Halo: Combat Evolved is fifteen years old as I sit here and write this review. Let that sink in for a minute. No matter how long you let it take to sink in, it doesn’t. I was in fourth grade when Halo: Combat Evolved first released. Some shooters have graced my consoles but I never fell in love with the genre necessarily–and I’d played Doom, Wolfenstein, and Quake. Lower your pitchforks; I enjoyed all of those games and still replay them on occasion. I just wasn’t in love with the first person shooter genre as a whole. It was fun but it wasn’t my favorite. Like many others I’m sure, Halo changed that for me forever.
You can’t talk about Halo without at least briefly mentioning the Xbox and its launch. Microsoft was fearful of Sony’s expansion and what it could mean for their role in households. They wanted to try to expand computers into the living much like Sony was doing the opposite to achieve the same result. Electronics, software, and their respective manufacturers were at war for control of our homes and our time and we would stand to benefit it all. The Xbox may have gotten off to a rocky start but here we are and I’m sure even the most devoted Sony fans will admit that Xbox is a worthy rival. I’m a fan of many of the games that Xbox had available but will admit that Combat Evolved was crucial to the success of Microsoft’s first console and ultimately its future. Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Fable, and many others may have helped but Halo absolutely paved the way.
Halo helped pave the way for shooters and the popularity and success they would enjoy as well. Even the most devoted of Call of Duty players can admit that Bungie did everyone a solid in what they helped make possible and accessible. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark are incredible games but Halo was the first time playing a shooter with 16 players in one room was possible and its sequel helped revolutionize online gaming on a console.
There was a vast universe and deep story at the core of Halo and it was surrounded with few flaws and deeply satisfying mechanics and gameplay. The game begins with the Pillar of Autumn coming out of slipspace near a mysterious ring-shaped space station called “Halo” with the Covenant hot on their tail. Captain Keyes initiates a protocol that wipes navigation data and prevents the Covenant from being able to learn the location of Earth. This is where it begins and may I say, what a beginning we have here. Enemies are here, the ships going to crash, a mysterious artifact and a damn good score from Martin O’Donnell. Few games hit their stride this fast and whoever you were, you hit the ground running and gunning as Keyes handed you a pistol. This game is just epic and captures what makes a shooter so much fun. It was immersive and incredible. There’s no other way to put it.
Bungie created tight mechanics and gave purpose to the controller that was met with initially mixed feelings. Just walking, jumping, ducking, and running felt great on the Xbox controller–and that’s before you even get to core of the gameplay. Shooting feels incredible and never fails to draw a smile on the player’s face as they destroy enemy forces. Rolling your thumbs on the sticks and popping off head shots never felt so damn good. The weapons were all fun and exciting, albeit a little overpowered in some cases but whatever … it felt great. The difficulty helped capture what so many gamers loved about Doom and Wolfenstein. How do you want to play? Do you want to mosey on through and have foes cry in defeat at every turn or do you want to sweat and bite your lip with each and every skirmish? The ‘Legendary’ difficulty gave players the chance to show off if they wanted to and ‘Heroic’ difficulty still offered a healthy challenge without some of the edge. There was nothing wrong with playing on ‘Normal’ and if you just wanted to have some fun and experience the game then hey, no judgement, play on ‘Easy.’
Halo felt like a living being with its intelligent AI and the dialogue that you’d hear while playing. Hearing things like “Get it off! Get it off!” after chucking a plasma grenade at a Grunt will never stop being so satisfying. You might chuck one in the middle of the combat, hear that, and then an explosion. It was always awesome and helped make the world feel more than just a game. I always loved the relationship between Master Chief, Cortana, and the Marines. I mean seriously, think about it; Bungie managed to make an AI in your head and other NPC teammates feel real and meaningful. The player really developed a bond and a sense of camaraderie with Cortana. The dialogue that you’d both engage in added to the story and helped build a relationship between the player and the world. They’d argue with each other. Cortana would provide information on what was happening or an analysis on the developing plot. Chief would quip back with funny remarks or a serious response to something she said. They joked with each other. They became friends and you felt like a part of that the entire time. The Marines always felt like teammeates to me and I know I’m not alone. Marines walking up to greet and salute Chief when you arrived on the scene just made everything so much more real and badass. I felt for them when they died and always tried to jump in and absorb some bullets if I could to protect them. They were my friends in this battle against the forces of evil. The stakes felt so raised in Combat Evolved.
Graphically, this game was incredible. When you boot it up now, you can see that it’s aged quite a bit but in the context of the time, it still manages to leave everything else from the time in the dust. The world isn’t as detailed as games grew to be so there are plenty of gray walls and gray outdoor textures but it’s got it where it counts. The graphic design just felt mature and grown up. Textures were definitely lacking in many areas but this world was still brought to life by its visuals. Character models, faces, and gunfire helped this world glow with life and the interiors feature plenty of electronic displays, signs, and doors to bring further realism to the world. Exteriors featured lush trees, sprawling mountains, visible bodies of water, stars in the sky, and the “Halo” itself being visible. Like the moon in Majora’s Mask constantly looming above you to both taunt and motivate you to push forward, the “Halo” being visible in this world added to the immersion and kept you running and gunning. This game still looks great. It may look dated but this is when worlds were able to stretch and take shape rather than us just wondering what things were supposed to be. Suspension of disbelief was enabled even further by the graphical possibilities of the Xbox, Gamecube, Dreamcast, and Playstation 2 but Halo was one of the first true beacons that signaled what was finally possible in video games.
It’s absolutely impossible to talk about Combat Evolved without talking about its multiplayer. It may not have had online multiplayer (that would later come with Halo 2) but split screen and LAN parties were happening everywhere. Two to four player matches were in living rooms all over the world but some gamers gathered their group of sixteen or more friends in a big house with four TVs, four Xbox consoles, four copies of Halo, and sixteen controllers. There are even reports of people getting pulled over with cars filled with visible TVs and game systems by confused police officers. Sixteen player death matches was something that had never happened on console–and it took the world by storm. Custom games made it especially fun. Bungie knew that what they made was fun and figured it’d be even more fun if gamers could tinker with the settings and create their own styles of playing with friends. Local Tournaments, massive gatherings of friends, dorm halls–everywhere you looked was filled with people playing Halo or rushing off to play it! It helped send local multiplayer gaming off on a high note before its sequel helped create the foundation for online gaming on Xbox Live and Playstation Network.
Everything was raised up to 11 in Halo: Combat Evolved but that does sadly include the flaws. Luckily they’re few in number and the positives greatly outweigh them. There are many times in Halo where environments will feel repetitive and it can also lead to getting lost at times. I have a lot of great memories with this game but I also have many memories of shooting and walls of frustration in ‘The Library’ because I didn’t know where to go. Familiar textures and environments began to feel like Bungie was cutting and pasting at times too which of course hurts the immersion and suspension of disbelief in addition to just being lost with no idea where to go. It doesn’t cause you to get lost too frequently but it will sporadically pull you out of the action with how repetitive the game can look at times.
I cannot praise the music of O’Donnell enough. You’ve heard the soundtrack. You know exactly what I’m talking about. The music of this game the entire series has some of the most recognizable tracks of the modern era in video games. More important that sounding good though, they also helped pull you into this universe and manipulate your emotions in ways that graphics and shooting could never dream of doing. The music of this game is a character in the story just like Chief himself.
Halo‘s a fun ride from start to finish and it’s on my list of games that I try to replay every year or two. I think it will forever be next to other gaming greats just like the original Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Castlevania in not only how great it is but also for its contributions to gaming and the impact it had that is still being felt today. Halo: Combat Evolved is here to stay.
Thanks for checking out my retro review of the original Halo! I’m a huge fan of Halo and always look forward to new releases in the series. I love other shooters too but Halo was definitely the game that made fall in love with the first person shooter genre. Make sure to check here every Friday for our newest retro review and don’t forget to check out all our other great content at BagoGames. Follow us on Twitter @bagogames to keep up with all our content. Feel free to follow me on Twitter as well @mrjoshnichols to see me live tweet as I play games for articles, reviews, or for leisure!
- Interesting story with twists, turns, and emotions
- Deeply satisfying shooting mechanics
- Incredibly fun multiplayer with variety
- Four player split screen and system link multiplayer
- Martin O'Donnell's score is both immersive and enthralling
- Rough textures in some spots (even at the time)
- Occasional repetitive level and environment design
- Getting lost in some sections like The Library