Unfinished Business is NME’s new column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane reconciles with PC Gaming’s greatest traitor in Halo Infinite.
I‘ve never really liked Halo that much. As a stubborn PC gamer who grew up on a diet of Quake and Half-Life and Unreal Tournament, I’ve always viewed Master Chief as that little rat bastard that stabbed PC gaming in the back to put the Xbox on the silicon throne. It’s the Roose Bolton of games. You might argue that, come on, Rick, this happened twenty years ago, to which all I have to say is: “The North remembers”. Besides, let’s face it, Combat Evolved is hardly the best FPS ever made. Sure, it had some nice visuals and a pleasingly flexible combat system, but the level design sucked, and the weapon handling simply doesn’t compare to the shooters of id and Valve.
So hopefully you’ll understand how galling it is for me to admit that Halo Infinite might, might, be great. It has everything that was always good about Halo‘s multiplayer, namely that fluid sandbox vibe and less need for a laser-guided wrist compared to, say, Call of Duty. But everything about it feels grounded and modern and tighter than spandex for mice.
Infinite‘s multiplayer is roughly split between two key categories, Arena and Big Team Battle. The former is classic small-scale multiplayer, with 4v4 teams gunning about cramped and mazey maps. Big Team Battle, by comparison, is classic Halo multiplayer, offering large-outdoor maps, 24 players, and a mixture of outdoor and vehicle combat. Within each of these categories are a range of different game modes, such as Slayer (deathmatch), Capture The Flag, and so forth.
I’m not going to go through the pros and cons of every mode, because it would be a waste of 800 words. But there is one new mode I want to highlight, and that’s Stockpile. Stockpile sees player scavenging Halo‘s Big Team Battle maps for “Charge seeds”, which need to be collected and returned to your base to charge it up. Picking up a charge seed means you can’t use your weapon, but you can toss charge seeds to other teammates. Meanwhile charge seeds can also be stolen from enemies at any point even when plugged into their base. The result is an intriguing hybrid between a relay-race and the innovative Half-Life mod Science and Industry, a chaotic and cheeky scavenger hunt across the map.
Whether you prefer the purity of the Arena or the unpredictability of Big Team Battle, what holds true across both rosters is that the combat feels sublime. 343 Industries has done fantastic work making Infinite feel more tactile and physical, giving some of its most iconic weapons and vehicles careful but necessary makeovers. The Warthog’s handling, for example, is slicker and more responsive, feeling less like pushing around a shopping trolley with a minigun on it. The Assault Rifle, meanwhile, has had its rate of fire reduced and its stopping power increased, making it a reliable mid-range weapon rather than something you feel obliged to dump at the first opportunity.
You’ll be tempted to dump it anyway, however, simply due to the sheer range of fun and eclectic weaponry on offer. I’m particularly partial to running with the VK47 Commando and the Hydra. The former is a more tactical assault rifle with a smaller clip and heavier rounds, punching through shields like a medieval Mike Tyson. The latter is a hybrid between a large-calibre rifle and a rocket launcher, firing high-velocity explosive rounds that are great for quickly turning vehicles into smouldering piles of metal.
The whole thing feels purpose built for shenanigans, with every Big Team Battle match seeing all the different moving parts combining in intriguing ways. The first time you blow up a Warthog filled to capacity with enemy players, or combine the grappling hook with the grav hammer to zip around pasting enemies like the offspring of Thor and Spider-Man, is incredibly satisfying. I also like the various announcements that sound whenever you do something cool. It has strong shades of Unreal Tournament, and any game that reminds me of good times playing UT is doing something right.
The main problem with Infinite‘s multiplayer is its approach to progression. Unlike Call of Duty: Vanguard, which basically rewards you XP for moving in a straight line, gaining experience in Halo Infinite is tied to completing specific challenges, such as destroying a particular vehicle for the first time. I can see where 343 were going with this, giving players the chance to chase their own objectives within Halo‘s chaotic sandbox. But the way it’s structured makes it feel less like a chance and more like an obligation, and it’s frustrating when you have a storming round and the XP bar ticks up by nanometres.
Still, Infinite‘s multiplayer has the potential to be big, and not simply because it’s Halo and there hasn’t been one for over half a decade. With Call of Duty having an also-ran 2021, and Battlefield 2042 being rejected by its community like a botched lung transplant, Halo Infinite feels fresh and vigorous, a colourful and effervescent slice of sci-fi murdertime that may well put that chrome-plated Judas Master Chief at the top of the multiplayer leaderboards.