Twenty years since Halo: Combat Evolved, Master Chief is still “finishing the fight”. Made infamous by Halo 2’s premature cliffhanger ending, the line is uttered with zero irony at Halo Infinite’s conclusion: it’s become the catchphrase for a series that is travelling in circles, always defaulting to something like the original fable of a craggy supersoldier fighting alien zealots for control of universe-ending Forerunner relics.
Infinite takes place on yet another gorgeous ringworld, where Master Chief teams up with a nervy pilot and a chirpy new AI buddy to battle a renegade group called the Banished. It’s the same old story with the same rousing musical motifs, but the geography has changed: main missions are now threaded through a lush open expanse comparable to that of a Far Cry game, where you’ll tackle sidequests such as hostage rescue, and claim bases that let you fast-travel and rearm. The extra space amplifies Halo’s existing brilliance as a martial playground, defined less by reflexes and accuracy than giddy improvisation, but it’s not quite enough to make this backward-glancing game unmissable.
Halo is part of the great “Daddification” of action gaming, in which long-serving heroes have been reinvented as scarred patriarchs struggling with years of war trauma. For Master Chief, this means wrangling with the women who made and guide him – Dr Halsey, his unreachable mother figure; Cortana, his first AI soulmate, and the Weapon, this year’s holographic sidekick, who puts in double duty as palm-top comic relief and lock breaker. Women are rarely permitted to star in Halo games, but they are central in ways both dramatic and mundane. Without the Weapon, Master Chief wouldn’t make it past the first sealed door, and it’s through conversation with her that we explore his awkward romance with Cortana, who isn’t quite a memory.
The last three numbered Halo games hit similar beats, and returning players may struggle to care, not least because the soul-searching accompanies a lot of corridor-crawling. Save for a few base assaults, main missions are spent in shiny hexagonal chambers underground, tracking down buttons and power cells for elevators or bridges. These interiors are great combat spaces, with a rewarding play of sightlines and elevations, but they are visually monotonous – as is the plot. The villain is another scenery-chewing faux-Klingon warlord and the “twists” are retreats to themes from previous games. Unlike in most numbered Halos, tuttavia, there’s no hidden second enemy faction to spice up the final hours.
Infinite’s star isn’t a character but Master Chief’s new grappling gun, a familiar video game toy that proves transformative here. It both speeds you across the newly vast surface spaces and zests up your footwork in battle, letting you slingshot around corners and reel yourself towards stunned opponents. You can also yank things around with it: Infinite’s ace move is lassoing fuel canisters and bowling them at foes.
This touch of Spider-Man points to Halo’s status as an undeclared slapstick comedy, its violence as wacky and infectious as its story is po-faced. Most things in the world are primed to explode – and explode again, as fragments collide with silos, flipping cars as if they were tables and sending punctured spacesuits whistling across the floor.
Infinite is best when it embraces this absurdity. There is much more battle chatter than in previous games, and it has never been more obviously written for laughs – be it a charging alien Grunt squealing “I’m gonna regret this!” or a proud Elite bellowing in outrage when you glue a bomb to its leg. The open world sections exaggerate all this beautifully, letting you pounce on the opposition from all angles using any combination of vehicles and ordnance. The emphasis on ad libbing rescues the game from the fatigue that often afflicts open-world games with mountains of optional objectives.
The chaos continues in the standalone multiplayer, which is split between 4v4 gangland throwdowns and bewildering 24-player big-team battles, with modes ranging from capture the flag and vanilla deathmatch to time-limited oddities such as Fiesta, which grants you random weapons. Halo’s secret sauce as a multiplayer shooter is longevity – recharging overshields stretch out duels, emphasising agility and a level head over twitch reactions.
The maps are spacious, elegantly broken down into pockets of terrain that encourage specific tactics, and carefully sprinkled with tide-turning pick-ups such as rocket launchers. Infinite’s title reflects Halo’s evolution into a service game, with themed seasons and purchasable battle passes unlocking cosmetic items for multiplayer use, but there’s no paying for items that give you an edge in the fray. This is old-school Halo blasting, through and through.
You could argue that Master Chief is the necessary foil to Halo’s inherent silliness, the gravelly undertone that ties all the pratfalls together. All the same, he and his inability to get over Cortana have long since lost their charm. The series has tried to move away from him before – in that regard, Halo 3: ODST remains its finest hour. It needs to carry on trying.