Halo: Combat Evolved Retrospective

To my left is a dinosaur with a shotgun. To my right is a monkey with a flamethrower. I’m a futuristic space marine with a pistol, somewhere in Guatemala, circa 1920. I circle around the arena, shooting everything in sight. Shooting feels decent but rather unspectacular; it was always far superior in my mind. I continue to fire aimlessly and, somehow, end the match in a respectable third place, but I can’t help shake the feeling of disappointment; this game isn’t what it once was, it’s aged terribly.

This is Timesplitters 2, what once was my favourite FPS of all time. My recent nostalgic trips to classic shooters like Black, Goldeneye and, of course, Timesplitters, have brought me more sorrow than joy. A general feeling of apathy towards first person shooters is prevalent in the modern day, primarily thanks to the fact that there’s just so darn many of them. But the buttery smooth gameplay of Call of Duty and large online warfare of Battlefield is testament to the significant progression and innovation the genre has seen.

Halo is often heralded as the best of its genre, and Bungie’s sci-fi adventure is synonymous with Xbox. It’s a game I’ve always been ashamed to admit I’ve never played. Well, that’s not strictly true. A short twenty minute stint of Halo 3 on my roommate’s 360 proved to be a dull experience; “I have no housemate” was the reply I received upon informing said roommate that “Halo is average.” With a distinct lack of experience with the series, and given my recent disappointment with classic shooters of the past, I approached Halo: Combat Evolved with a justifiably good degree of pessimism.

It turns out I needn’t have worried.

Master Chief: an icon and arguably the face of Xbox. For someone of such high esteem, he’s a fairly insipid character. Beneath the metallic, green exterior lies a laconic man; he’s a man of few words, and most of those words aren’t particularly memorable.

“Halo is finished?” Cortana says to him on one occasion.

“No, I think we’re just getting started,” he replies.

Of course.

The story, too, is fairly underwhelming. The Covenant, an evil race of aliens, plan to use Halo, a gigantic ring of mass destruction, to blow everything up, or something. It’s not particularly interesting and nor is it well told, but it doesn’t matter. What Halo lacks in plot and lore it makes up for in every other facet of its being.

Halo’s gameplay is outstanding. Weapons pack just the right amount of punch and there’s a good incentive to use all of them (except that useless plasma pistol). Devoid of features that are now deemed as basic necessities in any FPS doesn’t pose a problem either. There’s no ADS and no sprint, but Halo never shows its age.

Good gameplay is married with equally good level design. A linear game by definition, but Master Chief is given plenty of room to stretch his legs. Mini sandboxes subvert all fears of yet another corridor shooter, and the threat of both the Covenant and the Flood ensure that you’re always on the move.

Halo’s enemies showcase a degree of intelligence that’s well beyond their time. Even on normal difficulty I found the challenge plentiful, with enemies using grenades, equipment and movement, individual or in groups, to flank and outnumber me; my survival and progression was dependent on implementing a variety of different strategies. Only a smattering of levels late on showcase repetitive level design, with a pattern of circular room, walkway, circular room, walkway, repeated on one too many an occasion.

And the music (everybody mentions the music); there’s a big tick here, too. It’s not rare to see a game’s score become subservient to the multitude of explosions, gunfire and the rallying cries of soldiers. Halo’s music is, yet again, outstanding. It isn’t subverted by gunfire, nor does it rise prominently above it, it mixes together beautifully with the futuristic warfare; the orchestral soundtrack heightens every firefight with the Covenant and intensifies every encounter with the Flood.

Halo is great. Halo is really great.


I’ve returned to many a classic game and have failed to ascertain the critical acclaim which they receive(d); Ocarina of Time (sorry), Final Fantasy VII, Shadow of the Colossus — I’ll be honest, I expected Halo to join, if not top, this list of disappointments. “It couldn’t possibly really warrant the level of praise it so often receives,” I would think to myself.

It does, and it does so with aplomb. Halo was ahead of its time in so many ways; level design, artificial intelligence, soundtrack. Toss the so-so story and throwaway characters aside, and it’s provided me with one of the best first person shooter campaigns I’ve played in many years.

And it is fourteen years old.

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