What 343 really manages to pull off in Infinite that it failed to do previously is to prioritize having fun - at the most basic level, that's what videogames are for after all.
Simply put, playing through the Halo Infinite campaign was the most fun I've had playing a videogame in a long time. Considering how many games I've played over recent years, that's really saying something.
Halo's classic combat is not only restored to all of its former glory by 343, but it is enhanced and added upon to great effect without compromising the classic feel like its predecessor did.
This all-encompassing upgrade includes everything from minor improvements like having plasma weapons (such as the energy sword) automatically pick up ammo from dropped weapons of the same type and a scanning ability that highlights nearby weapons and collectables as well as the current objective, to major additions such as the new equipment that is constantly available to use (after differing cooldown periods) or the ability to call in vehicles and weapons at Forward Operating Bases (or FOBs).
Halo's legendary lineup of weaponry (mostly) finds its way into Infinite, with most of the classics returning (save for a few such as the classic shotgun) and improved on - the assault rifle in particular has been turned into a perfect all-purpose killer, while Infinite's pistol has become a proper sidearm that although not the uber-powerful sniper that dominated the original Halo, is easily the most balanced in the series.
There's also a slew of new weapons that replace the gaps in the arsenal, such as the Bulldog shotgun which features a much higher fire rate or the powerful Cindershot, the Forerunner equivalent of a grenade launcher.
Each weapon feels like it has its place and thanks to a more generous ammo system that allows you to reload certain weapon types (excluding power weapons like the rocket launcher of course) at stations found throughout the game, you're free to stick to your favourites or cycle through the vast arsenal you have access to at your leisure.
The biggest new addition to gameplay however is certainly the Grappleshot, a grappling hook attachment that joins the Threat Sensor, Drop Wall, and Thruster as available equipment to use.
Unlike equipment in say Halo 3, these items don't need to be picked up in the campaign and instead you can switch between them on the fly (after you unlock the equipment in the story, of course).
Instead of having a limited number of uses, you can activate them as much as you want, with a short cooldown period between uses, making them function more like the special abilities present in many hero shooters.
Each serves a purpose and is particularly effective during certain encounters - the Drop Wall offers great protection when you're overwhelmed against multiple foes or are caught without nearby cover; the threat sensor is a godsend when confronted by cloaked Elites, and is essentially the only way to see them before they strike given how effective the active camo is in Infinite; and the Thruster is a major help when confronted by heavy-hitting melee enemies in close quarters.
You'll also be able to upgrade each of these abilities as you find Spartan Cores hidden throughout the game, reducing the cooldown periods of each item or improving their effectiveness, a first in any Halo game.
The Grappleshot stands out however as it not only greatly aids you in battle, with the ability to "harpoon" targets to propel you into them (and even deliver shock damage and a devastating melee attack on the way when upgraded), grab weapons from far away to equip in a flash, or even "grapplejack" enemy vehicles in an extension of the boarding ability made famous in Halo 2: it also makes exploring an absolute delight.
Grappling up massive mountains or Forerunner installations makes climbing even the most intimidating locations a breeze. Launching yourself forward by grappling trees like Spider-Man is a blast, so much so that I regularly found myself ignoring vehicles and instead making my way around the gigantic map on foot simply because of how fun it is to do so.
There have been plenty of grappling hook-type abilities in shooting games over recent years, with particular standouts being the Super Shotgun's Meathook in Doom Eternal and Titanfall 2's grappling hook, but somehow 343 manages to take the best uses of both and make it even more fun to use in the process.
The removal of fall damage entirely is also a welcome addition given the new verticality, and once again shows how 343 is focusing on fun this time rather than taking the most "realistic" approach.
This incredible movement system combined with the impeccably refined shooting mechanics makes Halo Infinite the best-feeling shooter in gaming.
Thankfully the gigantic world 343 Industries has crafted also has no shortage of things to do.
Capturing Forward Operating Bases or FOBs allows you to fast travel around the map, but also gives you the ability to call in vehicular reinforcements and weapons on the fly.
As you perform actions during the campaign (such as capturing FOBs or completing missions) you'll earn Valor - as you earn more Valor, more items will be unlocked to use at your FOBs, such as improved, specialized variants of standard weapons or more powerful vehicles like the Wasp or Scorpion tank.
You'll also earn upgrades for the marines that spawn at these bases, and your marines will automatically hop in vehicles when there's a seat available and follow you into battle - and unlike many other games, they're actually helpful in combat!
Rather than trading weapons with my marine pals to get their shiny sniper rifle and handing them a plasma pistol in return, I found myself outfitting my AI companions with heavy weapons, loading up a Razorback filled with them, and charging into battle with my elite squad of killers rather than ditching them at the first opportunity like I would in most shooters.
It's great fun even if they aren't quite the same as having an actual human playing alongside you, though particularly for certain boss fights, it seems that co-op was a major focus in development and would work exceptionally well with the wide open world and vehicles on offer - unfortunately, co-op isn't supported yet, so you'll have to make due with your AI marine pals for now. Co-op is expected to be added in an update by May, so at least it is coming and it will definitely be a blast when it arrives.
Boss fights are also very different from prior Halo games - souped-up killers will confront you regularly on your travels, from heavily armoured Brute Chieftains carrying Gravity Hammers to squads of active camo-wielding Elite swordsmen to the classic heavily armoured pairs of Hunters. Each of these battles will require smart use of your equipment and weaponry, and it's a great way to break up the more standard firefights that make up most encounters.
You'll also find a variety of High Value Targets to hunt down and kill on the map, with each of these mini-bosses rewarding you with a specialized weapon variant that you can then spawn at any of your controlled FOBs going forward.
In addition to HVTs and FOBs, there are plenty of collectables strewn about for you to find, from impressively acted audio logs to Halo's classic game-changing skulls (which are as incredibly difficult to find as ever). There are also plenty of marine squads to rescue, several large Banished bases to dismantle, Propaganda Towers to destroy, and Spartan Lockers to discover which will grant you cosmetic items to use in the game's multiplayer mode.
One deviation from modern open world games is that instead of having access to the entire map from the start, you'll unlock it in sections as you progress through the main storyline - luckily this is implemented in a way that never feels restrictive and instead allows for a steady stream of progression throughout the course of the campaign.
By the time you complete the game, virtually every location you see on the horizon you can get to, and you won't ever find yourself bumping into "invisible walls" or other such restrictions that prevent you from exploring to your heart's content.
As good as the open world offering is, Infinite still delivers plenty of action built in the classic Halo style. Taking a "best of both worlds" approach, while side missions and exploration feature heavily in the open areas, a more traditional FPS approach is taken with the bulk of the main missions, from the opening fight on board a Banished ship to the intense third act which sees you battling through Forerunner and Banished bases alike.
Those main missions are the primary driver of this entry's story, while the open world aspects serve to further flesh out the overall battle taking place on Zeta Halo and the factions that vye for control of it.
Speaking of the game's story, Infinite is a fantastic return to form after the unfortunate series of missteps taken in Halo 5: Guardians.
The campaign picks up shortly after the events of Halo 5, but in an odd move (especially since it's been six years since the last Halo game, and Infinite has been billed as a "spiritual reboot" meant to also welcome new players) there is no recap video or even a text option to catch newcomers up to speed.
For the most part there isn't a lot that needs to be said that isn't eventually explained, but I'd imagine much of the impact of the story especially early on would be lost on new players who don't even know who Cortana is for instance.
If you aren't familiar with Halo, I'd of course suggest playing through The Master Chief Collection, which is available on both PC and Xbox consoles (and included with Game Pass) - if you don't want to sink dozens of hours across multiple campaigns however, I'd suggest at least finding a "the story so far" type video on Halo so you are at least familiar with some of the basics before jumping into Infinite.
The lengthy campaign sees Master Chief and his new-yet-familiar AI assistant named only "The Weapon", alongside their reluctant pilot Echo-216, fight the Banished for control over Zeta Halo, a Forerunner ringworld similar to the one found in the original Halo.
Unlike Halo 5, there is no silly "betrayal" marketing campaign nor does the poorly received Agent Locke make an appearance - this is Master Chief's show, through and through.
Not only is that welcome news, but the story beats present in Infinite are sure to illicit fond memories from fans of the original Halo, from the Chief being behind enemy lines against unimaginable odds to the discovery of more Forerunner secrets and revelations.
Likewise the baddies, led by Escharum, the Brute leader of the Banished, turn in truly memorable performances here, whether it be the hilarious cannon-fodder Grunts or the particularly menacing Sangheili Blademaster that serves as Escharum's "Spartan killer". Also, even though the beam rifle isn't present in Infinite, Jackal snipers are just as annoyingly deadly with the new Stalker rifle.
I won't go near spoiler territory here, but not only is the story engrossing throughout its meaty runtime (if you are looking to complete side missions along with the main story, you're looking at a 20-25+ hour game depending on the difficulty you play on and how much you want to explore, with an even longer runtime if you want to find every collectable and skull), it also offers a fitting ending that ties up the main plot while simultaneously providing new questions that beg to be answered.
It is the ending, along with 343's committment to providing new content for Infinite for the next decade and other announcements they've teased, that leads me to believe that we very well could see substantial story expansions for the first time in a Halo game, and frankly, this game is perfect for it.
If I had one gripe while playing through the campaign, it would be the lack of diversity in Infinite's open world environment. What's there is certainly beautiful and engaging, but unlike previous Halo installations, in Infinite we really only see one biome featured throughout the open world available.
Infinite is primed to be the perfect platform for years to come if 343 can keep the content coming - alongside multiplayer maps and modes to keep players engaged, expansions could add their own lengthy campaigns rather than forcing us to wait for a sequel, and could add new biomes to explore while fitting perfectly into the story. After all, the engine is already built, the systems are superb, and Zeta Halo is begging for us to explore more of its regions and uncover more of its secrets.
343 and Microsoft have already alluded to that being the case, and while many lament "games as a platform", if they are done properly and provide actual story content rather than just cosmetics or gimmicky modes they can certainly be a major win for fans.
It would also be a chance to add back some of the classic weapons currently missing, like the original shotgun, hint hint...
These campaigns being paid-for expansions is expected, but Microsoft may even make those expansions free for Game Pass subscribers (or perhaps give them a steep discount), which would be the perfect formula to add more regular content from AAA titles to the service and keep people coming back for more.
One other gripe that many players are lamenting is the lack of a replay option for campaign missions.
Currently, once you complete a campaign mission, you can't replay it or even revisit the area if you missed any collectables - your only option is to start a new game in order to replay it. Luckily, any skulls or collectables you found are saved across ALL playthroughs, and there's four save slots available, so you won't have to recollect anything if you're going for 100% completion, but it's still a bummer you can't simply replay your favourite missions like in previous games.
That option is however supposed to be provided in an update soon, though no official release date has been provided - likely it will come before co-op is added in May, and it's hard to give 343 much heat for this omission as many open world games nowadays have launched without replayable missions and have that capability patched in later.
The co-op aspect however is a pretty big letdown that it isn't available at launch - hopefully when it does release, it's as smooth and seamless as the Grappleshot.
The Multiplayer Suite
Just like Infinite's campaign, its multiplayer offering is a superb return to form that really showcases the stellar arena FPS gameplay Halo is known for.
I won't go into the multiplayer component too much since A) it's free and has been out for a month now, so there's no excuse for anyone not to try it out themselves, B) I already shared plenty of my thoughts on the multiplayer from the excellent test flights and C) this review is already long enough to count as a novella.
On weapon balancing, I will note that the sniper rifle does seem to have been slightly adjusted, and although it takes some getting used to and is definitely harder than prior Halo games, it does work well.
None of the standard weapons feel particularly overpowered, but some weapons however feel underpowered - unlike in the campaign where every weapon has its own uses, certain guns just don't feel worthy of being picked up in online play, like the pulse carbine, the plasma pistol, or the VK78 Commando, which sounds and feels way more powerful than it actually is in multiplayer. This is much better than having weapons feel overpowered or unfair, but is still something that can be improved.
The highlights in terms of additions are of course the new equipment (unlike in the campaign, equipment in multiplayer is similar to in Halo 3, where you need to pick it up on the map and it has a limited number of uses, which makes it fair and prevents every match from turning into a grapplefest) and the addition of your AI companion.
While initially I was indifferent to the whole AI personality joining you in online matches idea, it has proven to be a brilliant addition that adds a similar sense of humour and fun to the multiplayer that works so well in the campaign.
There are five AI companions to choose from (two have to be unlocked through progression in the Battle Pass however) and each has their own unique personality and is funny in their own way, in addition to giving you helpful information such as alerting you to weapon spawns or objective warnings.
The maps included at launch are each excellent as well - there are seven arena maps for four-on-four matches and three larger maps for Big Team Battle which now features 12-on-12 warfare - but given the limited number of playlists currently available, you'll be seeing the same maps repeatedly and often back-to-back.
This is an issue that will of course be alleviated over time as new maps and playlists are added, but the current lack of Forge really hurts it here in the map department compared to previous Halos.
Custom games are currently quite limited as well - though the addition of bots is a welcome change that will help fill the space if you don't have a full lobby, the options available aren't very extensive at all compared to prior games - at the very least we should be able to pick starting equipment and make it unlimited. It would also be nice to add some of the missing classic weapons as well - even if they aren't placed in matchmaking due to balancing issues or there simply being no room, being able to select them for custom games would be a neat addition.
The Academy offers new players a chance to use all the guns available at a firing range to earn high scores and get accustomed to their weapons, and the Training feature is a great way to let new players experiment with different weapons and equipment during regular gameplay before they jump into an online match.
Likewise, the Bot Bootcamp playlist offers newbies an easy way to get their feet wet before facing real competition, allowing you and three other players via matchmaking to take on a squad of bots. The only caveat here is that there really should be a difficulty option for this playlist, as currently the setting they're on is incredibly easy and isn't a very good indication of playing against real foes, unlike some of the harder difficulties they have available.
As for proper PvP playlists, Infinite initially featured just three options: Quick Play, which consists of 4-on-4 matches in various classic Halo modes (Team Slayer, CTF, Strongholds, and Oddball), Ranked Arena which is similar to Quick Play but is much more competitive (it removes the motion tracker, all players start with a Battle Rifle and no secondary weapon, and it has higher scores to win in certain modes) and features matchmaking primarily based on skill, and finally Big Team Battle, which is 12-on-12 combat in one of a few modes (Slayer, CTF, Total Control which is similar to Strongholds but scoring is different, and Stockpile, a new mode that involves fighting over power cores that you install in your base to score points).
The problem was that Halo, like most FPS games, has always separated objective and slayer (deathmatch) modes, whereas in Infinite, they put them all in the same playlist so players weren't really choosing what they prefer to play.
This was especially annoying for players that don't want to play objective-based game modes, and for their teammates that do and are stuck with players that focus entirely on getting kills and not going after the objective.
Luckily, 343 has finally added more playlists, including a dedicated Team Slayer playlist alongside Quick Play which still provides the variety option, Free for All Slayer which is self-explanatory, Tactical Slayer (or SWAT, nobody gets any shields and the Battle Rifle is the only weapon, where a single headshot is enough to kill), and Fiesta, which is a chaotic mode where everyone spawns with random weapons and equipment.
This has certainly helped, but it would be nice to have Ranked matches separated into Ranked Slayer and Ranked Objectives rather than in the same playlist, and it would also be cool to have a random playlist featured each week - one that includes things like Team Snipers, Duos, or the beloved Grifball for example.
Theater mode also returns, which lets players go back and watch their entire matches from start to finish, allowing you to control the camera, follow other players, and create your own video clips or take screenshots.
Though it's excellent when it works, I did notice a few glitches here that can make it hard to use or won't even let you follow your own character - I however didn't experience any of these types of problems when actually playing in matches, whether it be lag or glitches, as the multiplayer offering has shown to be extremely well polished.
As great as Infinite's gameplay is, the customization options available for your Spartan are, well, not what we were promised.
Armor Cores, which are the base suit your Spartan has upon which you can swap and add different shoulder, leg, helmet, hand, etc. pieces to, were supposed to add to the variety of options available - instead, they feel extremely limiting.
Rather than being able to say put any helmet you've unlocked on any Armor Core, each item is locked to a certain Core so you can't mix and match to create your own truly unique character.
Similarly, even colour schemes are locked to each Core, and perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of this is that the storefront featured colour schemes for $7-$8 US that were only applicable to a specific Core. Currently there are three Cores available (one is unlocked via the Battle Pass, another is unlocked through playing the limited time special event which is available for one-week at a time each month), meaning if you wanted to have that specific colour equipped on each Armour Core, that'd cost you upwards of $20.
The rest of the store is likewise brutal on the wallet - a custom armour set goes for $20, bundles featuring a skin for one weapon, a weapon ornament (basically a keychain on your gun), and a banner or other such cosmetic for your player card in the menus goes for around $5, and premium colours for your Spartan go for $7-10.
The Battle Pass, which is $10 US, is similarly underwhelming; many of the "items" in it include Double XP time or XP grants that simply level up your Battle Pass faster, there aren't a lot of cool cosmetics in it, and there's extremely little free content for users (especially since there's almost no options unlocked to start with other than a few base colours).
Most of the best looking armour and customization options have been featured only in the store - unlike what 343 had promised months ago when they stated almost everything would be earnable for free or with the Battle Passes.
There's also no base player progression - in virtually every game out there, you'll rank up by playing matches based on your performance or player score, and generally you'll be rewarded with cosmetic options or other such content for ranking up.
In fact, every Halo game since the third installment has had this, yet for some reason Infinite does not. The only progression available is through the underwhelming Battle Pass, which is made worse by the way progression works in it.
Rather than earning XP based on your performance or simply by playing the game, most of your XP will be earned through completing weekly challenges, and while they promised they wouldn't change how players would play the game, they certainly have.
Weapon-specific challenges will of course see players charge for certain weapons just to tick off their challenge card, while objective-specific challenges can make players do rather stupid things that hurt their team - for instance, one challenge was to kill three opponents while holding the skull in Oddball, which resulted in players charging at enemies trying to melee them while they held the skull, inevitably dying and giving the enemy team possession.
It also goes against 343's insistence prior to launch that players would be able to level up their Battle Pass at their own leisure and their own pace - as it is, players who play a ton at once can complete their weekly challenges in a day or two, after which progression halts to a near standstill as the per-match XP grant they added after early feedback is extremely meager, with the weekly challenges essentially dictating how quickly you level up (although the double XP boosts allows it to be much quicker, if the progression were better that double XP boost wouldn't be needed).
In another move that isn't the norm for F2P titles, there's no other way to earn Halo's in-game credits - you have to buy them, which makes it questionable why they use credits in the first place and don't just label it in dollars.
Normally, players can earn some in-game currency by leveling up their Battle Pass or completing certain challenges, with many games even allowing players to essentially play enough to earn the next Battle Pass without spending more money - in Infinite, nothing like this exists.
It also begs the question why all the cosmetics have "rarities" when there is no element of chance or randomness to them - there are no loot packs (or REQ packs like in Halo 5, which were actually implemented extremely well and were rewarding to players even who didn't spend any money additional money) or any other way to earn cosmetics besides leveling up the Battle Pass, buying them from the store, or a few specific items are unlocked by finding lockers in the campaign.
Considering how well 343 has implemented customization in Halo 5 as well as the MCC, it's really surprising that the system they put out in Infinite is so backwards - it's as if an executive from 2015 was put in charge of making the free-to-play model, back when free games were a pretty new concept and companies were still figuring out what worked and what didn't.
Personally I've never really understood the obsession with paying for cosmetics in games, especially for a first person shooter, but given that it allows the majority to play for free, I'm all for it. However, in order to keep that business model going and for it to be profitable, 343 really needs to overhaul this aspect of their game, and thankfully 343 has openly admitted they screwed up on their progression system and customization and are currently working to fix it.
While they've already implemented some changes such as removing certain problematic challenges and adding much more XP for the first six matches you play each day, the biggest issue really seems to come from a lack of free progression options or substantive content in the Battle Pass.
343 has come out to say that they are working for standard progression rewards, giving XP based on player scores during matches, replacing XP boosts in the Battle Pass with proper content, providing much more free content to players, and revamping the overpriced storefront, all of which should be implemented early in the new year.
Luckily, none of this detracts from the in-game experience, and no matter how much one has spent getting a bunch of shiny overpriced armour, it won't help them win any matches or gain an advantage over a player who has spent $0 - so at least they got that part right out of the gate.
One other notably absent feature is the lack of any kind of leaderboards or player stats.
After matches you'll of course see in-depth stats for the given match, as well as your recent games if you look at your recently played games saved in theater mode, but there is no stats page showing your overall accomplishments and records in the game - this isn't even present in the Halo Waypoint companion app, which is just utterly bizarre given that you can find this information on third party sites, meaning the API for Halo's stats is working for Infinite and all of it is being recorded just like in prior games.
An (In)Complete Package
The painful decision to delay the game for a year certainly paid off in regards to how great the content of the game is, but given they had a whopping six years to develop Infinite, questions have certainly arisen over why there are still staple Halo features like co-op and Forge missing at launch.
If recent reports are accurate, 343's vision for the Infinite campaign was initially massive.
Apparently, the impressive open world offered at launch in Infinite was actually cut by about two thirds back in the summer of 2019 as the team realized the scope of the project was simply not feasible.
The size of the campaign was said to be similar to Nintendo's highly successful Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which features a huge open world that similarly took them five years to create. The problems with doing such a thing with a game like Halo however are many - for one, Halo's combat and core gameplay is far deeper than Breath of the Wild or most open world games for that matter, not to mention that Zelda launched on just two SKUs - the Wii U and the Switch, neither of which even support 4K and involve far less graphical effort.
343 meanwhile not only had to develop and make sure their game ran smoothly across five separate Xbox devices - the original One, the One S, the One X, and the newer Series S and Series X - but they also launched on PC as well which covers a variety of spec tiers and problems of its own. They also had to develop a robust multiplayer suite, co-op, along with Halo's popular Forge, a customization suite for players to create and share their own maps and game modes.
To say that creating such a massive game was simply unfeasible should have been clear, but it appears that it took the team at 343 quite some time before they relented and were forced to drastically alter the game as a result. That they managed to still create the biggest and perhaps the most fun Halo campaign to date and a well-balanced and classic Halo multiplayer experience in spite of such development issues is a true feat in and of itself.
Hopefully 343 learns from its mistakes and thinks smaller on future projects, instead adding as they go rather than having to scrap plans because they run out of time - it's kind of ironic though that 343 has seemed to trend toward this path of project management, not only with Infinite but with the Master Chief Collection as well, which although it turned out to be arguably the best remastered collection of games available, at launch it had a litany of issues with matchmaking and online play that seemed inevitable when trying to cram so much content into a single release.
It stands in contrast to the original trilogy, where Bungie started off with incredibly chaotic development cycles and had to cut tons of content to get their games out on time before they seemed to get into a better rhythm for Halo 3 - but then again, if it wasn't for the tumultuous development hell those early games went through, we likely wouldn't have Halo.
After all, the original Halo game was a real-time strategy game for the Mac, which quickly evolved into a third person shooter because of how fun the team felt driving their now iconic Warthogs were. That in turn eventually transformed into an FPS that reinvented the genre entirely on a new console called the Xbox - development was so rushed at times in fact, that Marty O'Donnell had to write and compose the now legendary Halo score in a matter of just a few days.
Likewise, Halo 2 was designed to be the last entry in the series, only for its scope to spiral out of control - the team was forced to cut the entire third act as a result, leading to the infamous "finishing this fight" cliffhanger ending that infuriated fans worldwide, though luckily the cuts forced Bungie to make Halo 3 so in the end it was for the best. Warzone, which 343 introduced in Halo 5, was actually set to be the main multiplayer component of Halo 2 as well, but ended up being cut entirely as the team focused on its now beloved arena modes.
With Halo Infinite, we certainly see those development woes with the lack of co-op and Forge at the moment, but that being said, when compared to other shooters of recent years, it's hard to say that Infinite is lacking content, and arguably, we Halo fans have simply been spoiled when it comes to titles in the franchise since Halo 3.
Comparing it to one of the other best shooters this year, Doom Eternal, Infinite features a far longer and more expansive campaign and neither features co-op (and Doom doesn't plan to either), and Eternal has just one multiplayer mode, its 2-vs-1 Battlemode, which doesn't have anywhere near the staying power or variety Infinite's multiplayer suite does.
Similarly, every Call of Duty in recent years has been packed with content (it's not hard when very little changes gameplay wise), yet looking at the two, the multiplayer offerings in each of CoD's installments are about on par in terms of content provided at launch as Infinite, while Infinite's campaign absolutely dwarfs any of CoD's rather short stories, though you may find the additional Zombies mode in each iteration largely makes up for the discrepancy depending on your taste.
Suddenly, Infinite's lack of co-op and Forge seems less of an omission and more like Halo fans are simply getting way more in the long run, even if they have to wait a bit longer.
As for what we currently have, Infinite features the most expansive and one of (if not the) best campaigns in the series that is a blast for both returning and newer fans of the series alike, a stellar multiplayer suite that provides a ton of fun for both competitive and casual players alike, and the best and most polished gameplay you will find in an FPS.
It may have a few loose ends that need taking care of (and I have no doubt based on their prior track record that 343 will fix the few issues they have on their plate), but it is still an incredible gaming experience that puts Halo back at the top of the gaming world and more than makes up for its current shortcomings simply by being so damn fun to play.
+Stellar combat and gameplay mechanics that bring the classic Halo feel into modernity
+Absolutely epic score and sound design
+Fantastic story that nails the ending and balances serious topics with understated humour
+Expansive open world with plenty to do and tons of well-done audio logs and easter eggs to find, making exploration rewarding and fun
+Tons of fun boss and mini-boss fights that offer unique challenges
+Excellent multiplayer offering that brings Halo back to the top of FPS gaming
-Lack of co-op and Forge modes
-Multiplayer/Battle Pass progression and customization problems
-Open world setting could use more environmental variety
The Final Score: 10 / 10