In 2001 Bungie Studios released Halo Combat Evolved a first person shooter for the original Xbox and it sold fairly well, certainly enough to warrant a sequel… then another, another one, tons of DLC, and spin off games, comic books, and novels.
The game is set in the year 2552 and humanity is engaged in a somewhat one sided war against a group of aliens called the Covenant. You play as the Master Chief (John 117) a man who was kidnapped when he was five years old by the UNSC military, along with many others, to be turned into a super soldier. After a decade of training those that didn’t die, were horribly disfigured, or runaway, were turned into the Spartan IIs (the UNSC are the good guys right?). After a battle that results in the death of nearly all his fellow Spartans, and the destruction of a human colony called Reach, Master Chief and the Halcyon class cruiser ‘The Pillar of Autumn’ are forced to make a ‘blind’ jump into an unknown star system.
As if they couldn’t have guessed, this unknown star system winds up containing a giant ring-like weapon capable of wiping out all life in the galaxy and is filled with a race capable of consuming all life it comes across and is monitored by a mechanical floating eyeball with legion of drones under his command, that has gone completely insane because he was left with no one to talk to for thousands of years. As the super soldier left standing it is up to you to destroy the weapon and hopefully save humanity… and you’re expected to do this, initially at least, unarmed.
In all seriousness the idea of starting the game unarmed was a good one, it allowed the player to slowly become accustomed to the controls. After all, back in 2001, first person shooters (FPS from now on) were generally only found on the PC due to the difficulties surrounding a console controller. For some people, myself included, this was the first time they had played an FPS on a console and needed to be introduced slowly. A controller is still no match for a mouse and keyboard but Bungie was able to cather the controls to the Xbox’s controller. Yes, Goldeneye was a big success on the N64, but for many the control scheme just wasn’t fit for purpose. Halo, with its smooth and intuitive controls, brought a genre to an entire generation of gamers and could be thank/blamed for the large amount of shooters currently being sold on consoles.
Strangely Halo did not start it’s life as the FPS we all know and love, it started life as a Real Time Strategy Game for the Mac. While the models are some what different the names such as Wraith and Warthog were still there and the game was still focused on the eternal conflict between humans and aliens. After months of development and mastering the art of making marines barrel roll across the field they turned it into a Third Person Shooter and this is when the ‘Halo’ so to speak began to emerge – all players needed to do was look up at the sky and they could see it.
Many names had been thrown around, such as Covenant and Red Shift, but they decided to name their creation after the giant space hula-hoop the game would be set on. With only a year and a bit until the game’s release, Bungie once again changed their game, this time into a FPS due to issues that they were having issues with the camera. This would prove to be one of their best decisions ever, given the impact this direction would have on the gaming industry.
Before Halo came out it was fairly common in shooters for the player to be able to carry an unrealistic amount of weapons, ammo and assortment of items. For example, in Doom you could carry a red key to open the red door, a blue key to open the blue door and the yellow key to – you guessed it – open the yellow door. But Halo was different you could only carry two weapons and a total of eight grenades (four frag and four plasma). Instead of keys upon keys you had an A.I assistant who could make her own ones that usually took just long enough to create for you to kill two or three waves of enemies. This concept of limiting the player’s choice of tools would create whole new ways of thinking; gamers now had to think carefully about what they picked up, tailoring their loadouts to suit each encounter or, you know, just kill everyone with the pistol, whichever was preferable.
It was also standard affair to regain health from med-packs or some sort of terminal on the wall (see Half Life) but in Halo the protagonist just regained his hit points after not being shoot at for a few seconds. This helped to keep the pace even as the game slowly rose up the difficulty curve. No longer would a player be forced to backtrack through miles of corridor to find that one med-pack they had passed on for just such an emergency. Granted Halo still had a health and med-pack system, but due to the overlay of shields the need to find med-packs was not as necessary as it had been before.
Both of these concepts have become pretty standard throughout the shooter genre – sure some mix it up by giving you three weapon slots instead of two, or maybe break your health bar into five individual boxes that regenerate individually, but they all still stem from this model. The age of carrying around an armoury of guns and regarding med-packs as if they were more precious than gold was slowly disappearing.
It can be argued that having regenerating health makes the game too easy, because it means you can be more reckless with little to no consequence, but I think that this mechanic works in Halo because, unlike many the others who use the same system, Halo puts you up against enemies that can regenerate shields too. This forces the player to press on with the attack, to keep fighting even if their shields are blinking red, because if they retreat they’ll end up back where they started, but this time with fewer resources and without the element of surprise. This can give the player an incredible sense of accomplishment time and time again when they kill their last foe with little to no health. Of course this isn’t to say this didn’t happen before Halo, it’s just nice to not have to go looking for a med-pack afterwards.
Bungie has always been good at encouraging its community and Halo has by far one of biggest and most creative community in all of gaming. How many people recorded and sent in videos of them attempting to do what no man has done before, getting a Warthog into space with lots of explosions? When players discovered a rather useful glitch – if you look all the way down your character model’s head shoots back up, with the added bonus of his weapon still pointing down – Halo Machinima was born and the web was overloaded with sketches, mini series and even full blown weekly shows using this technique. The most successful of them all was Roosterteeth and their wonderful master piece that is Red Vs Blue (watch an episode below).
Of course the community wasn’t just using Halo to create projects of varying quality and humour, they were using it to kill each other in a virtual environment. When Halo was released Xbox-Live was still…well it…basically it wasn’t finished and anyone wanting to kill their friend with a MA5B rifle to the face had to go round said friend’s house. The fact the fans were taking the additional effort to organise/run LAN parities for up to 16 people is a testament to the game’s addictive multiplayer.
As I mentioned earlier the team at Bungie only had roughly a year to finish Halo because Microsoft wanted it to be a launch title for their new console and really you don’t say no to Microsoft. This lack of time is no more telling than in the game’s level design. Many rooms and corridors are repeated again and again to help build entire sections, even a few of the levels are reused. The game’s weapons have no bearing on their real life counterparts, for instance, the Assault Rifle holds to much ammo and fires like an SMG, the Pistol works like a Rifle, the Shotgun holds far too much ammo.
But it’s all of this and more that gives the game it’s charm, there’s something about getting a headshot from over 300 metres away with a pistol and filling an Elite with a whole clip of MA5B bullets that puts a smile on my face. This level of enjoyment makes you overlook the level design and one or two other shortcuts made to get the game released on time. It’s a shame that not all games produced to meet a short deadline turn out so well (I’m looking at you movie tie-in games).
While there have been many other Halo games with better graphics, an stronger narrative, the ability to stylishly board an enemy vehicle and so on, as far as I am concerned Halo Combat Evolved is by far the most fun game and has by far some of most memorable moments in the entire franchise. It’s no wonder that Halo introduced the console shooter to so many gamers, who have no doubt gone on to play Call of Duty, Borderlands, Fallout 3 and countless others. Even if you don’t like Halo one thing cannot be denied, Halo Combat Evolved helped to chart a course that took the gaming industry along with millions of gamers on a ride that still sailing as of now.
Hail to the Chief!