Combat Evolved shows a game can be culturally significant and still be mediocre
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
Honestly, I’m surprised that it took the better part of a year and multiple requests to get us to cover this, because there’s no game franchise more buried in narratives than Halo. The second game is, depending on who you talk to, everything that’s wrong with 2000s FPSes or the second coming of Jesus Christ. And the post-Bungie games are somehow simultaneously the most beloved of the series and the most hated, thanks to two groups of fans who both believe that the other is a disgrace to the community. Don’t worry folks – four and five are on the docket.
But uh, as we all scream and shout and write thinkpieces about how the series is dead – which, sadly, is probably not too far from the truth, there’s a question I’d like to ask: when was the last time any of us actually played a Halo game? It’s probably been awhile, for reasons not the least of which being that almost nobody bought an Xbox One (wonder why that was.) It’s time to cut through all the noise – sure, Halo: Combat Evolved was one of the most culturally significant videogames of all time. But how does it actually play as a game?
Truth be told? Eh. It’s fine
At the time of its release, the original Halo was hailed as a revelation, the game that did for consoles what DOOM did for the PC. Even the subtitle – Combat Evolved – told you that this was something new, the next step in the evolution of gaming’s most popular genre. Which, in retrospect, is hilarious, because Halo is about as original as making a third Spider-Man reboot.
Let’s start with the singleplayer. This is normally the part of the article where I’d get into the gameplay, but honestly, what is there to say? You’ve got the pistol, the assault rifle, the shotgun, the rocket launcher. I realize we can’t compare Halo to modern games but Half-Life 1 came out two years earlier, was made on a budget of spit, and had about as much weapons variety. There’s only eight enemy types, and they all serve basically the same purpose. Elites charge you with a running melee attack, forcing you to dodge out of the way before killing them when they’re vulnerable. The Flood will rush you and kamikaze, forcing you to dodge out of the way before killing them when they’re vulnerable. The Hunters have a small weakpoint you have to destroy, just like every other videogame enemy in history, but since they can basically instakill you at melee range your best bet is to dodge out of the way before killing them when they’re vulnerable. The Jackals and the Carrier Form Flood aren’t even trying not to be Elites. With all the enemies, the only real difference between them is their health pools and what weapons you have to arbitrarily use to defeat them.
And by the way, what an awful mechanic. People say that Halo’s weapons are tactical, praise it for giving each weapon a different use, but that’s bull. DOOM 2016’s weapons are tactical – there’s lots of guns, but their individual ammo capacities are too low for you to use any one in a battle, so you have to understand how best to utilize each gun and have the reflexes to not waste any shots. Halo doesn’t do that. It says, “Look! Here’s a Jackal! You can only break its shield with a plasma weapon.” Or “Here’s a Combat Flood! We’ve set the numbers so that it takes less damage from plasma guns. Why does that make sense? Tactics.” Oh, and since you can only carry two guns (an innovation for which I may never forgive Combat Evolved) there’s no challenge in figuring out which of your 20 guns would work best in this situation, either. Is the game dropping tons of plasma ammo? Then there’s probably some Jackals coming up. Although chances are good there’s an NPC screaming in your ear about that fact already in case you’re a little slow on the uptake.
I’m not a fan of the phrase “dumbing down,” because videogames are for everyone, but I do find it a bit insulting that Halo claimed to be the thinking man’s shooter while taking away player agency, giving them two guns at a time and letting players flip a coin to see whether or not they arbitrarily work on the current enemy. And just because I used a modern example doesn’t mean that good weapon design is a modern idea – the original Doom didn’t have to tell me that I could effectively stun a demon with the chainsaw, it let me figure it out for myself. That felt rewarding. That felt fun. Figuring out what weapons to use with Halo’s enemies is just the shooter equivalent of putting a square peg in a square hole.
Look. I know I use it as my go-to example, but I don’t think that every shooter needs to be Doom. Hell, I spent last week gushing over Spec Ops: The Line, a game that offers a giant middle finger to that run-and-gun mentality. I can enjoy any shooter from Gears of War – which could be not unfairly described as a setpiece-based “hide-em-up” – to the ever-underappreciated Wrack, which gives extra points for killing as fast as possible. All these games are very different, but they all commit to being one particular thing. On a conceptual level, Halo’s problem is that’s it’s not sure whether it’s Serious Sam-style wide-open arena shooter in the Library level or a cover-based military shooter in The Silent Cartographer. I have the same problem with it that I infamously had with Half-Life 2 – this is a shooter whose shooting is so boring that it’s constantly trying to cover it up with setpieces, and those setpieces are hit-and-miss at best.
You can even see this in the game’s health, which is a weird Frankenstein’s monster of regenerating shields over traditional snooze-and-lose health. Though to be honest, I think this is possibly the only one of Halo’s new mechanics that actually works like it should. The regenerating shields means that charging into enemies isn’t a guaranteed death sentence, something that’s a necessity in a game that’s all about charging into enemies, but having a permanent health bar means that you can’t just barrel through enemies without thinking of the consequences. Of course, everyone complained and made sure that the non-regenerating part got removed in the sequels, because G-d forbid there be any part of a Halo game that forces you to think ahead and not just look at the pretty scenery.
So far, we’ve only talked about the game on a conceptual level. To be honest, that was a kindness, because the closer you look the more you start to notice the chinks in Combat Evolved armor. For example: not only do the enemies get extremely repetitive as you near the end of the game, but the levels almost all use the same textures. I mean, the level design is just bad in general – many levels require backtracking, which I thought we all agreed was one of the “Thou Shalt Nots” of game design, and you’ll probably end up doing even more while trying to navigate many of the indoor sections. Most of the second half of the game is just the first half of the game, backwards, but now with Flood insta-killing you as they appear in areas that weren’t designed for them. I don’t think the game’s really that long, but levels like The Library or Assault On The Control Room feel like they take forever because you’re just doing the same thing in the same rooms over and over again.
Oh, and when I mentioned the setpieces earlier, I neglected to talk about quite possibly the world’s worst vehicle sections. The cars have terrible, floaty physics and are nearly impossible to control properly, but not even G-d will be able to save you if you let the AI drive the Warthog for you. Not to mention the fact that you can be killed by any vehicle going more than 0 mph, which doesn’t make a ton of sense since they also seem to be made out of papier-mache. Sure, it’s a fairly nitpicky complaint, but it’s still a major part of the game.
And if the shooting’s tedious and the setpieces are a pain..well, what does the campaign have left? The story? I appreciate what the lore has grown into (and someday Hunt the Truth is gonna get the respect it so dearly deserves) but the plot of the original Halo is the least original part of an already not-terribly-original experience. Oh, there’s secret alien technology we don’t understand, never seen that before. Oh, your robot friend betrays you, never seen that before. Oh, they’re lifting characters and dialogue straight from Aliens, never seen that before. The point’s been made enough times that I don’t feel like I have to go into too much detail about the plot’s lack of originality, but I highly encourage you to read Christopher Rowley’s Starhammer books if you want to know where literally every plot point and piece of alien technology comes from.
NOW. Before you all start throwing full wine bottles at your computer screen, I know what you’re going to say. I’ve been trashing the campaign for awhile now, and while that’s an important conversation to have considering that it still gets held up as a stellar example of the genre and not as a classic case of mismatched ambition and ability (something Bungie is becoming increasingly known for), it’s not what kept people coming back to the original Halo. That would be the multiplayer. Even if you didn’t own an Xbox, you probably had a friend that did, and especially if you were college aged or younger you probably have fond memories of gathering around a TV and blowing each other up over and over again. I’m not here to take those memories away from you.
But we can’t let them affect how we remember the game. In terms of multiplayer, Halo was a bog-standard arena shooter that, while well-executed, wasn’t particularly special at the time and is even less so now. It died because it had to – because there was nothing about it that wouldn’t be outpaced by better graphics, mechanics, and physics in time. Sure, it was great to play it with your friends, but I’m always skeptical of that argument. I’ve had fun watching Kingdom of the Spiders with my friends, that doesn’t make it a good movie. Hell, I’ve had fun helping friends move, that doesn’t mean I enjoy moving. That’s just the nature of doing things with friends.
I know there’s still a dedicated group of people keeping the servers alive on PC, but that’s purely a nostalgia trip. Halo’s original multiplayer had no bots, five fairly similar modes, and no non-LAN online play. As for the mechanics, it was GoldenEye in green, which is fine, but certainly not Earth-shaking.
And in the end, that’s Halo for you. It’s not a horrible game, far from it. It was a perfectly serviceable middle-of-the-road shooter with a decent but wholly unoriginal good-versus-evil story that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Consoles desperately needed another shooter that was even middle-of-the-road good to replace the aforementioned GoldenEye, and a launch title that actually had some thought and effort put into it would be a rarity even today. As a result, it’s been remembered as a – heh – legendary classic, something that changed the gaming landscape and holds up as a masterpiece even today.
As David Will (aka “Trashbang”) once said, “We have a funny relationship with the past in this industry: part love, part hate, and not much of anything else. Nostalgia keeps a few games…in our hearts, while the rest are left by the roadside.” We don’t like to admit that a game could be important and mediocre – it was either the best game in history or an absolute travesty. Yet such is the story of Halo. Even later games in the series had better multiplayer, better stories, better campaigns. The first one is an interesting piece of history, nothing more. Let’s see it for what it really is.
And let’s all agree to stop writing thinkpieces about how backtracking through already repetitive levels is good, actually.