(Pocket-lint) - When Xbox unleashed its two next-gen machines in the winter of 2020 - the Xbox Series X and Series S - they were meant to be accompanied by its premiere games franchise. Think Xbox, you think Halo - and the latest outing for Master Chief was to be the launch game to set the stall perfectly.
Things don't always go to plan, however. Like many games during the ongoing pandemic, Halo Infinite was delayed - by a year, no less. And, its absence left the Xbox consoles without a truly big flag to wave as the new generation began.
Still, good things come to those who wait, as they say, and the latest Halo has finally arrived in two separate parts. First, we were treated to season 1 of a free-to-play multiplayer beta, which is already gaining plaudits for its back to basics gameplay and sheer sense of fun (if you want to know exactly what it's like you can simply download it and play - it won't cost you a penny).
Now we have the Campaign mode, a standalone game that features the biggest story of the series, plus a whole load more, and that's what we'll mainly concentrate on in this review.
The campaign trail
The Campaign is a great throwback to Halo games of yesteryear. After the impressive but convoluted Halo 5, Infinite returns to more traditional tropes. The story is unashamedly focused on Master Chief - there's none of the team hopping shenanigans from Guardians to be found here - and there are so many nods to Halo 1 & 2 that it feels like a slice of retro gaming heaven at times.
It is set shortly after the events of Halo 5, but starts with Chief coming to a seemingly sticky end at the hands of Atriox, the leader of the Banished and main protaganist in Halo Wars 2.
Once saved and awakened, the action locates to a partly destroyed Zeta Halo that is now overrun by the aforementioned Banished and you take Chief on a massive quest to find out what happened to the ring, your UNSC colleagues and, perhaps most importantly, the rogue AI Cortana. You'll first undergo a couple of linear story missions that take upwards of a couple of hours to complete, then the game's developer, 343 Industries, throws one of its first major amendments to the game - an open-world landscape.
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In many ways, this feels like 'Far Cry Halo'. The original Halo games did have some larger areas you could traverse in a Warthog, say, but Infinite takes things to a whole new level. It has major story missions that occur in a linear fashion, but there are plenty of side missions, FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) to takeover, pockets of USNC soldiers to rescue, and more besides.
There's a point to them too, as the completion of optional quests can earn you valor points or Spartan cores, with the latter spendable on upgrades to Chief's abilities, while the former can earn you extra items or squad members to pick up at FOBs.
There are plenty of extra opportunities for bonuses across the vast map too, which you often find by literally running into them either on foot or in one of the classic vehicles drawn from Halos of yore. And there are also targets to be sought and eliminated who reward you unique weaponry. Of course, you could play the entire Campaign by just heading from one story point to another, but that would not only be a shame, you'll miss out on boosting your character to the max in the process.
By adopting a more Ubisoft-like approach, 343 Industries gives you much more of a free rein and greatly expands the play time. We spent hours simply finding and taking out targets, for example, between story missions. And when the gameplay is as smooth and fun as this, we suspect you'll end up taking your sweet merry time too.
Grapple with this
We're not sure if it's just rose tinted glasses, but we loved the more simple first-person shooter action of the first few Halo games to 4 and 5, so Halo Infinite ticks all the right boxes for us.
It is slick and almost basic at times, with the series' trademark two main weapons able to be carried at a time. They are all also as familiar as they are fun, and as plentiful as we've always remembered. You might run out of ammo often, but there's always a new gun around the corner - whether that's having been dropped by one of the Banished, or in a rack hidden around a pillar. Ammo stations for different weapon types are also readily available.
This isn't a game that's necessarily about ammo management and survival, it's about big, bombastic battles and gives you the tools to enjoy yourself.
Master Chief does have a few new tricks up his sleeve though - one, literally. Throughout the story, you will find dead Spartans next to whom will be add-ons to your featurset. These include a bonus to your shields, a thruster boost, and a threat sensor that shows up enemies on your mini-map. However, the best of the upgrades is actually already established from the start - the Grappleshot.
It effectively enables Master Chief to hook onto objects and platforms a short distance away and either bring them closer or propel him upwards. This adds even more verticality to combat and exploration and is a great addition. It can also, like any of the discovered new abilities, be upgraded further as the game progresses (by using the aforementioned Spartan cores).
The other benefit to this is that you get to choose the type of Master Chief you want to play. You can upgrade the abilities that best match your own style, and therefore you feel an extra layer of freedom even on top of the open-world map.
What's perhaps most impressive is that 343 has managed to implement these fairly weighty new features without losing the essence of Halo. They enhance rather than change the experience - and the end result is a joy to play.
That is also partly thanks to the graphical performance - especially on Xbox Series X.
Both the Series X and S versions ship with performance and quality modes. In the case of the S, the quality mode seems to run with a slightly higher resolution (we're guessing 1440p but can't be 100 per cent certain) but at 30 frames per second. In performance mode, it runs at 60fps with a slightly reduced resolution. There really is no comparison and running the game in the latter mode is a must.
It gets more interesting on Xbox Series X. Its quality mode is, we believe, rendered in full 4K and is crisp and detailed as a result. It also runs in 60fps, so you get the best of both worlds. However, if you own a 120Hz TV (such as the Philips OLED806 we used) you might want to check out the performance mode instead. Again, the resolution drops (to what exactly, we're not quite sure yet) but you end up with 120fps.
That presents an experience smoother than a naked mole rate sliding down a greased pipe. It is buttery smooth and ultra-responsive. It still looks great too, especially when confined in a starship or underground installation, where metallic objects glisten. But then, 60fps is more than good enough for many and the extra detail is noticeable. It's a tough decision, but at least you have the option and can adjust easily using in-game settings to see which you prefer.
We must also give a big shout-out to the sound too. It's cinematic and bold, with Dolby Atmos support if you have a compatible system.
By introducing a large, open-world map and extra abilities for Master Chief, 343 Industries has given Halo new impetuous. But, it has also added them with respect for the old too.
In all honesty, Halo 5: Guardians was a game of its time - big, brash and mainly focused on set pieces and action. It was like a blockbuster movie, but perhaps veered from the franchise's roots a little too much. Halo Infinite, on the other hand, is much more like it.
It evokes memories of playing Halo for the first time: of flipping a Warthog and laughing as your accompanying soldiers are left languishing on their heads; or the awe of seeing the Halo itself stretch upwards into the daylit sky.
That's what's important and why this flagship Xbox exclusive has been well worth the wait. It's the game that will drive sales of the Xbox Series X (when stock is available) and, as yet another saying goes, it's proof positive that such things are always better late than never.