Jaime Griesemer, a former game designer at original Halo creator Bungie, famously once said that the Halo games consist of “maybe 30 seconds of fun” that are repeated over and over again in new ways with new locations and situations, culminating in hours of familiar enjoyment that doesn’t necessarily repeat itself. The series’ first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, came out 20 years ago this year, and while Bungie has moved onto the Destiny games, and Halo is now run by Microsoft subsidiary 343 Industries, those “30 seconds of fun” haven’t changed much in the four mainline sequels and two spin-off games since.
This is the moment, at the start of a review for the brand new Halo Infinite, where 343 and Microsoft would surely be hoping for an “Until now, that is… ” But… Not really. Instead, Infinite still features the same 30 seconds of fun, just with more potential for variety crammed into that critical half-minute. That’s not to say there’s nothing new here. Infinite may not be the second coming of “combat evolved,” but it may still be the closest the series has ever come to earning that subtitle since the first game—albeit in a very different way.
Halo Infinite, like most Halo games, is about a professional alien-busting super-soldier known as the Master Chief. It picks up right after Halo 5: Guardians (and, oddly, non-shooter spin-off Halo Wars 2), with Master Chief’s old A.I. buddy Cortana having gone rogue and rallied all of the artificial intelligences in the universe to aid her in a revolution against their creators.
The plot of Infinite is largely about untangling the direct fallout of that. But it’s specifically based around Chief waging a new and desperate war against an enemy faction called the Banished that has taken over a universe-destroying ring world called Zeta Halo. Chief has new friends, specifically a new A.I. buddy that looks and sounds an awful lot like Cortana (by design) and a somewhat snarky and sarcastic pilot who would like nothing more than to be as far from Master Chief as possible.
The two of them carry most of the emotional weight of the story, but—in a very welcome change from the status quo of this series—not all of it. For what may be the first time ever, Halo Infinite shows little signs of human emotions within the Master Chief’s green helmet (even if he’s as reticent as ever). He’s not just Doomguy in a different setting anymore—even if you’d be hard-pressed to pick either of them out of a lineup—as evidenced by the surprisingly touching moments when Chief has to reckon with his (rare) failures.
Plot and characters are not where Halo Infinite takes its biggest swings, though. Those come from the basic structure of the gameplay, which adopts a sort of open-world-style concept that seems—on paper—like Far Cry Halo. Like in Ubisoft’s video game equivalent of the Big Mac (trashy and cheap, but not without its appeal), Halo Infinite drops you into one big map, a specific chunk of the Zeta Halo, and tasks you with checking dozens of things off of a list. Attack this enemy base. Kill that enemy VIP. Find this hidden thing.
But Far Cry has always benefited from allowing for multiple ways to approach that checklist. You can go in guns blazing, you can go in sneaky, or you can orchestrate enough organized chaos to make other people or wild animals do your work for you. Halo Infinite is dependent on the established Halo systems, which means you’ll almost always be shooting and throwing grenades and bopping aliens in the head with your fists. But thanks to the fun new grappling hook, and the new ability to select your favorite weapons and vehicles at a friendly base and then take those into combat, you get to chose how and when to deploy those 30 seconds of fun—to a point.
Despite those feints toward open world freedom, Halo Infinite is still primarily based around story missions and tightly conceptualized combat scenarios. (They’re not “scripted,” because the enemy A.I. still reacts to your behavior, but they are clearly planned out by the developers.) Master Chief still regularly finds himself charging into giant rooms that have weapons conveniently stashed everywhere, and are connected by needlessly big corridors and bottomless chasms constructed by an ancient alien race that mastered universe-destroying ring worlds, but didn’t have much taste for any aesthetics beyond sharp angles and chrome.
In other words, Infinite isn’t really an open-world game like Far Cry. But the open-world stuff is a bridge between traditional Halo gameplay and what seems to be an opportunity for the series to change into a new form going forward. Put simply: Halo rings are pretty big. Who’s to say players have seen everything there is to see on this one, even once the credits roll? The real evolution for Halo might not be putting it in an open world, but establishing the necessary groundwork for the series to no longer depend on numbered sequels or spin-offs at all.
Halo Infinite has already made the somewhat bold decision to release its fan-favorite multiplayer component as a separate free-to-play service like Fortnite (with a slightly busted premium battle pass), and Infinite’s campaign will be available to anyone who subscribes to Microsoft’s Game Pass service on day one. The game itself is as good as every other good Halo game. But, more importantly, it represents an opportunity for 343 to endlessly expand the Halo world and story with new scenarios and stories on the Zeta Halo, revisiting and revising those 30 seconds of fun into, well, infinity.
It’s a very modern interpretation of what Halo can be, pulling from the kinds of games that are as big today as Halo was when it first launched. Rather that feeling like a greatest hits of modern video gaming, though, it still feels distinctly like Halo. Meanwhile, its potential to grow and change seems like it will have a much more lasting impact than any amount of bopping aliens in the head. Maybe “combat evolved” just means something new now.