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Halo Infinite campaign hands-on: looks like a glorified Xbox One game, plays like an absolute dream

Halo Infinite was granted quite a bit of extra development time, something which is reflected in satisfying, tight encounter design across engaging but wide-open arenas. The visual upgrade is less impressive, however.

As Halo Infinite’s early multiplayer launch has been sucking up people’s time, I’ve been getting stuck into the campaign. While the delay has surely helped it in terms of polish, those coming to this big Xbox exclusive expecting a graphical tour de force might end up a little disappointed. However, if you’re more focused on how it plays, and on the Halo series having a return to form mechanically, Infinite is looking like a must have.

To be clear right off the bat, this preview is naturally based on a not-quite-final version of Halo Infinite. Tweaks and adjustments are likely to come. Furthermore, embargo restrictions mean I can only offer impressions of a very specific slice of the game. I’m actually going to go a little further than these restrictions, however: I’m not going to talk about any story specifics at all.

At least, apart from this brief status report: after some battles in more traditional ship-bound Halo environments, the Master Chief finds himself down on the Zeta Halo, a new ring world that is this time open - meaning a map, optional side content, and even a character upgrade tree that feels like it’s fallen out of another series entirely. But what does this mean for Halo? And does it work?

The answer, well… it's complicated. I think how much you feel this new setup ‘lands’ will depend entirely on if you have a personal predilection for open-world games - but broadly speaking, I think this is a fascinating twist for the Halo series, and that in design terms developer 343 has done an admirable job of walking a pretty razor-thin tightrope, either side of which lays a no-mans-land of pleasing nobody, either through delivering a samey Halo experience or by changing too much and ruining it. Infinite does neither. In fact, the open world often works in service of the mechanics that define Halo at its very best.

The open world of the Zeta Halo ring isn’t as populous as the worlds of other games, but that’s okay. In truth, the open world is connective tissue between discretely designed, hand-crafted zones that function more like typical Halo levels. Where the open world differs, in a sense, is in how it allows you to approach those zones.

Let’s talk about an optional side activity, for instance. One type of side mission are ‘High Value Targets’; basically assassination missions where your job is to travel to a designated location of the world and take out a celebrated warrior of the Banished, the new alien alliance that’s your nemesis in Infinite. Your reward isn’t just general accolades or progress towards ridding Zeta Halo of the Banished, but also is corporeal: each high value target carries a weapon with unique properties. Once the target is defeated, you can loot it, and respawn/summon the weapon at any of your bases in the future. The first High Value Target I tackled dropped a ‘Duelist’ Energy Sword with some unique properties, for instance.

The rewards sound very much open world, but where this slots into the Halo formula is that the encounter at the center of this mission feels like a legitimate Halo encounter. This is the sort of ‘boss’ moment against a powerful Elite you might find towards the end of a standard linear level in a past Halo game - but now it’s dropped into an open world. Because Zeta Halo is free for you to explore however you like, including with the game-changing, verticality-enabling grappling hook, you can approach the little fortress where the high value target is sequestered in a multitude of ways. In this instance, I hid out in the mountains with a sniper rifle for a while, picking off his allies - then I swept into his base with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to finish the job. It felt good.

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In the early game, at least, this sort of structure is used to great effect as you clear out Forward Operating Bases - which then become fast travel points, as well as places for you to spawn vehicles or weapons. There’s also Banished Outposts, which likewise hold enticing rewards, plus various other points of interest where you can destroy pieces of Basnished infrastructure or find upgrades and loot. It’s worth noting here, too, that Master Chief has an upgrade tree where things like his grapple and shields can be boosted - and the means to purchase those upgrades are of course largely found by exploring the world.

On the flip side, you could also ignore this - the story missions seem to contain enough upgrades to allow you to get by, and so far I’ve not encountered a point where any side activities have been forced - they’re always off to the side, meaning you could happily just main-line from one story mission to the next if that’s your preference. Story missions vary, by the way - some throw you at large open arenas within the open world, while others draw you into enclosed spaces like buildings - so many do feel like more on-rails experiences as in past Halo games.

Not every encounter is perfect by any means, but at its best the structure of Halo Infinite channels some of the most memorable chunks of the first Halo game in particular - where you’re out on the ring, with friendly marines and a Warthog. That world felt massive then - but we all know that it is superficial and small by modern standards. The Zeta Halo is legitimately enormous by comparison - and in that sense it feels like a fulfilment of some of the promise of the original Halo. Meanwhile, some of the encounters in large fortress-like areas combine with the variety of usable equipment to feel reminiscent of some of Halo 3’s most potent set-pieces.

This is something new, then, but it is also unabashedly Halo. Basically, the open world is a new wrapper - a vessel, if you will - by which classic Halo encounters are delivered.

I don’t think it’s good for critics to worry too much about what their peers are saying, but allow me an indulgence for a moment: I do think that when this embargo lifts and coverage goes live, there’s going to be a lot of chatter about the graphics. And let’s not beat around the bush: this isn’t the visual powerhouse you’d expect the first entry in a series like Halo to have on Microsoft’s brand new console. And yet it is a cross platform game, we must remember - and it’s also trying ambitious new things in terms of scope and scale.

But also, even cross-generation games come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Forza Horizon 5 just launched and is cross-gen; it looks wildly good on the Series consoles, especially Series X. If we think about the other side for a second, Miles Morales was a pretty great showcase for many aspects of the PS5 - despite also being on its predecessor. When you compare it to stuff like that, the Halo Infinite new-gen glow-up is pretty tame, and some are inevitably going to criticize that. But... do I really care that it's not a next-generation showcase when it plays like this? Really?

I guess what I’m saying is that while Halo Infinite does look a lot like an Xbox One game with some extra bells and whistles, I’m finding it difficult to really care. The fact I feel that way is a credit to the game - I’m able to ignore that because I’m enjoying approaching its combat encounters in an open manner. I’m enjoying what the open world is bringing to the table. And, against all odds, after falling almost completely out of love with the Halo lore… I’m enjoying the narrative, and the surprisingly full way in which Master Chief feels characterized in this game.

While the multiplayer already appears to be a roaring success (apart from those Battle Pass and EXP problems, which will surely be addressed), the Halo Infinite campaign is likely to be at least a little divisive. Some aren’t going to vibe with the open world, or with Master Chief finally having character progression. Some aren’t going to be able to push past disappointment that this isn’t a platform-defining visual tour-de-force. But me? Well, so far, I’m utterly convinced. I’m back in on Halo again. And I can’t wait to see this journey to its conclusion.

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