Let me slap you with the caveat up front. Halo Infinite's best place is its open world, through which you can swing like a honking metal Tarzan and do sweet Warthog jumps from cliffs. But its best level, the most satisfying A-to-B gun boulevard, comes late in the campaign (spoilers ahead). The House Of Reckoning is a series of rooms where contrived artificial battlefields have been constructed inside an alien fortress. They are abstractly human structures surrounded by sand, as if your extraterrestrial enemies have been playing house but believe a homo sapiens' house looked exactly like a chunk of Normandy beach circa 1944. The narrative reasoning behind this level is absurd. But the fights that occur within are excellent.
The idea is this. Your ape-faced antagonist, Escharum, has ordered these rooms to be constructed as a stadium for bloodsport. They are arenas in which to make a show of human captives, who must scrabble in the dirt for guns and fight off waves of grunts, jackal snipers, brute berserkers, and warpainted hunters. As you assault the final citadel to confront the brute, it's your turn to run his tropey death trap.
It's elaborate. It's moronic. That the headmaster of the Banished, a group of aliens known for scavenging the burnt wheels off jeeps, would expend dwindling resources on pouring concrete into a murder playground custom-built to mind-masturbate the supersoilder coming to kill him is a step of LuDoNaRriTiVe DiSsoNanCe even the most bullet hungry of Master Chief puppeteers cannot ignore.
Why not simply rig the place to blow? Why not send in your army as one giant superswarm, instead of manageable waves? It is Bond villain idiocy, stretching both plausibility of setting and plausibility of motive. A supervillain cliché transparently used to make a fun space in which to shoot stuff.
But to nitpick about plausibility in a superheroic shooter set on a 10,000 kilometre ring world suspended in space untold lightyears from planet Earth is a bit like complaining about the Aussie accents in Netflix's Arcane. ("They totally break the immersion, man"). Anyway, it's hard to maintain your critical faculties when there are so many grenades going off. Forgiveness comes quick to game designers who deliver a high-pressure killzone.
It is Bond villain idiocy, stretching both plausibility of setting and plausibility of motive. A supervillain cliché transparently used to make a fun space in which to shoot stuff.
And the House Of Reckoning is that. Two of the rooms you will enter have a central, raised "stage" where guns are scattered around a single structure, alongside ever-handy explodacubes. There are turrets on some sides of each defensible garrison. Doors blare with red sirens when a fresh wave of enemies is about to pour into the deathbox. Attackers come from all angles, and the factory floor of these huge hangars is scattered with cover for them, whereas your cover is limited to a few metal sheets, concrete pillars and ammo alcoves. These death courses are petite archetypes of the Halo shootenanny. You fire, 'nade and scarper away to find a new angle while your shields recharge, only to hear the "WAAAH" of another door full of xeno-jerks opening. You can find a full playthrough of the level here, if you want to see it in action.
They're tight and tidy micro-coliseums. A calculated miniature of everything that makes trad Halo a blast. It's like some encounter designer was bored at 343 Industries one day, idly throwing scrunched-up doodles into a waste paper basket, and stopped mid-throw as they thought: "Hm, I wonder how much room Master Chief really needs?"
When so much of the game offers wide rolling expanses of rock and grassland, the House Of Reckoning is a plucky, essentialised diversion of a battlezone that stands out for doing everything with the opposite approach. It's like being shrunk to the size of a Lego man and put in your mate's Warhammer diorama, or having a shootout inside that famous Halo advert with the painted miniatures. Besides all that, it is a handsome, quiet nod to the Firefight mode of Halo: Reach and ODST. The greatest sorrow is that you cannot yet play any of this in Legendary with a co-op partner, because this sequence would surely sing in those conditions.
The switch-up comes with the third and final room. It's another giant, non-descript hangar. But instead of a model combat theatre designed by what we can only guess is Escharum's personal level designer, we are confronted with a hulking green shell from a UNSC ship carcass. A big dark egg that we step into with our boss-sense not so much tingling as fully aflame. Sure enough, a single cloaked elite emerges in cinematic form, the right-hand Spartan killer of old Ape McBadguy.
This last fight will take place in an equally small space. But unlike the previous rooms, you'll have one opponent. And unlike the other hangars, which had a wide, airy feeling even as they encouraged you to stick to the "stage", this brawl is more of a cage match. The walls are right up against you. It's a dark, bare container, pierced with thin girders and gloomy, crimson lights. It is like showing up to an abandoned warehouse rave three hours early and having a fight with a poltergeist.
Infinite's boss battles are not the highlight of the game for me (bosses belong in Mario and Dark Souls, get out of my shootybang) but this conflict with a beefy phantom assassin has a creepy set-up and enough funhouse tomfoolery to earn my respect. It's a good, contrasting finale to the combat of the previous rooms. Escharum himself faces you shortly afterwards to close the level in a much more spongey way. But never mind that. We'll always have Club Cloak 'n' Dagger.
As a beat in an already-questionable storyline, the House Of Reckoning is a hilarious misstep into the familiar trope of a bad guy who just cannot bring himself to murder the one person who stands to ruin his life. Granted, Escharum is a classic "I relish having a strong opponent" bad guy. But when his final fortress turns out to be a wacky obstacle course, that's a step too far into Saturday morning cartoonery.
The obstacle course itself, though, is spot-on. Halo Infinite might have proven that old shooters can learn new, open-world tricks. But its penultimate level shows that Halo still knows how to do a bullet-chewing set piece in a confined space.