Halo Infinite’s campaign offers two distinct paths for players; it’s one of the biggest things setting the game apart from its predecessors. As I checked out a three-hour demo of the campaign, it was apparent that Master Chief’s newest adventure affords the option of a familiar action-packed “golden path.” Like nearly all previous Halo games, Infinite’s mostly linear main story playthrough aims to offer a satisfying and tightly paced adventure, a defined and engaging narrative, and clear objective markers that carry you to the subsequent big setpiece encounter. Based on the extensive demo I experienced, players looking for that classic Halo campaign structure won’t be disappointed.

However, the alternative path through the game sets Halo Infinite apart from what has come before. After an introductory sequence that establishes the gameplay and stakes of the story, Infinite opens up and allows for far more freeform exploration and progression than earlier games in the franchise. There’s a whole loop of character improvement, discoverable pick-ups, armor upgrades, and optional battles awaiting players who choose to stray from the main path. While the developers at 343 Industries continue to resist the term “open world” to describe the experience, there’s no doubt that what I witnessed borrows liberally from open-world trends in action and shooting games of the last decade. The difference, of course, is that those open areas are filled with the type of tense Halo gunplay and action the series has always been known for, and that makes all the difference.

One of the reasons Halo Infinite is not a traditional open world is the way it’s partitioned as you first emerge onto the surface of the Zeta Halo. Most open-world games give relative freedom to fully explore wherever you want to go, even if some areas might be especially challenging to confront early on. Instead, Infinite partitions its explorable content into specific areas, each filled with a bevy of encounters, a list of discoverable items to track down, and a defined zone of play. Players progress the story to unlock new areas and eventually return to previous locales to complete further exploration and conquests.

On the highest level, Master Chief is fighting back the forces of the Banished (a splinter faction that was once part of the Covenant) across the Zeta Halo, while rallying the UNSC forces that have crash-landed there after the devastating destruction crash of the UNSC Infinity. If that sounds like a familiar narrative loop, it should. 343 Industries has been open about how much Halo Infinite draws inspiration from the original Halo: Combat Evolved.

For players choosing to explore, the game accordions back and forth between large open areas, where you set the terms of the engagement, and more narrowly defined sequences that take you into the Halo’s interior – spaces the developers openly describe as dungeons. Together, the give and take between those expansive open areas and tighter interiors feels reminiscent of early games in the franchise, even if some of the activities you’re now pursuing are along the optional path to conquest and control of a zone.

To complete that part of his mission, Master Chief is on a continual battle for territory. While there are many moving parts to the conflict, the most crucial starting point in any new area is the local forward operating base, or FOB. These UNSC outposts have been overrun by the Banished, and players need to clear them out to retake the FOB. Upon regaining control, the tactical map updates with relevant nearby points of interest. In addition, the FOB becomes a fast travel point. Finally, control of a FOB transforms it into a resupply point, where you can fill up on ammo and requisition additional supplies, troops, and even vehicles.

The ability to call in the weapons or other aid you need is a gamechanger for letting you shape your approach to combat, but it’s not wholly freeform. Instead, players must build up a resource called valor, which determines which tier of items you can call down. Expect to do some groundwork first if you want to bring a Scorpion tank into your next sortie.

Valor is acquired from numerous activities around a given area. For instance, Banished propaganda towers can be destroyed to gain valor. Alternately, track down a squad of imprisoned UNSC marines, and rescue them to obtain valor. Activities like these fuel the expansion of your valor, and in turn, give you more options for requisitions at the FOB.

That’s not the only way you might acquire something new at a FOB resupply point. High-value targets allow for another fun diversion, leading to unique weapons you can’t acquire anywhere else in the game. We saw the battle against one high-value target named Okro’ Vagaduun, an Elite Blademaster who wields a special high-powered energy sword. If you track down his location on the tacmap, you can defeat him and pick up his sword. Completely clear out his cadre of troops along with him, and you can requisition the high-strength energy sword back at the FOB, bringing it with you into future battles. The game includes many named minibosses like this, each of which has a different piece to add to your growing arsenal.

You can also spend time in a given area tracking down discoverables, all of which serve different purposes. Audio logs are scattered across the Zeta Halo, each helping flesh out the story, including details of what happened to Captain Lasky and the rest of the UNSC Infinity’s crew. You may also want to try to hunt down the ever-elusive and gameplay-altering skulls, but like in previous games, they’ll be hard to find.

Another major discoverable item is Spartan Cores. These optional upgrades let you gradually improve your equipment. The major equipment for your armor is found along the critical path of play, but it might not be at its full potential when discovered. Spartan Cores can be used to improve your shield strength. Or you can enhance the new grappleshot, perhaps adding a voltaic shock that stuns enemies. Once you acquire the threat sensor equipment piece, you can use Spartan Cores to increase the number of deployable sensors you may put into the field at any given time. 

Whether it’s increased requisitions from your controlled FOBs, special weapons acquired through the defeat of high-value targets, or improved equipment from the Spartan Cores you’ve uncovered, your development of Master Chief’s options and power all feeds into increased options for the big fights you’ll have to confront. Beyond the activities already described, Halo Infinite also features numerous larger bases, some of which are mission-critical, and others of which you can optionally choose to try and conquer.

These major Banished structures are unique freeform encounters, built to let you take them on in a matter of your choosing and use the tools you’ve developed and advanced through exploration. The team at 343 Industries informally described these types of encounters as “super-soldier base assaults.” The idea is to provide the player broad freedom to take on a big multi-part battle. In one sequence, Master Chief loaded up a warthog with a selection of rescued marines and charged into the thick of a walled base. But as an alternative, he could have used the grappleshot to get to a good vantage point and opened the fight by sniping numerous targets before entering. In yet another option, he could use the grappleshot to go over the walls by himself at a less defended rear soft point and progress from there. Or perhaps he could have enough valor to call in a VTOL Wasp, and fly into the central tower from above. At the end of the base we saw, Master Chief ascended to a far upper floor and confronted a named (and stealth-hidden) Elite, adding punctuation to the end of this large-scale fight. These types of battles promise to be big and bombastic, especially when faced on higher difficulties. The potential for chaos and creativity is high.

After several hours with Halo Infinite, it’s clear 343 is trying new things, especially related to optional exploration and upgrades. But I was also surprised by the pacing and flow of battles, and how much they recalled the earliest games in the Halo canon. The flow of individual exchanges with the Banished enemies has that distinct “feel” of Halo encounters I remember facing in the early 2000s. It’s the mixing of that exciting combat loop with the more open-ended explorations that has me most excited about Halo Infinite. Even after just those few hours, it seems clear that this new juggernaut release will offer the most expansive and choice-driven Halo experience to date.

For more on Halo Infinite in the lead-up to its launch on December 8, don’t miss our dedicated cover story hub, and a growing collection of articles, interviews, and videos, by clicking on the banner below. 

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