Man, I feel like a Forerunner. Ten years after unsealing the hushed casket, the boys at 343 Industries – Bungie, in spirit — are honouring their long-time legendary loyalties with next week’s enhanced anniversary edition of the real 2001 space odyssey, Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie’s breakthrough that redefined the first-person shooter’s limitations and set the genre loose on the home console market. Rest assured, we’ll have Anniversary’s review for you and more, but to satisfy your insatiable nostalgic appetite until its release, we thought we’d take a look back at Master Chief’s original outer-space outing before coming around full circle.
First, the looming question: why is Halo so significant to gaming culture? What impact and legacy has it left on the hearts and minds, both developer and player alike, within our illustrious industry? To mince words, what’s the big deal? Twenty years have forged the first-person shooter into the most popular genre in gaming, sure, but where Doom formulated, Halo reinvented, shocking the desktop shooter skeptics convinced that a control stick was no match for a mouse. Bungie proved the naysayers’ negativity null and moot.
The player awoke from cryosleep on the class cruiser Pillar of Autumn as the Master Chief, a bio-engineered bad-ass Spartan II super-soldier with a penchant for silence… at least, when it came to talking. Armed with a tenacious head-invading A.I. construct and his trusty assault rifle, and faced with an onslaught of alien Covenant forces, the Chief did what he did best before jumping ship for the ring planet below. After linking up with the rest of the Autumn’s abandoned, it was up to human forces under the leadership of Captain Keyes to discover Halo’s secrets before the Covenant, and hopefully turn the tides of a long-waged war.
While the story may not hold much sway over younger generations who have the privilege of growing up with such powerful storytelling sagas like Mass Effect or Uncharted, Halo’s plotline was, at the time, a satisfying simplicity that drew upon numerous movie influences and genres. Master Chief was Clint Eastwood’s nameless lone legend, the game’s Marines were carbon copies of those featured in James Cameron’s Aliens, and the iconic ring’s traitorous guardian 343 Guilty Spark was eerily reminiscent of the HAL-9000 computer, the infamous electronic eyeball in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — which is an interesting connection because Halo was released in 2001, and you can spell the word from the letters HAL… but I digress. Then, of course, as the name implies, there was a primitive religious overtone that marvelously mixed with the civilized idealism of science-fiction, a recurring theme which has been explored in notable cinematic space operas such as Star Wars and Blade Runner. On paper, Halo’s story could have become an incoherent mess of cheap imitation, were it not for a tight script, a brilliantly devised duo dynamic in the Chief and Cortana, and of course, Halo’s highlight and hallmark: its evolved combat mechanic.
As previously noted, 2001 did not see the birth of the first-person shooter. The gaming world had been embracing unforeseen consequences in the landmark Half-Life for years, and skipping heartbeats while blasting aliens in Doom for many more. Halo, aside from marking a shift in the gaming market, really did live up to its publisher-endorsed subtitle, Combat Evolved, by revolutionizing the FPS fun factor thanks to an unprecedentedly fluid combat system. Tossing a grenade into a hoard of Grunts, whipping out your assault rifle to deal with the more powerful Elite, and then bashing the fleeing stragglers with the butt end of your armament was the continually repeated core of what made the game so damn entertaining. As a player, I had never felt so free to engage an opposing battalion the way I wanted to, which is what gave Halo such a non-linear appeal. Ironically, the game’s level design was fairly scripted and narrow, but again, it was the combat mechanic that made it seem like you were never treading the same ground twice (at least, not until the latter half of the game, but I’ll get to that). As sad as it is, I’ve played through the game at least half a hundred times and, despite being able to recite most dialogue and battle chatter off-hand, the enemy’s attack plan always eludes me, resulting in a fresh experience every time.
Yes, a surplus of attack options and some truly remarkable enemy A.I. served as spotlights, but Bungie’s knack for innovation didn’t intend to stop short. For one of the first times ever in a first-person shooter, and certainly the most successful attempt, vehicular travel was not only possible, but encouraged. A fluid exchange to a third-person perspective would precede the even smoother driving mechanics of the scouting Warthog, the hovering Ghost, the flying Banshee, and the devastating Scorpion tank; each felt unique and served its own purpose.
Rounding off Bungie’s Master Piece – I couldn’t resist the pun – was the phenomenal presentation courtesy of Microsoft’s powerhouse, the Xbox. Oh-so violent, a battle was always evidenced by bullet holes and purple alien gore, with the guns themselves boasting impressive particle effects that complemented the destructive sound of their unleashed barrels. Spaceship corridors, forested hills, island beaches, derelict swamps, and snow-draped scenery all proved products of fantastic level design… that is, until the latter half of the game. Once the insidious Flood was released, much of Halo’s remaining campaign had the player backtrack over much of the same tedious terrain. Oh, and as to a certain level dubbed the Library? Damn it to hell. The artificially lengthened mission, a frustrating copy-and-paste set of gray hallways and waves of Flood, makes me sick at the mere reminisce.
Though Xbox Live was still light years away, basement multi-player was enough to carry Halo’s value an extra few kilometres up spin. Playing co-op with a buddy added the enticing challenge of completing the Legendary difficulty, unlocking the infamous and quite hilarious post-game cutscene in which Sgt. Johnson and an Elite embrace minutes before the titular ring’s destruction. LAN firefights were enough to further hold players over until Gearbox Software’s PC port in 2003 would build an online community that would form the backbone of popular support for Bungie’s future endeavours on Microsoft’s Live service. Speaking as one of those communal members, I can’t begin to fathom how many hours I wasted away at my desktop on Death Island and Blood Gulch; even the often brutal strings of lag couldn’t hamper the Halo hardcore.
Two sequels, a prequel, an expansion, and a spin-off later, the game franchise that gripped pop culture by its gonads a decade ago is arriving full circle. To be sure, the Halo franchise, though not obsolete, is hardly in its prime and not without its fair share of haters who find themselves incessantly cornering themselves into their own fanboy camps (cough, C.O.D., cough). Fandom is all fine and well, but the same tiring trolls who bludgeon Bungie’s beginnings neglect to respect what Halo did for the gaming industry, which was to lay the groundwork for the infinite shelves of military shooters today. Sure enough, things were just getting started.