What's new

Halo Infinite: First Campaign Hands-On Preview

The biggest surprise I had coming out of my few hours of Halo Infinite campaign hands-on wasn't the delightful exploration, nor the incredibly fun gunplay paired with Infinite's new equipment. Instead, it came down to the characters. Halo Infinite sees the legendary Master Chief once again tasked with saving the universe from yet another threat, and after five major campaigns, the Chief seems tired. Sad, even. He’s a man of few words, but his movements in cutscenes and response to those who need him are heavier than I’ve seen before. This is Chief without Cortana. His subtle yet distinct change is far from a bad thing, though. If anything, Master Chief's forlorn demeanor that he sets aside to get the job done is a great indication to me that Halo Infinite’s story is intended to be a more impactful adventure.

Chief’s stern determination is also wonderfully contrasted to his new AI companion's bubbly enthusiasm and his pilot rescuer's anxiety and weariness. Given 343’s failure to give Locke the faintest hint of a personality or motive and Halo 5: Guardians' generally lackluster story, this was a relief. Halo Infinite’s contrasting characters aren't the only things to look forward to, though. Rewarding exploration infused with Halo's DNA and genuinely challenging combat could be a relief in today’s open-world game extravaganza. Many are packed to the brim with chores and only a few offer meaningful adventures beyond their main path. If things continue the way I played in my four-hour hands-on time, I think Halo Infinite could fall into the latter.

That's not to say there aren't some essential elements of Halo Infinite I'm curious to see if developer 343 Industries can pull off, like Chief's storyline with Cortana or if the open sandbox model works throughout the story. For now, what I played in my preview sessions has left me even more eager for Halo Infinite's December 8 launch.

Note that this preview will have mild descriptions of what you can find in the first few hours of Halo Infinite but will largely avoid story and exploration spoilers.

A Familiar Enemy​

Time and time again, Master Chief has woken up to fight a new enemy. Halo Infinite largely sees that pulled back by instead focusing on familiar fodder with Halo Wars 2’s Banished, a group made up of former Covenant that chose to abandon the Prophets and instead follow Brute rule. Their might is made clear in the opening minutes of Halo Infinite by defeating a seemingly large portion of the UNSC — including Master Chief. We saw the Banished's devastation in the original campaign reveal at E3 2019, and what I witnessed in the opening minutes only reaffirmed their strength.

The leaders of the Banished, Atriox and Escharum, eagerly step up as Chief's main adversaries. Their goal for Zeta Halo is unknown, but as we all know, if it involves a Halo Ring there's nothing good that can come of it. Master Chief’s main objective in Halo Infinite is to help free captured UNSC forces on Zeta Halo and thwart whatever the Banished are planning. The unnamed pilot we’ve seen in trailers will begrudgingly help him do it, though I didn't see too much of him in my playtime.

Another important throughline is the conflict with Cortana. Her rampancy led her to become yet another villain for Chief to face, but what actually happened to her after Halo 5 and whether or not she's been truly destroyed is a major mystery. This crucial conflict seemingly takes a backseat to the larger fight with the Banished, though it is intertwined somehow. All we know is she was at Zeta Halo, something happened, then Master Chief got blown into space and he won't divulge a clear explanation as to what happened with Cortana. It could be that he doesn't know or doesn't remember, but this is a curious narrative gamble.

Without getting into spoilers, I will say the few moments that dug into Chief and Cortana’s relationship were an emotional gut punch. Halo Infinite is looking to deliver a meaningful story for legacy Halo fans and I really need it to fulfill that promise after Halo 5's story missteps. It's difficult to imagine Chief moving on without Cortana, and for the sake of believing Chief is at peace with their relationship in whatever comes after this campaign, 343 needs to deliver a satisfying conclusion to their arc. As a man with very, very few bonds, this one needs to be severed with respect and with a believable outcome.

This all being said, I don't imagine Halo Infinite is going to be a great starting point for people new to the franchise. Even if there’s some sort of catchup video on the story so far, the best moments I saw in Halo Infinite’s first few hours rely on prior knowledge of the series. I don't like the idea of people being left behind, but I selfishly prefer that this game is made with returning Halo fans rather than tuning the game to accommodate new players. Familiar with the story or not, though, Halo Infinite sure is fun to play and explore.

How Halo Infinite’s ‘Open World’ Works

Playing Halo Infinite is a mix of familiar and new; one moment you’re navigating encounters in ship corridors then the next you’re driving several Marines wherever you want on part of Zeta Halo. As 343 has clearly stated, Halo Infinite isn’t quite a true open-world game. Yes, it has large sandboxes for us to play in and explore, but they are strategically segmented so you can only access certain parts of it at a time. Zeta Halo is broken up into large island chunks with chasms of space that simply can’t be crossed — at least not at the beginning. Landmasses can be connected by bridges and Chief can eventually call in things like a Wasp to fly wherever after they’re unlocked. So eventually we may get to freely explore unlocked areas, but our range will be limited and more focused at first. The starting landmasses are quite sizable, though, so though I was curious about something I saw on another chunk of land, I had plenty of other things to keep me busy.

Zeta Halo is littered with UNSC camps called Forward Operating Bases that were claimed by the Banished after the UNSC lost the big fight. Clearing a base and reclaiming it for the UNSC replaces the Banished with UNSC forces. It’s usually only a few Marines, but that’s better than nothing. Even better, cleared bases convert to instant fast-travel points and earn you Valor. Worry not — this isn’t some sort of spendable currency. Valor is more like a point-based tracker of how much ground the UNSC has on Zeta Halo. Early on you’ll gain access to basic weapons, vehicles, and Marines that can be summoned based on how much Valor you've accumulated. Eventually, you can earn enough Valor to call in Scorpions, rocket launchers, and other heavy gear. As far as I could tell, earning Valor and reclaiming the broken Ring is entirely optional. The heavy equipment and extra Marines could make missions more manageable at higher difficulty levels, though, so I’d say it’s worth doing.

Folks don’t just get to give The Master Chief a fetch quest.

So what else can you do when you’re not hunting down the next clue to the Banished plan or freeing Marines? Folks don’t just get to give The Master Chief a fetch quest. The only one who really gives Master Chief any sort of commands is a new AI codenamed The Weapon. She’s meant to destroy Cortana and is in turn supposed to be destroyed when her operation is complete. Though Cortana is seemingly gone, The Weapon remains and is happy to help discover whatever’s going on until she reaches her eventual demise. The Weapon is played as a curious and excited character by Cortana and Halsey actress Jen Taylor, and I found her naivete to be charming rather than annoying.

Much like Cortana, The Weapon will call out enemy attacks and notable objectives. She’ll also call out opportunities to further thwart Banished operations if she spots a small camp or UNSC distress signal. Once, while exploring a cliffside, The Weapon called out a Marine camp. There I found a sniper, an audio log of what happened at that camp, and other gear that helped me make quick work of the small Banished group not far away that had actually captured the Marines from the camp. Polite of them to not go far.

If I wanted to instead get on with the main campaign quests I could have left them with the Banished and suffered no repercussions. But what kind of Master Chief would I be if I did that? These sorts of encounters were abundant, but not overwhelming. I was more likely to come across a random patrol of enemies than an actual objective, but I didn't feel like I had to go too far to find something to do. I enjoyed the quiet moments, though. Chasing around the space groundhogs or just enjoying the view was a pleasant reprieve from the action.

When I was ready to get back to a larger challenge but not quite ready to get back to the campaign, I could instead target large Banished facilities. Clearing them out often requires more work than just slaying enemies in the area. This could mean destroying several power sources to fully shut down a facility's operations or other destructive activities. There seems to only be a few of these in each area and they award a good bit of Valor. Another limited task involves hunting special Banished targets that, once slain, reward you with a unique version of their signature weapon that you can equip at FOBs. The targets I encountered weren't especially challenging but they did have a lot of support with a small arena usually designed in their favor. As these objectives are cleared, I noticed more Marines patrolling and some would sometimes pop up on a ledge and help me defeat enemies in an area.

I also found secret rooms in mountainsides guarded by a small Banished patron. Once vanquished I was rewarded with rare and unique weapons, like a Backdraft Cindershot, a slight variation on a Hardlight launcher. I'd save their ammo and take to them Banished facilities for extra fun combat.

And of course, there are collectibles. Some, like UNSC audio logs and armor for multiplayer, are marked on the map once certain FOBs are reclaimed, as they're considered UNSC intel that was gathered by the Banished. But the most coveted collectibles, like Skulls, need to be hunted down. As IGN's guides lead I'm happy to say they still pose a fair challenge, though a new scanner tool does make them a bit easier to find — if you have an idea of where to look. The scanner activates with a simple press of the D-pad and briefly highlights nearby weapons, objectives, and collectibles. Its range is rather limited, though, so it's not a free pass to finding secrets. In addition to UNSC audio logs, you can also find audio logs for the Banished and other inhabitants of the Ring that fill out some gaps in Halo Infinite’s story.

Zeta Halo’s fragmented landmasses meant, if I looked close enough, I could sometimes see something neat across the chasm that I made a mental note of hunting down later. Exploring was a bit of a rush due to my limited time to play, but I had a lot of fun doing it. Everything I found only added more context or promised to potentially enrich my time further. There are some pretty awesome Easter eggs too but we'll keep those a secret for now.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Grunt and Marine dialogue. I'd like to give whoever wrote them a solid thumbs up. They're hilarious. The Grunts are as silly and oddly confident as ever and have a surprising number of lines. At one point I hid behind some structures and just listened to two Grunts talking at a camp about their plans for the humans. Grunts have long been one of my favorite parts of Halo, and I was delighted to see they have a great comedic presence in Halo Infinite. One even managed to become the Banished's Minister of Propaganda, but I'll let you experience what that means yourself once Halo Infinite is out.

The Marines were more confident and generally excited to be in the thick of the action. Whenever I came across a captured group I'd often leave them tied up until the biggest enemies were down. I like to try and keep them alive as long as I can, after all. However, it was great to hear them request the Chief free them not for safety, but so that they can join in the battle. Their generally positive demeanor while traveling made exploring more fun too. I'll never forget that one Marine who was having the time of his life after he ran into a secret cave and claimed a special weapon for himself.

Tools of the Trade

Just because Zeta Halo is a larger, more open sandbox doesn’t mean 343 suddenly has us doing puzzles or tasks unbecoming of a genetically augmented super-soldier like Master Chief. Fighting enemies and destroying their things is always at the center of Halo Infinite's gameplay, and whether I was taking on a roaming pack of Banished or infiltrating a fortress for a story mission, the more open nature only facilitated in giving me options for combat. Having replayed the original trilogy many times over, that choice and excellence in weaponry were essential to keep me going back.

In one area, I found a way to scale a side of a cliff and enter a camp through an open door, thus skipping several groups of Banished and getting to my objective faster. In another area I charged in with a Ghost, mowing down any enemies in my path until a Brute showed up with some heavier weaponry. I found an abundance of ways to approach my targets, even in corridor-heavy structures.

If you've had a chance to check out either of the multiplayer test flights, Halo Infinite's excellence in weaponry should come as no surprise. The campaign introduced me to other interesting weapons we've yet to see in multiplayer. There's the Disruptor, a small shock pistol that doesn't do too much immediate damage but electrified enemies over time. I'm partial to picking up weapons like the VK78 Commando or the Needler when I see them, but I knew I'd have a good time with whatever I found, regardless of my familiarity with the weapon.

If you do happen to find a special weapon you enjoy, you can risk keeping it empty in one of the customary two weapon spots and swap back to it after you find more ammo. This was made easier thanks to new ammo crates for each of the ammo types (plasma, kinetic, shock, power, and hardlight). These ammo stations are not abundant, but they're certainly important in areas with sparse weapon drops.

Another important part of Master Chief's kit that we've been able to try out in multiplayer is equipment. It unsurprisingly takes on a more powerful form in the campaign. Each of the five equipment options — Grappleshot, Shield Core, Threat Sensor, Drop Wall, and Thruster — can be upgraded with a collectible called Spartan Cores to a slightly more powerful form once enough cores are collected. Upgrades can add things like a satisfying shock and stun to any target hit by Grappleshot or a second charge for the Thruster. Unlike weapons, equipment is permanently part of Chief's kit and can be changed at any time. Like most of the open-world elements, finding the Spartan Cores (most aren't difficult to find) and upgrading equipment is optional.

Master Chief won't start the adventure with all equipment either. You'll find new tools to play with at specific story beats. Lacking a piece of equipment doesn't necessarily mean you're blocked off from certain areas (at least I didn't see anywhere I couldn't go), Metroidvania-style, but getting to or taking on difficult encounters might be more manageable should you have more equipment. The Grappleshot is the first item Chief gets and I honestly couldn't have imagined exploring as quickly without it. Running and firing it at the ground ahead of me, then sliding to propel myself forward was such a fun and fast way to get around when no vehicle was available. It was also a way to get me out of trouble when my shields dropped.

A Challenge Fit for a Spartan

One of my favorite things to do when a new Halo drops is crank the difficulty all the way up to Legendary and play through the campaign alone. With Halo 5 we had a silent race to see who could finish a solo Legendary run first in the IGN office (spoiler: it was me!) and should that happen with Halo Infinite, I have a feeling it's going to take us a fair bit longer to accomplish. In my hands-on time with Halo Infinite I chose to play on Heroic for most of my session. I was racing against the clock to get a certain amount played, so I skipped Legendary for now. I'm happy to say that Heroic isn't messing around when it comes to difficulty, however. I played a bit on Normal too and found that it was, as expected, easier, but held its fair share of challenges with heavier enemies and in boss fights.

Most of the big story beats happen in large, foreboding structures that could be viewed as something akin to dungeons. These offer a more classic Halo experience. The main story missions were fairly lengthy too. I'd guess each major area took anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to clear out and complete. I came across plenty of Grunts and Jackals backed up by the occasional Brute or Elite. While these four enemy types made up the bulk of the opponents I faced, the variety in their approach and style didn't feel lacking. Some Grunts hand more armor than others, the Jackals get a new aggressive, agile role called a Jackal Skirmisher, and the Brutes and Elite had all sorts of armor and weapons. I came across one set of Brutes that were so geared up they nearly qualified as a mini-boss fight. The Hunters make a return, too, and are fun to fight as always.

This being another Ring, The Flood was alluded to, though I never saw them. The Prometheans weren't present either. 343's vision of recapturing the essence of Combat Evolved in Halo Infinite means there's not really room for them, and honestly, I had plenty of fun without them. I didn't see any Drones — or "those shitty Buggers," as I call them — so I'm hoping the new flying enemy equipped with hardlight weapons, Skimmers, will be their replacement. The Skimmers won't be the last of the new enemies, either, as confirmed by 343 in their October Inside Infinite blog.

The real combat stars, though, are the boss fights. These are boss fights in the truest fashion, complete with health bars, shields, and a distinct arena. The first boss fight with Tremonius was shown in the latest campaign reveal and it kicked my ass at first. These bosses (I fought a few in just the first few hours of the campaign) don't wait for you to acclimate yourself to their challenge. Tremonius went in guns blazing and took me out two times in a row. I had been handling Heroic without any issues up until that point, so I was stunned to see how Tremonious' aggression and support from two Jackals paid off. I quickly got to work on a strategy. Though thinking ahead and making use of resources efficiently matters on Legendary, I was pleasantly surprised seeing how I needed to be more strategic on Heroic as well.

I have thus far only explored a fraction of Halo Infinite. Though the map isn't as large as an Assassin's Creed or Red Dead — far from it, I'd say —what it does hold seems to offer something more curated with excellent combat at its heart. It’s closer to a Batman Arkham game in terms of its “open world” than the aforementioned games. After my time with it, I can say I’m confident I'll enjoy the exploration part of Halo Infinite. The story part is what I’m most curious about now. 343 needs to stick the landing in the plot department, especially with regard to giving us a satisfying resolution to the Chief and Cortana’s relationship. If they can do that, then they’ll have successfully and definitively made Halo their own.

Miranda Sanchez is the executive editor of guides at IGN and a member of Podcast Unlocked. She's a big fan of stationery and fountain pens.

Continue reading...