Halo: A Modern Masterpiece

Combat Evolved indeed.

Gamers, regardless of affiliation or loyalty, have Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved to thank for a large proportion of what goes into every good first person shooter these days.

Now common genre staples such as a recharging shield, limited simultaneous weaponry capabilities and sniper scopes might not all have been invented in Halo, but they were certainly honed to perfection on the Xbox launch title – and although the game may seem a little dated today, if it wasn’t for the Master Chief’s first outing, chances are we wouldn’t have half the shooters we have today.

Likewise, if it wasn’t for a famously smart sweep for the company by Microsoft at the outset of the Xbox, their first console wouldn’t have been anywhere near as quick off the ground.  A landmark title snatched from the grasp of Mac owners at the last minute and re-worked into a first person perspective, Halo’s tale of one Spartan’s mission against a legion of aliens was innovative, powerful and absolutely the right game to kick start a brand new games machine from an effectively brand new manufacturer.  Halo not only lead the Xbox’s launch, it defined it.

From its initial announcement in 1999, the game changed massively, emerging as a US launch title for the Xbox in 2001.  I remember seeing an import model running the game in a Glasgow indie and was instantly impressed by the graphics and the scale, and that was from a quick five minute preview of the game’s first level aboard the Pillar of Autumn, the dimly lit corridors providing ample room for Bungie’s still impressive lighting effects to shine.  Limited funds prevented me from buying that import Xbox, but I did buy a copy of the game a week before the UK launch.

At the time, a lot of my friends were locked onto the PlayStation 2 and the Dreamcast, so initial run throughs of the game were purely single player and it wasn’t until a good few weeks after Halo’s release that I managed to talk a mate into playing the game in the split-screen co-op mode – needless to say he bought one shortly after.  With no online play (Xbox Live wouldn’t be ready for some time) and LAN mode an expensive proposition, it was down to the main campaign mode and the split screen deathmatch modes – thankfully they were plenty enough.

The story is legend, and the sheer versatility of the plot is beyond a simple retrospective like this suffice to say that the constantly shifting scope and pacing are still unmatched in most games of the ilk today.

From the aforementioned spaceship escape of the game’s first level to the sudden, open planetside exploration of the next, Halo continuously kept you on your toes right through to the game’s thundering climax onboard a Warthog.  From the midpoint diversion into survival horror with the onset of the flood to the trip aboard the Covenant cruiser, Halo excelled in exposition.

The stand out level for me was, and still is, The Silent Cartographer.  A masterpiece in subtle blending of scripting and open world, the storming of the beach at the outset still today highlights the diversity of Bungie’s adaptive AI – shoot the Elites and the Grunts have no natural leader – and although the impact has been lessened a little over the years, it’s impossible to look back on the entire section with anything but fondness.  The level moves quickly indoors but never loses its sense of purpose and was, for me at least, the area of the game I’d show off to friends first.

Halo managed to change the way we think about weapons in games, too.  By limiting the arsenal to two guns at once, the player is forced to make constant tactical decisions based on what he thinks lies ahead.  In addition, the developers bucked the trend of ever increasingly powerful weapons by ensuring that even the basic pistol can be devastating in the right circumstances (such as when taking out a Hunter from behind) and by dramatically limiting the supply of the most destructive tools of war, such as the rocket launcher, Halo always kept you on your toes.

And then there’s the vehicles, into which the Master Chief could hop at will.

In fact, the size of some of the levels (and in particular the section where you must round up any nearby survivors) ensured that the player would make full use of whatever motorised transport there was around, gradually introducing him to the controls and the techniques before they’d need to be second nature later in the game.  Driving the Warthog was a joy, but getting your hands on Covenant vehicles, especially those that could fly, was an unexpected delight later in the game.

The AI, too, was (at the time at least) mind blowingly impressive.  I’ve already touched on the organisational structure of the Covenant, but the way they’d dodge, hide and flank you meant that repeated playthroughs would always offer something different, and on the toughest level presented a real challenge not just in terms of how deadly their ammo was but also in the way that they acted in packs, in ranks, and the Elites in particular always seemed to be on the same  level of thinking as the player, trying to outsmart you without ever being frustrating or repetitive.

And all this is without mentioning the graphics, which were stellar.  With world class graphical knowledge and a few clever visual tricks, textures were always sharp and detailed, polygonal models were dense and rich, environments diverse and open and effects, such as the realistic sun glare – that bled through the leaves in the trees – was a sight to behold.  Graphically it was so far ahead of everything else around at the time, and served as a placemarker for first person shooters for years.  The overal look and feel of the sequels has remained the same, testament to Bungie’s vision.

Halo, then – a stunning game.  When gamers fresh to the scene talk about the first person shooters of today and tomorrow, I cast my mind back to 2001 and remember the game that, for me, started it all off.  Yes, there was Goldeneye and yes, it was brilliant, but Halo was a step beyond, a real generational leap and one that was so large it hasn’t been bettered in my opinion.  I’m hopeful that Reach, which is released in but a week or two, can re-ignite some of the magic of Bungie’s first Xbox title.  Even if it’s only half as good, I’ll still be one happy Spartan.

You can read about another modern masterpiece, Portal, here.

31 Comments

  1. I always found Halo to be a technical step that needed to happen but it never touched Goldeneye for the fun factor.
    Like you have said so well though, it changed the face of console FPSs.
    Imagine if it had ended up as a Mac title. It could have made Apple into a huge company… wait

  2. And then halo 2 was the first online console game… am i right?

    • Wouldn’t Chu Chu Rocket on the Dreamcast been out before that?

      • Most certainly Dreamcast was the first console going online.

    • Halo was the principle reason to buy an Xbox thus getting MS an important foot in the door, and Halo2 was the main reason to have Xbox Live, thus sparking a billion dollar spin-off business for MS.

  3. Interesting read, I never bought into the whole Halo thing being a PS2 and then PS3 owner, so it’s interesting to read what an impact it had for a fan of the franchise.

    Could you imagine if MS hadn’t bought Bungie though? I would go as far to say that there wouldn’t have even been an Xbox360 without it. In this alternate universe we would probably be having a ‘console war’ between the PS3 and the Apple iGame…

  4. I bought the original game with the xbox, I have to admit, I was massively impressed with the AI and loved the game. Didn’t buy any after that as I sold my xbox. It was good then, but games have caught up, like Killzone 2 for example. I’m sure the new one will be excellent, lets hope it is for xbox gamers sake lol

  5. While I can understand why many people feel the same way on all the points in this article, i disagree on all points to a certain extent.

    To me, when halo launched, it was merely a mediocre game. I put this down to my soft spot for PC FPS games from an early age (8 or so – Admittedly, I probaby shouldn’t have been playing them!).

    I got an Xbox because of all the great things I’d heard bout Halo at launch, and being such a fan of FPS’ I was very excited….only to be greatly disappointed, I felt it was slow, boring, and most of all annoying (the latter is probably a bi-product of the former). I’ve felt the same about every one of the sequel’s basic mechanics for a solus experience, where I will give it great credit is it’s implementation of multiplayer; regardless, I still feel the mechanics are cumbersome.

    While the article claims Halo to be the poster-child for how to hone particular elements to perfection, my opinion is that it is the resounding success of these ‘dumbing down’ elements that has helped stagnate the genre further.

    Perfection for me, but not confined to, was the era between Doom 2 and Half Life 2, with a highlight being Perfect Dark.

    Dystopia for me is the success of MW2 which I genuinly believe to be exploitative – I’d like to try and explain this accusation with a GW piece at some point :)

    • Yeah, Halo’s not for everyone, but for me it was nigh on perfect – I’ve never replayed a game as much as Halo anyway.

      I’m with you entirely on MW2 – IMO a terrible game.

      • I can understand why, everyone’s got their favourites!

        On the Multiplayer front local play was great fun.

      • Agree with both of ya :)
        The Halo Franchise is awesome. I am more than likely gonna buy (another) 360 to play Reach. It is looking really really good imo!

    • I totally agree about the dumbing down of the genre (I also came from a PC FPS background), as much as I enjoyed Halo, it does have that dubious honour, imo and its success has been detrimental to the FPS genre as a whole. That said, it was a great game at the time, although I never liked the sequels and as a result the series has been surpassed by others, like Killzone 2..
      .
      Maybe Reach will be a return to greatness, I hope so because apart from the original, I’ve yet to see what the fuss is about.

  6. I am a massive Sony fanboy …. but i can say Halo is one fantastic game on the 360

  7. Never really played any Halo, but the look of it never appealed to me.

  8. My bro had an xbox (still has it somewhere) and I played halo on that. Must agree with all your points as I thought it was great and it gave the xbox an identity. Even going back to it, it has a mgs2 n 3 quality. Timeless, ahead of it’s time if you will. Played 2 n hated it. 3 made me laugh as 1 looked better. It’s been a farce up u Gil now as I think the green gamers will get a great halo themed swan song in reach. We all love ps3 but my little bro has a dusty 360 which will do the rounds when reach n gears 3 surface! Great article mate :-)

  9. Never really felt at home with HALO but it’s more to do with my problem on FPS games without a keyboard and mouse. Still, I remember thinking that the first HALO would be loved by millions and it help forge a health segment of the console industry. However, I can’t help feel that it’s been too big a franchise for its own good; in the sense that the Xbox still struggles with the diversity that Sony and Nintendo had/has on their own respective consoles.

  10. I played this on Mac, and I agree, it was simply one of the best games of the last generation. Though you can tell it was very rushed towards the end (Let’s just do it all backwards!), and it’s now rather old feeling, back then it was brilliant.

    The first few levels were perfect, with the “open world” aspects nicely on show, so that the first time I played it I got completely lost after the crash landing. I loved trying to break Cartographer, at the door section (jam a warthog down the passageways, and get through it quick!), and the final non-boss level was a perfect way to end a great game.

    Oh, and I actually rather enjoy The Library.

    So a great game, that completely changed the FPS genre, for better or for worse, and arguably kicked of the current “realism” trend, despite its sci-fi trappings.

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