Late to the Party: Halo Combat Evolved

I’ve been a Halo fan for many years. I’ve lost count of how many hours just dicking around in Reach’s multiplayer back in the early 2010s. Sometimes we would decide to play the campaign and within an hour, we are team killing each other for laughs. Halo 4 though……. eh. It was fine. Enemies seemed dumber than even 3, everything seemed to be source of light including the grass, and Chief being a cold bastard actually became a story element. After that one, I haven’t played the series again….. until I got a Xbox Series S and made my way through Halo Infinite, my GOTY for 2021. After that I decided that I’m making my way through the other Halos I haven’t played yet: 1, 2, and 5. 5 was one of the most passionless games I’ve ever played and 2 was pretty funny. And there was 1. A rough game that made it clear how much the team at Bungie got right on their first try.

I’ve played bits and pieces of the game many times over the years, especially in the multiplayer, but this was the first time I sat down and really dived into the campaign. Is it a masterpiece of level design? No. Is the Flood fun to fight for 2 hours straight? No. Are there a lot of weapons and vehicles? No. Are they balanced? Hell no. But the people at Bungie nailed three things that so many FPS developers struggle with today that help the game stand the test of time and remain so beloved today: the feel of gameplay, the look, and the atmosphere.

The story is pretty light, even for a Halo game. The hero is a super-soldier called Master Chief who lands on a mysterious infrastructure while on the run from a coalition of 4 alien species. As the game progresses, it becomes clear the infrastructure hides far more sinister secrets. It’s generic stuff by 2022, but it’s hammy enough to be entertaining and the visuals/audio help create this ominous vibe that sells what the writing fails to. Look up into the sky and I can see other parts of the ring, the interiors are oppressive, and the creepy music plays as Chief walks through a swamp, letting me know that I am approaching a far worse threat than anything in the game before.

Halo rarely ever gets praised for its visuals, which is fair. Many games released around then have a better look. But what makes it special is the contrast in color of enemies and the environments. Unlike modern games where so many enemies are just grey that blend into the background, everything just pops out. I knew what was a hunter and what was a rock without issue.

Now the most important ingredient of the game is the feel. It just seems right how Chief controls. Auto-aim is tight enough that on consoles, but loose enough that it doesn’t seem like the game is playing itself like modern Rockstar. And though I wish there were more weapons, every single one that’s available is distinct and has their uses. The assault rifle is weak but perfect for taking on swarms of weak enemies, the shotguns can put hunters in their place easily if close enough, plasma grenades are probably my favorite grenades in gaming, etc. They all have their uses for the combat puzzle.

And the enemies? There’s a reason the Covenant aliens are still used today in Halo. Jackals are an entertaining pain in the ass, requiring precision, a willingness to up close, or plasma to take out, hunters create these dance scenarios where it requires a lot of risky behavior to put an end to it quick, and it never gets old seeing grunts scrambling in terror as their elite commanders are eliminated. The flood though, there’s a reason they aren’t used in Halo today. Sure, the first level with them was pretty entertaining. Facing off against mindless entities that care not for self-preservation after facing off against semi-intelligent aliens was a nice change of pace, but it became clear after a while that they were included more to pad the game than anything. So many levels require fighting these fungi and I never could get a good idea how effective my weapons were on them. They just seemed to die inconsistently unless it was the shotgun. And my god, those little Flood things? They never seem to end.

Speaking of flaws, it also really doesn’t help that about have of the levels are just backtracking of previous levels at a different time of day or the place is more wrecked. The Library itself is an embarrassment, with it being so easy to get lost, with flood often coming five waves for every step taken. It’s the only mission I’d encourage people to play on the crappy 343 remaster version instead of the original visual design.

Is Halo the masterpiece that many claim it to be? No, it’s pretty rough around the edges. But it’s a rare classic that controls as well as any modern game. It’s a piece of gaming history worth playing just to see how far the genre has come and how many lessons the genre has forgotten.