16 Years of Halo: Combat Evolved

Growing up, I would say that Halo was my favorite video game franchise. It's pretty special for a number of reasons, but I think it mainly had to do with the "maturity" aspect. The Xbox was a brand new piece of hardware unlike anything my eleven-year-old mind had experienced before. It was the "cool, edgy, alternative" console. I mean, just look at the name! Xbox sounds mysterious and badass. GameCube and PlayStation sounded like goofy kids toys by comparison. I had reached the point in my life where I believed I was growing up (I wasn't) and I wanted to be edgy and mature too! I wanted an Xbox. I got a GameCube at launch, but the Xbox was there all the way in the back of my mind. I remember seeing an Xbox tech demo of two cars crashing into each other and another of a mech and thinking that was the most amazing thing ever created. 

When I finally got my Xbox in the summer of 2002 (which I paid for with my own savings), the first game I bought was Oddworld: Much's Oddysee. I think that had mostly to do with the fact that my parents had no intention of buying an M-rated game for an eleven-year-old kid. Halo was pretty much the holy grail, though. I didn't quite know what it was but I knew I wanted it. It was the big hit of 2001, and the game my school friends and the internet wouldn't shut up about. I still remember how I weaseled my way into owning it. I got my parents to rent it for me first, because Blockbuster had those super generic boxes with nothing but the game title on them. Later, I ended up getting a used "Greatest Hits" version from GameStop.

My first experience with Halo was particularly special because it was the first FPS I ever played. Before that, I had basically only seen a friend of mine play Duke Nukem 3D. I had no idea what to expect, and wrapping my head around the dual-stick controls was quite a task for me. I did have a PlayStation with a DualShock, but I barely used the thing. I didn't realize it at the time, but I wasn't alone. As Super Mario 64 revolutionized third person movement, Halo revolutionized first person movement. Well, on consoles at least. But every first person game after that, and to this very day, use the old Halo control scheme.

My first thought was basically, "How the hell do I hit anything?" and my second thought was "Wow, reloading sucks!". Halo was my introduction to first person shooters, and to an entirely new style of gaming. I wanted maturity, and I got it. Everything about Halo was different from games as I previously knew them. Halo had voice acting, an orchestrated soundtrack, and a serious and complex narrative, and I could play it with friends. In fact, one of my earliest Halo memories is playing through the entire game split-screen with my friend during a sleepover. I loved the game so much, that Halo was, in fact, the first game I ever beat. I can still remember beating it, too! The ending Warthog run was really tough for my friend and I because it was pretty difficult to wrap out heads around how to properly control the 'hog. I'm pretty much an expert now, and always end up as the designated Warthog driver when I play Halo with friends, probably because of all the practice I got trying to finish Halo on legendary difficulty. That was another first for me. I beat the game on the hardest difficulty, and it was awesome!

And then there was the multiplayer. I usually only did one-on-one matches back then but I still loved the hell out of it. I once convinced my friend to buy the translucent green edition Halo Xbox just so we could frag each other at his house.

But what made Halo great? What made it so great that, even though it was the first game in the franchise, it still remains the best entry in the series? Obviously, the game left an impression on me, but it's important not to understate the game's importance to gaming in general. Thanks to Halo, the brand new baby Xbox not only survived, but thrived. Thanks to Halo, first person shooters were never the same. Thanks to Halo, LAN parties really blew up. I think we all really know that. But why do I and so many others think it's the best game? Personally, I had my fun with the multiplayer, usually in one-on-one matches with my friends, but that was never really the focus for me. Even when Halo went online, I only really dabbled in the multiplayer aspect. It's not really a fault of Halo's, but because I totally suck. That's not to say I don't have fun with it, but that's a discussion for later.

Right, then. Let's talk campaign. Although Halo was the first FPS I ever played, I had seen other games like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Goldeneye, Half Llife, and the like. Halo starts out like those games, in a very linear first stage aboard the Pillar of Autumn. Right away, a few things are different, though. You've got a rechargeable shield and you can only carry two weapons at a time. This completely changes the way the game is played. It's slower, as you duck in and out of cover, and forces you to use all the game's weapons as you have to work with whatever you encounter in the environment. Then comes Halo's second level. Many gamers will cite this level's importance when talking about the game. Yes, it was pretty mind-boggling at the time that Halo subverts expectations by changing from what we now call a "corridor shooter" to something vastly more open. Wide open! Instead of shooting enemies that pop up in front of you, or having to clear a room to unlock a door and move on, you could approach your enemies from many angles and, in many cases, avoid them altogether. Shortly, the game gives you control of the Warthog, and suddenly you're tackling the mission objectives in any order you want as you drive around an wide canyon. 

This type of level design wasn't just important for being influential to other games, it was integral in creating the feel of Halo. The mix of design philosophies is why many cite this game as being the best. It alternates between tight spaces and wide open ones, sometimes within the same level. In the end, the game may eventually be funneling you to one place to complete your goal, but it makes you feel like you're approaching things your own way. Take "The Silent Cartographer" for example. The entirety of the stage is a single, open island that you can explore at your leisure. The goal, of course, is to infiltrate the structure in the center of the map, but upon first playing it, it feels like that structure was something you discovered on your own because you can explore the whole island. "Assault On The Control Room" drops you in a huge, open canyon full of enemy vehicles and lets you fly all over the place. Even "The Maw" is surprisingly open for an indoor stage, featuring tons of verticality.

Music Evolved

Unfortunately, and for reasons unknown, this type of level design was mostly abandoned in every later Halo game. It's especially strange to watch the franchise basically go backwards as technology moves forwards. The most open game in the series is the original game from 16 years ago on the original Xbox! How crazy is that?

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Halo changed my taste in music. Before I played Halo, I was used to only hearing bleep bloop chiptunes and low quality midis in video games. Halo's high-quality samples gave me a new appreciation for orchestrated music, which I had only ever considered to be classical symphonies as a kid.

Oh, and here's a fun piece of trivia: The Halo soundtrack was the first game score I actively sought out and purchased. It was, as it has been described, ancient, alien, and epic. The perfect score to fit the Metroidy mood of the game. If you go back to compare the soundtracks, you'll notice that Combat Evolve's score stands out just as much as the game for being very different from everything that comes after it. It's much less grand and much more enigmatic. 

Another thing this game did well that hasn't been replicated was its level of intimacy. That's not to say that the story of the game wasn't grandiose because it was about saving the world after all, but it also wasn't an epic space opera just yet. It was the story of a ragtag group of survivors stranded on an alien world. It was much more Metroid in feel than something like Call of Duty. It was mysterious, isolating, and borderline horrific at times. In fact, the sequence at the end in which you escape the exploding ring world by the skin of your teeth really does evoke the same feeling as escaping Zebes. By the time the credits roll, you're the only survivor as far as you know. At this point, you're not the chosen one, or really anyone. It's more like you're a guy who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Nobody else was going to save the world, so it was up to you!

Halo didn't really have a whole lot of context or backstory, but none of that was needed. Nothing in the "Fall of Reach" novel (fun fact: it released the same day as Combat Evolved) was necessary to understand Halo's story. It was simple but interesting, and mysterious in the right ways. Who were the Forerunners? What exactly are these Flood guys? Why do these menacing Covenant want to kill me? It's obvious the game begins in media res, but it works. All you need to know is that the aliens are bad and the ring is bad, so kill everything and blow it up! It was the kind of thing where I wanted to know more, so I ended up reading the books.

Halo: Combat Evolved is one of those games with a weird development history that turned out far better than it probably should have given the circumstance. No other game in the series quite captures the same feeling, and it's that feeling I've been pining for ever since. I hope someday a shooter can capture that feeling, and even better if it happens to be Halo.



Join me next time as I discuss Halo 2, the game that got me into collector's editions.