There's a Halo that exists only in your imagination.
A dropship crash lands, and you're the only survivor. You crawl out of the wreckage and stare toward the horizon of an alien landscape. In the distance, dozens of enemies search for your corpse. A banshee streaks ominously through the skies. Everything seems vast, unknowable.
But this version of Halo barely exists. It's just a memory. Returning to the original Halo in 2021 is disappointing and strange. Like returning to your childhood home as an adult.
The years have made Halo, a game that once seemed impossibly huge, feel small.
See what other leading critics are saying about Halo Infinite on Metacritic.
It's been two long decades since Halo: CE was first released. Plenty of time for it to become distorted in the memories of the millions who played it. In the years since, Halo has become as integral to culture as any video game you could name. The Master Chief is to Xbox as Mario is to Nintendo: A crystalized icon representative of not just the series he is part of, but Microsoft's entire games division as a whole.
So when it comes to the release of Halo Infinite's single-player campaign, the stakes are high. Halo Infinite is more than just another game in a storied franchise, it's a game tasked with bringing Halo back its former glory. Nowadays the kids are playing Fortnite, they're playing Valorant, Overwatch, Destiny, Apex Legends, Call of Duty, Battlefield.
They're playing anything but Halo.
At this point, Halo Infinite's troubled development period is common knowledge. A revolving door of executive developers and creative directors, alongside a disastrous first gameplay reveal in 2020, resulted in multiple delays, leading many to lower expectations accordingly. But with Halo Infinite, lowered expectations aren't gonna fly.
Halo Infinite can't just be another Halo. It needs to be the Halo that exists in your imagination.
And incredibly, against all odds, it pretty much is.
Halo Infinite's grand leap comes in the form of its open world.
Anyone who played the original Halo will remember its second level, "Arrival on Halo." Allowing players to approach three large-scale combat encounters in any order they chose, it was a showcase for the game's ambition and scope. "Arrival on Halo" has become shorthand for the Halo that exists in your imagination. Open, alien, gigantic.
Halo Infinite's open world is "Arrival on Halo" writ large; a space that fulfills its promise. After an opening sequence that essentially serves as a tutorial, players are tossed headlong into this world, allowing them to pursue a seemingly endless list of targets and objectives in any order they choose.
The easy analog is Breath of the Wild, a game famous for the freedoms it granted users. In some ways that comparison makes sense, but Halo Infinite has more in common with a game like Metal Gear Solid 5. Much like that game, Halo Infinite takes established gameplay loops designed for tighter, claustrophobic encounters and places them wholesale in dramatically upscaled environments. And much like MGS5, it somehow still manages to preserve the crafted feel of its predecessors in the process.
That's mostly thanks to the universe itself, which refuses to sacrifice detail for scale. No matter where you are in Halo Infinite's open world, everything feels designed for the player. There are no dud textures, no spaces where you shouldn't be. On the contrary, the game has a knack for making you feel like you are always exactly where you should be.
Halo Infinite confidently provides players the space and time to bask in its universe and brilliantly evokes that otherworldly aesthetic of the original. Structures climb endlessly into gloriously rendered skyboxes. Enormous hexagonal pillars, like precisely carved carbon totems, are stacked side by side, stretching into the horizon. Supernatural, alien and strange.
Halo Infinite's ambitious open-world aspirations would almost certainly have collapsed if it wasn't for the addition of the grappling hook.
Designed to make open-world movement more manageable, Halo Infinite's grappling hook allows players to scale any mountain and reach literally any point in the world you can see. It's hardly the most original innovation -- plenty of video games have used similar features -- but the execution of Halo Infinite's grappling hook elevates not just traversal, but every single element of the game's celebrated combat loop.
Your mileage may vary, but my grappling hook journey was legendary.
At first it was a novelty that barely registered. I used it rarely, self-consciously, during tutorial circumstances designed specifically for its use. Later I'd stumble across scenarios where using it made sense. "Oh yeah," I'd say, "I should use that grappling hook thing."
Eventually I'd find myself experimenting. "I wonder if I can grapple hook weapons" or "what happens if I grapple hook enemies?" (Answer: You electrify them and careen toward them at high speed, giving you the chance to land an extremely cool-looking melee attack.)
Slowly each experiment became part of my Halo vocabulary, to the point where it was integral to every encounter. I'd use it to grab exploding barrels before lobbing them at the most explicitly dangerous enemies. I'd grapple hook to new angles to attack the elites on my flank. Or launch myself toward cover while waiting for my shield to recharge.
Unlike previous additions to the Halo sandbox, the grappling hook feels unobtrusive, essential and seamless. In a strange sense it feels like it's always been there and I can't -- not even for a second -- imagine playing Halo Infinite without it.
Maybe it was during Halo 4, but it could have been as far back as Halo 2. Either way, at some point on the timeline, the Halo series forgot what it was really about.
It was never about "The Banished" or "The Prophets" or "The Harbinger" or any of the increasingly meaningless sci-fi nouns used to drive players from point A to point B. No, Halo has always been about how good it feels to lob grenades into a horde of Grunts and outwit Elites hellbent on grinding your bones to dust.
And while Halo Infinite is stubbornly committed to unraveling the increasingly dense threads of its bloated lore, it has carefully preserved -- and elevated -- the core combat that makes Halo such a continuous joy to engage with.
Halo 4 and 5 played loose and fast with the game's legendary sandbox, but Halo Infinite treats it with more reverence. It's almost nebulous to say, but Halo Infinite feels like Halo. The combat is stripped back and lean, but expanded in ways that make sense. The grappling hook is a huge part of that.
Above all it feels considered. And it's buoyed by a delicate sense of pacing. If you tire of exploring Halo Infinite's open world, laying waste to enemy camps and blowing up silos, story-driven missions provide the timely salve of more linear encounters, deep inside the world's alien structures.
These single-player missions come replete with some of the game's most spectacular set pieces and dramatic boss fights, which had my heart exploding out my chest. On higher difficulty levels (I played on Heroic), I suspect a few of these could frustrate players, but anyone familiar with Destiny or Dark Souls boss battles will know what to expect.
Halo Infinite is far from perfect. Cooperative play -- not available on day one but reportedly being worked on for a 2022 update -- is notoriously absent. Given how integral co-op has always been to the Halo series, that's a sizable issue I suspect many won't be able to ignore.
Loading screens, when they appear, feel obtrusive, and pacing issues emerge in the final quarter. Mainly because Halo Infinite removes you from its open world for far too long as it builds momentum towards its conclusion. Placed in claustrophobic, tense battles for hours, I found myself gasping for the open air of Halo Infinite's surface.
It's in these situations that Halo Infinite leans on its perfectly crafted gunplay loops like a crutch. Even in moments of peak frustration, where you absolutely do not want to be clearing out yet another goddamn corridor packed with Grunts, Halo Infinite still works because of how polished every weapon feels to fire.
Given the slow burn recession the series has experienced over the past decade, it's impossible to read Halo Infinite as anything other than a shocking return to form.
Halo Infinite is a very special video game.
As the credits rolled, I started to consider where I'd place this version of Halo in my list. Where did it belong among the classics of yesteryear? Top three? Probably. I hadn't even had that thought since, I don't know… Halo Reach? A game that was released in 2010, over 11 years ago.
But it was a fleeting thought. I stared at the screen and checked my phone for the time: 2 a.m. I'd been playing for hours at this point. The credits wrapped, and Halo Infinite placed me back in its open world. Normally this would feel like a good time to sign off, but I couldn't. I had side quests to complete. This fight wasn't gonna finish itself.
I grabbed my grappling hook and launched myself back into the mountains, into the breach. Back to the Halo that once only existed in my imagination.