I don’t really remember the first time I played Halo 3. It was sometime in 2007 or 2008, I’m sure, but that’s about all that’s stored in my memory banks. What I do remember is the game’s campaign and how I had no clue what was happening because Halo 3 was the first time I played a Halo game.
Halo 3‘s intro is still fresh in my mind, though — that solemn, short monologue from Cortana before Master Chief crashes into the ground. I remember a UNSC base being attacked by swarms of alien bugs that could be taken out with a single shot of a magnum, the death of the Prophet of Truth, and attacking Scarabs in the ruins of a port.
I played that game for the first time when I was 12, and yet those memories are still fresh in my head. They’re a testament to Halo 3‘s campaign and the genius set pieces that then-developer Bungie employed when putting it together. The same practice was used in just about every other Halo title Bungie worked on, but its peak was, undoubtedly, Halo 3.
Halo fans have been waiting for something else like Halo 3 since the game came out, a feeling that was only intensified when the Master Chief Collection reminded everyone that it’s the undisputed king of the franchise. And for some, 343 Industries’ Halo Infinite is that game — it’s the follow-up that so many people have been waiting for that jets the Halo franchise back to its prime.
The game is drawing enthusiastic comparisons to Halo 3, with fans calling it a return to form. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around that claim. Halo games aren’t just defined by their multiplayer components, which Infinite has admittedly nailed save for some quality of life aspects and the locking up of some standard customization options. What makes a Halo game stand out is its campaign. And Halo Infinite‘s campaign misses the point.
Halo games have, traditionally, been extremely linear in their campaigns. Players would go from one mission to the next, eliminating the Covenant as they progress through levels designed to keep the flow moving forward. And players would, like a shark, follow that route, never going back or looking around. While that kind of game design has seemingly fallen out of fashion now, Halo 3‘s campaign is still just as gripping as it was over a decade ago.
Besides just being a fun game, Halo 3, and the other Halo games that Bungie worked on, are set piece-driven. Players fight battles that are made memorable not by their enemies, but by where they’re fought. Take the game’s levels with the Flood, for instance. Fighting the zombie-adjacent group isn’t that special, but when you’re doing it through forerunner architecture after the Prophet of Truth is killed or in the desiccated insides of the Pillar of Autumn, it sticks with you.
Location, location, location is what makes a Halo game’s campaign feel complete, a rule that extends to so much sci-fi. When a game’s setting includes the far reaches of the universe, players shouldn’t just feel like they’re fighting on a slightly modified version of Earth. Diverse alien biomes are what make sci-fi games stand out and stick in our memories.
Halo Infinite‘s campaign suffers here; it’s visually unremarkable and its pacing is unfocused. By giving players freedom, there’s no more invisible hand guiding them toward the next fight in an exciting area. It’s a freedom I could’ve done without because it takes so much meaning out of everything. There’s no Pillar of Autumn to climb through, or massive forerunner spire to ascend.
Players are instead pointed to bases, all filled with the same objectives and the same enemies, and while past Halo games had a small cast of recurring antagonists, at least the battlefield would change. That’s not the case for Halo Infinite. The Zeta Ring is visually unremarkable, outside of its graphics that still look like a release from 2019. It’s filled with trees and cliffs, with smatterings of forerunner architecture, but fighting enemies on two opposite ends of its map doesn’t feel any different.
For example, I’ve just beaten one of Halo Infinite‘s mini-bosses, a Brute war chief who had a gravity hammer. I fought him inside the control center of some Banished mining operation. And that’s just dreadfully boring.
I haven’t beaten Halo Infinite yet, but I’m worried that when I do, I won’t remember a single thing. I won’t remember where I fought an iconic enemy, I won’t remember their name — I fear that nothing is going to stick with me. Halo Infinite‘s campaign, its unremarkable open world, and its litany of named aliens are all fleeting without spectacular landmarks to anchor them.
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