Review: Halo: Combat Evolved

This is a post that has been a long time coming. Back in October I reached the next phase of my backlog gaming reviews with a review of Luigi’s Mansion for the Nintendo Game Cube. That post marked my first step into the sixth-generation of video gaming. But instead of jumping right in to another game from the same era, I took a moment to catch up with a handful of titles that I passed over the first time around. I did this for reasons that have been explained in previous posts on this site, so I won’t rehash that now. But, today I’m proud to take my first step into the world of the original Xbox by sharing my thoughts on Halo: Combat Evolved.

When deciding what Xbox game to play first, Halo was a no-brainer. Aside from being an actual launch title for the console, Halo is unarguably the most popular game for the original Xbox. But that wasn’t always the plan… Developed by Bungie, Halo actually started out as a third-person strategy game for PC and Macintosh platforms. Early in the development cycle for the Xbox itself, Microsoft began seeking out developers that could bring a unique IP to the Xbox brand. After seeing an early prototype version of Halo, Microsoft took the bold step of actually acquiring Bungie and moving the development of the game in-house. By the time everything was said and done, Halo had transitioned from a multi-platform third-person RTS to an Xbox exclusive first-person shooter. (Eventually, both a PC and Mac version did see the light of day. But by the time they were released, the Halo name had become all but synonymous with Xbox).

Halo is a futuristic story in which humans have successfully colonized space. It tells the tale of a conflict between the United Nations Space Command and an alien army known as The Covenant. After attacking Earth’s largest interstellar outpost, The Covenant have pursued an Earth-based ship into an uncharted area of space. Upon emerging from light speed, the crew of the ship find themselves in the vicinity of a mysterious ring-shaped world. With The Covenant boarding the ship, the USNC Captain Keyes, has ordered the awakening of one of his best Spartan supersoliders, Master Chief, from cryogenic sleep. Keyes entrusts Master Chief with the ship’s AI system, Cortana, and orders him to escape to the ring-shaped world below. Knowing that he will be overwhelmed by Covenant forces as soon as he crash-lands his ship onto the surface of the strange planet, Keyes hopes Master Chief is able to escape unnoticed, taking Cortana (and the coordinates to Earth) with him. In this game, players control Master Chief as he makes his escape and learn the truth about the strange ring-shaped planet called Halo.

Released during a time when first-person shooters were among the best selling PC games in the industry, the developers of Halo had the unique challenge of taking an established genre and translating that success to a home console. Traditionally, FPS games were played with a mouse and keyboard, not a gamepad. Sure, there had been a handful of exceptions (Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 comes to mind), but to make gamers take notice, Microsoft/Bungie knew they had to deliver a superior product.

To achieve this goal, it was decided that Halo wasn’t going to be just another run-and-gun shoot-em-up. Instead of mindlessly blasting enemies with a variety of weapons, Halo requires the player to take cover, peek around corners, and choose a weapon that best fits their current situation. To drive home this point, the game features an elaborate enemy AI system. If the player is hiding behind a corner, popping out occasionally to pick off enemies, it’s likely that the enemy may toss a grenade around that very same corner in hopes of flushing the player out.  Halo also limits the number of weapons that a player can carry to two. This results in the player being forced to pick and choose an arsenal that’s most likely to guarantee their survival. And of course, ammunition is also factor.

The developers also knew that in order for Halo to be a success, they’d need to find a good way to transition the playcontrol from a keyboard and mouse combo to the new Xbox controller. To make this work, they took full advantage of the plethora of buttons and sticks the controller had to offer. The left thumbstick moves the character around, while the right stick controls the camera. To ensure that players wouldn’t have to lift their thumb off of the camera control to fire a weapon, using a weapon/grenade is assigned to the triggers found on the top of the controller. While not offering quite the pixel-perfect response as a mouse, the thumbstick solution works well enough, and of course only gets easier with practice. The end result is a first person game that plays just as easily on a console as it might with traditional PC hardware.

These days, of course, it’s a little difficult to get your hands on a classic Xbox. Thankfully, there’s a few options for modern gamers who want to take Halo through its paces. First, the original Xbox release is fully compatible with Xbox 360 consoles. But more popular is the remastered version of the game, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. This version was released for the Xbox 360 in 2011. The Anniversary release features a hybrid of the original game engine with enhanced visuals, combined with the multiplayer code from Halo: Reach (one of the sequels to the original game). As an added bonus, players are able to toggle between the original and remastered graphics at will.

Later, this version of the game was included again in Halo: The Master Chief Collection – an Xbox One anthology of six classic games from the series . This version of Halo includes the single player Anniversary release, but also modernizes the original multiplayer code, making the multiplayer portion of Halo now completely playable on Xbox Live.  For my review, I played the version of Halo included in the Master Chief Collection.

Top: Original   –   Bottom: Halo Anniversary Remaster 

 

Even though Halo has its roots in classic FPS games like Doom and Quake, it’s apparent from the very beginning that this is a game of a different sort. First of all, the storyline is front and center. Each level has a very clear goal and there’s often banter between Master Chief and Cortana, or sometimes even AI-controlled NPCs. Also, Master Chief is able to use environmental objects like turrets and vehicles. When riding in a vehicle, be it a Warthog (ATV) or a Ghost (flying craft), the game temporarily shifts to a third-person view. This gives the player a 360-degree point of view to make navigation easier.

When it comes to weapons, there are essentially two different types; ammo based weapons and energy weapons. Ammo-based weapons are just what they sound like; guns that take ammunition. If you run out of ammo, your weapon is essentially useless. Energy based weapons typically to last longer, but if used repeatedly they tend to overheat and need a moment to cool down. This leaves the player vulnerable to attack. Eventually, even energy weapons will run out of charge. Forcing the player to find a replacement.

In this game, the weapons you choose are crucial to your success. The challenge here comes from the fact that you can only carry two weapons at a time. In some situations, you may find yourself with the high ground, looking down on an enemy encampment. In this scenario, having a sniper rifle would be ideal. On the other hand, if you find yourself boxed in, being swarmed by a whole platoon of aliens, something with rapid fire capabilities is going to be essential. Knowing what weapon to carry and when to exchange it for something else is a key part of the game.

The single player campaign for Halo is simply fantastic. But it is the multiplayer aspect that many players swear by. Multi-player modes include the following:

Slayer – Solo or team-based death match. Various rules can be put in place restricting players to particular weapons, etc.
Capture the Flag – The classic team-based CTF experience. Optional rules available to make gameplay more intense.
King of the Hill – Similar to “domination” seen in other FPS multiplayer games. The idea here is to occupy and control specific areas of interest for a specific amount of time. Again, players can customize the rules of the game to make things unique.
Oddball – Players must find and carry a skull for two minutes to win. Possessing the skull naturally makes the player a target of others. Also includes custom options.
Race – Players must race to tag a number of checkpoints on the game map. The first person to tag them all wins. This is typically accomplished with the help of a Warthog ATV. Customization options.

Originally, Halo was restricted to local mulitplayer. It included a split-screen co-operative mode for the main scenario, as well as a four-way-split-screen option for other modes. The original game also supported the ability to chain multiple Xbox consoles together, allowing for a LAN-party of up to sixteen players.

These days, the Master Chief Collection makes it possible to play online over the Xbox Live network – complete with matchmaking or with a pre-made party of friends. The MCC even offers tournaments and seasonal competitions.

Regardless of which mode of play interests you. The Master Chief Collection is certainly worth your time. You can enjoy Halo as a single player experience on modern hardware, or even step into the wild world of multiplayer. If you want to play classic Halo, the MCC has you covered. It is without a doubt, the definitive version of the game. My breakdown below is specific to the version of Halo found in the Master Chief Collection unless otherwise noted.

 

Version Reviewed: Xbox One

Difficulty: Variable –  Halo offers four different difficulty settings; Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary. For most players, especially those new to FPS games, Normal is the recommended setting. However, even the Normal mode has more than its share of challenges. Heroic and Legendary are reserved for players who have mastered the game and are looking for an even greater challenge. And trust me, they are brutal. As always, the challenge found in the multiplayer portion of the game will vary greatly depending on your opponents. But more often than not, expect to die a lot. Multiplayer in Halo is popular and there are players who have been practicing for years on end. A new player should expect to be very patient as they build up their skills to a point where they will be able to viably compete in the multiplayer arena.

Multiplayer:  Local (original release and MCC) and Network (MCC only). Network play is restricted by platform.

Story: The storyline for Halo is impressive. Most FPS games tend to go light on storyline. Not only does Halo avoid this trend, it actually features one of the more unique and interesting plot lines I’ve seen in a while. High marks here.

Originality: Halo is a groundbreaking FPS. It introduced a number of new concepts to the genre. No longer can players just run through levels, gunning down everything and sight. To win at this game requires thinking and patience. From a multiplayer standpoint, Halo takes existing concepts and makes them customizable beyond anything seen before.

Soundtrack: The music for Halo is also extremely well put together. From the Gregorian chant-like theme heard at the main menu, to the techno-infused rock music that swells up during intense battles. The soundtrack helps cement an already memorable experience into the mind of the player.

Fun: Despite being frustrating at times, the gameplay is fun and rewarding. This is true for both the single player and multiplayer modes. Personally, I find multiplayer with actual friends to be much more enjoyable than playing against random opponents. If this is something you’re able to manage, you’ll be in for a real treat.

Graphics: The Master Chief Collection allows players to switch between the original graphics and the newly remastered experience. Obviously, the remastered graphics looks leaps and bounds better than the original game. But, for its day and time, the original Halo was at the top of its class. Even today, the original rendering still holds up pretty well. In fact, I ended up playing through the single player scenario almost entirely in legacy graphic mode.

Playcontrol: I’ll go on record and admit that when it comes to FPS games, nothing beats the classic keyboard and mouse combo. This is true for any game, including Halo. (Trust me, after beating the game on the Xbox, I went back and played some more on the PC – and the PC is the clear winner in this category).  That being said, the playcontrol is very well done and serves as a proof of concept for FPS games on home consoles. The playcontrol for Halo is just as smooth on modern Xbox controllers as it was on the original Xbox. The thumbsticks are responsive and accurate and the button mapping makes sense.

Downloadable Content: No. (There are no additional scenarios for the game itself. However, the Master Chief Collection does add new modes and options for the six games included in the anthology from time to time)

Mature Content: Warfare, Violence

Value: Halo Anniversary is still available on the Xbox Marketplace for around $20.00. But these days, the entire Master Chief Collection typically sells between $30-$40. Six games for this price is an amazing value. But even if you had to play $20 for the original game, it’s still worth it in my opinion.

Overall score (1-100): 100 – Halo is a classic that redefined a genre. It is just as amazing today as it was upon its original release. A good friend of mine owned an original Xbox and I had the pleasure of playing this game on the original hardware years ago. I wasn’t sure how well it was going to hold up when I sat down with the MCC for the first time a few months ago. But I’m happy to report it is just as magical as ever. If you’re a new player, take the time to explore the single player scenario. Get to know the nuances of the game. Then, when you’re ready, feel free to explore everything that the multiplayer experience has to offer. The MCC will let you mix and match the multiplayer experience across the various games, but for old time’s take I recommend toggling off everything but the original game for a while. This will allow you to experience Halo as it was intended. Trust me, it’s worth it. Halo is often noted as one of the greatest games of all time, and it very apparent why.

Original System: Xbox

Available today on:  Xbox One, PC   –  (List updated as of  Fall 2020)

Best Modern Experience: PC, Xbox One   –   (As of Fall 2020)

 

Other Reviews In This Series:
Halo   –   Halo 2   –   Halo 3   –   Halo 4   –   Halo 5   –   Halo Infinite
Halo 3: ODST   –   Halo: Reach
Halo Wars   –   Halo Wars 2