The multiplayer maps of Halos past had a devotion to footstep fairness, the principle that every step I take toward the giant laser cannon should equal one step you take toward the same brutal death-tube. Halo Infinite abides by that time-honored rule, at least judging by the recent public test.
These maps are classic Master Chief party houses, loyal to the supremacy of abstract shapes, with clarity to every corner and a pared-back art style that makes a brief glance of an enemy in a doorway pop out. Pick-ups lounge on exposed podiums like glimmering sirens. Isolated platforms furnish gravity hammers, surrounded by a grinning void. They are arenas that somehow feel both dangerous and fair. But they are something else too. They're playful.
I mean this purely in a navigational way. Live Fire is arguably the plainest of all the maps we've seen so far. A three-lane firing range with a strategic tower that imperfectly overlooks all three approaches. But it has my favourite bit of all the maps. The central lane (often busy with explosions thanks to the power weapons that spawn there) has a cute little bolthole you can escape down in a pinch. It is the simplest, sweetest getaway. Of course, you can also toss grenades down this chute if you see someone on radar below you. It's a chimney and you're Santa. The gift is murder.
Bazaar is a mirrored murderpicture with raised walkways and bullets flying over a cross-shaped clatter of market stalls. But it has a lesser-used passage on one side that falls down to the lowest point of the map, a dark chamber where the shotgun lives. That's cool and all, but bring a gappleshot with you into this cramped passage and it becomes a flanking vent, opening on the opposing side. I never met another crouching player on the way through this sneaky crawlspace, but I can easily imagine the grenade spamming panic of it.
These are just the two clearest examples of a playfulness that is otherwise subtle. In fact, it risks disappointing all those who remember the more interactive quirks of previous Halo maps. The shootable stalactites of Waterworks that fall and crush anyone below, the swinging slab of unfinished road from Headlong, the unlockable teleporter of Relic. Such silliness is absent from the smaller maps that Infinite has shown off so far. But it does leave me hungry and hoping for pushable buttons in the Big Team Battle maps.
As luck would have it, one of those maps will be playable in the next public test. It's a classic mix of rock and greenery called Fragmentation, and developers 343 Industries have already shown there'll be a "loot cave" of sorts in the middle of this big killzone. You have to start hacking it, then stay alive long enough for the door to open.
That's neat. I do like my vaults in Apex Legends. But what I really desire is something big, some unlockable gate in a crucial overhang, the likes of Halo 3's Longshore, or a Terminal-style bullet train to block critical shots at just the right moment, a troublesome wind turbine air-lifted out of Zanzibar. Not these exact things, I mean, just similar big-concept moving parts that result in happy chaos. Hopefully, 343 are holding out on us. I'd be surprised if something like this didn't show up. But if it's too difficult to implement, too disruptive to those sacrosanct fair starts, well, there's always the post-launch Forge level editor (delayed, but not forgotten). If 343 Industries won't build me a deadly windmill, I'll do it myself.
"What I really desire is something big, some unlockable gate in a crucial overhang, the likes of Halo 3's Longshore... Hopefully, 343 are holding out on us."
Of course, ye olde Big Team Battle is the true home of Halo for many bloodshot trigger squeezers. Players got a taste of bigger maps with Behemoth, a symmetrical desert map with a Warthog, a Ghost and some Mongoose quad bikes. It's not true Big Team Battle, but rather a mid-sized Capture The Flag map. Halo loyalists will recognise the ubiquitous shining metal spires, and see Sandtrap in its sinking dunes. But it's a beautiful piece of work all its own. The circular outer rim encourages smooth Warthoggery, but you'll have to swerve into the rocky interior of the map to dodge fire, which is where the traditional embarrassing car flip will occur. Desperate plummets into the map's central pit are inevitable, as the map's flow lures drivers downwards like a big plughole. A brave jump towards a central bridge in this pit is tempting, but even if you make this jeepy hop, you'll end up in the tight guts of the structure, a big grenade magnet. I hope you like exploding.
It's also on Behemoth where the Skewer, a new weapon, has revealed its hilarious brutality. It's a fearsome instakill harpoon gun, but needs reloading every shot, making it a risky brute (it also doesn't auto-reload on empty if you're zoomed-in - what gives?) More importantly, the Skewer can pierce vehicles and send them flying. Throw in the grappleshot and the terrific boop of the repulsor (a device that pushes away players, vehicles and even rockets), and Behemoth quickly becomes a fatal playground. The large metallic overhangs and constructs give you plenty to swing from. Ceilings matter in level design, but you rarely see why until you have a fun device that forces you to look up.
Again, the delaying of Forge mode is a pity, partly because these shiny locales really get an amateur mapper's blood pumping. But also because there are going to be some truly daft game modes invented in Halo Infinite, if the new toys and the already-wacky realms of the Master Chief Collection are any indication. You have not known true Halo until you have stormed the impossible towers of Castle Wars, until you have navigated the bonkers highways of Ice Road Truckers while zombies attack from every angle. Imagine the goofy homebrew modes we will have with grappleshots. It is going to be off the metaphorical and literal hook.
But let me take off my rosy map-lovers glasses for a moment for some real talk. There were a few bugs in this preview. Some players found a way to melee endlessly. Some accidentally spawned a dainty Warthoglet. One of these bugs is good and one is not. More concerning is the free-to-play insistence on earning XP through challenges alone (get three pistol kills, get three repulsor kills, etc), alongside other free-to-play shenanigans too tedious to discuss here. It remains to be seen how players will react to this stuff being present in a game that many will buy for £50-60. But here's my guess: not good.
Okay, I need my rosy glasses back. 343 Industries might have some free-to-play rejigging to do, but they have nailed the feel and weight of movement through a bunch of funny angles. The metrics of your hulking armourboi, his footsteps, speed, the distance he can jump, the limits of his rough-gloved clamber. It's all good. I appreciate how "noiseless" the maps are. Some might look at Bazaar and complain of CODifying. I find it closer to CS:GO or Valorant in terms of cleanliness (Bazaar contains not one but two double doors that lie ajar at an inviting angle). Yet Halo's own ledge-hopping traditions could not be clearer once you actually start moving from place to place, leaping from air conditioner to awning to windowsill. It's not quite the freewheeling destruct-o-hopping of Titanfall. But it is maybe Titanfall's heavy-footed cousin.
Even Recharge, initially my least favourite map of the bunch, revealed its true intelligence in the Strongholds mode, where teams compete to control three zones. Team Slayer is all well and good, but you don't see the benefit of an underpass or the vulnerability in a balcony until there's an objective to think about. Four small pillars in this map change heights at various times because the hydroelectric generator below them is being stroppy. And one of the control points is right there among those pillars. There's also a giant pitfall around the gravity hammer on this map, where much repulsor boopage occurs. It feels like 343 have gained enlightenment from the Nepal level of Overwatch, and a wise warrior there called Lucio.
Basically, I'm impressed. There is clarity and focus to these hippodromes of hostility that I have missed in the years of battling royally. As much as I admire the sprawls of Apex and Warzone, they are busy environments by their nature. Halo Infinite looks set to give me something else. The playful obstacle courses I can learn by heart and map in my head. Now, if they would just put a bullet train in it...