Discovering Halo 18 Years Late
How does Bungie’s seminal title hold up almost two decades on?
Back home, there used to be a radio show called I’ve Never Seen Star Wars. As the title might suggest, the show revolved an affable host encouraging C-list celebrity guests to try new things — in particular, experiences that might be common for others. Whether it was seeing Star Wars, learning to swim or trying porridge, guests often had to deal with or answer to listeners’ incredulity at the things they hadn’t tried. If were back home, and a C-list celebrity, host Marcus Brigstocke might have encouraged me to play Halo. Yes, dear reader, I have never played a single campaign from Microsoft’s flagship franchise.
I agree that it is difficult to believe. I was entering my teens around the time of Halo 3’s hotly anticipated launch, and all of my friends had played and evangelised about the series’ previous entries. I, however, grew up with Nintendo’s core franchises, and spent my teens on PC with Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike and Left 4 Dead. Sure, I played a handful of rounds of local multiplayer at friends’ houses, but the campaigns were uncharted territory for me. At least until now.
Today, if you’ll have me, I’d like to draw out and discuss a few aspects of the first game in the series, Combat Evolved, that stood out to me — for better or worse. This won’t be an exhaustive review, or an examination of the game as a whole. Critics and fans have had nearly two decades to do that, and a great deal of what can be said about Halo has been discussed in an article, or over hours of gameplay footage on YouTube. My motivation to write these stray thoughts down came from the notion that having grown up around the Halo phenomenon but not being part of it might have presented an uncommon opportunity to give a first impression. With that, if spoiler warnings are necessary for a game that released when ‘Because I Got High’ by Afroman was still in the charts, consider yourself warned.
Combat Evolved (CE)’s storied development — evolving (sorry) from a sci-fi take on Bungie’s top-down strategy game Myth into a third- then first-person shooter, flirting with Mac exclusivity along the way — seems as much a part of the modern Halo conversation as the game itself. Indeed, context is valuable and demands consideration when discussing a game that is old enough to order itself a drink at a bar in some countries, particularly when the person discussing that game has never played it. Most — though assuredly not all — of my gripes and frustrations with my first crack at CE can be chalked up to hardware constraints of the original Xbox. Moreover, in spite of those flaws, a melancholic, sparse and captivating shooter shines through — as brightly as, I daresay, it did in 2001.
Dust and Echoes
Beyond tongue-in-cheek covers with high memetic potential, my knowledge of Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s solemn soundtrack was regrettably limited. Shooters before Halo, and perhaps even those released subsequently, don’t tend to shy away from bombast: Mick Gordon’s exceptional Doom (2016) soundtrack starts with everything turned up to eleven and then, somehow, keeps turning things up. Where metal isn’t concerned, grandiose orchestral scores reign: our decade-long (at least, it felt a decade long) obsession with Hans Zimmer was as present in video games as it was on the big screen. As well as Zimmer’s own contribution with Modern Warfare 2’s cinematic score, imitators played up ‘epic’ pieces that would dominate the game’s sonic landscape, as if every shooting gallery, every arena deserved another atmospheric crescendo.
CE is by no means a quiet, introspective score, but it is much more sparing in it’s use of those crescendos. The game’s less combat-focused sections are complemented by quieter, haunting pieces (‘Enough Dead Heroes,’ ‘Trace Amounts’). When the action ramps up, tracks like ‘The Gun Pointed at the Head of the Universe’ and the aptly named ‘Rock Anthem for Saving the World’ put the player firmly in the shoes of a seven-foot-tall super-soldier seamlessly. Mostly though, wistful choral tracks such as the title theme and ‘The Maw’ ground the action in an older world. Staying away from futuristic sounds and structures gives the soundtrack emotional resonance for the player where the images on screen might be some distance removed from their own reality. The score’s fistful of suites employ sweeping strings, particularly the cello, effortlessly bridge the gap between the soundtrack’s old-world choral work and the futuristic violence dominating the screen. O’Donnell and Salvatori wear their affection for Samuel Barber on their sleeves, and that is no bad thing.
As you’ve already guessed, I got a lot out of CE’s soundtrack alone, but combined with the world-building, I was consistently dazzled. The ‘Halo’ mission is arresting in it’s beauty from start to finish, ably complemented by O’Donnell and Salvatori’s score. The game’s final third notwithstanding, environments have a nice degree of variance, with the lush, verdant slopes of ‘Halo’ giving way to sandy beaches in ‘The Silent Cartographer’ and snowy wastes towards the game’s end. Though the plot (and thus missions) inevitably turn to exploring sterile, repetitive alien facilities, Halo’s abnormally high concentration of natural environments serve to ground the action and complement the score. When the moment-to-moment play is dominated by a super-soldier having a spirited disagreement with armour-clad aliens wielding plasma rifles, there’s something human, vulnerable even, about that action taking place in a place of natural beauty with string-heavy orchestral pieces in the background.
For clarity, I should note that I played the Anniversary edition of CE that released for the Xbox 360. I played first with the original graphics and sound, then again with the updated visuals. Though perhaps the remastered sound is almost always an upgrade, I found myself preferring the original visuals. The bells and whistles of the Anniversary master might have been objectively prettier, but that was often at the expense of the dark, broodier atmosphere of the original release. I found this especially noticeable when the Flood are finally introduced in the masterful ‘343 Guilty Spark’. Anniversary’s visuals don’t necessarily do a lot wrong, but they occasionally alter the game’s character in a way that was, subjectively, less enjoyable for me.
Combat Evolved’s magic was only scuppered by the levels it has you play, rather than just admire. We’ve already established how the extraordinary atmosphere immerses the player in the mysticism of the ‘Halos’ orbiting various planets, underscored by that solemn, almost ancient-sounding score. Moment-to-moment gameplay is robust. But the levels that gameplay occurs in left me mostly disappointed. Rooms are repeated ad nauseam, with levels such as ‘The Library’ bordering on a sick joke. Set pieces, too, have a habit of being trod and retrod: you’ll always fight two hunters at once in a large arena; you’ll find the same ten-or-so Elites and Grunts whenever ‘Assault on Control Room’ switches from narrow corridors to bigger hub rooms. Strategies for tackling these set pieces don’t change, either. Again, the gameplay holds up to a point where CE is never a chore, but it is not always as exciting as it thinks it is.
Repetition is exacerbated by a plot feature that in theory I actually really like: the last few missions of CE involve backtracking through the facilities and snow-covered expanses you traversed earlier, in a near-perfect mirror image. Plot-wise, this makes sense. Additionally, it gives the player a sense of the Halo’s geography, a welcome shift from first person shooters that often jump between countries, continents or galaxies between missions. Where it falls apart is in the locales that get retrod: the endless Covenant corridors and antechambers are played in reverse in a way that makes sense for the plot, but tests the player’s patience and sometimes even their sanity.
Some of this makes sense: the reuse of environments toward the end of the game in particular is obviously an attempt to save some resources masked as a neat plot point. The original Xbox’s now-paltry tech-specs account for the majority of the compromises in the game. Even with that considered, though, the copy-pasted rooms of ‘The Library’ or ‘Two Betrayals’ verges on the extreme. I don’t think the plot or the game as a whole particularly benefits from this padding, and the missions being shorter is barely a price to pay for a more cohesive, less annoying experience.
“No… I think we’re just getting started.”
As a newcomer to Halo as a series, I was struck by how well the game holds up mechanically and atmospherically. That impression crumbles a little when we turn to CE’s construction, where the both the game’s missions and their flow show their advanced age. In presentation, though, CE shows barely a wrinkle, and is a riotous good time when you aren’t killing the same five Elites in a copy-paste of the same room you were in not half a minute ago.
More generally, Halo: Combat Evolved was enjoyable enough that I jumped straight into Halo 2 right after, which has to be a good sign. It’s hard to say why the series initially passed me by, at least beyond not owning the right system. It is safe to say that now, all these years later, and ahead of a plethora of newer games in my ever-growing backlog, Halo has a hold of my attention, and I get the impression it won’t be letting go for a few more campaigns yet — campaigns an unfortunate handful of you might be reading about sometime soon.