Halo: Combat Evolved

"Let's give our old friend a warm welcome."

Source // Wikipedia

The 1001 list calls this iconic title 'the Xbox's own Star Wars', and given that it is still going strong despite making poor decisions, it's hard to argue that Halo: Combat Evolved didn't start something rather significant in video games.

A launch title for a video game console has to grab attention, and a launch title for a video game console from a company that has never made one before ought to do a damn good job and showing off what the new technology is capable of, and Halo serves as a textbook example of doing so.

With its blend of first-person shooting and vehicular sections, its military sci-fi setting, and its ridiculous alien foes, Halo ought not to be missed. Which is precisely what I did, because I owned a PlayStation 2 instead.

Let's catch up, shall we?

Source // Halo Alpha


I own Halo for the Xbox but have never owned an Xbox itself. Wisely, it seems, Microsoft has seen it fit to allow backwards compatibility - to some tailored degree - to its later consoles, and I do have an Xbox 360 waiting to be fired up for this very post. But it doesn't have a hard drive. Or it does, but it's not big enough. I need to do my research because I think it came with only 4Gb which I, laughably now, thought was fine 'because I'm only playing a couple of games on it'. Who needs more than 4Gb of storage, right?

Anyway, long story short, I don't appear to be able to play Halo via the 360. But... I have managed to come across the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary edition, an Xbox 360 remake, complete with options to play with old graphics and sound. Almost perfect for my purposes.


Source // Halo Alpha

First of all, no personal screenshots. That's fine though, as the Internet is full of Halo screenshots. Here's one of Master Chief emerging from hibernation. That's you if you weren't aware, and you're the guy they stuff full of stim packs when the shit hits the fan, so now you know we're not in too good a shape.

Not only do I mean that in terms of the plot - your ship is getting attacked and its time to evacuate - but also because of the history of Halo ports. To cut to the chase, Anniversary's old school graphics options aren't those from the original Xbox release, but actually the PC port from a few years later. The graphically 'broken' port. This video from Late Night Gaming does a far better job of explaining it than I ever could.

So while I can get a sense of what Halo was like, I can't see it as it actually was. In this day and age, with everything getting remade for the next generation, there are arguments to be made that you don't want to see what it actually was, see it this way instead, it's shiny and new. I like those arguments - I'll come back to them later - but as that video hints at, let's try not to lose our video gaming history, yeah?

With that out of the way, let's play.

Source // Halo Alpha

Fun Times

So here we are, on the Pillar of Autumn, a weird name for a bulky military ship but it's home for the moment. A brief moment, as we start the game being awoken from stasis in a crisis. We're under attack and heading towards a ringworld, the titular 'Halo'. We've got orders to escape and defend at all costs the artificial intelligence that runs the ship, Cortana, because she knows the coordinates for Earth and all our military strategy and weapons research and all that malarky. Just take the hard drive full of porn and run.

Source // Halo Alpha

And run we do, first-person shooting our way through grey corridors full of funny little aliens, and the odd, less funny bigger alien. They are the Covenant, they're a bit mental, and these guys like to show off how they're different from other first-person foes.

When faced with impossible odds - or at least when faced with bullets whizzing past their faces - these guys panic, scream, and run around like headless chickens for an easy kill. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, only the fish sometimes shoot back and don't make as much noise.

Their bigger brothers are more imposing, armed with energy shields to soak up some shots before you can finally finish them off, but they too show some semblance of situational awareness, and are usually on the move around the battlefield, rather than staying still behind cover and predictably popping out every so often.

The gameplay has been described as 'thirty seconds of fun', where was the action kicks off, it'll kick off proper, everyone's weapons flaring until the combat dies down and the combatants die off. The pace drops, the exploration continues, you round a corner, and here we go again.

The first level takes place is a boxy ship where you don't get to do a whole lot other than learn the controls and follow the corridor to the end, but it's enough to get the Halo fundamentals across: As you're playing on a console, this genre is going to behave a little differently. You'll only have two weapons, so switch between them wisely. You've got subtle auto-aim to help put your analogue sticks on target. It doesn't snap from half-way across the screen, but it's there when you more or less are. Grenades aren't a hassle, just press the button and watch them get lobbed down range. A melee attack is devastating, and it too takes only one button.

Everything is simple. Everything makes sense. Halo made the first-person shooter viable on consoles, and then some. Just look at how they've taken off, despite PC releases having the precision of the keyboard and mouse.

Source // Halo Alpha

Leaving the Pillar of Autumn behind, our escape pod crashes into the Halo, industrial construction on the outside, a planet on the inside. Two levels in and we've gone from a spaceship corridor to grassy mountain ranges, and now the Covenant can run around trees and rocks like headless chickens.

Those thirty seconds of fun continue as your trek through this much larger corridor continues. Meeting up with survivors along the way, you hold back wave after wave of enemy threats.

Source // Halo Alpha

Further Frustrations

That's where Halo gets a little bogged down. When there's action, there's action. No doubt about that. Switch between your weapons for different approaches to the fight, pick up alien weaponry to try out what they bring to the world of weapons technology, flank around the entire combat to attack from behind and really put the AI to the test. You can do it all in those punch thirty seconds.

But then you're often left to a dull, repetitive level. Those are both the wrong words, but they describe what I felt while playing. That already, I've done this before. I've seen dropships plop targets onto the ground for me to deal with. I've seen escape pods full of supplies and lifeless bodies. I've seen survivors huddled together waiting for me to deal with some dropships until the cavalry arrive to help them out. Where's the plot. Where's the forward progress?

Source // Halo Alpha

Further Fun Times

Soon into the second level, you're allowed to play with the Warthog, an offroad vehicle with a big gun on the back. You can drive it, which takes a little getting used to, and the empty seats will be filled with whoever is nearby and capable of fighting.

Lots of people are more than happy to leap into the back of a Warthog and squeeze the triggers on a bloody big gun, despite the risk of getting shot off the back or tumbling out of it when you land awkwardly. They're so happy, in fact, that they'll voice their opinion whenever there's a free moment to do so, even punching the air after a successful jump off a hill. I heard a mix of dialects and characters too, ensuring that those who stepped foot into my Warthog weren't just generic grunts, but individual soldiers.

But it was, still, a bit repetitive to drive the Warthog here and there, setting the gunner up, making sure he could see his target, hurrying around to the next fight, waiting for more dropships, killing more Covenants... I just wanted to get on with it. I don't care how good or bad the plot will turn out to be, I just wanted to see some of it.

I also wanted to see what the updated graphics looked like, and with the press of a button and a teeny tiny bit of loading, you can switch between the two modes. Boy, did it look like a remake or what? Grass where there was no grass. Textures where there were no textures. Shine and polish where there was no shine and polish, except of course there was shine and polish only you won't get to see it in the PC port, only in the Xbox original... refer back to that video.

Final Word

After an hour or so, I was ready to think about how I wanted to progress. Do I want to find a way to play the original, rather than an inferior looking port? Yes. Was I okay with playing the poorer looking port? Yes. Was I interested in playing the glitzy remake? Yes. And what's this I hear about the Master Chief Collection coming to PC? That looks good, doesn't it?

I have definitely got a choice when it comes to how I want to play Halo, and after all these years, yes, I do want to play Halo. I think Master Chief looks a little dorky, and the way he's seen as some kind of mythical figure is silly, and Cortana gets more and more annoying, from what I've seen, but I can't deny that Halo is a phenomenon. The multiplayer offerings that eventually came to it are perhaps the most significant factor in the series' status today, but the technology that brought the single player to us in the first place is equally impressive.

Despite agreeing that we should be able to play games as they were, seeing remasters and remakes brings all manner of improvements and tweaks to games we fondly remember, allowing them to perform better alongside much more recent titles. While those remakes have potentially resulted in the original Halo to be lost to time, the game in some form continues, and in those forms, it is as playable as it was in 2001. It has stood the test of time, still continues to shine, and somehow, someway, I'll find myself playing through it.

I just haven't decided how.

Fun Facts

As far as interesting development stories go, starting as a sci-fi RTS destined for the Apple Mac, before becoming a third-person action game heading to the Mac and PC, before finally - and in less than a year to boot - turning into a first-person shooter Xbox launch title is probably one of the most unusual for a video game.

Halo: Combat Evolved, developed by Bungie, first released in 2001.
Version played: Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Xbox 360, 2011.
Version watched: Multiple (including Late Night Gaming, Digital Foundry)