The complex relationship between Halo protagonist Master Chief and his AI partner Cortana has always been one of the strongest driving forces for the franchise--it's a genuine bond, but one born out of manipulation, as Cortana (an AI based on the mind of the woman who kidnapped Chief as a child) is gifted to Chief as a perfect companion to ensure he maintains peak efficiency as a super-soldier. In this way, Cortana has always been the more dominant voice in the partnership. She tells Chief where to go and what to do, and Chief's single-mindedness coupled with the ability to solely rely on her means he never has to develop emotionally healthy bonds with normal human beings.
Halo Infinite is the first time we've seen that kind of relationship dynamic flipped. Paired with a new AI, simply named "the Weapon," Chief takes on a more fatherly figure in Infinite. Where Cortana was assertive, quick-witted, and mature, the Weapon is awkward, overly trusting, and silly. She sounds and acts like a child-like version of Cortana, pushing Chief into taking on a more domineering role that has far greater control over her. This opens some intriguing new opportunities for a Halo story--in a franchise that has long had an undercurrent theme of familial connection and motherhood, Infinite is the first in the series to focus its narrative around familial responsibility and fatherhood. The strength of that narrative, alongside the open world and new traversal mechanics, delivers a welcoming freshness to the two-decade-old series.
Other than Chief, Halo Infinite doesn't have much in the way of familiar faces. Very early into the campaign, you're confronted with the startling reveal that a lot of the folks you've come to know over Halo 4, Halo 5: Guardians, and Halo Wars 2 are dead or missing in action. Chief finds himself on a new Halo ring named Zeta Halo, which has been partially destroyed. The Banished, an independent army of multiple alien species that splintered off the Covenant, want the ring for some unknown purpose, and Chief vows to stop them. Without any of his usual allies to turn to, Chief ropes two unwitting companions into his fight--the aforementioned Weapon, who was supposed to delete herself following completion of her purpose, and the Pilot, a man desperately trying to just get home to United Nations Space Command (UNSC) space after being stranded all alone for months.
The first half of Act 1 and most of Act 3 are traditional Halo: contained, linear levels where you're guided through gauntlets of enemies. The rest of the game incorporates a hybrid open world. You're able to freely move through a wide open area and pursue optional side missions, or beeline for the next main story objective. Reaching those objectives typically funnels you back into the more traditional Halo level design, only for Chief to emerge into the open world again once the mission is complete.
In this way, Infinite maintains the cinematic quality of Halo's traditionally linear campaigns while also incorporating an open world to explore. Those optional side missions bring aspects of Halo's multiplayer into Infinite's campaign, creating scenarios in which players can approach a problem in numerous ways, each of which can lead to satisfying and occasionally hilarious outcomes. For example, a base that needs storming can be charged into on foot; you could take out enemies stealthily with a sniper rifle from afar before approaching; or just go for broke and crash a Banshee into the base, eject at the last minute, and pull out a shotgun to clean up any remaining resistance. Experimentation is often rewarded with satisfying victory or a story of how everything went hilariously wrong. Regardless of the approach taken, it's fun to dismantle the Banished's encampments on Zeta Halo, wrestling control away from them slowly but surely.
Even on Infinite's harder difficulties, you can easily skip over all the optional missions and still get that linear Halo experience if you want, but Infinite provides compelling reasons for stepping off the main path. In a first for a Halo campaign, there's an in-game progression system. Completing tasks like saving captured UNSC soldiers and destroying Banished roadblocks or refineries nets you Valor, which unlocks new vehicles and weapons that can be summoned at Forward Operating Bases across the map, allowing you to bring your favorite loadouts into future side-quests and story missions. You can also find Spartan Cores, which are spent to upgrade Chief's equipment. Perhaps my favorite upgrade is an electrified current for Halo's version of a grappling hook, the Grappleshot. This upgrade allows Chief to stun enemies by latching onto them, leaving them defenseless against a satisfyingly hard-hitting follow-up melee strike.
From a gameplay perspective, the Grappleshot is the true star of Infinite's campaign. Though there are plenty of firearms, melee weapons, and grenades for Chief to use--and each tears through enemies with a nice kinetic, plasma, or electrical punch--the Grappleshot fundamentally changes how you play a Halo game for the better. In terms of traversal, a grappling hook makes Chief more nimble and opens up new vertical pathways while exploring Zeta Halo. But the tool is far more valuable in combat, allowing you to grab far-off firearms when your current one runs out of bullets, pull you into range so that Chief can land some solid hits with a shotgun or Gravity Hammer, or simply get you the heck out of dodge if things get too hot. It opens up brand-new strategies for handling old enemies too. For instance, nimble Elites can be slowed down by grabbing them with the Grappleshot, and shield-bearing Jackals will momentarily drop their guard if you grapple and pull at their shields.
The Grappleshot makes Chief a faster and more efficient killer. You're still doing the same loop of gunfire, grenades, and melee, and the dance of using your shield to tank hits and taking cover when said shield is broken is still the same too, but Chief can storm through enemies far more efficiently now, adding a dynamism and more strategic considerations to the tried-and-true formula. With the Grappleshot, it becomes possible to quickly flank enemies, grab new guns, or launch back into the fight. Chief just feels faster and more deadly--it's so rewarding to pull off incredible plays with the Grappleshot, especially since its fast cooldown time means you can use it repeatedly. And since Chief starts the game with the Grappleshot in his arsenal, you get plenty of practice with it by the time you actually reach Zeta Halo and walk into Infinite's open world. The game does a good job of ensuring that using the Grappleshot is as natural as shooting or sliding.
Chief's remaining equipment doesn't quite reach the same highs as the Grappleshot, but the various tools are still valuable in combat, each in their own way. Enemies hit Chief hard in the Heroic and Legendary difficulties, and mastering how to use all of his equipment opens up new means of taking them on and surviving. Oftentimes, it can feel like Infinite is actively discouraging you from engaging with the other equipment though. The Grappleshot is unbelievably useful in practically every situation, and you have to temporarily switch away from it with the D-pad to use Chief's other equipment--not an easy input to use while sprinting, jumping, shooting, and sliding your way through a hectic firefight. This does lessen the impact of unlocking a new ability, as it's hard to get excited over new equipment when I know I'm likely only going to use it a few times so that I can keep the Grappleshot always at the ready in my fight against the Banished.
Less interesting than the Grappleshot is the principal antagonist, a Brute named Escharum who acts as the war chief of the Banished. The dude's got an incredible "I am clearly the bad guy" voice that reverberates with a growling rumble whenever he monologues, but his motivations don't really extend beyond being the leader of a group of bloodthirsty killers. Prior to the events of Infinite, Escharum waged a six-month war that saw him psychologically and physically dismantle the UNSC's soldiers and Spartans, but none of that Escharum is present in Infinite. He's described as this devastatingly brutal leader who humans fear, but we see none of that nuance in the game. There's a brief hint that the Brute has become desperate for a warrior's death and wants Chief to face him so that he can have it, but it's introduced in the story too late to make him a meaningful villain worth caring about.
Instead, the intriguing characterization is reserved for Chief, the Weapon, and the Pilot. The trio form a family unit, with Chief at the head. This setup affords some incredible insight into Chief's psyche, as the armored warrior is confronted with two allies who aren't career soldiers. A truly incredible scene partway through the game sees the Pilot and Chief confront each other and what follows is a rare moment of vulnerability that humanizes Chief in an unexpected and meaningful way. Scenes like this are sprinkled throughout the campaign, as Chief, the Pilot, and the Weapon all confront their own humanity and their innate responsibility to each other as (admittedly very different) human consciousnesses.
One moment in particular, however, does not land. Partway through Infinite, Chief takes away the Weapon's agency in a problematic way. The Weapon is understandably upset at the betrayal and lashes out at Chief's callous actions, only for her to quickly soften and forgive him upon learning his motivations. It feels like a rushed development, and one that unfortunately implies that, if they have a good reason, dads have a responsibility to decide a child's entire life the second said child steps out of line. The whole thing isn't resolved in a great way.
While the quality of writing may occasionally dip, each key scene is bolstered by Infinite's superb soundtrack. The nature of the hybrid open world means that most of Infinite's major story beats and the conversations between characters occur in set locations, and so the orchestral score can be carefully timed with the game's most poignant moments. There has yet to be a mainline Halo game with anything less than an absolute banger of a musical score, and Infinite does not buck that trend. The rich score is helped along by the equally impressive level of detail 343 Industries has achieved with facial expressions (at least on Xbox Series X). Having a rousing score accompanied by believable acting and expressions means there is a collection of genuinely epic and tragic moments in Infinite that really land.
You can also take a break from Chief and company by heading into the Academy, which introduces Halo Infinite's multiplayer and how the UNSC are training a new batch of Spartan IVs in the wake of Chief's disappearance at the start of the campaign. Alongside a detailed tutorial on the controls for Infinite, the Academy includes a number of well-made weapon drills, providing an approachable means of testing out each firearm in the game without having to worry about something shooting back at you, creating an ideal space for learning more about what each weapon does. It's a good addition, especially since it's not especially apparent what the secondary effects of some of Infinite's new firearms (like the Disruptor and Cindershot) are.
The Academy is available in Halo Infinite's separate free-to-play online multiplayer as well. For my full thoughts on the game's online multiplayer, check out GameSpot's Halo Infinite multiplayer review in progress.
Halo Infinite strives to transform what it means to be a Halo game, making Chief into a reluctant father figure for a young and naive AI and putting him into an open-world setting. It turns out that was a risk worth taking for the franchise, as Infinite is an incredible game. Certain story elements are on the weaker side and the amazing Grappleshot makes the rest of Chief's equipment feel a bit lacking in comparison, but these are small shortcomings in what otherwise feels like the best Halo campaign in years and an excellent evolution of what Halo can be.