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.