It's hard out here for a Warthog driver. In my first few hours of exploring Halo Infinite's Zeta Halo ring I kept wandering away from my next mission to find little pockets of Banished to shoot or towering columns of hexagons to grapple climb. This open world ring feels like a Halo built specifically for fans like me, who loved the vehicle-heavy missions in Bungie's games. Those Bungie missions threw you into big levels, usually with freeform objectives, and said: Go nuts. I felt some of that old joy, a joy I never really got from Halo 4 or Halo 5, when I leapt off a cliff, grappled onto an Elite's Ghost in mid-air, and used it to run over all his Grunt underlings.
It's good Halo—but it's not the best Halo, because I was stuck doing it alone.
I long for another cold, seven-foot-tall armored body riding along in my Warthog. My mind soars at the hijinks two (or four!) Spartans could get up to armed with grappling hooks. I'm curious how much more ridiculous Halo Infinite's biggest firefights could get if they're scaled up for a full squad. And after spending a few hours with the open world, I almost want to throw away my save and start all over again when I can do it co-op.
Though I've spent thousands of hours playing competitive Halo multiplayer with the same group of friends for 15 years now, Peak Halo to me is still campaign co-op. We've played them so many times over the years. Sometimes we'd rush through a full campaign just to relive our favorite moments, like Halo 1's sprawling, snowy Assault on the Control Room or Halo 3's battle against two giant Scarab walkers. Other times we'd pick a mission to tackle with game modifying skulls like Catch enabled, which makes the Covenant pelt you with a nonstop barrage of grenades. My favorite memories, though, are from when we'd get in a group chat and just mess around in the sandbox. We could spend an hour trying to rocket jump a Mongoose onto one of those Scarabs just for the hell of it.
Bungie's games weren't open world, but their best levels (and Halo's goofy physics) encouraged sandbox player expression. For me they really came alive in co-op, where time spent messing around with a stupid 'could this possibly work?' goal never felt like a waste when I was hanging with a friend.
Infinite is the first game in Halo's history without co-op (well, aside from mobile spin-off Spartan Strike). Even the RTS Halo Wars games recognized that co-op is as much a part of Halo as the Warthog or Elites saying wort wort wort. Infinite will have co-op eventually, but it looks like it won't arrive until at least May 2022. That really stings, but once you've played Infinite, it's easy to guess how much more complicated getting co-op to work must be this time around.
Old Halo games would aggressively teleport stragglers up to the lead player every time they triggered a checkpoint. In Halo Infinite, the primary story missions take you out of the open world into self-contained spaces, but everything else is just out there waiting for you to discover it. How far apart should two players be able to get from one another? Can the game logic handle two players attacking a base full of Banished while two others are attacking another base across the map, with more enemies spawning in at each location?
Does each player earn campaign progress in the open world, which includes permanently taking back overrun UNSC safe zones and killing off high-ranking Banished targets? Or does only the host get that progress? If we just want to replay specific story missions, will there be a menu that lets us do that? (There isn't one, right now).
The answer to each of these basic questions is probably a lot more complicated and a lot more work than we'd expect, judging by how long it seems like it will take developer 343 to implement a Slayer-only playlist in multiplayer.
According to 343 creative lead Joseph Staten, Infinite's co-op is actually playable already internally, but with more work yet to go.
"We don't just want to ship a campaign co-op that barely works. We want to ship a campaign co-op that's stable, that's robust, that has the features players expect," Staten told Eurogamer in November. "We're also doing some other things that we haven't talked about yet to really make meeting up with your friends, and you're jumping into the game, good just not for campaign, but even better for multiplayer, too. So when it comes to shipping campaign co-op, we have a lot of other things that are kind of branches off that central trunk of campaign co-op that we think are an opportunity to just improve the whole game experience."
Staten also reiterated that 343 is "making really good progress," and said that "campaign co-op is as fun to play as it's ever been" and "maybe even more so in this new style of game." Of course that's what he would say—he's not going to say it's less fun than the Halos of old—but I think he might be right. Unfortunately I don't think Infinite has any truly standout missions that compete with Bungie's best, but it does have a huge playground that offers more opportunity than ever to create those fun moments yourself.
As Nat said in her review, the shooting in Infinite's is the best Halo's ever felt. The grappling hook is an absolute joy. Halo's combat has always been defined by its possibility space, all the expected and unexpected interplays between shooting and movement and vehicular chaos and how enemies react. Infinite's open world makes that possibility space far bigger than it's been before, but it feels like there's no way to truly take advantage of it solo.
When I grapple over the wall of a Banished base, I want to open the gate so my friends can come tearing in with a Warthog's gun already spinning up. When I play by myself I can coax a couple marines into the Warthog, park it outside the base, and get over the wall… but even if I manage to open the gate, they're not smart enough to drive inside themselves. I have to make a bashful retreat, get back in the hog, and honk the horn until they mount up again. So much for the element of surprise.
Halo Infinite's open world side missions are fairly simple, but they work well enough simply because the combat at their heart is so fun. It feels strange to think that for the first time a new Halo game is out, I'm not going to immediately follow up a singleplayer playthrough with a co-op one that will let me experiment with all the possibilities I couldn't see alone. I think it'll be worth the wait, though. The campaign is currently fighting with one arm tied behind its back. Once unshackled, I think it's one I'm going to be playing it for many years to come.