VGamingLate: Halo Combat Evolved
Created by Bungie, and stuck in development hell for nearly 7 years, Halo: Combat Evolved released to critical acclaim as an Xbox launch title in 2001 (for us Europeans, it released in 2002, but that’s by the by), and set a number of standards that are seen in console shooters to this very day. Even now, the Xbox launch title, and the numerous sequels it has spawned, sits as one of the highest rated franchises on Metacritic. Apparently Halo is one of those games that you have to play before you die.
I say apparently because up until a few months ago, I’ve never so much as held the box in my hands, let alone played a single minute of it. You see, in the 20 years since the Master Chief made his debut on Microsoft’s first home console, I’ve been busy making excuses not to play the darn thing. It’s not because I don’t have any interest in first-person shooters – quite the opposite – I’m old enough to have played the original Doom when it was released on the PC in the 90s, and I thoroughly enjoyed Unreal Tournament in the early 2000s, and heck, I’ve put more hours into Bungie’s current space epic, Destiny 2, than I care to count. I actually chalk up not playing Halo to being a teenager and not having the money to risk on a new, unknown player in the market, and putting all my faith in the more established Sega and the Dreamcast. Yep, I completely bet on the wrong horse with that one. But times change, and now I’m a fully fledged ‘adult’ I was able to chuck £20 on an original Xbox and a few games that came with it at a carboot sale, and it was time to see what I was missing out on after all of those years.
Playtime: 1-3 hours
Getting started was an adventure in itself, as the game didn’t want to be played at all, and I had to make sure the disc was absolutely spotless before it even loaded up. I don’t know if that was a feature of the original Xbox but it annoyed me to the point of almost giving up before I’d even chosen my difficulty level. But I persisted and got the game working, and… well I don’t know if you have played Halo recently, but the opening cutscene definitely hasn’t aged well. Characters look like blocky polygons akin to the Canadians from South Park with their mouths either open, or shut. I know, it’s a harsh critique considering this was the very beginning of the 128-bit era, but first impressions count and I couldn’t initially see what all the fuss was about.
At any rate, the opening cutscene was to set up the story, where alien bugs known as The Covenant have attacked a spaceship called “Pillar of Autumn”. The Pillar is about to collapse so the dear Captain decides to wake Master Chief (that’s me), up from his slumber in order for him to save Cortana, an AI system that holds all of Earth’s defence secrets, while he gets the marines safely to a nearby planet.
To begin with, the janky graphics and wooden lines such as “Here, take my pistol, I never have it loaded so you’re going to have to find ammo”, reminded me of the late 1990s B-movie Starship Troopers. I half expected a cut away to a small child shouting “I’m doing my part”, but alas it didn’t happen.By the time all of the cutscenes and obligatory control walkthrough is complete, you’re given the reigns to start shooting stuff and this is where my skepticism quickly fell away. The combat was instantly fluid and the movement was perfectly balanced and silky smooth. Aiming was a delight and the triggers on the controller felt satisfying to press whether shooting or lobbing grenades at the bugs. It goes to show thatfirst impressions aren’t everything and I was already enjoying myself, just a few minutes in.
As the spaceship started exploding around me (Spoiler Alert… LOL), I ended up on a thin, ring shaped planet that looks suspiciously like a Halo. Knowing this little fact was like taking my first step towards being initiated into the Freemasons – I had learned a secret only a select few know.
When landing on the vast open environment, things really start to kick into gear. My mission isn’t to destroy anything that moves, but rather look for survivors, and by this point I’m surprised that Halo: Combat Evolved isn’t the game I thought it would be. After such a hammy opening I thought we’d be in for a mindless shooter, set in a ridiculous backdrop that took itself far too seriously, but it’s rather the opposite. Halo really doesn’t care if it appears ridiculous, nor does it stick to conventional norms of shooting bugs, as the name suggests, this is an evolved form of combat. Instead it’s a huge open world that lets you approach the game in any order you like, although it does prefer if you follow the in-game markers.
Playtime: 4-6 hours
I’ve been exploring the Halo for a few hours now and my expectations are in tatters. I’ve been sauntering around a giant open world, enjoying the sights and trying to save as many survivors from the earlier ship wreckage as possible. I found a buggy which was cool to drive, even if the controls were a little fiddly.
I did find myself getting angry at the people around me during my teenage years for not putting an Xbox controller in my hands and getting me to play this game. I can feel myself writing harshly worded MySpace messages and I’m taking out a squadron of bugs. Speaking of which, the enemies faced in the opening levels are limited to either scurrying evil Ewoks that can be stepped on, or overdramatic locusts that, when shot, sound like a child who has stubbed their toe on a cushion. They may have been limited in design but they were a delight to listen to, and then blast in the face with your weapon of choice.
Speaking of weapons, oh boy was I impressed with the variety on offer. The rifle was the standard weapon and did its job just fine, but picking up one of the many Covenant guns was where the fun started. The sniper felt like a beast to control and the reload felt like it had heft to it. The variety of grenades and powerups completed the package nicely, but my favourite had to be the gun with the spikes that had homing and delayed explosive qualities (you know the one), as I’d fire at a few unwitting enemies as I was running for cover, and the confusion before inevitable explosion was highly amusing.
As the story progressed, a simple search and rescue turned into something more nefarious. Bungie had built a lore around the Halo planet and it became clear that it was the gatekeeper to something more horrific, and it was up to the Chief and Cortana to put an end to it. As the story unravelled into a battle to save the galaxy, which is a simplification of what happened, as you seasoned professionals will understand, I found myself absolutely enthralled with the story from the moment I arrived on the Halo ring, until the final moment I escaped from it.
The more Halo took shape, the more it became clear that it had a depth that only a few established series, like Legend of Zelda or Star Wars, had displayed at the time. It had that epic feel which was accompanied by a blistering soundtrack, most of which I’ve since heard from like reveal trailers and various video game concerts etc. I’m sure if I’d have played the game first rather than hearing the opening bars to the intro a thousand times prior, it would have aroused some more powerful emotions, but listening to it in context was still rather fitting.
While the story could be wrapped up in one game, playing through the title felt like this was always meant to be a series, no matter what the sales figures or finance lackeys told the developers. Yes, I have the benefit of hindsight and we all know how the game panned out, but the world building introduced was thought through from the off and part of that lore made me want to learn more.
My first interaction with the Master Chief might have come twenty years after most people’s, but I now get the hype. The controls for this first person shooter are impeccable and something that other developers are still trying to imitate today. The world building and lore behind the game lifts Halo above the mindless shooters that litter every console, and the fact it never takes itself too seriously means we have a down to Earth game… Ironically set in space. While Halo Combat Evolved is not perfect – visually it is certainly a relic of its time and the vehicle controls are a bit guff – I can absolutely see why people hold the game in as high regard as it is, heck I went straight onto eBay and purchased the sequel as the credits were still rolling.