Halo: Combat Evolved Retrospective

May 31, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews & Features, Xbox, Xbox

Back in March 2002, Microsoft’s first console was released in PAL territories. The Xbox launch was also accompanied by a fairly good selection of games, with the likes of Dead or Alive 3, Amped, Project Gotham Racing and Halo: Combat Evolved. Little did any of us know back then, that the Bungie developed Halo was going to be such an influential and much loved game, thus forever solidifying its place in gaming’s hall of fame.

The Xbox’s launch line-up was really quite decent, giving us all a fair bit of choice as to what to buy with our consoles, although it was perhaps Halo that was the standout game for many early adopters. Following the North American launch of the Xbox, I had heard many praiseworthy comments said about Bungie’s first person shooter, but I didn’t really know what to expect. On launch day, I purchased the console along with Halo and Dead or Alive 3, and upon playing Bungie’s FPS for the very first time, this stunning game made me ecstatic that I had purchased the Xbox on the very first day.

Now, eight years later, having played through the campaign with it fresh in my mind, I have got to say that Halo: Combat Evolved is every bit as good as it was originally. That’s not to say that it was ever perfect; as the game had much to like, but was sadly a whisker or two away from perfection.

But, forgetting about its imperfections for a moment, Halo: Combat Evolved did much work for a relatively young industry, not only carving out elements that would appear in future FPS games but also games in general. The recharging shield, lobbing grenades with a single button, and the tactical choice of which two weapons to carry, were all little things that Halo popularised and that many others would later borrow.

The backdrop of the game was that of the eponymous Halo: a paradisiacal (at least in the great outdoors) planet that had plenty of secrets waiting to be discovered. But it’s not here where the campaign began, instead as the fully-suited Cyber solider Master Chief; we had escaped from the ruins of Reach (covered in the novel Fall of Reach, and Bungie’s upcoming Halo: Reach will also take us back to these sad events) and were aboard the Pillar of Autumn ship. Sadly, the ship was assaulted by an alien breed that we came to learn as the Covenant (a coalition of different alien species), and was then forced to crash-land on the titular planet of Halo. For some, the well acted story was science fiction nonsense, but others drank in its rich and well realised universe.

Master Chief himself was a character of few words, and whilst he may have been later given the mundane name of John, his facial features remained a mystery. There was a certain mystique around the character, though we did learn that he is the last of his kind and that the rest of the Spartan soldiers were wiped out by the Covenant forces on planet Reach. Perhaps this was the very reason as to why he had so little to say in the game, suggesting that he felt very much alone in this imaginative universe.

Anyway, during the early stages of the game we came to learn that the planet Halo is not completely dissimilar from our own. There’s greenery, blue skies and flowing rivers, though later on, the inside of rather dull, repetitive and uninteresting alien structures proved to be quite different from the buildings we are used to here on earth. There were also a few jaunts into ship interiors, not only the Pillar of Autumn (where the game both begins and ends) but also a Covenant ship, as well.

Facing the enemy for the very first time in The Pillar of Autumn, they proved to be a smart bunch: rolling out of the way of grenades and generally running around as if they were putting up a fight for their own survival. Each Covenant type also reacted to you differently, some rushed you for example, others took more caution and there was also a cowardly breed that ran away from you, screaming in a high pitched voice. Then came the Flood.

About half way through the game, Halo became something entirely different. At this point, the Flood were introduced and were a sharp contrast from the smart Covenant army, attacking instead in dangerous numbers, rushing towards you, until they managed to kill you or you killed them. The Flood was a controversial breed amongst fans, as the intelligent gunfights turned into more of a brainless FPS game, and your approach became more Doom like in regards to your relentless shooting. Nonetheless, the Flood came as a nice surprise and the Covenant fortunately reappeared later on, complete with their brains intact.

To combat both the Covenant and the Flood, Master Chief had a protective energy shield and a well balanced arsenal of human and Covenant weaponry. The recharging shield was one of Halo’s greatest successes, whilst Bungie weren’t brave enough to completely do away with health bars and med kits, when the Chief’s shield was down it made you feel very vulnerable, as, until it was given time to recharge, you were in mortal danger and your health bar would then begin to deplete with each hit you took. Halo’s weapons (in which you could only carry two at once) were also a satisfying selection, with a very trusty assault rifle, a powerful close range shotgun and the more otherworldly plasma weapons of the Covenant amongst them. The one button grenade lobbing was also a masterstroke in game design, and the Covenant plasma grenade was a guilty pleasure: a well placed one would stick to enemy bodies, resulting in plentiful chaos.

The last Spartan wasn’t alone for portions of the game either, but was accompanied by a smart bunch of human marines. These guys did their best to stay alive, although seeing their numbers whittled down by the alien races, did make you feel as if you were superior to a normal, flesh and blood human being.

The marines would also accompany you in any vehicle that could contain them, and the said vehicles were another Halo surprise, switching to third person each time you hopped into one. There were human and Covenant forms of transport, including the jeep-like Warthog, the destructive Scorpion tank and the one man flying ship that was the Banshee. The vehicles could be commandeered by both Master Chief and his enemies, although, whilst the Spartan soldier could make use of the enemy transport, you never saw the Covenant AI taking charge of any of the human vehicles. The vehicles also had their own weapons (some of which could be manned by marines) as well, and the controls had you using both sticks, with the vehicles travelling in the direction of the camera. This scheme seemed tricky at first, but when grasped everything made perfect sense, proving itself to be a masterful manner in which to control your machine.

All this stunning action was complemented by one of the greatest soundtracks to be ever heard in a game. Halo’s music was unique, delightful and really quite special. The main theme in particular is as memorable as gaming themes come, and is just as much of a part of Halo as, say, the famous Star Wars theme was to George Lucas’ movies.

So, Halo’s campaign was very, very good and was only let down by some repetitive environments and the controversy of the Flood, but it was also a very strong multiplayer game as well. Obviously it was before Xbox Live came along, so it was limited to split screen and system link, up to four players in the former and sixteen (four connected consoles) in the latter. Sadly, the multiplayer was without any bot options, but the game could be played through the entire campaign with another player at your side and there were various other multiplayer options to delve into: death matches, king of the hill and races amongst them.

When all was said and done, and the dust cloud settled from the destruction of the titular planet, Halo: Combat Evolved was a game that produced many moments of awe. Still to this day, the game remains one of the most truly organic FPS experiences and has influenced the entire industry in more ways than one. In summary, Halo: Combat Evolved is a true great that I’ll always look back fondly on.