Within 60 seconds I was dead and laughing. Halo Infinite's multiplayer is a finely tuned mechanism for delivering explosions and dopamine. Developers 343 Industries did whatever the opposite of a jumpscare is this week, delighting deathmatch dilly-dalliers with a surprise release of their classical arena shooter. It's a beta, they insist. But we all know it's the proper game because they've had their betas already (excuse me, "flights").
Also, look, this thing is impeccable. Clean, powerful shots trace across immaculate skyboxes, straight into the shining dome of your armoured clunkperson, with a frightening thud that is satisfying even in death. There are problems, of course, but most reside outside the actual shootouts, which are frenetic, zappy confrontations longtime Halo players will savour.
Halo is so similar in its bulk from game to game that glancers and fairweather Spartans might not see an immediate difference. But they will feel it. Ancient Blood Gulchers blackened by thousands of plasma grenades to the face (hello) will certainly appreciate the small things that have changed, almost imperceptibly over time, but have somehow come out in this instalment as peak Halo. The brrap of the Battle Rifle, the reliability and killing power of the most basic pistol, the languorous jump, the loyal arc of aforementioned sticky grenades onto an enemies ankle. It's all ship-shape.
The Warthog, that most bouncy of jeeps, now accelerates like a bull out of a Pamplona gate.
Even those things which handle differently feel welcome. The Warthog, that most bouncy of jeeps, now accelerates like a bull out of a Pamplona gate. It turns sharply, responsive like a shark, and when it flips it often tries to right itself in a gentle, slothful way. That means flipping and spilling all your passengers in an exposed valley is still a dangerous and frequent occurrence, however some tip-overs are recoverable in a way they often weren't in older Halos. As a proud driver and flag Deliveroo man, I am all approval.
A noticeable difference comes in the new game modes. There's a mode called "Total Control", which only awards points to the team that holds all three control points on a map at the same time. Then there is "Stockpile" mode, which is a rough 'n' tumble playground sport with small arms fire. In this, a pile of "power seeds" appears on the map (giant batteries, basically). Your team has to grab and deliver five of these to your home base before the other team does the same for their own HQ. Do this multiple times to win.
You can throw the power seeds around, passing them like a radioactive ball from one player to another. And once home, you shove them into a long deposit box, like slotting a jar of oregano into a spice rack. But the enemy can also remove them again, stealing your seeds from the rack. It is a childish, sportive mode. If Oddball is the gun rugby of Halo, Stockpile is a chaotic scramble for the last pieces of cake. It's Hungry Hungry Hippos with sniper rifles.
Speaking of sniper rifles, the weaponry line-up in Infinite is remarkably strong. A lot has been said about the powerful equipment - the hijacking potential of the grappling hook or the knock back of the Repulsor. But it's the weapons that carry the game. There's a careful asymmetry that makes each firearm feel lethal within its own set of circumstances.
The Mangler is a devastating megarevolver with a kick the likes of a Destiny handcannon. A few shots of the Shock Rifle can immobilise vehicles in a gauzy blue electro-magnetic pulse field. The Ravager launches volleys of crimson plasma but charging up a shot releases a splashing glob that covers the ground in red flames for an area-denial effect. All of these, aside from having a distinct use, are fully capable one-on-one killing machines.
The Disruptor is a pistol that pierces enemies with electrified rounds that frazzle over time and stops shields from recharging (it even eats away at health, earning poisonous kills from beyond the grave). The Stalker Rifle is a gaussy 3-shot killer with a fast-cooling reload. But panic-fire and it does that classic overheat which means a longer recovery, the traditional push-yer-luck plasma weapon.
It's impressive just how refined and well-rounded the armoury has turned out. Almost everything is finely tuned and magically balanced, like one of those little toy eagles on the end of a finger. I've often been outmatched, but never felt outgunned. The only weak blastboi, I find, is ye olde Plasma Pistol, which has had its own EMP effect removed to make room for the new shock weapons. That's the right call, I think, but it now seems the plasma pistol remains on the battlefield more out of respect than utility.
The surprising masterstroke is the Assault Rifle, one of Master Chief's day ones and a historically troublesome bullethose. Here it has matured and blossomed into a stout and reliable dead-people-creator. It is weak at long range, smugly workable at mid-range, and downright vicious up close. You could play every match with the starting combo of Assault Rifle and Sidekick pistol and you would still rack up decent kills, switching rapidly to the pint-sized sidearm in panicked moments only to discover that it too has been balanced with gymnastic precision. For a Halo game to harmonise this oft-neglected pair of exemplar arms is a real achievement. It feels like 343 have cracked some ancient code and discovered the secret to bullets.
I won't spill a lot of adjectives on the maps. I've already nodded with militaristic approval about these hallways and rat holes. I'll only add that the Big Team Battle maps adhere to the principle of lumpy-terrain turmoil in all the right ways. Deadlock is a nighttime shootout with cheeky sightlines from base to base but meandering pathways between said bases. Highpower has a glorious rocky plummet and flanking corridors filled with cosy orange lights and steamy pipes. There are no big interactive do-hickeys beyond Fragmentation's loot cave, which is disappointing, I'll admit. But there is consolation in the giant cannon that fires into the skybox any time you fill your spice rack with batteries on Deadlock. There's a cruiser floating above Highpower, which shoots a city-sized gun when you and your teammates capture a flag or hit the halfway mark in a team deathmatch.
The major sore point comes between games, when you look at your little XP meter and wince. Theoretically, you earn new armour bits, colour schemes and so on by advancing up a battle pass (there is a free and a "premium" paid version of this). But as many have already complained, XP is tied to challenges, or what I like to call "gun homework". Some of these are made to be unavoidable, as simple as "play a match" or "kill three enemies with melee attacks". Others are more complicated. "Destroy a banshee," says one assignment, granting you XPennies for killing an infrequently spawning machine before any of your teammates beat you to it. "Kill someone with the Shock Rifle", says another, encouraging you to camp beside the Shock Rifle dispenser for half the game instead of playing the objective.
Halo's free-to-play peers, such as Splitgate, Apex Legends or COD Warzone, are not always generous. But even they will drip-feed you XP for all sorts of actions. Simply surviving a long time in a battle royale might get you compensation XP, for example. In Halo Infinite, no such luck. You must do your gun homework.
This makes unlocking new bits and/or bobs for your metal man a sluggish treadmill. It's possible to go multiple games without advancing or earning any XP at all. The reward track itself is tight-fisted. Right and left shoulder pads are administered separately. The victory poses are almost indistinguishable and many of the armor attachments add little character. Obviously, this is the developers intentionally leaving room for more exciting stuff to come. But the result is that, while the gun roster is all killer, the armour hall is all filler. Someone on Reddit pointed out that 40 of the 66 items in the free version of the battle pass are challenge swap gizmos. But you should know it is miserly and heel-dragging even to those who pay an extra £8 for the primopass.
That progression system will change as the game saunters onward, 343 Industries have already said. But exactly how it's going to change, who knows? Any significant revamp they're working on could be months away. If you're going in today, I can't recommend buying the octopound battle pass. It's better to turn off the box-ticking part of your brain as much as possible and stubbornly ignore this one clunky cog in an otherwise gunhappy frolic. Your tin man will look like every other tin man, but hey, this is the space army. Think of it as a uniform.
Aside from that, Infinite has done the Halos of old proud. The rhythm of its gun battles, the crossfire and chaos, it's all stupendous stuff. Being the right bruiser in the right place still feels good, as you nab a flag and leap into a waiting Warthog. But there are plenty of smaller joys. Such as the glowing explodey barrels you can pick up and throw, lovingly referred to as "noob cubes". The cool theater mode allows playback of matches down to the smallest detail and lets you swoop a camera around to capture moments from all angles (it's where I've taken these fancy screenshots).
In the end, I am a John Halo acolyte, so I am perhaps more forgiving of Infinite's flaws thus far. We'll see how the campaign fares when it comes out next month. But from the perspective of a man who lost his teen years failing to capture flags on Halo 2's Zanzibar, and who likes Mister Chief's idiot oo-rah universe enough to have read actual Halo novels, the multiplayer is as sound and sturdy as a big meaty man in a big metal suit.