'Halo Infinite' Is a Fun Sandbox Stuck Inside a Very Old Video Game

You've tasted these flavors before, and their novelty wore out a dozen years ago in a dozen other games.

Dec 6 2021, 8:00am

I really started enjoying Halo Infinite after I unlocked the UNSC marine who carries a rocket launcher. At that point, I was able to summon in my Warthog, recruit my marine, and then head off across the open-world map to take out key infrastructure points that the Banished, some evil aliens, have setup on yet-another Halo ring-world. On the way there I could take out whatever high-value targets I found, and I could hopefully complete an event or two that might give me Valor points to increase the rewards available to me at my FOBs. 

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This is what Halo is now, by the way. It is an open world game that sets you loose into a sandbox and tells you that you can take on a myriad of challenges, or even the game’s campaign missions, in whatever sequence you’d like. Infinite gives players a big map with a moderate amount of things to do, and all of them are familiar designs from the open world game lexicon. 

Players can take back Forward Operating Bases to enable future resupply and to create fast travel locations (like Far Cry’s outposts). There are named enemies with squads scattered around the map who players can take down to accrue unique weapons (like Shadow of War’s generals). There are collectible upgrade points for Master Chief’s four new abilities, audio logs, and cosmetic pieces that enable different looks in multiplayer. For some reason there are even “propaganda towers” on this remote alien facility in deep space in a weird echo of Just Cause. 

This is all perfectly fine, and each of these activities are fun the first few times. Like Far Cry, though, a fundamental problem with the way Infinite balances its activities is that there are only so many things to do. This game has a single verb: “shoot.” You perform that verb in a lot of contexts. There are many different qualities to that verb, as shooting enemies with a shotgun feels radically different than using a Covenant sniper rifle. And yet what you’re doing, and the number of ways that those fights can shake out in significantly different ways, starts feeling thin fast.

I’m starting with this open world, and trying to get it out of the way, because it takes up a lot of literal and metaphorical space in Halo Infinite. The game’s campaign missions, the traditional “meat” of the Halo experience, took up something like 40% of my gameplay time during the review period. The rest of my play time was spent tooling around the (truly) beautiful vistas of Halo Zeta with a vehicle full of AI-controlled marines and taking out open-world points of interest. That is rad. There’s going to be a lot of great footage of it shared on social media. It is not something that feels rewarding to do for 10 or 15 hours.

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The core campaign missions that take place across the shattered landmass of Halo Zeta are obviously closer to the central expected experience of a Halo game. Infinite takes a strange approach to the narrative developments coming out of 2015’s Halo 5: Guardians. While it is too extensive to explain here in full, the gist is that Master Chief and the allied forces of Earth are set against his previous friend Cortana, who has recruited and allied with a group called the Banished. They all traveled to yet another Halo facility to do something mysterious and deadly, and the last major Earth ship pursues them to prevent some apocalypse or another. In the opening of Infinite, Master Chief gets beat the hell up by a Banished leader and thrown out into space. Six months later, he’s pulled from the void by an airship pilot and the game proper starts. 

This is extremely convoluted. There is a time skip between games as well as a time skip at the very beginning of Infinite itself. What shakes out are some clear Halo franchise stakes. Master Chief has a new AI ally called Weapon who has captured, and allegedly destroyed, Cortana. He has a new pilot buddy named Echo-216. The Banished are up to something fishy and need to be stopped. The Halo is waking up to do something bad, maybe, and needs to get shut down. 

The campaign missions centered around this feel like classic Halo. You delve down into blue corridors and fight the enemies that dwell there in various similar rooms of myriad sizes and shapes. These all feel like the same battles any Halo player has encountered in all the other games, and in that way they are exactly what a franchise fan is probably here for. They are perfectly designed and tuned in a way that feels a little like coming home if your home is full of Elites, Grunts, and Jackals. 

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It is within this framework of walking and shooting through environs that the game’s narrative plays out. Without delving into spoiler territory, I can say some general things about it. The first is that the game operates a bit like a murder mystery. Half of the experience is just learning what actually happened in the six months while Master Chief was free floating in space, and there is a lot of room for characterization of the Banished and Cortana within that discovery process. Broadly, I think there is better character writing in this game than there has been in any previous Halo game.

The second is that Halo’s narrative framework, where there is always a new macguffin to get and a new ancient evil to be discovered, is played out. It is exhausting. Halo’s entire narrative universe exists to continually kick the can of importance down the road to the extent that there is rarely any resolution to any conflict. Killing important characters is just an excuse to reveal another, more evil character to be killed. Solving one problem just generates another one. 

For what it is worth, the developers of Halo Infinite seem to know this. There is a lot of what we might call “metacommentary” in this game. Characters bemoan the fact that their trajectories seem to be out of their control. Duty and honor supplant other values to the extent that behavior is the output of a social code rather than a choice. Soldiers of all factions keep moving forward because that’s what they do. I’m not reading into this; characters are just straight-up saying this stuff. In many places it feels eye-rollingly on the nose as commentary about what it means to keep making a game within an established franchise where the rails of what you can and cannot do are so well-defined. The output feels a little bit like the Halo games just caught onto what Bioshock has been doing since 2007, and more than once I thought “there’s always a Spartan, there’s always a girl, there’s always a Halo.”

None of that is inherently bad, I guess, in the sense that I think anything Halo does to get beyond just stating proper nouns and funneling players into fights is interesting. The strangest part about playing through Infinite is how its unique science fiction universe, with its dying religious orders and apocalyptic humanity and weird settle-colonial territory domination fantasies, feels like it is living on borrowed ideas. The game opens with Echo-216 crying over footage of his wife and daughter, cynically conferring some protective stakes to the game. Master Chief’s relationship to the Banished and their various functionaries echoes the Red War campaign from Destiny 2 in tone and monologue flavor. The revelations about Cortana, what happened to her, and how she dealt with her power evokes Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. At one point, Master Chief makes a “we’re all soldiers” statement to somehow both-sides an existential war for the universe’s survival in an all-too-familiar The Last of Us Part II way. Late in the game, a character quotes from Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to explain their actions. This is gravity on loan, and it was so absurd that I literally guffawed out loud.

This isn’t a problem. We live in an era of blockbuster phantasmagoria. The biggest budget (games, films, song, you name it) are just the best flavors of other things borrowed liberally and welded as expertly as they can be. That’s our entire media landscape, and the question is not how things borrow but how welded together everything is. The issue here isn’t liberally quoting from the media landscape, but instead how well that is integrated into the entire apparatus.

Whether it was doing the open world activities or playing through the core campaign missions, I was just haunted by the fact that I had been here before in every way. Infinite is selling itself based on how it is injecting a whole new genre into the Halo form, but the story it is told within and the way the open world is deployed both feel warmed over in ways that just didn’t grab me. I’ve tasted these flavors before. Their novelty wore out a dozen years ago in a dozen other games.

All of this broken down, Halo Infinite didn’t really do it for me. The repetition of stakes and open world activities made the final 15 hours of gameplay something I was actively dreading. At the same time, the first 10 hours or so were exciting and engaging, and I imagine that someone not trying to power through the game in a week to make a review embargo deadline of Sunday night might have a better way of spacing things out. The open world sandbox is truly fun, especially once you have access to flying vehicles late in the game, but there’s only so many hijinks to get up to (at least until the co-op campaign releases). For a game about new possibilities, and titled Infinite, the game’s universe ends up feeling pretty constrained.

Tagged:

Halo, Xbox, Halo Infinite

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