With the release of Halo Infinite looming, I decided to go back to where it all began. I purchased the Master Chief Collection and booted up Halo Combat Evolved. I’m a newbie when it comes to Microsoft’s first party titles. My only Halo experience involved getting my keister handed to me in local multiplayer with friends, or getting my hand held through couch co-op. I’ve always owned Sony consoles (still do), so I missed out on Halo, Gears of War, Forza, etc. Last fall, Microsoft announced they had agreed to purchase Zenimax. For those of you that don’t know, Zenimax is the parent company of Bethesda, who purchased iD Software back in 2009. The mad lads at iD are the creators of Doom and Quake and you best believe I’m not missing out on these if Microsoft decides they are going to be exclusive going forward. That left me with two choices, buy an Xbox or take out a second mortgage on a custom gaming PC. Your boy needs to move out of his condo at some point, so the budget made that decision for me. Series X acquired. Time to see what made the gameplay of Halo Combat Evolved so compelling. Does Infinite improve on these core pillars? Is it an evolution of the gameplay that so many grew to love, or has Halo iterated into something unrecognizable? Has 343 finally made a worthy Halo single player experience? BrendawnoftheDead here to take a deep dive.
*Disclaimer, I played through the Halo Combat Evolved anniversary edition on a Series X in 120hz mode. Infinite I played through in 4k 60fps because of a reported issue with VRR at launch. Both experiences were exceptionally smooth, the only frame rate dips I ever experienced came when reloading the skewer (no clue why, it doesn’t look like a terribly demanding animation). Both campaigns were played through on Heroic difficulty.
Halo Combat Evolved is known for how it “evolved” first person shooter combat. While it wasn’t the first FPS to come out for consoles, Halo was developed to be played exclusively with a controller. The two-weapon limit was put in place to avoid the clunky weapon cycling of its console port predecessors. Weapon wheels and time slowdown had not been used at this point, so this was Bungie’s work around. Using the left stick to move and the right stick to aim was a revolutionary idea back in 2001. These were the most copied features of Halo (unnecessarily so), but these are not what made Halo such a fun experience. The unique combat design is what other developers should have taken influence from, not the parts designed around console and controller limitations. Far too many games stuck to the two-weapon limit and regenerating health when they didn’t fit thematically and often hurt gameplay.
Halo Combat Evolved and Halo Infinite share the two-weapon limit system. Combat Evolved picks your starting two weapons at each level and killed enemies/ allies yield weapon pickups. The developers of Combat Evolved designed their combat encounters around this system. If you were going to encounter shielded enemies, plasma weapons would be found in the environment. Flood present? Here’s a shotgun with a lot of ammo, happy hunting. While you have complete freedom to pick up and drop weapons as you please, there is a reason why levels have specific weapons available in each section. This also allows developers to control the pacing and escalation of difficulty in battle. Enemy combinations can be chosen based on developers knowing the exact weapons available to the player. This keeps encounters feeling fresh, despite a somewhat limited weapon and enemy roster. Halo Combat Evolved can essentially push the player towards a certain style of gameplay. Infinite does this a little differently.
Halo Infinite is an open world game, and you can take whatever weapons you want into combat encounters. However, there is an excellent chance that you will not leave an arena with the same weapons that you entered it with. You can take a rocket launcher and a sniper into every level and decimate everything in the first part of the mission, but you can’t carry nearly enough ammo to sustain this. There are scattered ammo crates, but weapons have different ammo types and there is no guarantee that you will find ammo for your preferred weapon. Just like in Combat Evolved, you can take weapons from fallen enemies. You will do this frequently in the heat of combat due to this game’s ammo economy. There are weapon lockers everywhere on the Zeta Halo. This not only ensures that you won’t enter the next section with zero ammo, it also provides the player with a level of choice. Having trouble with shielded enemies and don’t like the plasma pistol? Take the plasma carbine right in front of the door. Need a way to stop a charging brute but the arena is too open for the shotgun you brought? Take this Mangler from the locker right when the fight starts and aim for the head! While this encourages player creativity, it does limit how effectively the developers can pace a battle. They have no real way of knowing exactly what weapons you will have at your disposal, so battles often come down to creatively finding your own solution rather than using one you’re guided to. This is evident in that most arenas contain every enemy type.
Which of the two is better in this respect? I don’t have an objective answer here because I don’t believe this to be an objective question. I prefer the structure of Combat Evolved and finding creative solutions with a given set of tools, but I don’t dislike the approach of Infinite either. Here's everything, find a way that demands that you improvise in chaos, which is a lot of fun too.
Halo Combat Evolved popularized regenerating health and Halo Infinite continues the legacy. I despise regenerating health in most shooters because it rewards lazy play and incentivizes hiding. You play just about every military shooter the exact same way. Run to cover, shoot a few times, hide behind cover as your health regenerates, shoot again, repeat. It gets really boring fast. I used to play ALL of these games on the easiest difficulty, not because they were hard, but because you could leave cover every once in a while without getting hit. Big game developers seemed to forget from 2006-2014 that moving around in games is rather fun. Thankfully, Combat Evolved isn’t a standard military shooter. The regenerating health makes you think tactically about how you approach fights and punishes you for playing stupid. You can’t just B-Line toward every enemy, you’ll get melted quickly. Master Chief is a super soldier, emphasis on soldier. He is not superman. Combat Evolved is a hard game, but a fair one. Nearly every enemy attack can be dodged, those that can’t have an obvious tell, giving you time to get to cover. When you get hit, it’s your fault and having to run for cover is your punishment. Infinite plays by the same rules here. The entire point of regenerating health was to stop the player from having to backtrack to find health and prevent you from entering a tough fight with zero health, not to make friends with every chest high wall you encounter. Halo succeeded in 2001 at this and did again in 2021.
So far, all I have done is explain how Halo integrates mechanics I generally dislike well. Not exactly a glowing endorsement. Halo stands the test of time because of the enemy design and their AI. Halo enemies will not just stand in front of you waiting to get shot. Self-preservation appears to be a priority for them. They will dodge your projectiles, jump away from grenades, run for cover, and even run away when all hope is lost (which is hilarious). Halo enemies are a lot like those in Doom. Each enemy is like a piece on a chess board. It has a defined role and move set and is especially effective when used in combination with different pieces. Grunts are like pawns; they are weak cannon fodder but can distract you and leave you open to greater threats. Some of them have plasma weapons which are especially effective against your shield, so you can’t just ignore them. Shielded Jackals have shields (no sh*t) that block non-plasma projectiles. They don’t move much, but they hold the line and harass you while other enemies attack and reposition. Elites come in a few flavors, but generally follow the same rules. They are essentially the queen in chess. They are both mobile and extremely deadly, at the top of the covenant food chain, but they have the same shield system as you do. If you know your own weaknesses, you know theirs too. Hunters are walking tanks, the flood are a charging horde, and the infected flood are basically World War Z zombies with guns. They charge hard and shoot a lot.
Many games have enemies with specific roles. While it certainly helps, that alone doesn’t make great enemy design. If you can efficiently kill every enemy the exact same way, it undermines their roles and can make the game rather repetitive. Combat evolved scores high marks in this regard. You can kill every enemy by just shooting it until it dies, but you will run out of ammo quickly and die often. Jackals die in a couple hits from anything but have shields, some of which are completely invulnerable to standard projectiles. Plasma will break the shield quickly, a fully charged shot will break it in one shot. Plasma grenades kill them even if their shields are up. If you are fast and in close quarters, you can melee or get behind them for a kill shot. Hunters have giant shields that cover most of their bodies. You can shoot around the shield, but this is easier said than done. Rockets are powerful enough to do massive damage to them, but rocket ammo is scarce. If you can get behind them, Hunters have no armor in the middle of their backs. You can even one shot them with a pistol or sniper rifle. They have a powerful melee attack, so this is not without risk. The flood enemies are more basic, but very aggressive. While you can kill them with just about anything, the assault rifle is best for crowd control of the flood horde. As for the infected, shogun time. You will be fighting these guys in close quarters whether you want to or not, so fight fire with fire. Lastly, you have the elites. All elites have shields, so that must be destroyed before you can kill them. A charged plasma round or grenade will do it in one shot, the grenade might even kill it outright, but they won’t sit still and let you do it. A shotgun blast will take out the shield too, but they absolutely will not just let you run up close to them unpunished. Elites have more agency than any other enemy, and you need to treat them accordingly. Set them up and bait them into favorable positions. Throw a grenade behind them, make them dodge forward right into your shotgun. Pepper them with the plasma pistol, charge it up as they duck for cover, fire as soon as they show themselves, switch weapons and go for the kill. Stick a grunt with a grenade and watch him run into the elite, have a good laugh as everything explodes. Change up your tactics and you will have much more success. Halo Infinite’s returning enemies follow the same rules as they did in Combat Evolved. There are no flood enemies, but there are brutes, jackal snipers, brute snipers, flying guys, heavy weapon guys with jetpacks, different variants of almost every enemy, mini bosses, and even “high value targets” which are slightly stronger versions of normal enemies that carry a special weapon. All enemies have weaknesses and some even have helmets that you can shoot off, leaving them open for a well-placed head shot kill.
Combat Evolved has fairly basic movement. You can run, jump, and duck. Advanced movement isn’t part of the combat puzzle here and it isn’t needed either. Infinite rejects this philosophy and gives you a mostly useless sprint, slide, and the ability to mantle. The crown jewel of Infinite’s movement is the grappling hook. I am on record saying that grappling hooks can improve everything, including Schindler’s List, and by gawd does it ever improve Infinite. Having successfully completed Doom Eternal on Ultra Nightmare, I’m more than comfortable with flinging myself up and over enemies to rain down hell, reposition to a more advantageous spot, get the eff away from a terrible situation, and play the floor is lava. Infinite’s grappling hook doesn’t give you armor, but it does stun enemies in place and let you hit them with a falcon punch for massive damage. You can even use it with just about any weapon equipped. The grappling hook can also latch on to explosive barrels, reel them in, and let you throw them at enemies like grenades, grab weapons from the environment, hijack vehicles, and be followed up with a bunny hop for an advanced movement speed boost. You can probably beat Infinite and ignore the grappling hook, but if you do, you’re playing this game wrong and are dead to me.
What fun would a first-person shooter be without guns that are fun to shoot? Combat Evolved has a pistol, assault rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, plasma pistol, plasma rifle, needler, plasma grenade, and frag grenade. All handle differently and unique utility. My favorite is the shotgun (duh) because it is absolutely devastating up close and very useful in the corridor sections. Halo Infinite has triple the amount of weapons, and they’re all fun when used correctly. As a relative newcomer to the series, I had no idea what most of the alien weapons did going into the game, but you have a lot of opportunities to try them all out. None are overly complicated and aren’t level based, this isn’t Borderlands (thank god). Describing them all in detail would take days, but my favorite Infinite weapon is not the shotgun, which was nerfed because there are many close quarters options. The Cindershot is a kind of power weapon that acts like an alien grenade launcher. It looks and feels awesome and is really fun to shoot off walls around corners. Reminds me of Quake but in space.
The last piece to the combat puzzle of these games is the sandbox. Both feature sections that have turrets in the environment, vehicles, and lots of different weapon variety to choose from. The point of this is player choice and potential for player expression. There’s your objective, find a way chief. I bring this up because of the vehicles and the open world of Infinite. In Combat Evolved, you’re powerful in a vehicle and unprepared enemies will have a hard time dislodging you. Because you can take a vehicle to most places in Infinite, you are much more vulnerable when you are in one. This isn’t Far Cry where you can cheese every encounter with a helicopter. Far more enemies have anti-vehicle weapons, and they are extremely accurate with them. So yes, vehicles are still fun, and no they absolutely do not break the game.
Halo Infinite looks like a bigger, better version of Combat Evolved on paper and in many ways it is. It expands upon previously established mechanics and meaningfully adds to the combat puzzle while retaining the classic Halo feel. As far as gameplay goes, Halo Infinite nailed it 10/10. Where Halo Infinite falters a little is in the open world design. I’m not a big fan of open world games, but that’s not why I’m knocking it here. The only reason a game should opt for an open world is if the world creates a sense of wonder and makes you want to explore it. In short, the world needs to have worthwhile things to discover. Infinite does not. Let’s look at Fallout 3 as a counterpoint. There are over a hundred different places to explore in Fallout 3 and most of them are interesting. There is a day and night cycle, the world appears to be lived in, and you stumble on things happening that have nothing to do with your actions. No two locations look the same and there are secrets within each. Each area unlocks at least one new quest, you find different enemy types based on the biome, and you want to explore every nook and cranny just to see what you might find. Halo Infinite has a few easter eggs and… well that’s it. The open world is just a big, mostly empty space to traverse. You will always find a fight and combat is excellent, but the world (while graphically beautiful) mostly looks the same. The forerunner installations might even be copy pasted, it’s hard to tell them apart. Much like Rage 2, I think a linear campaign or hub world design would have been a better choice. It quickly becomes very clear that Master Chief isn’t on the Zeta Halo to explore, so cut out the fluff. It’s not offensively bad, it just doesn’t add to the experience.
I don’t play video games for stories. I will never replay a game to experience a story a second time. If a game has a good story, it is a bonus for me. I really just need some context; monsters are bad and threatening life on Earth. Duke Nukem did this the best. The aliens stole the babies, now go save them with guns. Combat Evolved tells a self-contained sci-fi epic that seems small in scale at first but has universe impacting stakes by the end of it. Infinite mostly does the same thing, but you need to know some Halo lore to understand who the characters are. I’ve only ever played Combat Evolved so I had no idea who the banished were, but I had context. Scary aliens have bad intentions for humanity, good enough for me. Point is, Infinite’s story doesn’t hit the same high notes as Combat Evolved, but it doesn’t take away from the overall experience. The important parts are well spelled out and you can always Google anything else you want to know.
Halo Combat Evolved is a masterpiece. While it is not perfect or my favorite style of first-person shooter, I would give it a 10/10. Especially given how fun it is to play 20 years later. I would recommend it to anyone that likes first-person shooters or sci-fi epics. It is simply amazing that some old games hold up so well when they were made with such old technology. Game design and fun factor once again reign supreme.
Halo Infinite has some of the best moment to moment gameplay in the entire first-person shooter genre, and that’s what is important when rating a game. By that metric, Infinite is better than Combat Evolved, but in totality it is not a better game. Combat Evolved is a more structured experience with a better story and very little that wastes the player’s time. Infinite’s open world and similar looking environments prevent a perfect score, but they don’t ruin the experience by any means. Halo Infinite gets a 9/10 and I recommend it to everyone that plays games for moment to moment gameplay.