The decision to open Installation 07 up for exploration was always going to be met with reservations. Halo Infinite is disrupting a campaign structure that the series has deployed with great success for two decades, after all. If you close your eyes, and embrace the skepticism, you can almost hear Cortana saying it now: "We have the human race to save, Chief. But another settlement needs your help first – here, I'll mark it on your tacmap."
Admittedly, my heart sank a little as I first looked out across the breathtaking skybox of Zeta Halo. The serenity disrupted as an overlay of the area began to ping with points-of-interest, as if it were an exotic locale that Ubisoft had appropriated for a Far Cry in Space. But after spending hours with the Halo Infinite campaign, my fears have been largely assuaged – open world Halo isn't what I imagined it would be.
Arriving on (Zeta) Halo
343 Industries has found a winning formula. While Halo Infinite has clearly taken inspiration from modern open world experiences, it's working across more self-contained, and smartly interlocked spaces. Zeta Halo has been effectively segmented into a multitude of large-scale, open-ended sandboxes – the kind Bungie once used to make Master Chief a legend. You fight, you explore, you have some fun, and then you complete a campaign mission to move on and gain access to a new section of the map. In terms of scale, forget Far Cry and Fallout, because a better comparison might be Batman Arkham City or Knight.
A more curated open-world compliments Halo Infinite's broader narrative ambitions. Master Chief lands on Installation 07 with the war against the Banished already lost, the surviving crew of the UNSC Infinity scattered and fighting for survival. You aren't trying to finish the fight in Halo Infinite, you're trying to start one. Chief is battling for inches of territory against an entrenched force, all while rallying UNSC Marines to his side and hunting for equipment he can use to help turn the tide.
For the UNSC to gain a foothold, Forward Operating Bases need to be reclaimed from the Banished. There are multiple in each segment of the map and capturing one will expand your opportunities – acting as both a fast travel hub and as an anchor for exploration. As a reward for gaining ground on Zeta Halo, the tacmap will update with a handful of waypoints in your local vicinity.
Following its surprise release, we've sunk hours into the Halo Infinite multiplayer beta. You can read our Halo Infinite Season 1 first impressions right here.
These correspond to non-essential objectives, including discoverable pick-ups to upgrade your equipment, unlockable cosmetics for multiplayer, UNSC and Banished voice recordings for the lore-heads out there, and optional battles which help you unlock a resource called Valor. This isn't something you spend, but something you accrue over time – the more of it you have, the better the equipment, weapons, vehicles, and UNSC Marine support you can requisition from a captured FOB and take out into the world.
As associate creative director Paul Crocker tells me: "We designed the game to be both a linear story, which you can progress through, but we also designed freedom around that path; the story is the thing that's gating you. So you can go and have fun being Chief, doing whatever you want to do in that world," he says. "It's the story that is stopping you from progressing physically, but it's very easy to move through the story."
That means there's this nice cadence to progression. The way I've been playing Halo Infinite is to complete a campaign mission – classic, cinematic Halo as you know and love it – and then move into the next wide-open space. I capture an FOB, call in a Warthog and a few Marines, and grab my favorite power weapon. From there I head out and run down anything that moves, ticking off objectives until the area is clear of waypoints. Once I've had my fun, I head to the next critical mission and try to hold back the tears when that damn orchestral swell kicks in – it gets me every damn time. Bah da da daa, bah da da daa...