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Review: Halo Infinite’s campaign finishes the fight—but arrives in tatters

Halo Infinite—and not just in the game’s plot or firefights.”>
Enlarge / Chief and “The Weapon” bond through adversity in Halo Infinite—and not just in the game’s plot or firefights.
Xbox Game Studios / 343 Industries

Halo Infinite is the best campaign-driven entry since 343 Industries took over the series in 2011. It is also the messiest Halo game yet.

To be clear, I enjoyed my time with Halo Infinite‘s campaign. That’s primarily because the game sees 343 finally nail its own Halo “voice,” one whose mechanics, gunplay, and physics feel more rooted in the series’ past than ever before. Meanwhile, 343 uses clever ideas to modernize and go beyond the foundation established by Bungie. And the game delivers story, dialogue, and sci-fi stakes where they count.

But there’s no way to review this title without complaining about the game’s launch state. Halo Infinite may reach new series heights, but its ambition tests the limits of the duct tape keeping the game together.

Before we begin, three housekeeping notes

First, this is a campaign-exclusive review. Xbox Game Studios has wisely split Halo Infinite into two discrete parts, and the online versus-multiplayer suite has been live as a free-to-play game since November 20. It’s quite fun, and I’ll have more to say about it in the near future. For this article’s purposes, “Infinite” refers to the campaign launching on Steam, Windows 10, and Xbox consoles on Wednesday, December 8, not the versus modes.

Second, Ars Technica takes spoilers seriously, so I will avoid talking about significant plot points. I arguably spoil a few things about the game’s progression to make critical points, though. If that’s an issue for you, now’s a good time to stop reading, or you can simply skip to the verdict at the very end of the story.

And third, Infinite is currently missing a massive feature: there’s no co-op mode yet. 343 Industries opted to sacrifice the series’ expected co-op functionality in order to meet a December 2021 launch deadline. Get the single-player done now; add co-op later. (Current estimate: May 2022.)

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Demerit for not being cooperative

Infinite campaign, but that’s not the same as "co-op."”>
Enlarge / Master Chief looks upon Zeta Halo. This in-game shot is angled to make the location look as scenic and pretty as possible. It gets worse from here.
Xbox Game Studios / 343 Industries

With that out of the way, I’ll start with the good news.

Do you want a return to the series’ meaty sci-fi plot stakes, bolstered by trippy scenes and solid acting? Do you want a massive landscape over which you can drive a rumbly, tumbly four-wheeler through an encampment of foes? After that, do you want to nimbly grapple-hook your way into a massive battle that rekindles your love for Halo? You’ll find that stuff here.

Infinite follows the series’ core tenets of providing excellent first-person gunplay, third-person driving, and a slew of familiar military and alien weapons. Unlike in 2015’s Halo 5, we’re back to controlling the character Master Chief the entire time, and he finds himself landing on an unfamiliar, supersized ring planet called Zeta Halo. It has been blasted and partially destroyed, and some very bad monsters have designs on putting it back together—and turning it into a human-killing superweapon.

That may sound like the Halo series is putting up its version of the Death Star—”we’ll build a ring-shaped superweapon again!”—but the game differentiates its environments and plot beats enough to make Infinite‘s familiar premise work better in practice than on paper. More on that in a bit.

Ravagers, Skewers, and Heatwaves, oh my

Most of Infinite‘s mechanics fall in line with the past 20 years of Halo first-person combat, and they generally feel more like Bungie’s original vision, even if the weapon selection is a mix of the familiar and the brand-new. The bog-standard pistol and assault rifle, the ones Chief started with in Halo 1, have never felt snappier. Some of the military (“UNSC”) weapons have been swapped out with punchier versions, particularly the shotgun, while a new scoped semi-automatic, the Commando, has quickly become a personal favorite. Classics like the rocket launcher and sniper rifle have been left untouched in terms of animation, reload speed, sound design, and damage potential.

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343 gets a bit more ambitious with alien weaponry, particularly in the form of the Ravager, a supercharged update to the grenade launcher; the Skewer, a superpowerful and satisfying zoomed-scope blaster with lengthy reload times; and the Heatwave, an energy-powered shotgun whose blasts can fan out in either horizontal or vertical lines. But these weapons tone down the “look how weird we are” issues that plagued the arsenal in Halo 5 and feel more powerful, all boosted by solid sound design.

The same philosophy has gone into the abilities built into Master Chief’s Spartan armor. Gone is the “melee dash” silliness that turned Chief into a Dragon Ball Z-like character in Halo 5. Instead, you can simply tap a “run” button to go faster, and you eventually unlock four suit abilities. The first, a grappling hook, will feel familiar to anyone who has played Apex Legends; it works much the same as that game’s Pathfinder character. That’s great news.

Hook onto any structure, wall, or ceiling in your range and the hook will reel Chief toward that point with a touch of up-and-over physics momentum so that he can either climb or fling himself forward in battle. It’s a finicky system to learn at first, especially when you’re trying to hook to the correct edge to climb a ceiling instead of bonking your head against it. But it ultimately proves fast, controllable, and rewarding. That’s not even getting into the ability to hook nearby explosive barrels; you can grab them from afar to throw at foes or hook them directly into enemies or onto their vehicles. Doing either of the latter whips you in the enemy’s direction. Zip yourself right at a foe to punch them in the face, or you can “grapplejack” an enemy’s flying Banshee. This is always fun.

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Do all the tasks, Chief!

Infinite campaign, along with increased shield capacity.”>
Enlarge / That’s a lot of dots on the map! But as I explain, you don’t necessarily need to visit and complete them all—and that’s a good thing.
Xbox Game Studios / 343 Industries

Other sidequest unlockables let you generate certain weapon and vehicle types at bases, but since these are limited—by guns’ fixed ammo amounts and vehicles’ struggles to clear obstacles—they’re rarely worth the trouble to equip. It’s nice to have a fast-reloading variant of the pistol, for example, which you’ll eventually claim for your arsenal by killing a “miniboss” stationed somewhere in the open world. But if you equip it for yourself, its usefulness runs out quickly. Missions in Infinite don’t usually get tough until you run out of your equipped weapon’s ammo and have to scramble, and miniboss weapons typically can’t be reloaded with other guns’ ammo. Even then, the guns you find scattered on the ground are already tuned to feel powerful and take out a ton of foes.

Infinite made the right call here. I’d rather chase down side quests and tucked-away corners of the map because the combat and level design are fun, not because it will make a number tick upward. But there was a sensible solution 343 could have used: Why not tie some of the series’ “skull” unlockables to these side quests? These skulls unlock cosmetic tweaks or compelling challenge modifiers, and prior games hid these features in corners of levels. Infinite does the same with its own skull selection. That’s a fine carrot-dangle for fun secrets, but earning skulls by beating side quests seems more fun to me. I wish Infinite‘s devs agreed with me.

Not the nicest sidequest houseguest

One of my favorite sidequest moments came when I chased down a beeping beacon at the edge of a cliff. I looked down and saw footholds many stories below me. I had already used my grappling hook to go up and down similar cliffsides before, so I jumped down. At the very bottom, I saw my prize—inside a fortified cave carved into the cliff, with a deadly sniper facing away from me and talking to one of his buddies.

Once I had played the part of rude houseguest and killed all the inhabitants, I walked through the rest of the cave, only to realize it spat me out into a wide-open field that I could have reached via a more pedestrian path. Huh. 343 made a wacky “fall from great heights to stumble upon a cave” entrance when the front door was right here? So it’s not necessarily likely that everyone will find the cave this way? That’s pretty cool. Halo Infinite dots its world with a noticeable number of these moments.

Infinite, exploration can turn up surprising entrances and trinkets. Sometimes, however, you’ll run into dead-ends, whether it’s a wrecked vehicle with nothing inside or this massive wall.”>

Infinite‘s terrain is either tree-lined grasslands…
Xbox Game Studios / 343 Industries

  • …or repetitive blue-neon interiors…

  • …or occasional glimpses at fantastical sci-fi weirdness…

  • …or dry dirt between hexagonal, metal structures.
  • Infinite‘s preview video footage has thus far revolved around a mix of grasslands and metal, hexagonal structures. I wondered ahead of my time with the game whether we’d get a single other biome in Infinite’s overworld, and the answer is a resounding “no.” This stands in stark comparison to Halo Infinite‘s original CGI reveal in 2018, which hinted at serious biome diversity that will apparently never come to pass.

    Up close, at least, the final game’s structures look fetching and otherworldly on the Xbox Series X. Their shiny, texture-rich metals stand in sharp contrast to the dirt, grass, and rocks that emerge alongside them. But too often in Infinite, the world looks like this:

    Halo Infinite was taken from an Xbox Series X. Seriously. That’s a screenshot from an actual Series X video game in 2021.”>

    At their best, Infinite‘s Scorpion tanks romp through strongholds and blow stuff up. But…

  • …at their worst, Infinite‘s Scorpion tanks get stuck behind a single freakin’ tree. Yikes.
  • One “technical” issue proved quite surprising: the game’s foliage gets in the way of satisfying vehicular traversal. Commandeer a Warthog four-wheeler or a Scorpion tank, and you might expect to rev your engines to full blast and tear through whatever shrubs, rocks, or trees stand in your way, much like how an average sedan can blow through small trees in Forza Horizon 5. That’s not the case. Infinite‘s foliage appears to be made out of the same concrete that lines the edges of Zeta Halo, and it will stop any vehicle dead in its tracks. This renders the Scorpion practically unusable in much of the open world, since the game’s network of clear roads is pretty minuscule. I understand that 343 wants to restrict vehicle access to certain encampments and battles, but the decision kills the feeling of true driving freedom.

    A Warthog-sized warning about Infinite‘s PC version

    Indoor levels, meanwhile, are designed with a measly selection of materials and architectural choices. If you like blue neon accents, criss-crossing metal patterns in walls, and curved surfaces everywhere, you’ll feel right at home in Halo Infinite‘s repetitive underground levels. As I look back at my time tearing through the campaign, I can recall only a few truly visually striking interiors, and only one of those—in an intimidating spire—wasn’t eventually copied and pasted into another level or three. (Related: the game’s final, climactic boss battles are staged in particularly unappealing arenas. One is a painfully cramped and generic pair of rooms and tunnels, while the other is a barren, oversized hall. They reek of makeup content that was created after an initial idea didn’t work out.)

    Whether you battle enemies inside these underground structures or out in the open world, they suffer from a lighting system that remains as unpredictable, uneven, and ungrounded as we saw in the game’s underwhelming 2020 reveal. And the closer you look at Infinite, the worse it gets, especially when the frame rate bounces all over the place. On the Series X, the game delivers steady performance where it counts, including an apparently locked 60 fps in “quality” graphics mode for aiming, running, driving, and flight.

    But what about PC, you might ask? We’re left asking that question, too. Despite our repeated requests, Xbox reps denied us access to the game’s PC build on either the Windows Store or Steam ahead of this week’s embargo lift, even though the company’s review guide includes instructions for how to access the game’s pre-release PC build. Based on the Xbox team’s unwillingness to budge on this point, we’re sounding the alarm about Infinite‘s PC version until further notice—especially since that leaves us unable to test performance across various PC specs. (We’re also left wondering how the PC version’s ultra-widescreen support will play out in both standard gameplay and cinematic cut scenes.)

    Good news for Chief and his AI, bad news for everyone else

    Enlarge / Lots of good chats between these two.
    Xbox Game Studios / 343 Industries

    The best-looking moments in the game come when the camera gets outside of Master Chief’s helmet to frame him and his new AI partner, dubbed “The Weapon,” in cut-scene conversations. These moments are enhanced by tight, thoughtful cinematography, trippy 3D visions, and incredible detail on the characters’ models and animations—particularly the Weapon’s real-time animated face. Rarely have an in-game actor’s expressions and performance moved me to such an extent and overcome the uncanny valley of facial animation. To whoever put together the Weapon’s digital performance: bravo.

    Halo 4 anchored its campaign in the compelling and ever-changing relationship between Chief and his original AI pal Cortana to great effect, and Infinite uses the Weapon to refresh this storytelling device. Their story is doled out in both cut scenes and in-ear, mid-mission chatter, and the Weapon takes advantage of being a newly revealed character to emerge with a macabre enthusiasm—always able to find laughs and jokes while facing deadly encounters.

    Infinite‘s new AI partner shines throughout its campaign. That, by the way, is an in-game character, not CGI—and this much detail also benefits from lovely animation routines.”>

    Invisible, restrictive barriers in Halo Infinite‘s open world are a reminder that it’s not so “infinite” after all.

  • That’s roughly one third of the game’s visible open-world content in the map. And players can’t actually go to any of it.
  • At this point, I began exploring as many corners of Infinite‘s map as I could, only to run into an unfortunate “invisible” wall applied to roughly one-third of its map. A huge landmass sits in Zeta Halo’s northeast corner, visible in the pause menu’s map, yet Infinite will sternly demand that players “return to the battlefield” should they commandeer a flying craft and head in its direction. Did this location originally host content that was deleted at the last minute? Is it a tease of upcoming DLC, to be unlocked at a later date? It’s unclear. 343 has previously described a plan for “a decade” of content in Halo Infinite, though that announcement came before the game’s surprise delay from 2020 to 2021.

    Bottom line: The right start for Halo‘s future… someday

    At this point, I’d love for 343 to backtrack on that original promise and announce Halo 7, Halo More Infinite-er, or some other entirely new game. Because despite how broken and rushed this title appears at times, it nails the foundation that I’d love to see 343 return to—with all the last-gen hardware shackles released.

    Somehow, Infinite proves that the Halo series still has the capacity to astound and surprise. I found myself losing late-night hours to the campaign because I was caught up in an urge to explore or because I got sucked into one of the 90-minute mission chains marked by epic firefights, solid bosses, and chemistry-filled cut scenes. I loved seeing the series’ tried-and-true mechanics applied to emergent, open-world mission discovery. I found myself compelled to finish side quests not because of an experience-point promise but because I expected (and usually found) a fun firefight in each.

    If you gave me more of this—larger worlds, more biome diversity, more enemy types, better ground vehicle traversal, co-op integration, and the bread-and-butter Halo-ness that this game generally understands—I’d be set. Until then, I’ll comfort myself with the parts of Halo Infinite I genuinely enjoyed, along with the post-campaign whimsy of combing the game’s unseemly, low-detail edges in search of fun combat and reasons to zip around with this spiffy new grappling hook.

    The good

    • The series’ modern handlers at 343 Industries have finally nailed a balance between reverence for classic Halo mechanics and smart ideas to push the game into new adventuring heights
    • Open-world level design resembles and expands upon the best ideas in the original trilogy’s “wide linear” outdoor zones
    • Grappling hook adds speed, precision, exploration, and fun to Master Chief’s core ability suite without feeling as gimmicky or annoying as other games’ experiments
    • Master Chief and his new AI assistant shine in their vocal performances, and they breathe life into a compelling, intrigue-filled story
    • That inimitable feeling of leaping over a massive hill on a Warthog four-wheeler, then landing with Halo‘s classic bounciness

    The bad

    • That awful feeling of steering a four-wheeler or tank into a tiny tree and having your movement screech to a halt
    • The new Zeta Halo open-world environment is alarmingly tiny, which makes its lack of biome diversity even harder to comprehend
    • Indoor levels occasionally recall the glory days of Halos past but generally lean too hard on underwhelming, copy-and-pasted architecture
    • At least as of launch, enemy AI leaves a bit to be desired—this issue is forgivable for reasons stated in the review, but it’s compounded by the fact that 343 relies almost entirely on recycled enemies from past Halo games
    • Ammunition availability is tuned badly compared to the best classic Halo games
    • Many boss encounters turn into frantic, uncreative rushes, and they’re often staged in forgettable, cramped, and generic-looking arenas
    • Characters who aren’t either Master Chief or an AI companion are generally bad across the board, especially when it comes to Infinite‘s most prominent rival

    The ugly

    • This game. For all of Halo 5‘s faults, that 2015 game looks drastically better, and it didn’t even have the benefit of powerful platforms like PC or the Series X
    • Co-op campaign functionality has been delayed until further notice (current estimate: May 2022)
    • Xbox Game Studios repeatedly declined to provide Ars Technica access to Infinite‘s PC version ahead of today’s review embargo, which we consider a serious red flag

    Verdict: Halo Infinite‘s campaign sets the stage for an incredible sequel someday. Today is not that day. Consider this a fine rental or excuse to burn through a single month of Xbox Game Pass, either now or whenever the co-op mode finally goes live in 2022.