Twenty Years of Halo: Halo Combat Evolved

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios
Halo: Combat Evolved was developed by Bungie and ported by Gearbox and 343 Studios
Destiny 2 was developed by Bungie

I don’t remember what year I got this game, but it was the PC version that I played back in the day and I loved every second of it!  Well… at least every second that I could remember.  The first couple of stages of this game are etched into my memory clear as day, but there’s a general fuzziness around this game outside of the top notch moment to moment action.  The whole point of me doing this series is that I clearly remember having a GREAT time with this game and the third one, but so much of it is hazy and without context so now’s the time to really sink my teeth into this game and try to understand I found so engaging about it all those years ago!

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We’ll get into how it connects to The Fall of Reach soon enough, but narratively the game does a great job of getting you right into the action and not fussing too much with the details.  Without knowing the first thing about the Spartan project, MJOLNIR armor, or even the name of the enemy, it’s almost second nature to put yourself into the main character and start playing the role of the unflappable badass who can fire big guns and punch alien baddies with the force of a jackhammer!  Perhaps you may not have seen Aliens or Starship Troopers when you first played this game, but the whole idea of SPACE MARINES and wars with aliens is deeply ingrained in popular culture (at least here in the US) and creates a great foundation to build a franchise off of; allowing the overly familiar setup to do much of the heavy lifting while also providing more than enough context of the much bigger world we’re in and the stakes going forward.  Master Chief as well works on this level of rehashing old tropes to build something new.  His design is instantly iconic with the metallic green armor and the reflective faceplate who still conveys personality through body language and the performance of Steve Downes without giving us TOO much detail that you can’t easily slip into his character.  What do you know about the Chief going into this game?  Absolutely nothing, and yet more than enough.  He’s the hero who’s there to kick butt and take names.  His job is to protect his fellow soldiers and to fight the bad guys which makes him a useful blunt object that the UNSC relies on, but also one that is nearly manipulated into unspeakable evil by the eventual antagonist of the story.

“So we get the Index, activate Halo, and then we all get cake?”     “Sure, buddy!  Sounds like a plan to me!”

For the purposes of this series I replayed the game on the Master Chief collection with original graphics and then skimmed it with the updated graphics.  I guess if I wanted the most AUTHENTIC revisit of the series I would have played the original release, but there’s way I was going to dig out my old Halo disc and find the CD code that I surely lost almost two decades ago, and from what I understand there’s almost nothing added to this game outside of graphical and sound enhancements.  Now I haven’t exactly kept up with all the latest trends in first person shooters, but to this day I’m hard pressed to think of a shooter franchise that feels THIS good to play.  I mean I’m still an old mark for the simplicity of Goldeneye but I wouldn’t say that it’s a game that feels timeless or even comparable to the modern shooters, but with Halo I have no problem doing that.  If you want a broad answer to why that is, I’d say that it comes down to animation.  The enemies move in unique and instantly recognizable ways that make them feel more significant and REAL than copy pasted dudes with machine guns we see with a lot of modern shooters which makes each encounter feel like it means something other than yet another shooting gallery.  On top of that, Master Chief moves at a perfect speed for the pace of the action, and his animations still look good to this day as well as the timing for reloads, the timing for grenades, and the little flourishes when switching weapons.  Okay, the original textures don’t look up to date, but the way he reloads his shotgun, the way the needles jut out of the needler when it’s finished reloading, it all still looks good and engages me far more than a lot of modern shooters outside of MAYBE the recent output from Bethesda like Wolfenstein and Nu Doom.   The sound as well is still iconic, though I didn’t realize that you could CHOOSE between updated and retro sounds when I replayed them, but even if things sounded crisper and the music a bit fuller, it’s still all based on the sounds from the original game and like the animation it fits perfectly with the action.  I still love the loud bombast sound of the MA5D assault rifle followed the bone crunching smash of hitting a grunt in the face with its butt, and it’s yet another testament to what Bungie accomplished two decades ago.  Speaking of things accomplished two decades ago, this may still be pure nostalgia speaking but I prefer the original graphics to the new one.  There’s nothing wrong with the new designs, but there’s also a sterile alien edge to the original that gives it a unique look that I wouldn’t want to replace.

The campaign itself still holds up for the most part and has a solid amount of variety.  The self-contained nature of the story as just a very strange aside within the context of a greater war makes it much easier to follow than I originally remember it being, and there’s a clear sense of purpose and progression for most of the levels.  The second level in particular has a great blend of free roaming movement and linear objectives that you don’t see enough of these days; if you’ll forgive me getting up on my soapbox for a moment.  Once again, aside from Bethesda’s output which is a lot more focused on single player experiences, first person shooters tend to either have token and extremely linear campaigns or are live service collect-a-thons with no clear progression or end goal in sight.  This is the problem I had with Bungie’s Destiny 2 which has a lot of the right mechanics to it and definitely feels like an up to date version of Halo, but everything else in that game just kept getting in the way.  Don’t use guns because they work in a situation but because they have bigger damage numbers.  Don’t follow a set of quests and instead have the “Freedom” of plopping in the middle of a map and try to navigate the weird menus to find SOME semblance of purpose.  To get back to Halo, I never got the sense that I was hopelessly searching for a reason to be there and they accomplished this without dragging me by the nose.  Perhaps one or two more objective markers wouldn’t have gone amiss as there were a few moments here and there where I got turned around in some of the levels, but it’s the kind of fine-tuned linear experience that is getting harder to find nowadays.

Why are there so many boxes!?  Can’t I just shoot things without worrying if I’m shooting them with maximum efficiency!?

There are a few things that aren’t quite as rosy as I remember them; particularly the second half which feels a bit tedious and is perhaps why I only seem to have remembered the game up to a point.  The Flood are interesting in concept but at least in this game I don’t find them that interesting to fight and their introduction means the much more dynamic and fun Covenant forces are fewer and further between.  That, and things lean a bit TOO much into fetch quest mode with having to find go to three different generates on a map we’ve already visited; though I will give them credit of adding a degree of verticality to those stages that at least kept that segment from feeling TOO repetitive.  Also, it ends on a bit of a squib as the final boss is a weirdly convoluted four step fetch quest that will almost certainly require you to backtrack just to have the supplied necessary to complete it.  I suppose it’s not the kind of game where you want a SUPER MEGA HEAVY to show up out of nowhere to have a fight in a spacious battle arena, but I MIGHT have preferred it over the annoyingly fiddly grenade section.  Now I say “Final Boss” but there’s actually a segment after that which is a LITTLE bit more exciting but not much better   as it’s a race against time in one of the warthogs.  Now I love driving the warthog into the middle of a combat scenario, but trying to precision drive with such floaty controls is like trying to run a race wearing shoes filled with mashed potatoes.

And thus the war was lost that day when the Master Chief FLIPPED HIS CAR OVER FOR THE FOURTH TIME IN TWO MINUTES!  COME ON!!

Story wise, it’s actually pretty easy to follow so I honestly have no idea what my issue was all those years ago (and as recently as four years ago).  I guess it just didn’t really sink in for me that Halo was a planet with vastly different biomes so going from forest and beaches to a snowy mountain was enough for me to just focus on the gameplay, and my biggest revelation this time (one that should have been obvious, but here we are) is that the structures we enter throughout the game are not Covenant strongholds but built as part of Halo’s control system; sort of like the underground city below Disney Land!  It’s ultimately two sides in a relatively insignificant war playing with forces they don’t understand as the terrors of Halo slowly reveal themselves as the game goes along; first with The Flood and then with the Galaxy destroying power of its weapons system.  Now there are still a FEW things that feel a bit off like just how many reinforcements are on call despite the Pilar of Autumn being the only UNSC ship and it crashing onto the planet, or how the Mater Chief just leaves Cortana in the control room when there are Covenant forces all over the place, but for the most part they do a good job of covering all their bases in the story and my haziness on the narrative was almost certainly due to inattentiveness.

“Are you saying we should shoot it, or should we throw a grenade at it?”     “Not every problem can be solved with munitions, Chief!”     “Okay, you’re starting to lose me again.”

Speaking of the story, how does it fit with the larger canon that was first established in The Fall of Reach?  For the most part its fine, but the one big snag that’s hard to get past is just how different of a character Chief is in this game than he was in the book.  True, some of it could be my own projection onto the character and I’ll probably get a better feel for him in the official novelization of the game, but the Chief in here seems seasoned and human in a way that he most certainly wasn’t in Fall of Reach.  He has wit, he has a genuine rapport with Cortana, and he doesn’t strictly follow orders; choosing to do what’s right in the situation despite Keyes telling him to do something else.  The Chief from that first book would have gotten far more lost and confused in this scenario than the Chief we get in the game and I can only hope that the books going forward will pull more from this game than Nyland’s original conception.  The one thing that could have bridged the gap though and made it feel much more congruous is if there was a significant amount of time between the end of the book and the start of the game.  Sadly both the book and the game confirm its mere weeks if not days after the attack on Reach, but if they HAD put a lot of time between then and now I think it would have done a lot to justify the change in his character.  Reach changed him and over time he became less stringent on following procedure to the letter and seeing the bigger picture in each situation.  Heck, he doesn’t even salute Keyes when he comes out of cryo-sleep which the Chief from Fall of Reach did instinctively to pretty much everyone he saw throughout the book; a change that could be interesting if justified with a greater span of time between stories but instead feels like a miscommunication between the author and the developers.

“And you seem to have pulled that stick out of your butt!”     “It wouldn’t fit in the cryo-tube”

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RETRO REVIEWS

Reading up on the reviews from the time (IGN, Gamespot, etc), they echo a lot of my issues, many a repetitive third act and the occasional spot that’s easy to get lost in, but they also praised the animations which feels a bit validating for me since that’s what stuck out to me the most.  They also put a lot of emphasis on the way the game’s events are triggered and how good a job they do at pushing the character forward with music cues hitting at just the right moments and chapter titles coming up right before an important moment.  True enough, those moments worked very well at creating that cinematic atmosphere in the game and I’m pretty sure it’s something that carried on to the sequels.  The one thing that kind of caught my attention though is that most of them referred to Master Chief as a cyborg which is incorrect… at least I think so?  A cyborg usually means someone with metal enhancements INSIDE of them while Master Chief just wears a suit of armor.  True he’s got GENETIC enhancements, but all that means is he’s more or less what you’d get if you took Iron Man and Captain America and smooshed them together; neither of which you’d call a cyborg.

He takes off his helmet to reveal… ANOTHER HELMET! HALO SHOCK!

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Twenty years later and the first game in this franchise still pretty darn incredible, but now that Bungie had a certifiable hit on their hands where do they go from here; and who else might be inspired to build on their creation!?  The next game doesn’t come out until 2004 and the merchandise machine was already rolling out new content to satiate fans, so we’ve got quite a few things to look at before we get to Halo 2.  Join me next week to see where the books take the series while development begins on the sequel!

Next: The Flood & First Strike
Previous: The Cortana Letters & The Fall of Reach

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