After being involved in the development of Halo Infinite since 2019 as part of the Forerunner community council, 343 Industries gave me the opportunity to play the campaign early to share my (spoiler-free) impressions.
Herein lies a small part of my journey exploring Zeta Halo — my account of how 343 has managed to turn Halo’s signature ‘30 seconds of fun’ into 30 minutes of fun.
First of all, some important transparency.
Yes, it’s true. As stated above, since the start of 2019, I have been involved in the development of Halo Infinite as part of the Forerunner council — and my name is in the credits.
Naturally, folks have a lot of questions about the Forerunners and what exactly we did. I can’t go into much detail, but we were basically a community feedback group.
We visited the studio and were shown lots of cool stuff. We played the game in its early stages, filled out extensive feedback surveys, spoke with various people at 343 on Outcomes calls based on our feedback, and more.
To be clear: we were not in creative control of the game. 343 has very talented creative leads for that! If there’s something you don’t like in the game, know that the Forerunners were not decision makers.
Our feedback has been used to help steer the ship on some things that I feel helped to realise the true vision of this game. I felt we were genuinely valued by 343 for the variety of unique perspectives we brought and the communities we did our best to represent.
It was a true privilege to have been part of this. After twenty years of being a Halo fan, practically wiring my brain to this universe, I had the opportunity to be part of it alongside its amazing creative teams. I’ll never be able to truly articulate how grateful I am for that opportunity.
I raise this to preface my impressions because it is up to you to decide the extent to which my testimony on the game is ‘reliable,’ having been so close to its development in a position of considerable privilege. You may well decide that the thoughts and critiques of others who are coming in fresh are more worthwhile to you, and that’s completely understandable — I’m certainly not going to attempt to persuade you otherwise.
As an additional note, I am only allowed to talk about certain parts of the game for this preview.
What follows is limited to the first few missions of the game and a small slice of Zeta Halo’s exploration gameplay. For the record, I played on Heroic difficulty — as I always do on my first run through a new Halo game.
I will NOT be covering any major spoilers in this preview.
With all of that said, let’s get into it!
‘30 MINUTES OF FUN’
“If you see it, you can go there!” is perhaps the oldest cliché in the book for marketing the openness and scale of game worlds. Halo Infinite, despite not being a true open world game, has certainly lifted from that playbook… and actually delivers on it.
Every inch of terrain you see in the image above can be traversed. No invisible walls, no ‘RETURN TO BATTLEFIELD’ warnings — there was nowhere my trusty Grappleshot couldn’t take me.
It was exploring these lands, which is actually just the first of multiple ‘islands’ on the ring, that it really hit me that this is a Halo game. By this, I mean the second mission of Halo: Combat Evolved, simply titled ‘Halo,’ where you have a vast level space to explore with the objective of rescuing several groups of Marines in any order you want.
Halo Infinite is what you’d get if that was made in 2021, based on all the things you imagined would be possible when you stepped out of that Bumblebee escape pod for the first time.
The main campaign missions that open the game are more traditionally linear, but even they boast more space, variety, and options than many of the previous instalments of this series over the last two decades.
I’m going to avoid talking about the main story here because I think that’s something everybody should experience for themselves when the campaign releases on December 8th.
But one of the great things about the architecture of Halo’s sandbox is that you get to make your own stories, and that is something I would like to share from my experience.
As Halo Infinite opened up the first island for me to explore, I was presented with a number of options to decide how I wanted to proceed.
Hearing the distant sound of gunfire, I decided to head towards it and check out what was going on. Immediately, I had this sense that there was a world of things going on beyond me — Banished forces wandering through lush fields under the shadow of the largest Forerunner structures we’ve ever seen in a Halo game.
Drawing closer, I saw a squad of Grunts and Elites, led by a red-armoured Major, firing at about half-a-dozen Marine survivors. With barely any cover, it was only a matter of time before the Banished picked them off one-by-one.
Boldly stepping into the fray from behind and landing a quick headshot on two of the Grunts, they turn in horror and scream “He’s shooting our heads! Our beautiful heads!”
The battle is quickly won and the Marines express their gratitude for my intervention. As we set off together, it’s not long before we hear another Banished patrol bickering amongst themselves by a cache of UNSC gear — weapons, explosive coils, and an intact Razorback (the Troop Transport Warthog’s better half from the Halo 2 ARG, i love bees). Letting off the first headshot on an unlucky Elite who hadn’t managed to activate his shields in time, the Grunts weren’t deterred as a couple of Brutes leapt into the fray.
They, too, are thrown down with relative ease. Without the Elite’s Pulse Carbine to do a number on my shields, I could take the Brutes at closer range while my Marines dealt with the Grunts. As our last enemy falls, I see that all five Marines are still alive and ready for wherever I would lead them next.
Emboldened by our victories, we set our sights on a more ambitious target. A Forward Operating Base, ‘FOB Foxtrot,’ wasn’t not too far away, so we all climbed into the Razorback and tore across grassy plains and scorched terrain from a battle that had happened long before our arrival.
The Banished react with surprise as the Razorback ploughs into an unsuspecting Brute. I circle around the base while the Marines concentrate fire on the stragglers. After dealing with the remaining Elites and Grunts, reclaiming the FOB for ourselves, we resupply and move on.
At this point, the day cycle starts to shift into the early evening. The skies blaze orange as we are hit with the ‘golden hour’ of the last glimpses of sunset on the edge of the world, and it is here, approaching the edge of the floating island, that the true majesty and weirdness of this ring becomes apparent.
Looking up at the sky showed a horizon we’re intimately familiar with: the curved band of the Halo ring rising up and over our heads, its ashen metal borders holding a world within, circling back around until we found our feet.
But below us, within the vast space between islands, was not an ocean, but an abyss full of stars.
A simple screenshot cannot do justice to the experience of playing this for yourself, exploring this place for the first time — feeling all the while that you are stepping on hallowed ground.
Knowing some of the backstory of this ring, detailed in Halo: Primordium from Greg Bear’s immaculate Forerunner Saga, only deepens those feelings. Terrible things have happened on this ancient weapon — and there are deeper mysteries lying in wait here, doors left ajar that should have been shut forever.
Coming down from this feeling of reverie, I spot a Forerunner ‘loot cave’ (which was definitely not a natural formation) embedded within a rock face. It opens up and presents us with a unique Cindershot weapon.
Feeling bold and battle-hardened, we set our sights on our most ambitious mission yet: an assassination.
The day cycle comes to an end and we find ourselves under cover of night. A faint yellowish aurora glistens on the far edge of the ring like a heavenly bridge across the damaged sections of this broken circle, illuminating the shattered corpse of a Guardian…
Capturing the FOB earlier revealed Okro ‘Vagaduun as a high-value target. Reviewing some of his backstory in the helmet menu’s Database, I get a good idea of what I can expect — though, those who have read the ‘Sacrifice’ short story will already be somewhat familiar with this Elite’s escapades at the Ark following the events of Halo Wars 2.
To reach ‘Vagaduun, we have to move through an almost pitch black cave. I switch on my flashlight and guide the Marines through, all of them spoiling for a fight.
We emerge from the cave into a trap. After clearing the initial group of Grunts and Jackals, drop pods fall from the sky and let loose a trio of Brute Berserkers while a Jackal Sniper fires at us from a distance.
There’s no sign of ‘Vagaduun as we deal with this new problem, which is compounded on by the arrival of a group of Elites and Grunts ready to provide support. Unlike our experience of fighting the Covenant, all are equal under the Banished and these former foes fight together with greater coordination and fervour than ever before.
At this point, I hear one of my Marines scream as he is gutted by an Energy Sword. I manage to catch only a quick glimpse of ‘Vagaduun before he disappears, making use of his active camouflage unit — a deadly contrast to the traditional Sangheili notions of honourable conduct in battle.
Grappling to higher ground, I see that we are completely outmatched. While the Banished forces keep the Marines busy, ‘Vagaduun slaughters every single one of them.
This ‘side activity’ has proven to be our undoing — and mine as well, as ‘Vagaduun sprints towards me and delivers two quick strikes that bring the Master Chief’s journey to an untimely end.
“Atriox was right,” the Brutes laugh among themselves. “Just a man after all.”
I never knew the names of those Marines, but my decision to go off and rescue them set in-motion this series of events which I could have entirely avoided.
I could’ve just followed the golden path to continue the main story. I could’ve attempted to simply face ‘Vagaduun by myself. I could’ve gone a completely different direction and done something else…
But this was my story. Those were my Marines.
As I returned to the last checkpoint, facing the decision of whether to fight ‘Vagaduun once more or make a strategic withdrawal to find Spartan Cores that could upgrade my energy shields, I found myself walking right back into the lion’s den.
This time, it was personal.
WHY IT WORKS
The question I kept asking myself throughout my experience with Halo Infinite was “Why does this work?”
Indeed, there have been a lot of questions about exactly how ‘open world’ Halo Infinite is. The connotations of that genre have changed a lot over the course of the last generation, moving away from traditional associations with RPGs like the Elder Scrolls to more of a kind of formulaic fatigue found in the regular instalments of Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed.
Rest assured, Halo Infinite feels far closer to the former than the latter.
To put it in the lexicon of the series itself, Halo Infinite feels like what you’d get if you took the hub world and ‘greatest hits’ mission design of Halo 3: ODST, then looked at the scale of the Halo Wars titles and said “Imagine if you could experience this in first-person…”
But why does this work? What is it that actually sets Halo Infinite apart from our modern understanding of open world games?
The answer I’ve arrived at for what the ‘secret sauce’ is… is Halo’s gameplay itself.
Halo campaigns have remained an enduring and beloved aspect of the series because they feel so good to play. We — as fans — take that for granted. It doesn’t often occur to us just how seamlessly designed transitioning from on-foot, to vehicular, to airborne combat is.
The obvious go-to historical example is The Silent Cartographer from Halo: Combat Evolved. You start off with a beach assault, then you get to drive a Warthog with complete freedom on the island to hit certain objectives, you delve into an ancient structure alone, you build up to what feel like ‘boss’ encounters with Hunters and a Zealot…
But Halo isn’t about whether you go into an encounter stealthily or guns blazing. That’s not the kind of choice Halo offers you. It’s about how you move around these spaces and use the toys in the sandbox while asking yourself “How can I make the most of my 30 seconds of fun?” — a well-known term coined by Jaime Griesemer (former Gameplay Design Lead at Bungie).
Enemies generally don’t have hitscan weapons or unavoidable attacks. You’re dodging plasma bolts and moving in close to land a perfect backsmack on that Elite as he telegraphs a melee. The joy of Halo’s gameplay is building that visual literacy in parsing a lot of information very quickly to make choices in combat.
And the enemies themselves are part of what makes Halo’s combat great. Halo 1 mines more encounter variety from how it mixes and matches its units (Grunts, Jackals, Elites, and Hunters — the smallest enemy roster of the series that take up most of the game) than most campaigns I’ve played since.
It is these strengths that Halo Infinite manages to recapture, reiterate, and rebuild. As a result, it feels like a true spiritual successor to that particular instalment of the franchise.
In the past, the Brutes have always occupied a bit of an uncertain space in Halo’s roster of enemies. From frustrating bullet sponges in Halo 2, to just about adequate replacements for Elites in Halo 3, they’ve never really found their groove in the FPS titles of the series (though some may contest ODST and Reach did them well).
In Halo Infinite, however, the Brutes have found their place at last.
It was, after all, with the Banished’s introduction in Halo Wars 2 that the Jiralhanae really came into their own, building their own unique identity rather than having to work within the more established limits of the Covenant. There, their intended use was just ‘dumb muscle,’ but the Banished opens them up to a lot more nuance than we’ve ever seen before.
As you’d expect, they’re barbaric and ferocious, but there’s also great levity in their sheer excitement to be fighting you. They feel so much more dynamic in combat because they interact with the space just like you do — picking up other weapons off the ground or on weapon racks, tossing fusion coils and Grunts…
And Escharum, who was born well before his kind’s first contact with the Covenant, has an unsettling air of sophistication which makes him a genuinely unexpected star among Halo’s primary antagonists.
Halo Infinite doesn’t have a lot of the familiar open world design tropes and shallow activity incentives. The TACMAP is not a checklist of menial tasks to tick off, there aren’t any slow-walk ‘follow’ sections, nor any laborious fetch quests, and so on.
You don’t have to grind to make sure you’re levelling up. If you just want to go straight to the next mission, you can.
‘Valour’ points, obtained by doing activities while exploring, is not a spendable currency you have to keep refilling. It’s effectively an experience bar that lets you call in more cool toys at FOBs.
The thing that sets Halo Infinite apart is that it doesn’t have to justify activities with incremental XP awards to progress. It doesn’t feel overtly systemic because the combat itself — those ’30 seconds of fun’ in beautifully curated encounter spaces — is itself the reward.
Certain expressions about how much Freedom™ you have to Explore™ and Play Your Way™ have obviously become rote in video game marketing, but the way in which Halo Infinite quantifies these things in the campaign reminds me of why the latest Spider-Man titles from Insomniac Games work so well: the act of traversal through this world is an inherently joyous part of the experience.
Where Spider-Man has you swinging through the vast cityscape of New York, getting to grips with the Grappleshot in Halo Infinite similarly makes your traversal feel like you’re a stone that’s being skimmed across a river. It’s exhilarating when you manage to scale a mountain to rescue a squad of Marines, then throw yourself off it to gain maximum momentum before firing your Grappleshot at a nearby pillar to send the Chief flying into the centre of your next dance with the Banished.
Back in 2012, Armando Troisi (Narrative Director for Halo 4) said something that has always stuck with me when it comes to game design.
“I’m giving you the tools, right? I’m giving you the sandbox. I’m setting the table for you. But it’s up to you to decide what you want to eat.” [Armando Troisi, ‘Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens’ (00:14)]
Again, in my two decades of having played FPS games, this is the core of what makes Halo such an appealing shooter and why we talk so much about how it ‘feels’ as a game to play.
Halo gives you the tools and the toys to make the fun happen yourself. And that is 343’s vision for Halo finally fulfilled.
See you on Zeta Halo, Spartans. We really are just getting started.