At their best, open-world games are thrilling, densely-populated adventures that reward your exploration. At their worst, they're exhausting, checklist-filling exercises in tedium.
Although the folks at 343 Industries developing Halo Infinite are hesitant to use the open-world label for their latest sci-fi shooter, the expansive setting of Zeta Halo is the biggest in the series to date.
Understandably, this new direction instilled fear into longtime fans: will it transform the tight mission design the best Halo games are known for into a dreary, ill-paced collectathon?
Worry not, for Halo Infinite's approach in bridging classic first-person shooter action with modern world design is bloody awesome.
Zeta Male Master Chief
Set roughly 18 months after 2015's Halo 5: Guardians, Halo Infinite sees you don the green armour once more as the grizzled Master Chief – who my partner and I deliberately refer to as "Master Chef", ad nauseam because it is very funny and original.
We even created Master Chef's backstory: he's a BBQ-loving dad who clicks the tongs twice every time to check they work while donning an apron labelled "kiss the Chief".
…anyways, back to the game.
This time, old mate fights with the Banished, a warmongering clan who have taken up residence on Zeta Halo (one of those intergalactic ring-like structures capable of wiping out sentient life, no biggie). As Master Chief, you also chase up what happened to his AI companion, Cortana, alongside a new assistant known only as "the Weapon" – which doesn't sound at all ominous.
One of the major departures from series conventions is the open-world approach to the campaign. After the first couple of hours or so of action and cutscenes, you then explore Zeta Halo at whatever pace you please. Mainline the missions or hunt Banished encampments – whatever floats your Warthog.
A quick glance at the map shows multiple points of interest at any time, including Banished bases, rare weapons, and Forward Operation Bases (FOBs). Outside of main missions, FOBs are the main objectives you'll contend with; after clearing out any Banished in the area, these bases serve as fast-travel points, armouries, and vehicle requisition points all in one.
Throughout my time with the campaign, I visited FOBs frequently, but fast-travelled rarely. This was because Zeta Halo nailed the balance between awe-inspiring scale and the proximity of important locations. Everything is a quick Warthog drive away, with any excess space and filler content completely absent.
That's not to say there's nothing to do in Halo Infinite beyond its story-centric campaign - which is excellent and worth avoiding spoilers for - simply that there's a deft balance it strikes between giving you interesting things to seek out, and the rousing alien gunplay the series is known for.
Each side-jaunt has its purpose and incentivises you appropriately. If you take out a high-ranking Banished, you unlock their uniquely-augmented weapon for your armoury. Find Spartan Cores and you can upgrade equipment for more combat potential. You can even find abandoned lockers that give you cosmetic items for Halo Infinite's multiplayer, should that tickle your fancy.
None of these sub-objectives is essential, but each is satisfyingly additive to the experience, further helped by the intelligently concise (by modern open-world standards) map size.
Most importantly, the main missions absolutely rock.
Grappling with the past and the future
Halo's missions are best known for weaving linearity and exploration to create multilayered firefights you can approach from different angles. Halo Infinite's main missions capture the best aspects of the series' past and thrust it into the future.
Part of this is Master Chief's new toy in the form of a grapple, giving the old dog all sorts of new tricks to command on the battlefield. Aside from the extra verticality it enables, in zipping up to elevated positions, the grapple also acts as a weapon in its own right. You can disrupt enemy shields, retrieve fallen weapons from a safe distance, and – my personal favourite - latch onto a foe to rappel in and punch them in the face. Delicious.
Each mission typically involves various scripted encounters or fights, with the best examples located within structures otherwise inaccessible while exploring Zeta Halo. These missions take you through labyrinth corridors and wide-open arenas alike, replete with enemy and weapon variety aplenty. There's plenty of challenge too; I died plenty on the default Normal difficulty setting, and only once thought a fight was absolute bullshit (which could've been the fatigue talking).
It's rare for me to stray from trusted weapons when playing first-person shooters, although Halo Infinite proved to be a welcome exception. Caches of guns are everywhere, and it's worth swapping regularly due to how fun each firearm is to shoot. Assault rifles, rocket launchers, experimental beam launchers; the tactility each one imbues when in Master Chief's armoured mitts feels excellent.
Of the armaments missing from Master Chief's arsenal, he desperately needs a camera. Zeta Halo has vistas galore, plus the interior design of the sci-fi buildings visited during the campaign is stunning. Halo Infinite is a gorgeous game – despite, y'know, all the war and stuff.
Although it's a bummer co-op is still a while away, I'm more than happy for the excuse to dive back into Halo Infinite's campaign when the feature arrives next year. Playing solo was a blast, and it will be even more so with a buddy.
What's most impressive about Halo Infinite's campaign is its restraint. Zeta Halo is a terrific setting because of its balance between conciseness and exploration. You can engage with exactly however much of it you desire without compromising on story – which routinely takes a Needler to your heart. Master Chief's latest sci-fi journey is an absolute ripper.
Halo Infinite launches on Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows on 8 December. You can buy it on Amazon (a small commission will go to Byteside) or play via Xbox Game Pass.
Microsoft provided access to the Halo Infinite campaign for review.