The Chief is Back
Master Chief's next adventure in Halo Infinite has been a long time coming. After more than one delay, we've finally been granted access to the Zeta Halo, the newest giant space ring/weapon of intergalactic mass destruction for the Chief to slaughter thousands of grunts across. Two friends and I have been marathoning some of the earlier Halo games so I'm personally coming into Infinite with contextualized expectations. I didn't know what entirely Halo Infinite would provide and yet some hopeful part of me doubted it would take after the more critically panned fourth and fifth entries to the Halo series that directly precede it. I don't know if it was the tried and true appeal of an open-world or the grappling hook that now adorned the Chief's wrist which promised something brand new for the gameplay but I've been eager to dive into the brand new Halo for a good bit now. Now I can say for sure that Infinite had little chance for failure and a lot of that can be contributed to a single factor.
Let's talk about the grappling hook already.
The Grappling Hook Theory
It’s no secret now that Halo Infinite touts the newest invention in its line of attempts to innovate the core gameplay formula. That being the grappleshot, an item that gives Master Chief the ability to quickly traverse by swinging around on a retractable wire that also features secondary abilities such as item retrieval and enemy stunning. Halo’s tried to shake things up before with different “power-ups” like jet-packs and uh… Promethean vision, I guess. But you can tell the devs know they struck gold with this one because of its inclusion from the very start of the game. The grappling hook is a major game-changer that succeeds in revolutionizing the Halo gameplay formula in all of the best ways. It gives Chief a newfound level of maneuverability that does not stop being enjoyable from the first moments you’re allowed access to it to the culminating finale of the campaign. It’s an insanely welcome addition to Master Chief’s arsenal that allows combat and even just traversal in general to become so much more streamlined and versatile. It makes firefights where Chief is outgunned a lot more fun because in the event that you’re getting overwhelmed by incoming fire you can decide to just zip around and fly off to some safe rooftop to recharge for a minute before jumping back in and grappling right onto a grunt to whiz straight back into the fray. Or you can silently slip around from secluded vantage point to secluded vantage point using the grapple to stay out of the enemy’s sights and pick off enemies without being seen. It offers the gameplay a huge new tactile advantage that elevates the Halo experience to brilliant new heights.
Maybe the only flaw you can cite for the grappleshot is the way it makes every other pick-up in the game entirely irrelevant. Infinite does go the extra mile to diversify gameplay by offering other tools that you can briefly use in place of the hook, e.g. drop shields, thrusters that let you strafe. The drawback is that you can’t use these items at the same time as the grappling hook and in a comparison there’s no contest. I never found myself wasting time in the campaign using anything that wasn’t the grappling hook because of how addicting and useful it was at every given moment. None of the other equipment measured up, nor did it have any areas that exclusively required their application. Anything they can do, the hook can do better. Coincidentally, the Chief’s newest toy happens to support a recent theory of mine. It goes that the inclusion of a grappling hook can only serve to benefit the overall experience of any given variable game. I stand by this theory of mine so much so that I challenge you to propose any game that wouldn’t be made better by having a grappling hook added to it. I wager I could personally argue that any conceivable game would exclusively change for the better had a grappling hook been added to the gameplay in some way. In the case of Halo’s latest installation, the grappling hook brings to the table what I earnestly believe most developers strive to deliver any time they set out to introduce a new mechanic to a tried and true formula. It’s a golden standard for a new game element that changes just enough in the best ways possible to bring a series to a whole new paradigm.
The open-world game is something we’re seeing more and more of these days, especially after The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild showed the world the true heights of the genre back in 2017. Many games are now trying their best to chase that same high accomplished by Zelda and Halo is the next franchise to throw their hat into the ring. Halo has always been at its best when its battlefields are both sprawling and varied, leaving most of its prior games to suffer because of how much gameplay is allotted to narrow, samey sci-fi corridors that fail majorly to be either sprawling or varied. Thus the open-world presented by the Zeta Halo is a welcome breath of fresh air, giving the player a map that, while not exceedingly large in the context of other modern open worlds, is populated densely enough with different assorted objectives to never let exploration feel unfulfilling. The campaign unfolds procedurally with only minor intermittent segments of travel that stand to lure the player into getting lost among the proverbial flowers on the side of the road. The game never shoves the open world in your face or interjects the chapters of its campaign so harshly as to dissuade the player from taking some interest in exploring the scattered enemy bases and outposts. The open world effectively manages to peacefully coexist with the campaign, functioning only to benefit it and offer ample opportunity for more available gameplay if the player should seek it.
One sore issue that these waypoints present however if you choose to nitpick a bit is a lack of any especially tangible reward. There is a small amount of progression available to the Master Chief: suit upgrades that give incremental enhancements to the available equipment pick-ups available throughout the game. However, these are only acquired through hidden upgrade tokens that you can find throughout the map, commonly tucked away around some forward-operating base you can optionally choose to conquer (of course some are placed strategically throughout the determined campaign path.) Had the game featured a more in-depth progression system, perhaps a level-up mechanic that would grant Chief points to open up a skill tree, something that would give the same available upgrades with some more optionality and freedom of choice, would have helped absolve this problem of the vaguely hollow sense of achievement the player stands to receive from completing optional open world tasks. However, for someone focusing themselves on the campaign and spending little time straying from the intended path, knocking down the enemy bases in between objectives never wore old although I can imagine that sense of anti-climax becoming steadily more difficult to ignore the more you go out of your way to complete such extracurriculars.
Boss Fights? In My First-Person Shooter??
Boss fights have been a staple for video games since the very beginning, but first-person shooter titles such as Halo face the unique challenge of having to be extra creative to make a compelling boss challenge. A lot of FPS titles feature gameplay that isn’t as open-ended as something like a 3D Platformer’s may be and thus any attempt at making skirmishes that feel notably more grandiose than the rest often fall flat. Ergo, Halo has a bit of a freckled past when it comes to the boss battle, having an inconsistent presence throughout its past games and typically ranging anywhere from forgettably mediocre to halfway-decent at best. Infinite, however, breaks the mold by making the boss battle a consistently recurring bout for the player.
Featuring the most campaign boss fights (not even counting the optional ones you can choose to seek out in the open world) of any Halo game, Infinite manages to make these battles consistently exhilarating and memorable and never really struggles to make a gunfight with a beefier target stand out above the rest. By using the flow of the plot to make the battles come about seamlessly, they fail to feel contrived or out of the blue and typically occur in a bombastic fashion that helps make a boss fight feel significant inside of the gameplay loop. That’s not to say that they manage to always come off as narratively air-tight every single time because they don’t but they do manage to always offer the player a challenge that tests their abilities in fun ways that are always of that prodigious caliber that Halo likes to promise with it’s “legendary war stories of the brave and the bold.”
There’s a specific showdown that happens at the latter end of the game that sees Master Chief locked inside a sparsely-lit bunker with an invisible assassin brandishing two very menacing looking red energy blades hunting him down inside the claustrophobic confines of the area. I’d be lying if I said this fight didn’t have my back straight and my palms sweaty as it genuinely transformed the game into a horror experience for a moment in time. It managed to effortlessly combine gameplay and its established mechanics with a captivatingly tense atmosphere to create what is probably one of the most memorable FPS boss fights there is. Not every single boss fight in Halo Infinite is ground-breaking, but for a Halo game, it definitely has its highs that won’t soon be forgotten and repeatedly shocked and delighted with its steady flow of solid to awesome boss challenges.
Maybe the Real Halo was the Friends We Made Along the Way
The Halo narrative has never really resonated with me beyond probably the final mission of Reach. The stories always seemed impersonal, opting to tell stories of valor and military grit in place of any narrative pathos. Halo Infinite tells a new story, one that has... perhaps a semblance of emotion behind it? There is a single fleeting moment in this story where Master Chief's wordlessness comes off as an almost vulnerability as a strong lot of the plot has the Chief facing his past with Cortana. I've personally never been a huge fan of the Master Chief/Cortana "chemistry," but the way Infinite reflects on their relationship is honestly touching at times. Cortana aside, she doesn't actually have a majorly present role in this story, as her place is filled by a new AI known as "The Weapon." I found myself enjoying The Weapon's presence often, being a great companion as far as video game tutorial sidekicks go. It was always charming to watch the dynamic unfold between Weapon’s brazen innocence and Chief’s relentless seriousness. Watching these two characters work together was both fun and interesting and the way their fledgling camaraderie develops throughout the story was successfully compelling.
There's also Echo-216, a stray survivor that picks Master Chief up at the start of the game from his frozen freefall through space. I haven't played every Halo game, I skipped Five and my memory of past campaigns is hazy at best, but as far as I can remember I don't think there ever was a male character inside the Halo mythos that wasn't a grizzled battle-ready badass, making Echo's cowardice something new for the series. He's a reluctant captive in the Chief's righteous crusade to crush the enemy forces no matter how outnumbered he is. Not capable of doing much more than pilot a Pelican, the way his flight contrasts Chief's fight is a dichotomy not yet explored by this series. There's a moment that stuck out to me where Chief consoles Echo and drops a real pearl of wisdom and I have to say I love Master Chief playing the role of the wise character capable of giving sage advice in times of crisis. It was a comfortable moment that felt in an indirect way perfect for the Chief and it shows that this time around he's not 100% a two-dimensional killing machine with a few one-liners to service as his character.
Between the three of them, not one being a poorly-written or necessarily flat character (a first for all being in the same game for Halo,) there are a handful of honestly touching story beats that come from the way these characters’ personalities intertwine and the challenges each of them must face both individually and as a team. The actual events of the story aren't super well-composed (the game spends a large portion of time building up one big bad only to spend him on the penultimate fight and has the secondary villain, one with much less build-up and explained motives, act as the final boss, bungling a bit of the narrative finality) but I've always been partial to stories that hinge on well-developed characters and Halo Infinite, much unlike it's earlier series entries, manages to scratch that itch.
Nostalgia is definitely a powerful thing and looking at the original Halo games and the way they're revered is an excellent example. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the boys and I have been on a recent journey through the first four Halos and Reach and with fresh retrospect, a lot about those games fall very flat, especially in the context of a modern revisit. I think it's a safe bet to assume that a lot of the lauding over the original trilogy can be chalked up to mostly nostalgia, childhood bafflement at the turn-of-the-century graphics. But playing Infinite, the game never falls flat. Infinite feels like playing the Halo that fans reminisce about, a game worth remembering, a game that sticks with you after the credits roll. Infinite may not be perfect and a lot of its small handful of problems may be attributable to problems that come with the Halo genes but I believe the execution, writing, and gameplay here all combine to yield a product that deserves the title of best Halo campaign and one of my favorite FPS games out there joining the ranks of contemporaries such as Doom Eternal and Titanfall 2.
Infinite is a majesty of a game and does justice for Master Chief and his universe. Sentimentality was probably the last thing I had expected to receive from Halo's newest campaign and yet I can't deny that its subtle integration here served to greatly better the plot in ways that no Halo game has seen before. On top of what I believe to be probably the best writing for a Halo game, the grappleshot single-handedly takes Halo's already solid gameplay and brings it to soaring new heights. All of this taking place in an expansive open-world that offers enough content to go around and tied together with Halo's trademark bombastic theatrics makes for an experience both faithful to what made people fall in love two decades ago and refined for the modern day in ways that make this game very memorable and fun to play. Infinite has usurped Reach as my favorite Halo game, Reach formerly held the title for its unforgettably somber yet poetic finale and was a game I loved for its ending but Infinite I can appreciate from start to finish. And for that, I can assuredly say that Halo Infinite is a stellar shooter and the best Halo experience out there.
Thanks for reading,