Not being able to afford an Xbox when it was first released – being the owner of a Dreamcast, PS2 and GameCube at the time Microsoft’s console came out in […]
Not being able to afford an Xbox when it was first released – being the owner of a Dreamcast, PS2 and GameCube at the time Microsoft’s console came out in the UK – I was a bit late to the party with Halo. Though I played the odd level here and there in co-op at a friend’s house, it wasn’t until shortly before the launch of Halo 2 that I was able to experience the main campaign in full for myself.
It was a revelation. Though first person shooters had existed on consoles before – and had, in many cases, proved themselves in a number of ways already (Goldeneye and Perfect Dark come immediately to mind) – it felt like Halo was the first FPS that truly, successfully, expanded the FPS on console to an epic scale. The two weapon rule, the shield recharging mechanic in particular were mechanics that became almost standard in a number of FPS games that followed; some of the best touches for me were those that were harder to imitate – the characterful enemies and their varied AI, for example. Also of note was the spectacular design, with a very grounded, military style look and colour scheme to the human characters, vehicles, weapons and environments and a brighter, more colourful and very alien look to the same aspects for the primary enemies, the Covenant.
I do recall at the time, despite the sea of perfect 10 ratings that Halo gathered in reviews, complaints about the Library level, with its repetitive design and endless swarms of secondary antagonists, the Flood. I didn’t find it half as bad as critics and audiences in general seemed to at the time – but would I see the issues more clearly this time around?
The answer, having now played through the entirety of the first Halo game (via the Master Chief Collection on Xbox One) – and in co-op, too – is yes. The more surprising answer is that it wasn’t just the Library that stuck out as a boring, repetitive level. How times have changed.
There are a number of key areas where Halo still stands up and even stands tall above other first person shooters. It has a great atmosphere and the general design of the architecture and alien tech, especially contrasted with the more functional and militaristic human forces, still impresses. Likewise, the creature design – which was somewhat muddied by the resolution and level of detail possible in the original – really shines. The orchestrated score is phenomenal and gives the action a truly epic, cinematic feel. The large scale exterior battles on Halo itself are still brilliant – mostly thanks to the AI of your enemies, but also due to how open and emergent they feel. The shield recharging and health system, despite feeling less revelatory due to how widely imitated it was and is, still works like a charm.
There are – somewhat inevitably, nearly 18 years later – areas that haven’t aged well, however.
Interior level design can often be confusing, especially when a waypoint isn’t present to give you a nudge in the right direction. It’s due to the repetition in the visual design, whether alien or human, that this is the case. Textures and layouts can feel very similar from one corridor to the next, with little in the way of obvious landmarks to assist your progression. The Library is a good example of repetitive level design, with the same layout being repeated over and over again, but in its favour is the fact that you’re never in doubt as to where you need to go next – the same cannot be said of some of the later levels that take place in complex interior environments.
When the Flood appear, it’s to the game’s detriment, unfortunately. Initially a change of pace from the more intelligent and varied Covenant forces, the Flood’s zombie-like nature feels boring and repetitive. Their dull visual design – again, in contrast to the bright and colourful Covenant – doesn’t help matters.
There’s a deep lore to Halo, but I was confused about what was going on back when I first played it and I’m not 100% on the backstory even now, having worked my way through the first game multiple times as well as playing further entries in the series. I know plenty of gamers are very into the lore of Halo (and there’s now a lot of supplemental material available in the form of comic books, novels, animated series and even live action content too), but it always confused me and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Having played through the first game again, it’s suddenly dawned on me: though a lot of information is given in cutscenes between sections of gameplay, there’s also a lot of exposition delivered mid-battle, when the score and gunfire create a cacophony that render the spoken story elements all but impossible to hear, let alone digest. It doesn’t affect the gameplay, which remains as brilliant as it always was in moment-to-moment battles, but it feels like a big mistake to have important elements of the story delivered in this way.
A weird element that should really be ironed out is the setting up of a co-op campaign; only one Gamertag is displayed on the mission select screen at any one time and it only feels like you know you’ve got it to work properly when the mission is loading. This should definitely have been made clearer and more user friendly – there’s no excuse for it not to be a case of a visible button press to add players in on the mission select screen in this day and age.
Vehicles – and, more specifically, the jeep-like Warthog – can be a pain to control. The final level of the game is made challenging due almost exclusively to the controls of the Warthog, rather than anything that would usually provide an obstacle on the last stage of a game. It’s frustrating, repetitive and often feels unfair, given the fact that the objects and layouts make your somewhat floaty Warthog very prone to being overturned.
The final stretch is a bit of an anti-climax too, given that it’s a time-limited level that you can’t complete without using the Warthog – and stopping to shoot at any time wastes too much time. It’s not a good ending for an FPS at all, though story-wise it makes sense and the story itself, though somewhat inevitably open-ended to make room for a sequel, does feel satisfyingly wrapped up as its own narrative comes to a close.
Seeing these negatives laid out one after the other may give the impression that, like Gears of War, I didn’t really enjoy Halo and just went through the motions of playing it. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite those issues, there’s still so much in Halo that makes it a worthwhile experience, especially if you get the chance to play the campaign alongside other players. Playing in splitscreen makes you realise that, in drifting away to single player or online-only multiplayer options, we’ve gone backwards in terms of making games a more inclusive, social experience in some ways. There’s nothing like being able to play alongside people who are physically present with you and its an aspect of FPS gaming (though this does apply to other genres as well) I’d like to see return; however, big publishers aren’t so keen, given that it means the sale of one game to two or more people, rather than multiple copies. I do believe, as cynical as it may seem, that this is the sole reason we no longer see much in the way of couch multiplayer games from the bigger publishers (though hats off to EA for including it in the latest, newly released Plants vs Zombies shooter, Battle for Neigborville – which has extensive couch co-op and vs options for up to four players).
So, soon it’ll be on to Halo 2 then. It’s a game that I played through from beginning to end within a week of its original release and felt somewhat underwhelmed, despite some narrative tricks and surprises that no one saw coming (and which I felt were muddied somewhat with similar narrative issues that befell the first Halo). I’ll no doubt be back at some point with my thoughts on the second Halo and beyond, heading into uncharted territory once we get past the final game of the original trilogy (and ODST, which is the only other non 1-3 Halo game that I’ve played so far).
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