Ten years. Has it really been that long? In some ways, it still seems like yesterday that I bought my first ever gaming console and played through that epic campaign. It’s even more remarkable that while my original Xbox and most of my game collection has come and gone, that my original Halo: Combat Evolved disc still has pride of place on my gaming shelf, as does Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.
Now, though, it has a new title – okay, well, sort of new title – next to it: Halo: Combat Evolved – Anniversary, which revisits the original game with a gussied-up graphics engine, remastered sound and a musical score completely re-recorded with a live orchestra at Skywalker Sound.
It seemed like an odd move – why re-release a ten year old game which a lot of gamers will have already played, and whose gameplay has aged by that decade? Well, the reviews are in, and even with ten years’ gameplay evolution between it and titles like Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 and even Halo: Reach, the consensus of the professional review market is that Halo: Combat Evolved still feels like a modern first person shooter.
I’ll leave the objective breakdowns of Halo: CE-A’s merits to those review sites. Instead, I’d like to tell you why I still find Halo: Combat Evolved one of the most unique and entertaining games ever.
Corporal Hicks Meets Indiana Jones
Once I got my hands on the game, I fell in love very quickly for two main reasons. The first was that I could actually play it for significant chunks of time without becoming motion sick. This was an all-too-common problem I had with playing first-person shooters, games where you look through the eyes of your in-game avatar. Prior to Halo I’d tried Doom, Quake, the Unreal games, Aliens Versus Predator, System Shock, Star Wars: Dark Forces II – Jedi Knight, the acclaimed GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64 and even the venerable Half Life, yet I had to put down the controller or step away from the keyboard after ten minutes, tops.
So what did Halo do differently? I think it’s a combination of three factord. Firstly, its frame rate – the speed at which the computer re-draws the image you see on screen – was locked at a solid thirty frames-per-second. The second was that avatar character, the Master Chief, moved through the world at a slower pace than his compatriots in those other games, especially the PC games, whose play seemed to reward lighting-fast “twitch” skills during play. Thirdly, the environments were more often large, open areas instead of confining concrete corridors with lots of detail whirling about with every turn. Hell, I haven’t even finished the critically acclaimed and extremely short Portal (itself based on the Half-Life / Half-Life 2 engine) on PC simply because I’m sick of getting sick from it.
But the second, and in my opinion best, reason for my going ga-ga for Halo so quickly was the game’s perfectly-executed sense of sheer adventure.
Look, the term “cinematic” got bandied around a lot in gaming for a while; I’m sure some pundits still use it. But I think it works here. I mean, if I were to pitch Halo, I’d sum it up as Aliens meets Raiders of the Lost Ark. I don’t think any game has ever surpassed Halo in letting me be the hero in my own flashy, slightly-over-the-top, toy-laden action film. Even though there’s no more plot than what’s needed to keep you finding out what comes next, even if what you’re really doing while exploring the Halo is battling the Covenant and (later) the Flood, you still get the feeling that you could be Indiana Jones or Lara Croft on some interstellar archaeology mission.
Just as New York is a character in… well, every freaking movie set in New York, the Halo is a character in Halo: Combat Evolved. The level and art designers at Bungie did such an incredible job of crafting consistent and detailed environments for the Halo that the ring feels like it has a story and history all its own that’s not just waiting to be discovered but is continuing on even while the UNSC and Covenant do battle across its surface.
Even if you could mistake the outdoor environments of the Halo (those that don’t feature any Forerunner architecture) for Terran countryside if you squinted, there’s always that strange horizon that, instead of ending, stretches up, over and then meets the other horizon behind you. It’s like someone put a brick on the “WOW!” button and went to lunch. It’s also worth pointing out that the only non-Halo environment you fight in during the game is a spaceship. There isn’t a single environment that matches up with the typical grungy city interiors and exteriors so often found in first person shooters.
Then there are the characters of Halo. Yes, you lit students out there, I hear you saying, “What characters?” I understand your reasoning, too; no one has a character arc or a personality beyond a broad stereotype (Sergeant Johnson is a prime example) and the largely-silent, faceless, fully-armoured Master Chief is just an avatar for the player’s own personality. However, the broadly drawn characters work for Halo, just as they would a blockbuster movie; they let you clearly identify who’s who and who wants what without ten minutes of gameplay-absent cutscene to introduce them.
And as for the Chief himself, I think a lot of people miss out on something important. Have you ever noticed that when he does open his mouth, he never swears or bitches, never bemoans his fate, never calls curses down upon his enemies or promises their grisly death at his hands? Instead, he either shares a quip (sometimes an ironic one, like trying shooting his way out for something different) with Cortana or offers calm, confident reassurance: “We’ll be fine. We’ll make it.” You have no idea how refreshing that is after playing avatars who are utterly character-less (think Doom or Quake) or a gung-ho, foul-mouthed thug (Duke Nukem, Gears of War). The Master Chief doesn’t even big-note himself. He’s too busy doing his job and trusting that his contribution will help everything work out in the end.
No matter how insurmountable the challenge, how overwhelming the odds or how nervous his AI colleague: “We’ll be fine. We’ll make it.”
(You know what? The penny just dropped: That’s what was missing in the Halo novels’ treatment of the Chief. The only defining aspect of his character and Eric Nylund couldn’t nail it.)
Finally, there’s the music. I’ve mentioned in the past just how big a part the music of Halo had in selling me on each game, especially when playing Halo 3 meant replacing my perfectly serviceable Xbox with the prone-to-overheating 360. Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori have done incredible things with the score of each and every game they put their talents to. I could mention how O’Donnell’s work on the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the later games’ on-the-fly audio mixing have meant that the soundtrack of each playthrough of the game has been tailored to the player’s experience, but it worked so well that I was too busy fighting my way through each action scene to the beat of the music – which, even when it got sinister with the appearance of the Flood or sombre when the Chief and Cortana returned to the Pillar of Autumn at the end of Halo (or for most of Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, for that matter), it was never anything less than grand.
And when the soundtrack did kick into high gear… Rocking through an action set piece to the Halo theme was something magical.
A place that screams adventure, an adventurer whom I was happy to pretend to be for a while and the perfect soundtrack to go adventuring to. No wonder I loved (and still love) Halo: Combat Evolved.
Oh, by the way: Possibly the Achievement I’m the proudest of earning? Beachhead. Got your back, boys.
Taking the Adventure Online
Technically, I’ve been playing Halo: Combat Evolved – Anniversary’s online multiplayer component for over a year before the game came out. This is because it uses the multiplayer component of 2010’s Halo: Reach, developer Bungie’s farewell to the series it created before handing it over to Microsoft’s subsidiary company responsible for all things Halo, 343 Industries. And though I’ve dabbled in games of popularity equal to and in excess of Halo, like the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, I keep coming back to Halo: Reach for its complex yet uncomplicated multiplayer.
When I play a multiplayer game of Halo, I’ll have a pretty good idea whether my winning or losing is due to an imbalance in skill, a network connectivity issue or hacking. It’s easy to identify which of the game’s suite of weapons (from nine in the original Halo up to twenty in Halo: Reach) are available where, and I know what each one does. Even though Reach mixed things up a bit with armour abilities, its multiplayer is still easy to learn and hard, but not punishing, to master. The only thing you can customise is your appearance, which has zero effect on gameplay.
By comparison, other games’ multiplayer components seem hugely over-complicated. Experience rewards. Kill-streak rewards. Death-streak rewards. An eye-popping variety of weapons and ways to tweak their performance.You have to keep playing to build experience to unlock all the goodies so that you stand a chance of competing, then you have to learn when, where and how to use each new feature you’ve unlocked – only to get hosed when you join a game where every other player has a faster Internet connection to the host than you anyway. I might enjoy gaming, but I have other things I’d prefer to invest my time in than an arms-race approach to ensuring players keep coming back.
On top of all that, there’s the visual design of each arena. If there’s one frustrating thing about the Call of Duty and Battlefield maps I’ve played in, it’s that as much as they need to serve the needs of entertaining gameplay, they must also serve authenticity – even if their locations don’t really exist in our real, modern world, they must look as if they could. Unfortunately, this means that one grubby street starts to look like another, and I find it very easy to get disoriented in the warren of corridors, roads and plazas, especially when I’m rocketing through them at a more traditional (i.e. fast) clip.
Halo’s designers have always ensured that the series’ multiplayer maps have just as much “WOW!” as the environments of the campaigns. The Halo franchise lets them create arenas on other planets, in ancient alien citadels, aboard the starships of the Covenant, which means that they can take a lot of latitude in design and layout. Not only that, the blockbuster movie motif allows the game to draw from a much broader colour palate than the dull shades of mud brown and concrete grey that games that prize their authentic visuals are most often hamstrung by. I find getting my bearings on and navigating around most Halo multiplayer maps very easy, and those that aren’t – well, I’d still prefer to blunder my way around Solitary or Penance than Skidrow or Quarry any day.
The only drawback is that they’re so spectacular that you can get so caught up looking at the scenery that you don’t notice someone sneaking up behind you…
If there’s one aspect of Halo online I’d love to have explored more of, it’s Firefight. To me, playing through the Campaign co-operatively actually dilutes the adventure somewhat; even though co-op play is an option, the atmosphere of a campaign is typically centred around a lone participant. Firefight tweaked gameplay so it more properly suited playing with friends, turning it into a last-ditch stand against an infinite number of enemies. Here was the true adventure I’d been looking for out of multiplayer, especially when my fellow players started communicating and things got desperate. Anniversary may ship with a single Firefight Map – Installation 04, based directly on one of the set pieces from the campaign – but it’s a great map, with many places to hide, gather your strength and outwit the mode’s computer-controlled opponents. Not only that, it features a first since Firefight was introduced with Halo 3: ODST – computer controlled allies.
Sadly, Firefight is too easily undone by lag; I’m always disappointed when my avatar starts ice-skating and I miss shots because my Xbox 360 is off synch with the host.
Remember Reach? Remember the Halo.
Here in 2011, with rumours of the Xbox 360’s successor circulating, Xbox Live arguably the strongest online gaming platform going and Halo 4 due in a year, it’s amazing to remember that a decade ago, Xbox Live didn’t exist, the Xbox was seen as an upstart competitor to Nintendo and Sony and Halo was just one of a lineup of games that launched with the big black (green?) beast.
But few can argue that Halo wasn’t a massive part of the Xbox’s success, if not the primary reason for it. And the reason for that success, in my mind, is because Bungie decided to imbue its game with so much “WOW!” that you couldn’t help having fun, even when you were the only thing between humanity and annihilation. If you’ve not played it before, get it (ask Santa very, very nicely for an Xbox 360 if you have to) and enjoy it. If you have… you know what? It’s still as fun as you remember.
Which of the Halo games is your favourite? What makes it so?
What do you think of re-releasing an older game with new graphics?
Are there any other games which you think nail a mood of adventure? Which ones, and how?
Now that Bungie have handed the reins of the Halo franchise over to 343 Industries (who have a lot of former Bungie employees working for them), do you think Microsoft can keep true to that spirit of adventure?