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Even allowing for variation in how you count it, the 343 Industries-helmed era of Halo has now eclipsed that of the original developers at Bungie.1 The studio focused solely on the franchise has overseen the production of more than a decade’s worth of spinoff and franchise media and three main in-house games—Halo 4, Halo 5: Guardians, and now Halo Infinite.
Whatever you consider the strengths and weaknesses of their games, 343 Industries’ biggest problem during their tenure is arguably being too reactive to criticism. Halo 4 was lambasted for requiring too much background knowledge to understand, so 343 Industries responded by jettisoning a bunch of characters and backstory and moved in what seemed a completely different direction for Halo 5 with the Created conflict. Halo 5 in turn was criticized for making Cortana “evil” and focusing on newcomers Team Osiris to the detriment of fan favorites Blue Team, so 343 promised to “double down” on Chief going forward.2 Rather than merely adjusting their trajectory, 343 seemed to be shooting for entirely new targets with each outing, leaving story fans with a sense of whiplash. Especially if you liked some of the storytelling or story choices in Halo 4 or 5, there was good reason to be worried that Halo Infinite‘s status as a “spiritual successor” to Combat Evolved would mean that, once again, existing plot lines would be jettisoned in favor of rehashing the familiar and the safe.
While it’s possible to squint at Infinite and make that argument, fans of 343’s work should be left heartened by the approach the game takes. While it has its storytelling flaws, it does not shrink from the franchise’s past—and in fact, wholeheartedly embraces it. The Created conflict and Cortana’s turn to antagonist are (possibly) fully resolved (more on that later), but it is not simply tossed aside. The Covenant replacements in this game, the Banished, keep the familiar rhythms of Halo‘s gameplay unchanged, but the story sets up new antagonists. Infinite doesn’t feel like a concession or a backtrack, but rather boldly moving forward. With the schism between die-hard story players and casual fans who thought the heyday of the series was back in 2007, it would have seemed unlikely 343 could please both camps—and yet, improbably, they’ve managed to have their cake and eat it too. This is Forward Unto Dawn’s Halo Infinite story review.
Caution: Pardon Our Dust
Halo Infinite‘s campaign is structured radically differently than a traditional Halo game. Its hybrid, hub-world approach is most similar to the side story Halo 3: ODST, albeit with millions more dollars thrown at it. Whereas New Mombasa in ODST mostly coasted by on jazz and neon-soaked atmosphere, Halo Infinite‘s centerpiece is the woods and plains of Installation 07, Zeta Halo—a ring long cloaked in mystery and fan theories. It’s not quite an open world like most examples of the genre, and that more focused nature applies to its story, which alternates the open-ended surface segments with the story-focused, linear “dungeons” in the bowels of the installation. 343 seems quite conscious that one of the narrative pitfalls of open world games is that any sense of urgency is deflated by the pursuit of side quests and hunting collectibles, which is probably why the game’s characters exhort you to continue the main storyline when you are off doing a side task, and the back third of the game mostly abandons the open world for shepherding you from one story mission to the next with few breaks.
The result is a campaign that is different mechanically, but that narratively doesn’t stray too far from classic Halo campaigns. Awakening six months after a disastrous battle with the Banished that left the UNSC broken and scattered on a damaged Zeta Halo, Master Chief (and, by extension, players) have to pick up the pieces of what happened and lead the resistance against the Banished. Gone are Lasky, Infinity, Palmer, Locke, and the Spartan-IVs (basically 343’s sum total of major contributions to the franchise’s character roster.) Fortunately, however, 343 doesn’t seem interested in simply tossing them into the sun or killing them off in the opening mission (RIP Jul ‘Mdama), rather leaving room for them to be alive and active somewhere else on the ring. In fact, 343’s true magic with Infinite might be finally pleasing everyone rather than alienating them with their switch in focus: while the campaign at first glance seems like a dismissal of everything they’ve developed, at a deeper level Infinite successfully embraces old and new together in a way that 343 has always struggled with previously.
This is most clearly seen in the environment of Zeta Halo itself. For Halo 4, 343’s art department under Kenneth Scott redesigned most aspects of the universe. The Forerunner’s Baroque, angular geometry was simplified, smoothed over, and generally glowed from every corner. The Covenant got a major physiological redesign, to the point that they would later have to explain some of the changes as subspecies. Even the sounds and weapons departed substantially from what players were used to. The end result was often alienating, and felt too much like 343 felt they had to change things to prove they owned Halo. This change occasionally resulted in tangible damage to storytelling, like how Halo Wars 2‘s return to the Ark didn’t actually feel like players were returning to a fan-favorite location.
What we get in Halo Infinite is much more successful. While there are definitely some obvious wholesale reversions here solely for fan service—the Master Chief’s armor, or the Halo Reach-lifted Assault Rifle—the feeling one gets walking through the corridors of Zeta Halo is of every bit of previous Forerunner level design being thrown into a blender and reassembled. There is plenty of the classic Forerunner look in the return of rich patterns and beloved doors in Zeta Halo’s interiors, but also the large temple-like rooms from Halo 2‘s “Delta Halo” temples, or the wide, low hexagonal passageways from Halo 4‘s “Reclaimer”. The look of Zeta Halo returns a lot of Bungie-era texture, but retains much of the massing of 343’s “Tronrunner” look. The ring is familiar, yet different enough to inspire wonder and exploration, as befits a story that has a similar core of rediscovery. Halo games have struggled to give players a sense of discovery and wonder creeping around Forerunner ruins, but with Halo 4, and again here, 343 Industries have done a great job making you marvel at a Halo ring again.
On Zeta Halo, Master Chief, the Weapon, and the Pilot work together to recapture UNSC bases, rescue marines, and disable Banished operations. Learning that the Banished are looking for something at the Conservatory, Chief and Cortana descend into the bowels of the ring and come face-to-face with the Harbinger, an awakened alien who has allied with the Banished to rebuild the ring. The Harbinger wants to release her people, the Endless. Master Chief ultimately kills the Banished leadership and the Harbinger, stopping the “Reformation” of Zeta Halo and its potential activation, while leaving the larger threat the Banished and Endless may pose very much alive.
Step Inside (Of My Head)
Back in June 2021, our speculation based on the campaign reveals ended with a suggestion that Halo Infinite would invert the character arcs of Halo 4:
[In Halo 4] Cortana asked Chief which of them was really a machine—Chief single-mindedly pursuing his mission, while Cortana grappled with her mortality. But what we see of Infinite has pushed Chief’s humanity to the fore—his reassurances to the Pilot, his gentleness with his fallen comrades, and his offer to the Weapon of a new goal, a new mission. Perhaps the arc of this new relationship is Chief helping the Weapon to discover the humanity she was denied by her creators.
This is, broadly speaking, the story of Infinite, which focuses on titles and myths, but also strips characters down to their human cores. For all the mysteries Halo Infinite explores (and they leave a lot of plot threads hanging when credits roll), its biggest successes and the questions it satisfactorily answers are from a character standpoint. The Master Chief is someone who is burdened with regrets, believing that if he’d managed to save Cortana during Halo 4, or successfully talked her out of her plans in Halo 5, millions might have been saved. But he’s also someone who knows exactly who he is—a soldier at heart, who will keep fighting until he’s dead.
In comparison, the other major characters of Infinite are plagued with doubts or adrift with purpose. The Pilot, Echo-216, just wants to flee, convinced the Banished are unstoppable and the Chief is suicidal. Gradually, it is revealed that he ran from the fight on Infinity and stole the Pelican to get away, and Chief inspires him to keep fighting. The Weapon, with her original purpose of containing Cortana completed, is at first meeting happy to get deleted and fulfill her purpose, but by the end of the story treats Chief’s attempt to do just that as a horrible betrayal. The game cuts before she can announce her name (and hopefully, it’s not Cortana, because at this point that’d be like naming your kid Adolf in the Halo universe) but she has moved from being a tool to a person, digital though she may be.
The character interplay is a major part of the early part of the story, and it’s generally satisfactory. While the Weapon sometimes feels inconsistent in her naïveté, her different role in the story and new relationship with Chief manage to engage, and she demonstrates how she is different from Cortana while slotting into the same gameplay role. The Pilot, meanwhile, is more of a mixed bag. For the first third of the story he mostly pops onto the radio to complain, and while the revelation of his cowardly past and the loss of his family makes his actions more understandable, it’s still not any more fun to have someone griping in your ear in between ferrying you places.
And then there’s Escharum. While Halo Infinite never goes full Halo 2 and has playable missions from the perspective of the enemy, the cinematics regularly shift to the Banished point of view throughout. I wouldn’t say Escharum ever manages to pop into being a compelling character, but I think Infinite does a better job with him as an antagonist than Atriox in Halo Wars 2, who had very little of a personal rapport with the Spirit of Fire characters. Here, however, Escharum at least gets lengthy speechifying sessions to Chief. We get the sense Escharum is someone who expected to die gloriously in battle and instead is still alive after the war is over. Wounded by the loss of his homeworld and clearly dying slowly, Escharum sees in Chief the chance to have either a glorious death or one final triumph that will cement his legend. It’s interesting that the classic trope of the villain proclaiming himself not so different from the protagonist is actually inverted, with the Master Chief understanding Escharum’s point of view—that, at his core, he was a soldier, just like him.
The other characters are in the game to function as mini-bosses, and don’t really transcend those roles. The Spartan Killers Hyperius and Tovarus don’t make much of an impression, and neither do the Elites Jega ‘Rdomnai or Chak Lok. While Jega seems to have some interesting relationship with Escharum, as the war chief relies on him as the one person he trusts most to kill Chief, they mostly exist as gameplay obstacles to overcome. Likewise, there are a few missed opportunities in terms of the characters—particularly Despondent Pyre, the elusive Monitor of Installation 07. Fans have wondered where she was for years, and it turns out that question is unanswered and she’s destroyed literally minutes after we meet her. Her role is replaced by submonitor Adjutant Resolution, who especially with his accent and the different monitor casing he’s in, feels like a Wheatley clone from Portal 2. Both pale in comparison to previous AIs like Guilty Spark, or Exuberant Witness in Halo 5.
The most enigmatic character is the Harbinger, but her inscrutability and lack of clearly stating just about anything might make for good fan speculation, but make her less compelling without more clearly-defined goals.
The Play Is The Thing
As was speculated before release, Halo Infinite uses a “one-take” system of cutscenes, where rather than having distinct cuts, the camera moves and appears to be seamless in and out of gameplay. As someone who has felt 343’s games have suffered from often jarring choices in how they staged cinematics and approached the continuity in their storytelling mechanics, this choice generally works, though it is severely undercut by inelegant loading screens, even on a top-of-the-line Series X. Nevertheless, the choice keeps the focus on the characters and supports the smaller-scale story being told.
Ever since Halo 3‘s introduction of Terminals, the Halo franchise has slowly evolved its additional storytelling in-game, and while Halo Infinite doesn’t have the “weapons down” plot segments of Halo 5, it continues its legacy of “intel” collectibles with Banished, human, and Forerunner audio logs scattered throughout the game. Unfortunately, the audio logs in particular feel like they’re not fully baked. The gold standard for this kind of storytelling mechanic is arguably the BioShock series, which uses audio diaries and the tableau players come across to tell stories that get fleshed out as players find more logs. From the heartbreaking story of a family that commits suicide after the loss of their daughter, to the mundane realities of living in a city underwater, BioShock richly rewards players for exploring nooks and crannies and observing your surroundings, piecing together mysteries and the fates of side characters.
In comparison, Infinite, despite having its more open world, doesn’t reward story players much for their trouble. Audio logs feel scattered around and haphazard, and there’s rarely characters whose stories you can piece together across the ring. The human element found in side stories like Halo 5′s Meridian colonist Evelyn Collins is just missing. While we learn more about the Spartans who we strip for parts in the campaign, relatively little is spent on them as characters rather than answering basic questions about where people ended up. While the upcoming Rubicon Protocol will probably detail what life was like for the UNSC in the aftermath of the fall of Infinity, it’s disappointing this game doesn’t elaborate more on that period in a meaningful way and give us more stories to chase after.
This weakness stands in contrast to the main plot, which moves at a satisfactory clip (although there are usually one too many fetch quests you have to do for each objective that feel like padding, perhaps drawing the wrong lessons for Combat Evolved‘s story) and has both story developments and character changes sprinkled throughout. The environmental storytelling is also more successful in these sections. For example curious players hunting around in the area with the cylixes (themselves the first true canon representation of a concept seen in Cortana’s retelling of “Origins” in Halo Legends) are rewarded finding a protected Flood cylix hidden off the beaten path. Hanging back and letting dialogue play often triggers additional lines. Players who want to explore are generally rewarded.
The ending clearly aims squarely at replicating the end of Halo: Combat Evolved—the battle is won, but it is clear a larger war is still looming. The impact of the ending, however, feels a little blunted, both because in some ways it feels like we only get the opening acts of a story, and also because the focus on not alienating new players comes with drawbacks. Chief among them is Cortana’s goodbye—maybe this truly is the end of the character (The Weapon assuming her mantle aside) and if so, I can’t help but feel a little let down. Cortana’s actions are handwaved with an apology to Chief which feels sincere, but also feels like a narrative shortcut. Why did Cortana, so sure of her plan for the greater good one game ago, suddenly decide to change course? Her decision feels robbed of impact when we never see it besides scattered flashbacks and a glorified voicemail.
The ending also feels a bit too mysterious for its own good, throwing out a number of proper nouns and mysterious dialogue at the player, and not explaining next to any of it. While fans will have fun debating the nature of the Endless and how they may have survived the Halo Array’s activation, what exactly the Criterion is or who the Grand Edict is, where Atriox has been (no, he probably wasn’t sent back in time) it sometimes feels like a dash of the timid 343 of old, concerned about plotting too much without first gauging fan response. The mention of Offensive Bias in the closing Legendary narration, too, feels like a namedrop without context and robbed of its thematic resonance—the Forerunner AI built to fight Mendicant Bias has clear parallels to The Weapon and Cortana, yet is absent in this game, where it would be most appropriate.
Halo Infinite is intended to be the platform for the franchise going forward, which leaves the question of when we will have any answers for these questions up in the air. Hopefully, we will see 343 push forward with future campaign expansions on the Halo Infinite platform, and it won’t be another six years to wait for the next major story. The final shot of Chief, the Weapon, and Pilot ends with the Pilot cheerily saying “here we go!” underscored by a restatement of Martin O’Donnell’s Halo 2 “The Last Spartan” music cue—implying that there is, once again, a fight to finish, and hopefully it’ll be sooner than we think. With the universe irrevocably altered by the events of Infinite, it’ll be a treat to see what is in store next.
- Possible dates for the beginning of the 343 Era arguably stretch as far back as 2008, when the internal studio was getting up and running, to the official unveiling of 343 Industries alongside Halo Legends in July 2009. More common answers would be 343’s release of the Halo: Reach Title Update in September 2011, or the release of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary in November 2011. If your definition is solely major games released, then the Bungie era doesn’t end until Halo 4‘s anniversary in 2022. ↩
- Tom Phillips (April 26, 2017). “Halo 5’s lack of Master Chief was a ‘huge disappointment’, 343 admits“. Eurogamer. ↩