Retro Rewind — Halo: Combat Evolved
In our weekly Retro Rewind feature, GameFront examines the best (and worst) that classic games have to offer. Check back every week for forgotten gems, sacred cows, and fresh new insight into the gaming past.
When considering the original Halo, it’s tempting to think on a grand scale: operatic, interstellar conflict between human and Covenant. Millions of copies sold. Tens of millions of multiplayer rounds played.
The game‘s genius, however, lies in the details: the extra shots fired by the rigor mortis of a dying Jackal; sniper bullets caroming off a Hunter’s shield, only to embed in a nearby wall. There’s the impeccable sound design: Elites laughing; Grunts squealing as Master Chief approaches; the game’s otherworldly soundtrack picking up just at the right tension-filled moment.
Out of these many details, it is Halo’s realistic physics that made it such a killer app. They give the game its distinctive, visceral quality, exemplified by the crunch of a rifle butt into the back of an enemy skull, or a disabled Ghost smashing headlong into rock. When gamers in 2001 first saw an explosion change the trajectory of a thrown grenade, they knew they were in for something special.
The game is at its best at the inception, beginning in medias res with cinematic alacrity and the confidence that players will soon be drawn into its story of two megalithic civilizations at war. Early on, stepping out of a crashed escape pod, players are confronted with the sublime sight of Halo arcing endlessly across the sky — a video game vista to put all imitators to shame. That first area encapsulates the sense of wonder that suffuses the game’s early levels, as players explore a strange, alien world with the Covenant hot on their heels.
In 2001, Halo’s craftily designed enemies set new standards for artificial intelligence — Master Chief’s extraterrestrial adversaries throw grenades, lay down suppressing fire, and make effective use of cover. Early in the game, players are introduced to the four building blocks of the Covenant army, and the relatively limited arsenal of weapons. In contrast to other first-person shooters, which tend to dole out bigger and badder enemies and bigger and badder guns to kill them with as the game goes on, Halo simply presents a set of tools, then teaches you how to use them.
There is one obvious exception: The arrival of the Flood halfway through the game forces an abrupt adaption to a new enemy type, and introduces a new weapon (the shotgun) to combat them. It is no coincidence, then, that Library, the game’s dreary, Flood-centric level, is absolutely its worst gameplay section. Halo abandons the precepts make its early stages such a joy; in place of agile Elites and varied, acrobatic tactics, players find themselves stationary, emptying shell after shell into an ever-swelling tide of shambling, infected zombies.
Indeed, with the benefit of a decade of hindsight, it’s possible to identify Halo’s major flaw: the game’s middle third, centered around Library, is just not very good. Players are asked to fight through an unremarkable, repetitive series of octagonal rooms, then retrace their steps a short time later. This pacing dilemma might have been the result of technical concerns; dwindling disc space could easily have necessitated cutting down on the number of environments, and to be fair, the story does a good job of explaining why you have to fight your way back out of an installation you just busted your ass trying to get into.
Bungie also sweetens the second act’s decidedly bland pot by adding well-conceived vehicle-based sections. Halo might not have been the first FPS to feature vehicles, but its groundbreaking physics and AI technology meant that it could do them better than they had been done before. The use of Banshees to add a exciting verticality to certain sections deserves praise. And it doesn’t take long driving a fishtailing Warthog through a fire-fight (with a computer-controlled marine raining death from the turret) to realize the extent of the studio’s accomplishment.
Players actually finish off the game in a Warthog, fleeing a self-destruct countdown in an odd, timed driving section that seems strangely out of place. This sequence is bifurcated by the death of Foe Hammer, convenient source of deus ex machina air support throughout the game, which is clearly meant to be a tragic beat, though the “black bureaucrat” voice acting provided by the aptly named Tawnya Pettiford-Wates is largely pathos-free. Jen Taylor brings a modicum of spunk to the role of Cortana, Master Chief’s A.I. companion, though she is mostly around to provide exposition. Most affecting is the fate of Captain Keyes, grotesquely transformed by the Flood into some sort of brain creature. When Master Chief puts him out his misery, it is both uncanny and sad.
Though Halo was of course a launch title for the original Xbox, the playthrough that informed this review was conducted on PC, thanks to Gearbox Software’s porting efforts. The main difference between the two different versions is felt in the controls; aiming with the mouse results in preternaturally accurate grenade sticks and fidgety vehicle handling. With the settings dialed up, running at 1600×1200 resolution, the game often looks surprisingly contemporary.
Not contemporary enough, apparently. Microsoft is currently preparing Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, an HD remake of their 2001 finest hour, which will be released on November 15th. The announcement has touched off a frenzy of nostalgia — this Retro Rewind joins the Evolution of Halo Wallpaper, and the speed walkthrough on the GameFront YouTube channel to round out a full suite of coverage. Halo may end with the destruction of the game’s titular space station, but its legacy is clearly indestructible.