Halo: Combat Evolved

Genre: First-Person Shooter

Original Release: November 15, 2001

Developer: Bungie

Publishers: Microsoft Game Studios, MacSoft

Platforms: Xbox, Windows, Mac OS X, Xbox 360, Xbox One (Anniversary, Master Chief Collection), Xbox Series X/S (Anniversary, Master Chief Collection)

Played on: Windows (Master Chief Collection)

Three Marine corpses lie in front of the Master Chief on The Pillar of Autumn, One of the Marines is lodged into a support strut halfway up the wall.
We’re never going to get away from weird physics collisions in video games and I love it so much,

I remember my now brother-in-law visiting us years and years ago. He brought a game for me and said I might like it. That game was Halo: Combat Evolved. I had never heard of it before then, so I had no idea what to expect. Did I read the manual? No. All I did was pop the game into my Xbox and marvel at that menu screen.

The video itself isn’t quite as smooth as I remember the menu being for me, but I think it serves its purpose. Imagine being 10 or 11 and seeing this for the first time.

While I was double-checking which platforms you can currently play Halo on (a lot, unsurprisingly), I found out that Halo ended up selling over six million copies worldwide. That’s pretty darn impressive for a launch title for any console, but I think it’s deserved in this case. I’ll get to that in time though. For now, I want to talk a little bit about the game. Specifically, my experiences from revisiting it via The Master Chief Collection on Steam. I usually like to play games I cover on the original hardware if I can help it, but I moved recently, so my options are limited until I get access to my TV and usual hardware.

So starting out, The Master Chief collection is just that: A compilation of Halo games from Combat Evolved all the way up to Halo 4. ODST and Reach are included there and I had originally planned to cover them in the order that they were available in the collection, but I really did not feel like going into detail about Reach at the time. One day. Anyway, Halo and Halo 2 are actually the remastered Anniversary releases made by 343 Studios. The gameplay is basically the same, but the graphics are remastered.

A concerned Captain Jacob Keyes weighs his options in the opening cutscene of Halo: Combat Evolved before ordering the ship go to Combat Alert Alpha.
Captain Keyes looks…too good here. To me anyway. I’m used to that janky look of early-ish 3D models that showed how much effort the developers were putting into making them move naturally before we figured it out. You know, where their jaw moves with every syllable.

I’m always a bit conflicted when it comes to remasters. Maybe it’s me being nostalgic for my childhood when things were a lot simpler, but there’s a certain charm to those days of early 3D that I just don’t find in a lot of modern games. Like my sister gets freaked out by characters talking in Fable because only a small part of their face moves as their mouth opens and closes, but I’m so used to it that I just smile. nowadays a lot of games have incredibly detailed models that just look better and better with each iteration. NieR: Automata and Super Mario Odyssey are great examples of that, and I’m sure you can think of others. I’m a bit of a stickler though, better graphics don’t automatically mean I’m going to like the next installment more. And sometimes that makes me leery of purported remasters.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is one of those cases. Not only are the graphics updated, but so are the sound choices. It was still Halo at its core, but all of those changes didn’t feel right to me. The assault rifle didn’t have that almost buzz-like punch behind its shots and the pistol looked too imposing. Fortunately, 343 Studios did something that I wish a lot of other remasters would do: they included an option to switch between the remastered and original graphics with the press of a button. And this even changes the sounds back! I’ve never been so happy to be playing an uglier version of a game.

Two Covenant Elites look around the Pillar of Autumn's cryo chamber for Master Chief, who has since left. Cortana, the local AI, comments that they were hoping to catch Master Chief sleeping.
The Elites are so comparatively simple and polygonal. I’m a happy Jazzy.

The only thing missing that would have made my experience complete would be the old loading screens from the original release.

Fun fact: the progress of the blue bar indicated how much the game had loaded thus far. If for some reason the Xbox couldn’t read the disc, the blue bar would stand still and eventually go backward before it displayed the relevant error message.

Enough strolling down memory lane though, let’s talk about the game itself. Halo has four difficulties: Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary. Each difficulty has its own descriptor, with Legendary’s including the phrase “this is suicide.” They’re not joking either, you’re going to die a lot on Legendary. So because I am a masochist but value my time to some extent, I opted for Heroic instead. Little did I realize that wouldn’t help much. I died so many times, most of which were because I didn’t notice the grenades around where I had just thrown one and got too close to the chain reactions. It was funny, but still hurt my soul nonetheless. So if it’s your first time playing the game, may I suggest Normal just to get a feel for the controls? Easy is fine too, but don’t get cocky and do what I did. I don’t care how good you are at shooters, just dial it back and learn the dang game first.

The story itself…I’m not really sure how best to describe it. Apparently the prequel novel Halo: The Fall of Reach came out two weeks prior to the game’s release and provides some background, but I didn’t read that until years later so my understanding of the lore is…fragmented to say the least. Anyway, Halo picks up immediately after the events of The Fall of Reach. A human UNSC cruiser dubbed The Pillar of Autumn is coasting through space and stumbles upon the titular Halo just before Covenant forces find them and begin to attack. As part of the countermeasures, Captain Keyes orders the player character, a super soldier named Master Chief, be roused from his sleep in a cryo tube as the troops do everything they can to repel the invaders. It…doesn’t really work though. Once Master Chief makes his way to the bridge to meet with Captain Keyes, the latter orders the removal of the ship’s AI, Cortana, to prevent her from falling into Covenant hands and risking the loss of Earth as a result.

Another fun fact for you: Cortana originally had much shorter hair. She was also much less opaque. We’ll get there though.

And here we finally get a gun to defend ourselves! It’s go-time! Sort of. We don’t have any ammo at first. But once we get some ammo then we’re ready to start making heads roll. Halo is one of the first games I can recall that limited you to two guns rather than as many as you could carry like you would see in GoldenEye, Doom, or Wolfenstein, but it works. You’ve got a small complement of human and alien weaponry that you can use, and each feels different enough to make them unique. The plasma pistol, for example, can be charged to fire off a massive blast that will instantly deplete any shield it hits (and in later installments it also disables vehicles temporarily), the assault rifle is a 60-round semi-automatic beast of a gun that’s great for chipping away at shields on Elites, and the shotgun is my baby thanks to its ability to tear through basically everything in front of it. Admittedly, playing Escape from Tarkov has kind of ruined my expectations in regards to shotgun functionality, but I’ll talk about that another time. All you need to know for now is that the guns are satisfying to use, though I find some are more useful than others.

Another thing I really like about Halo is its environmental design. The remaster likes to spruce things up with some extra foliage, but nothing quite beats the simplicity of the original designs for me. The grass was just a flat texture along the ground, so you didn’t risk losing a gun if you accidentally swapped one of yours out for one along the ground while trying to reload. The rock walls were flat, and the metal walls in caves and tunnels felt a little more alien thanks to how plain they were. Heck, even the light bridge felt somewhat uncanny because of its simplicity. As if it were just put there for utilitarian purposes.

I mean it’s still impressive, but having so little around the bridge in question just adds to that unnatural, uncomfortable feel.

As with everything though, Halo isn’t perfect. It hasn’t aged horribly, but man Bungie learned so much as they went. There are some phenomenal moments throughout the game (of particular note is the stage 343 Guilty Spark. If you know, you know), and the environments are great, but even all this time later I still find myself getting turned around regularly. There are waypoints if you get stuck for too long, but sometimes it’s as simple as realizing you’re supposed to go the direction opposite the way the arrow on the floor is suggesting. Some of the environments look a little samey, but it also makes sense considering that Halo itself is an alien structure that serves a purpose discussed later in the game. The checkpoints can feel a bit sparse at times and it starts to get really grating to hear Cortana give you the same bit of advice over and over if you die before hitting another checkpoint, but this is also just something with games that I’ve never liked (similar to seeing the Slug in Dead Space: Extraction and the associated dialogue there). The music is excellent and the story takes itself seriously while also having some fun moments interspersed throughout. Honestly, Cortana steals the show a lot of the time.

Her hair was so short. I always figured the redesign was supposed to indicate that AIs could age or grow their hair out. Maybe I’m just crazy, but I think it was a good look for her.

And of course on higher difficulties it can feel like even the slightest mistake punish you way more than is fair. Medpacks are scattered throughout the stages to keep your health up, but sometimes you get hit by so many things at once that Master Chief drops like a fly. This is really why I suggest Normal at the highest for first-time players. It should still provide a challenge if you’re unfamiliar, but also allow you to get your feet wet and make a few mistakes without falling into the same hole I did of “misplaced a grenade? Start again! Missed that one grunt off to the left here? Start again!”

If I had to sum my experience with Halo up in a few words, they would probably be “intense, fun, but rough at points.” All told Halo is a very good game and its legacy speaks for itself, but I find myself wondering what would happen if it were released today. How would it be different? How would shooters in general have evolved? Would we still be on the same track we are today, or would things be radically different? No matter how you slice it, Halo is an important piece of gaming history. A lot of later games would draw inspiration from it and yet none of them really hit quite the same for me. So I feel it’s reasonable to provide Halo with my seal of approval.

If you’re able to do so, I’d suggest checking Halo out for yourself. Even if that means just watching some gameplay on YouTube because you aren’t sure it’ll be your cup of tea and you don’t want to drop the money on The Master Chief Collection, that’s totally fine. But please take some time to learn about it and think about what games have been influenced by it. You might be surprised. I’m not trying to be coy here, you might actually be surprised because I sure don’t have any specific examples off the top of my head. I just really enjoy Halo and want to share that with people. Heck I might just do a playthrough on YouTube myself once I get access to my recording equipment again.

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