After a couple of weeks' worth of blasting around the same ten maps in its excellent multiplayer component, Halo fans are about to get their hands on the next part of their early Xmas present, the campaign component of Halo Infinite is finally here. It's been six whole years since our last mainline Master Chief experience and this time around 343 Industries has taken a big step forward and marched the beloved sci-fi series into the modern age with an "open world" experience that embraces the popular trends of the time without abandoning what makes Halo so very special.

Indeed, if you were concerned that Halo Infinite was shaping up to be some sort of Master Chief-flavoured Far Cry or Assassin's Creed Covenant, you needn't have worried. Zeta Halo is very much its own unique beast; a smaller, more contained affair than its open world contemporaries that doesn't immediately give you free rein to tear across its mountains and valleys, and one whose main focus is 100% on combat, as it should be. 343 Industries knows exactly what makes Halo tick at this point and here they've taken the series' ever excellent shooty-bang bangs and refined and polished them to what feels like as close to perfection as we're ever going to get. They've then housed this wonderfully emergent chaos in a great big, beautiful ring world that absolutely nails the vibe of the series, a meticulously crafted sandbox full of nods to the series' history and lore that eschews collectathons in favour of non-stop action and easy-going exploration.

If there was one open world game that we would compare Halo Infinite to in any way, as much as it pains us, and as much as you may likely baulk that every open world effort is now compared to Breath of the Wild...well it's Breath of the Wild. We're not talking about the scale or scope of the thing here, but the sandbox elements of Nintendo's masterpiece, the way in which it gives you full freedom to engage your enemies as and when you see fit, the way in which its most memorable moments emerge not from narrative or scripted events, but from the chaos of tussling with its wonderfully intelligent enemies and emergent systems of play. Halo Infinite provides much the same freedom to play with very similar systems, and with an ever-burgeoning array of excellent weapons and vehicles with which to do so.

But let's rewind a little here, what about the story? Well, Halo Infinite, for as much as it shakes up the foundations of the series in providing this great big open space in which to play ad nauseum, actually sticks pretty closely to Halo: Combat Evolved in how its story both begins and evolves over its roughly ten hour running time. We're not going to spoil a second of how things play out, but mechanically speaking its all quite surprisingly traditional Halo.

Master Chief begins his journey in Halo Infinite under much similar circumstances as he did back in 2001 in many ways, look at the lights to calibrate your controls chief, let's get that suit up and running chief, oh look we're under attack! Cue two absolutely jaw-dropping and completely old-school linear levels full of classic corridor shooting action that see you introduced to a cool new sidekick and the game's fantastic new villain, as well as giving you a chance to get to grips with your brand new grapplehook - a brilliant addition to proceedings that makes traversal zippier than its ever been in the series.

And then, just as in the 2001 original, you're jettisoned from the confines of these spacecraft and their mazey corridors, emerging onto Zeta Halo, a world that is essentially The Silent Cartographer writ large. From here control is essentially handed over to you. There's a world in need of liberation here, John, and you get to choose how to go about doing it; which Banished facilities to attack, which Forward Operating Bases to wrestle back control of - giving you access to fast travel points and mobile armouries in the process - and when to move on to the next big campaign mission which drives the narrative forward.

Those campaign missions, all fourteen of them, give fans of the franchise plenty of classic scripted action and dialogue-heavy sequences to enjoy as they rampage through the tightly confined corridors of Forerunner facilities, great big alien spires and the like, but they also use the game's new open world setting to deliver up some amazing, multi-objective missions that see you given all new levels of freedom with which to get to work dismantling the Banished's machinery of war in any way you see fit. It's truly fantastic stuff.

Halo has always been ahead of the curve in the freedom it gifts its player to engage the enemy in the manner of their choosing, it's always delivered up open spaces in which to get creative, but here it feels like the potential of the series' wonderfully clever, freeform and often slapstick action and experimentation is being fully realised. For every hour that you spend furthering the core story along, you'll spend three simply blasting around Zeta Halo, engaging the Banished, figuring out how to approach some heavily defended base, grappleshotting up mountains in search of audio logs, rescuing UNSC crews who can then join you in battle or destroying Propaganda Towers, earning you Valor that unlocks even more weapons and vehicles with which to get creative.

There are Spartan Cores to gather up too, which earn you points to feed into a skill tree in order to beef up the chief's abilities, giving his grappleshot attack capabilities, strengthening his armour, giving you access to drop shields and so on, but importantly these upgrades never change the base feeling of the combat. The collectible elements and skill tree here may sound oh-so Ubisoft but, aside from perhaps the audio logs, they never feel like that kind of open world busywork. There's also far, far less of them than what we're used to in comparable games, that world map never gets absolutely littered in icons, meaning your focus is always on the combat, on the sticky bombs and plasma cannons, Wraiths and Ghosts and punching grunts in the face.

But you'll also always need to return to the story, and not just for narrative satisfaction, but because this isn't a truly open world at all to begin with, it's various swathes of land locked off from one another at the start, you'll need to make progress in order to unlock access in the early stages. It feels a little weird to begin with, like you're been hemmed in a little, but it actually works well in controlling and funnelling you around in the early hours, focusing you on the task at hand until you get into the rhythm of the thing, instead of allowing you to wander off, never to return.

In the end, what 343 Industries has managed to achieve here with how they've handled Zeta Halo and the game's constant shifting between tightly scripted, linear missions and free roaming exploration, is a wonderful balancing of classic Halo campaign narrative progression with this all-new open world aspect, dragging the franchise into the modern age without compromising what makes us love it so much.

It's not all perfect, the story starts out super strong but then begins to dip into some overly-familiar territory, with quite a bit of deja-vu and repetition in later levels and, as impressive as Zeta Halo is, it's not the most stunning or technically impressive open world we've ever rampaged around. However, a handful of narrative and technical shortcomings aside, what's here is just gloriously entertaining and highly addictive stuff from a pure gameplay perspective. If you're a fan of Halo's action, well, it's honestly never felt better than it does here, and there's an endless supply of hilariously mouthy grunts and brutes and elites and skimmers to get busy fighting with across Zeta Halo in freeform running battles that never fail to serve up highly engaging entertainment.

Halo Infinite feels like an undeniably important step forward for the franchise then, a slick shift into the type of experience modern gamers expect from their shooters that crucially manages to retain all that's so special and unique about the series. When combined with a properly excellent multiplayer that, progression system aside, has been wowing us all for the past few weeks, this is one seriously meaty and super satisfying return for the Master Chief. Halo Infinite really does feel like combat evolved.

Conclusion

Halo Infinite feels like a big step forward for the franchise, a slick shift into the open world arena that manages to strike a fine balance between the traditional narrative-driven Halo of old and all-new levels of freedom and emergent gameplay. It's not all perfect, the story fizzles out a little as it goes on and Zeta Halo isn't the most technically proficient open world we've experienced, but the amazing combat here smooths over most of these minor cracks. Halo's action has truly never felt better, and with an almost endless supply of enemies to engage with in the campaign and a stellar multiplayer package to get stuck into, this is one super-satisfying return for the Master Chief.