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The ‘Halo Infinite’ campaign is the closest to perfection in 20 years

(The Washington Post illustration; Microsoft/Xbox Game Studios; iStock)

After 20 years, “Halo Infinite” finally realizes the dream of the first game. Like 2001’s “Halo: Combat Evolved,” the latest campaign can be replayed in thousands of different ways, with far fewer boundaries than ever before in the most expansive setting in Halo’s history.

After previous entries plunged the series into heartbreak and bitter betrayal, “Infinite” is a homecoming to the emotional core of the series: protagonist Master Chief’s endless determination to finish fights and spout rousing one-liners, paired with a plucky, flirtatious artificial intelligence partner named The Weapon. Finally, a Halo experience once again remembers that the player is not meant to look into Master Chief’s eyes, purposely anonymous, hidden behind his visor helmet; we are meant to look through them.

By empowering the player in its themes as well as its liberating gameplay, “Infinite” is the closest to perfection the series has achieved. Together, these design decisions revive the childlike heart and sense of adventure lost in the Halo series over the years, even in the later titles under original developer Bungie. Once again, Halo feels like the greatest playset of digital toy soldiers ever. I imagine what my boyhood would be like if I were able to conjure Tonka trucks on a whim. If I want to explore the world map of Zeta Halo with a tank or rotor-powered plane, “Infinite” is there to fulfill my wishes.

Evoking a childlike joy in play is a tricky proposition for a video game. As a child, your imagination is infinite. To evoke this sense of limitless creativity, play can’t be limited to one mode of expression. “Halo Infinite” understands this (if you couldn’t already tell by the name). Conquering bases around the map can be tackled with any method available in the game’s tool kit, including ignoring them altogether. Even after completing the main story, which took about 12 hours, I was told I had completed only about 35 percent of the game, with hours of gameplay possibilities left to explore on the map.

It’s not as if “Halo Infinite” requires players to discover any of its secrets. Dozens of audio logs scattered across the map detail what’s happened during the more than year-long gap between “Halo 5: Guardians” and Master Chief’s former AI partner Cortana’s betrayal of the human race. The player will uncover the truth of this mystery on their own.

And there is so much to discover. Even after playing for hours after the campaign ended, I still had not found a single skull, hidden gameplay modifiers that have always played a large part in the replay values of traditional Halo games. I had also not found all the Spartan Cores, other collectibles that further enhance Master Chief’s abilities. Instead, I focused every Core I did find on boosting the game’s grappling hook, its greatest innovation to the sandbox. When fully upgraded, Chief can reel himself toward a target with an explosive dive kick, making him more of an offensive, destructive force than ever before.

There is no resource gathering, which often slows down progression in other open-world games. It’s up to the player to decide how fast or slowly they want to finish “Infinite’s” story or explore its world. Perhaps the biggest disappointments among the world’s secrets are its Armor Lockers, which house rewards for “Infinite’s” multiplayer mode. After opening most of them in the game, I was only given emblems and stickers for armor, vehicles and weapons. It would’ve been a nice investment incentive for players of the free-to-play mode to buy into the campaign for more valuable rewards like solid armor plating, but the build I played held few.

But the gameplay is the focal point, and flowing between the story and the campaign feels seamless. After liberating a towering alien structure, its titanic doors would yawn open to remind the player that they are still fighting in its open world. Instead of previous games where you would watch Chief triumphantly fall back to the ground like a brick, “Halo Infinite” lets you live that moment almost every time the opportunity presents itself.

In fact, the game lets you live and relive the best moments of the Halo series whenever you want, whether it’s playing getaway driver for a botched base attack, a pilot abandoning ship after an impromptu dogfight, falling from the air to strike at enemies below with a hammer like Thor, or being the platoon leader of a ragtag group of soldiers cautiously navigating Zeta Halo’s vast, Pacific Northwest-inspired forests.

While none of the side objectives are necessary, liberating bases and saving soldiers around Zeta Halo will populate the world with more soldiers. As the campaign wore on, outposts at crossroads would crop up, complete with Marines chipper that the Master Chief is back again to restore some hope to a losing fight. These Marines contribute to a sense that there’s a desperate ongoing battle that’s been waiting for you, the player, to help tip the scales.

The Banished, space pirates exiled from the religious Covenant that plagued the series before, are a formidable, terrifying force in gameplay. The first Halo game was a moonshot ahead of so many other first-person shooters at the time, and even by today’s standards, the 2001 enemy AI still runs laps around modern games. After the last two Halo games constrained the AI in favor of fidelity in visual presentation, “Infinite” restores the smarts that made the series’s enemies so memorable in the first place, with classic enemy types employing new classes, such as shielded, speedy Jackals and armored Grunts.

The enemies have more personality than ever before, not just in tactics and animation but in audio feedback too. When I fight one of the many optional field bosses in the game with a Ghost hovercraft, a Brute bellows at me to face him like a true warrior. When I flee a battle to regroup, they call me a coward. When I careen toward the enemy in an aircraft, Banished troops call out my vehicle name and position. An entire base might panic at my arrival, firing up in frenzy with red flashing lights and screeching sirens.

The larger boss encounters are also a success. The series has struggled in making climactic boss fights, but the fights in “Halo Infinite” feel like a dance against similarly skilled and adept opponents, with regenerating shields like the Chief’s along with move sets that force the player into hiding and evasive maneuvers using the grappling shot or the new thruster dodges. Even on normal difficulty, these fights will take some replays, as they can easily overwhelm the player in their aggression.

There are two possible disappointments with the campaign. First, there is indeed a lack of biome diversity, as some fans feared based on early previews. In terms of lore, Zeta Halo is the largest and most ancient of the ringworlds in the series. In terms of game design, “Infinite” is also the largest a Halo game has ever been. Still, players are restricted to one portion of the ringworld, largely peppered with trees similar to those you’d find in the Pacific Northwest, along with swamps and mountains. While all these locations vary in many ways when it comes to scale, they almost always retain the same aesthetic. Fortunately, the game’s many cavernous interior areas add some variety. Sadly, although they remind you of some of the best linear levels of “Halo 2,” these interiors aren’t as remarkable and may fade from memory once you return to Zeta Halo’s sprawling open world.

Speaking of Zeta Halo’s historical significance to the story, the plot of “Halo Infinite” is light on details. By being a series reboot, “Halo Infinite” eschews the moral grays of the last two games in favor of centering the Master Chief once more as the last great hope.

“Infinite” is better for its decision to focus on the Master Chief’s wary new partnership with The Weapon, a copy of Cortana that was assigned to counter her insurgence against the humans. If the first three Halo games can be described as a love story between a cyborg and AI, and the next two games are the disintegration of that relationship, “Halo Infinite” is a story about healing wounds from a lingering lost love. In a sense, it’s a story about getting over and moving on from a bad breakup. The Chief is even wary about joking around her, let alone trusting her with his life. “Infinite” is about how these two are able to work together despite that baggage.

Fair warning, though: Anyone who’s read the Halo books or knows the franchise’s mythology extensively may walk away from “Infinite’s” campaign surprised and a bit let down. On the other hand, there are many who would cheer this decision, myself among them. As the story ended, my mind raced with possibilities about how it might continue further, with “Halo Infinite” as an evolving platform (likely in the form of future paid downloadable content). With only a slice of the ringworld explored, the opportunity exists for new biomes and alien structures to be featured later, as well as further exploration of Zeta Halo’s secrets.

While it’s disappointing that the game couldn’t cover more ground on Zeta Halo, it’s worth noting that this is the first time since “Halo 3” in 2007 that I’m excited and curious about the future of the franchise. And like I have with the best Halo games, the campaign of “Halo Infinite” is an experience I look forward to revisiting for decades.