It has been five years since we last saw Master Chief in action. It has been eleven years since the first Halo game.
Eleven years ago? When I was…nine inches shorter and experiencing Furby withdrawals?
Nearly two console generations ago, a small studio named Bungie put out what is to this day a gold standard for a launch title — a game that, by itself, could sell millions of consoles. A new franchise, a new approach to a genre, and a new universe to rally around enticed Microsoft‘s new frontier consumers to purchase Halo: Combat Evolved.
And on the heels of Master Chief’s revival (quite literally!), 343 Studios‘ Halo 4, I find few other activities more valuable than remembering what makes Halo one of the greatest video game franchises of all time. In the coming months, I will go back in time and complete the campaigns of Halo 1-3 and Reach (maybe ODST); I’ll recount what Halo brought to gaming, how aspects of Halo still hold up today, and what makes Halo a franchise worth continuing.
What better way to announce this trip down memory lane with Master Chief’s first action on the Pillar of Autumn… Bursting through the corridors, I frenetically empty clip after clip from my assault rifle at packs of enemy forces. Upon a foe’s defeat, I watch its body fall backwards or collapse to the ground in a splatter of blue alien goo. Whether through my scoped pistol or by the blunt force of my rifle’s butt, each kill differs from the rest and fuels my bloodlust for the skirmishes ahead.
Halo: Combat Evolved evolved did an amazing job of creating some of the largest scale battles ever seen in a game at that time. It wasn’t just Chief picking off Covenant but rather an equal side of marines taking on the opposing force. Marines struggle with realistic body language and occasional cursing to create the notion of a gritty conflict between the mysterious Covenant and them.
On the Pillar of Autumn, there’s a point at which you must fire at enemies a level above you while running up the stairs and pushing onward. You’re surrounded above you and find yourself jumping around and strafing on the stairs to inch your way to the next corridor. Unlike Doom, Goldeneye, and other shooters of generations past, in Halo you’re up against an “authentic” foe — tough enough to keep you on your toes at all times while coming off as fair enough to defeat in a video game.
Visually, Halo may come off as lackluster in the Pillar of Autumn level but presents some initially gratifying moments. In the FMV with Captain Keys, you can see the battle-worn qualities of Master Chief‘s armor. When approaching Covenant forces in the shadows, you’re met with explosions and flying alien corpses. And, once you get off the ship, you crash-land into, as IGN agreed, one of the most gorgeous sites to behold in all of video games: the first Halo ring.
When you get out of your claustrophobic nightmare of a lifeboat, you step onto a breathtaking, wild land that is Halo. This is as open-ended as a shooter ever got in 2001. There are dirt, rocks, and grass mapped to meet every footstep. There are tall trees and running waterways that create a geographical beauty that only RPGs had managed to capture. And when you look up and see the Halo ring through the reflection of the lens flare, you become part of a fantastic moment.
Halo creates a first person world…one in which you shoot the crap out of everything that moves. You get a sense where to go but you don’t feel it’s the only place to go. The game invites you to explore and impresses you with its scale and integration of Earth-like nature.
To me, this is the type of gameplay I’d like to see throughout the Halo universe. Enemies meet you from all locales of the battlefield; around the base, from behind rocks and foliage, in the distance and creeping up behind you. Master Chief can roam around with a couple marines in a Warthog and go off jumps, or he can scramble through the rugged terrain picking off every enemy with his newly acquired sniper rifle. Dropships fire down on you as you escape ground forces with a lone bar left on your health meter. Desperation comes in the form of a plasma grenade that you hurl into the air to hopefully catch multiple enemies. This is as off-rails as 2001 FPSs get. And, in the setting of the virgin Halo ring, war doesn’t get any prettier than this.
With more Halo coverage to come, I’m Nick Pinkerton — part-time writer, part-time Spartan 117.