Last week, on the 20th Anniversary of both the original Xbox console and its most celebrated launch title, Halo: Combat Evolved, the Halo franchise officially entered uncharted waters with the public stealth drop of its long-awaited, free-to-play multiplayer component. Never before in the history of the franchise has a new entry seen its multiplayer completely decoupled from the release of its story campaign (which in the case here, as Halo Infinite is set to drop on December 8th).
With the recent announcement that franchise staples such as online co-op and split-screen co-op in Campaign Mode as well as offline, local multiplayer options have all been delayed to May 2022 at the earliest. Halo fans who value those components still have a long wait ahead of them. Even farther afield is the eventual release of the latest incarnation of Forge, the franchise’s custom level-creation mode, which, according to developer 343i, won’t arrive for an additional 3 months after the addition of campaign co-op. Taken on the whole, Halo Infinite’s overall release is already fated to be the most fractured in franchise history.
The good news, however, is that Halo Infinite Multiplayer is ‘effing good. Certainly, good enough at the very least to whet the appetites of franchise veterans and newcomers alike until Master Chief’s search for Cortana continues this December, and hopefully for many months and years afterwards. Whether it will manage to keep the majority of those players fully engaged in the franchise once they’ve rolled the campaign credits in Legendary co-op many months from now remains to be seen, but like it or not, Halo Infinite Multiplayer has become its own thing, and it’s here right now.
“Halo Infinite Multiplayer is ‘effing good.”
That isn’t to say that there’s no connection between Halo Infinite’s campaign and multiplayer. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as multiplayer technically offers up a campaign mode of its own disguised as an inoffensively brief tutorial called “Academy.” In the tutorial, players are introduced to Commander Agryna, a battle-hardened Spartan whose main role is running the facility that will train and produce the next generation of Spartans.
The only details Agryna can provide on the whereabouts of Master Chief is that he, along with the UNSC Infinity and the Halo Ring on which they were stationed, have all mysteriously disappeared, and it’s up to the player to train and prepare for the eventual outcome of…whatever, I guess. The premise is a bit vague, but it’s just the right amount of info to pique the interest of players regarding the upcoming campaign while also driving home the message that the only thing players should concern themselves with at Spartan Academy is “gettin’ gud.”
What I immediately found myself enjoying about Academy is how it provides all the tools necessary to do just that, while having an absolute blast in the process. Beyond the Tutorial Mode, Academy provides immediate access to two features Weapon Drills and Training mode.
Weapon Drills is a score-and-tier-based firing range mode in which players can practice and gain proficiency with every weapon in the game. Training Mode is, in essence, a single-player version of the game’s Custom Match Mode. Here, just about any element of the match, such as game rules, starting primary and secondary weapons, starting equipment, bot AI difficulty, etc., can all be tweaked to the player’s liking from the pause menu on the fly, without needing to return to the customization menu.
Moreover, while previous Halo franchise entries have all offered robust custom match modes, Halo Infinite’s addition of Weapon Drills and AI bots are both much-welcomed franchise-firsts and MAJOR game-changers.
With immediate, unrestricted access to every weapon, as well as tiered challenges designed to assist players in improving their accuracy against stationary and mobile targets, the Weapon Drills mode eliminates any excuse for players with poor gunplay. More importantly, it can painlessly assist in improving the proficiency of said players even with the weapons that they initially don’t like, making them a force to be reckoned with during live matches regardless of what weapons happen to be at their disposal.
Meanwhile, Halo Infinite’s bots, which come in four flavours of difficulty (Recruit, Marine, ODST and Spartan), finally make it possible for players to approximately replicate the chaotic conditions and challenges of a live match in any game type without needing any other players to fill the lobby. The difficulty and number of bots can be dialed back or ratcheted up as one wishes should the player wish to explore every nook and cranny of the map or, alternatively, create one’s personal match-from-hell.
“I could spend pages talking about how good playing Halo Infinite Multiplayer looks and feels.”
Moving on from Academy to Multiplayer proper, the live portion of the game features four modes: Bot Bootcamp (4-Player Team vs AI Bots), Quick Play (4 on 4 PvE), Big Team Battle (12 on 12 PvE on large-scale maps with vehicles) and Ranked Arena (a variety of competitive modes where players start with Battle Rifles, no radar, and can progress their rank). Over the course of the past week, I’ve dabbled in all four modes, and I have to admit that I’ve had an immense amount of fun with all of them. Overall, finding full matches was hardly ever a problem.
I could spend pages talking about how good playing Halo Infinite Multiplayer looks and feels, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll just say that in terms of controls and gunplay it combines all the best elements of my favourite entries in the series (Halo: CE through Halo 3), wisely steals and improves upon the clamber, slide and boost abilities of Halo 5, and visually retcons the impressive graphical fidelity of Halo 4 into a style that pays touching homage to the earlier entries.
Running on the Xbox Series X in 4K 120fps mode, gameplay is incredibly smooth and responsive, and there were only a few occasional matches in which I clearly remember experiencing lag (e.g., an opponent disappearing and reappearing a short distance away to get the drop on me).
The ten multiplayer maps currently available are fantastic overall, though it will probably take some time for me to truly fall in love with some arenas as much as others have grabbed me. The maze-like, clamber-friendly maps like Streets, Bazaar, Aquarius and Live Fire best support intimate game modes like Team Slayer, Oddball, Total Control, etc., and are well-suited to my style of play, where I am constantly on the move with the aim of flanking and outwitting stronger, better-armed opponents or quickly escaping firefights when outmatched only to circle back once my armour has regenerated.
Larger, more open maps like Behemoth and Fragmentation entertainingly lend themselves well to Capture the Flag and are reminiscent of my favourites from Halo: CE, like Blood Gulch and Sidewinder. On the other hand, my least favourite maps were ones better suited to precise long-range enthusiasts, like Recharge and Deadlock, which provide long unobstructed sight lines for camping snipers. That said, I’ve started to dedicate the first 20 to 30 minutes of each session in Training Mode, specifically on maps that give me the most trouble and, naturally, I’ve found just getting to know each of them just a little better alleviates much of that frustration.
“All the favourite power weapons are still there in one form or another.”
The same goes for the over 20 distinct types of weapons and other ordinances. For just about every classic or classic-inspired weapon like the M40 Automatic Rifle, MK50 Pistol sidearm, and BR75 Battle Rifle, there’s a shiny new and different weapon to play around with, like the enemy-disintegrating Heatwave and the one-hit vehicle-destroying Skewer.
All the favourite power weapons are still there in one form or another. Several of the newer weapons provide more options to address balancing issues from previous games, such as the new Disruptor pistol and Shock Rifle being able to temporarily disable pesky vehicles similarly to the classic Plasma Pistol, in addition to being able to cause damage to multiple enemies grouped close together through chained electricity AOE damage. Players may not like some of these weapons at first, but once again, time spent with them in Weapon Drills and Training Mode can turn any of them into potential favourites.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to discuss how much the return of limited-use, procure-on-site equipment such as the all new Grappleshot, Repulsor (think Jedi force-push) and Threat Sensor as well as classic and returning Halo 3 and 4-inspired tools like the Drop Wall, Thruster, Overshield and Active Camouflage spice up the action. Halo is hardly the first modern first-person shooter to include a grappling hook (Far Cry 3 and Dying Light both say hello), but I can’t think of a single one that allows the player to use it in so many inventive ways.
“Finally, a well-deserved shout out must be given to 343i’s addition of customizable AI assistants.”
Players can pull weapons towards them from midair, hook and pull themselves towards enemies to deliver a potentially fatal melee attack, latch onto enemy vehicles to hijack them, do the same to an unoccupied or friendly vehicle with an empty seat to get on board (even in midair), and so much more. Yes, all the crazy stuff you see in the trailers is legit.
When used correctly, equipment like the Grappleshot can turn the tables on an opponent or even turn the tide of the entire match, and with equipment spawn points in multiple places on the map as well as recoverable drops from the bodies of fallen Spartans, there’s no shortage of chances for players to pick them up.
Finally, a well-deserved shout out must be given to 343i’s addition of customizable AI assistants. Not only do these virtual on-board sidekicks cheer on the player for their prowess on the battlefield and add a dash of humour and personality to the proceedings with the occasional awkward joke, but they also provide critical real-time intel pertaining to both the map and match to inform players where they should go or what they should focus on next.
To be blunt, the one big negative of Halo Infinite Multiplayer is an inevitable necessity for the success of its Free-to-Play model, which is the Battle Pass. In fact, I feel guilty about even griping about it. What we have here is arguably the best-ever iteration of Halo multiplayer, easily the best I’ve ever had the opportunity to personally experience, and it’s absolutely FREE for anyone to play on PC or any Xbox Console, even without an Xbox Game Pass subscription (and also available via Cloud on PC and mobile if you have Xbox Game Pass Ultimate).
“Halo Infinite Multiplayer is the best iteration I’ve played since the original Halo: CE and Halo 2“
It seems more than reasonable for 343i to offer an optional $13 CAD Battle Pass per season that never expires and allows players to pursue unlocking what is basically cosmetic content and temporary XP boosts at their leisure, or alternatively purchase other content bundles on the in-game storefront, no? Anyway, with Season One (themed after the Heroes of Reach, very tempting) now having been extended to May 2022, I either have a lot of time to think about making the purchase, or a long time to resist.
If the above praise hasn’t made my position clear, from a gameplay standpoint, Halo Infinite Multiplayer is the best iteration I’ve played since the original Halo: CE and Halo 2, and even though we’re barely into Season One I’m even willing to argue that that it’s the definitive one.
It’s my hope that the “Infinite” in the game’s title suggests that 343i might steal a page a from Call of Duty: Warzone’s playbook, and expand upon the adventures of Master Chief and his compatriots with Spartan Ops-style episodic content, but even if they don’t, the base package as it stands is an experience that no self-respecting Halo fan dare miss, especially when the cost-barrier to entry is next to non-existent.
Squad up Spartans, I’ll be seeing you on the battlefield.