I don’t have insider information. I am not a world record holder. I have, though, played more games on more systems than almost anyone I’ve ever met. The games I write about here are The Greatest Games I Have Ever Played.
Microsoft faced stiff competition when they released the Xbox, their first video game console, to the North American market in late 2001. The Dreamcast posted several sales records in its North American debut, and also boasted the best fighting game and football game yet released on home consoles.
Meanwhile, the Playstation 2 followed the massively successful original Playstation more than a year and a half prior to Xbox’s release. Playstation 2 only went on to be the best selling console ever (over 150 million per Game Informer), so the competition was pretty stiff.
Gaming juggernaut Nintendo took the longest of the established hardware peddlers to join the 6th-generation console wars, preceding Xbox by only 2 months, but Nintendo’s cache with Mario and Metroid releases on the console ensured a modicum of success.
Amid this difficult environment, Microsoft took their first trip into the deep end of console sales knowing they needed a killer app to move units. Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Soul Calibur, Playstation 2 had by far the most third-party support… and Microsoft had something called Halo: Combat Evolved.
First-person shooters were not, as a genre, the juggernaut they have become today back in 2001. Castle Wolfenstein had established the genre on PCs, Doom and Heretic had advanced it, and Quake II brought a new level of sophistication. Quake II and Playstation 1 and Goldeneye on N64 established multiplayer deathmatch as a core gameplay concept, and Quake III and Unreal tried to capitalize on the popularity of deathmatching with multiplayer head-to-head exclusive titles around the turn of the century.
Crucially, Half Life kept the single-player experience central to its award-winning, record-selling experience. Gordon Freeman reminded gamers exactly why they liked first-person shooters to begin with. Halo would bridge the divide between deathmatching and solo FPS games expertly.
Halo follows the exploits of the Master Chief, Spartan-117. Master Chief wears combat armor and is the source of leadership and inspiration to the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) troops he fights with. From touchdown to conclusion, Master Chief exhibits a mastery of combat arts that would make Rambo feel inadequate.
Assisting Master Chief throughout is the super-AI Cortana, saved to a chip and plugged into Master Chief’s armor. Cortana keeps track of the other UNSC troops, ships, and activity as well as plugging into the enemy’s communications net and hacking into the computer that runs the Halo installation.
What is the Halo installation you ask? Well…
The plot of Halo is a huge part of what drives the game. Unlike some of the more straightforward older FPS games (in Wolfenstein, you fight Nazis, in Doom you fight demons, etc), Halo has a brilliant narrative arc. The game begins with a lengthy cutscene aboard a space ship, UNSC’s Pillar of Autumn, helmed by Captain Keyes in concert with Cortana. Master Chief is brought out of cold sleep to fight when the enemy forces, the alien Covenant, force the ship to crash-land on a huge ring in space. The interior of the ring is lined with forests, rivers, deserts, and various other familiar seeming landscape features. The atmosphere is capable of supporting life. This massive ring world is the titular Halo.
The game begins with Master Chief fighting the boarding force of Covenant aboard the Pillar of Autumn before moving to the variegated landscapes of the Halo installation. Once on the ring, Chief begins with a standard UNSC issue pistol and assault rifle. The assault rifle is a standard FPS machine gun.
Moving through the Halo, fighting the Covenant, you acquire a pretty wide variety of different weapons. The Covenant use energy weapons (termed plasma ingame), from a charging plasma pistol to a rapid fire plasma rifle to a timed detonation needle gun. The plasma rifle and pistol introduced new dynamics to FPS weapons management, as they cannot be reloaded. Rather, use drains their batteries and they must be discarded and replaced. Continuous use causes them to overheat, rendering them inoperable for about the same amount of time as an assault rifle re-load.
The UNSC weapons, in addition to the aforementioned pistol and assault rifle, include a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, and a combat shotgun. All have various strengths and weaknesses, and each are important in various parts of the game. Master Chief can carry two guns, but not two of the same kind.
There are two kinds of grenades in Halo: CE. The UNSC has traditional “frag” grenades, which bounce around briefly before exploding and showering the enemy with shrapnel. The Covenant carry plasma grenades, which are very different. Plasma grenades are “sticky:” if you throw them directly onto an enemy they stay on it, eventually exploding in a large incendiary cloud. These sticky grenades were an entirely new dynamic in FPS games. Master Chief can carry four of each type of grenade (total 8).
Melee combat is handled in the simplest of fashions – a press of a button smashes the enemy in front of you with whichever weapon you currently have equipped.
There is a nice variety of vehicles to take control of in Halo as well. The Warthog is a 4-wheel drive (and steering) oversized Jeep with a machine gun mounted to the back. The Scorpion is the UNSC’s tank, with a machine gun and an impressive main battery. The Ghost and the Banshee are Covenant craft you get the opportunity to pilot.
The enemies are varied. The Convenant is a United Nations of sorts of various alien races, bound together by a common religion. Their overlords are the highest of their religious order, revealed in subsequent games and called “prophets.” They have obviously different looks ingame, and different behaviors as well. They also take different amounts of punishment – the Hunters can even withstand multiple direct hits from sticky grenades. Eventually, the story leads Master Chief up against The Flood, a mutual enemy of all life.
Back to the story again. As outlined above, the Pillar of Autumn is forced to a crash-landing on the Halo installation, and Master Chief leads the Marines against the Covenant forces on the ring world, looking for a means of escape – or at least a way to take all the Covenant with them.
Eventually, Chief plugs Cortana into a main computer running the Halo installation, and she discovers some startling information. The Flood, a rapidly multiplying parasitic organism that uses human and Covenant alike as a grotesque host, were trapped on Halo. The Covenant have unwittingly freed them in a religious zeal. When the flood take over a host, it becomes like a supercharged zombie version of the original host. In addition to the various host forms, The Flood’s initial form is called the “infection form.” It looks like a little yellow octopus floating over the ground at you with frightening velocity.
The Flood are creepy on a level rarely found in games. The set up level where they are initially encountered has all the nervousness and freak-out factor of a Resident Evil game. The horrifying end they bring to your mates in the game is repulsive, and you even feel sorry for the transformed Covenant. Well, after you finish blasting them anyway.
The backstory of The Flood, and Halo generally, is immense. At this point there are best-selling books (and they are amazing, read them), spinoff YouTube videos, amazing cosplay costumes, and a fan base that calls itself “Halo Nation.”
I just realized I made it this far and haven’t even touched on multiplayer. I’ll keep it simple – cooperative is a blast, and there are all the available modes of deathmatching/capturing the flag/etc that you would expect, playable with up to four players on split screen. Multiplayer Halo is just as great as single player.
The first Halo set numerous sales records, seemingly every week, and reportedly sold in tandem with over 50% of the initial Xbox purchases. The series has continued to set records, with Halo 4 grossing over $220 million in its first day of sales. Together with its sequel games, the series has sold over 60 million copies. In fact, the series has become so successful and synonymous with the genre that new releases are dubbed “Halo killers” in the hopes they will live up to such a lofty moniker. It’s safe to say Microsoft found the killer app they were looking for.
The Verdict: Seriously? I’m supposed to give a retro-review score to this game? Ummm…
RETRO RATING: 11/10
I cheated a little bit on my replay here. I actually played the 10th anniversary edition, which features upgraded graphics and lengthier cutscenes with more story. You can change between the original and the updated graphics at will during play, and the difference is interesting. Mostly it’s a matter of detail between one and the other. Surprisingly, sometimes you can see the enemies better in the old graphics. Regardless, Halo remains one of the best video games of all time. Popping the Covenant is great, The Flood still make you clench your sphincter, and the storyline is fantastic. Oh, and Guilty Spark will make you want to break a controller. Don’t, they are expensive. REPLAY RATING: 10/10