Halo: Combat Evolved (2001, XB)

By Andy787 / January 4, 2002

There aren't many games like Halo. Sure, it can be classified as a sci-fi-themed game in the first-person shooter genre. But Halo is something more, something so very special that it really can't be put in a class, something so special, it's in a class all of its own. Halo is a game that makes you become the character, a game where you are no longer playing a game, a game that so convincingly portrays its world, grabbing your senses to the point that you're in the game. Yes, it's one of those games. Halo possesses the very elements that just about all of my favorite games possess, Halo is a game I put in the ranks of a Shenmue, or a GTA3, or a Jet Set Radio, a game that is just so incredibly atmospheric, so fresh and new and beautiful in execution, one of those games that you just can't stop playing. Halo owns you.
   Let me explain just why I hold this game in the regard I do. Let's forget about the mechanics, let's forget about the sound, the graphics. What are you now left with, what element do you have when you take away all of a game's technical merits? I'll tell you what you have; you have atmosphere! Sure, any game nowdays with a competent group of programmers behind it can look great or sound great, but atmosphere is what you feel in a game. Atmosphere is what you get when a game combines the visuals, the sounds, the mechanics, everything in the game so perfectly. The feeling that you are actually in the game's world, the illusion that you really are in a corridor, working with a team, overcoming the odds, and loving every minute of it. Nowdays so many games are so heartless, either by a big company that wants to cash in on a popular license, or a small company that can only hire untalented programmers — whatever the case may be — it just seems like recently the heart in games has been lost, only manifesting in those special games for those of us who look good and hard. So let me tell you, this game isn't just special, it's something more.

   Halo's story tells a familiar tale of intergalactic warfare, though it is told so brilliantly and sucks you into it like nothing else, so despite having seen dozens of sci-fi space-war stories, Halo's still feels very special and has plenty of subtlety all its own.
   The game finds you playing as a character named Master Chief, one of the last Spartan IIs, and a badass that the aliens will soon grow to hate. You're given the mission of getting off a ship — which is currently under attack — and getting onto the closest planet, which is a ring planet (similar to the rings of Saturn, only solid) called Halo.
   Once on Halo, you'll soon find out just why I love this game so much. The game's environments and atmosphere are just so incredible, making you believe you're on another planet. These aren't just graphics anymore, these are bushes and plains, these are mountains, beaches, swamps and marshes.
   One of the main things that really adds to the believability is how the game is always moving. It keeps the scripted events always a step ahead, so you never see a soldier standing there waiting for you to move past a certain line, or an enemy that stares blindly at you until you enter a circle of vision. The characters are constantly moving, ships constantly landing and taking off, enemies flanking, dodging, hiding, diving, driving, flying; it feels like there's a large-scale war going on all around you. And don't think your fellow soldiers aren't just as smart as the enemies, no, the AI is incredible for both sides of the game. I've never seen a computer-controlled ally so genuinely want to help you succeed. The AI is just so good that you really get a feeling for the enemies and allies as in no other game I've ever played.
   All of the characters are full of personality too, you'll even grow to love the enemies with their hilarious speech and gestures. For instance, if you take down a large alien when there are small ones watching, they'll all run (or waddle, rather) for the hills screaming "We're all gonna die!" or "Here he comes!" in their hilarious high-pitched voice. Another favorite is when they take you down, you'll actually hear them laugh at you! And if one of the small ones (the funnier of the group) takes you down, he'll even run over to you shouting "Get his gun!" Don't count out your allies either, they're also full of personality, shouting plenty of witty remarks and one-liners as they fry the bad guys. The team is also extremely organized, more so than I've ever seen in a game, which is further testament to the incredible AI in the game. Not only will you see your teammates working together while they fight, but they will actually shout out commands to each other as they do it! If a soldier shouts out "flank left!" the team actually flanks left!

   Now Halo isn't all about team warfare, in fact a majority of the time you're by yourself. The game never feels like you're doing anything mindlessly though, there's always a reason you're doing everything, you're never finding yourself running through corridor after corridor wondering "What the hell am I doing here?!" Well, actually, there is one level where you're not mindlessly going down corridors, but there's just too many of them. I won't go into it too much because it would spoil a lot, but don't worry, it doesn't take away much from the game.
   Now, if you've played Half-Life, you'll probably be familiar with how the levels work. The levels are actually loaded as you're playing. For example, if you've just been through a large area, you may find yourself going down a small hallway and the game will slow down for about a half second to load the next area on the fly. This was kind of out of place in Half-Life, but for the gigantic environments in Halo it's warranted (and hey, it never actually stops the game).
   That brings me to my next point. It just amazes me how gigantic the environments in this game are. And it's not just because of sheer size, it's that even though they're so large, there's no inconsistency in the beauty of the game. All of the textures are simply gorgeous, and amplified even more by the excellent bump-mapping. For example, if you're running in a snowy level and look at a frozen lake, you can actually see all the texture of the bumps, everything shimmering and reflecting incredibly. The same can be said for just about everything in the game. Alien war ships never looked so real!
   Now let's get into the meat of the mechanics. All of this atmosphere doesn't mean anything if the mechanics aren't there. Fortunately, they are, in spades even. Now don't think I'm a raving fanboy with no experience in this genre save for good ol' GoldenEye. No, first-person shooters are actually one of my favorite genres. I've played just about every significant FPS since the advent of the genre so I think I can tell if one plays well or not. And boy does Halo play well.
   I've never played an FPS that really made you think resourcefully like Halo. This is because Halo only lets you carry two weapons at a time (finally putting the "How can he carry all those weapons?!" cliche to rest), so you really have to balance your weapons and decide what you think would be better suited for each situation.

   This wouldn't mean anything if the weapons weren't balanced, but they are. The weapons are a really great mix between alien and human ones, all with many different advantages and disadvantages. For example, the assault rifle, while great against the smaller aliens that don't carry shields, is very weak against shielded ones. Conversely, alien weapons are great against shielded enemies. Balancing the weapons between their different advantages just adds another element of strategy to things, and definitely makes you think twice about throwing that plasma rifle down.
   Another element adding to the resourceful mindset Halo puts you in is that there is finally a dedicated melee attack for each weapon. Finally a game where you're not given your basic kick or punch melee attacks, but have to rely on your weapons. The melee attack is extremely useful, no more just relying on it when you run out of ammo, no, here it is good for all close-combat situations. It's even better than most weapons at close range. There is also an element of stealth given to the melee attack because most alien soldiers like to doze off, so it's often that you'll find almost entire bunkers of sleeping aliens. With the melee attack being silent, you can sneak up on them all and take them out in their sleep instead of risking it with gun fire, and save ammo in the process. You're also able to use the melee attack at all times, which is much more helpful than having to cycle through your weapons to get to it.
   Grenades in Halo also assume a much larger role than in most FPSes. Since the enemy AI is so good, you really want to take out as many aliens as possible as quickly as possible. One of the best ways to do this (besides the rocket launcher of course) is by throwing a grenade at a group. They'll all scatter of course, but if you throw it straight at one of the group it will stick onto him and more often than not he'll run to the rest to take out even more of them.
   Another extremely cool and innovative addition to Halo is the incorporation of the vehicles. The physics and control of the vehicles are just brilliant. At first they will seem quite disorienting, but after you get the hang of it you really gain an appreciation of the controls and realize just how well they're implemented. The physics of the vehicles — especially the Warthog's, the pick up truck-esque vehicle with a mounted chain gun in the back — have to be the best I've ever seen in a game. The wheels and body react so realistically and independently to everything that passes under them that when you go up or down a hill, you can see your wheels bouncing appropriately. Your team works with you in the vehicles as well (though not the alien ones), jumping in the passenger and gunner seats of the Warthog, and hitching on the sides of the Scorpion (a huge, powerful tank).

   For even more of a kick to the senses, the music in Halo is just perfect. The sound is comprised of some of the coolest, most heart-pounding, chilling, epic pieces I've ever heard in a videogame. This stuff just goes so well with the rest of the game, it's not just fitting atmospherically, it really makes you want to kick some alien ass! The sound effects are also superb, the guns and vehicles sound excellent and the voice work is brilliant. Even your footsteps sound great, with a different sound for each terrain type you walk on. The sound even affects the mechanics quite often, as when you find yourself in a large quiet complex but can't see any enemies and have to listen for their footsteps to find your way.
   Now if you happen to have a couple friends lying around, you're in for some of the funnest experiences in your gaming career! The main multiplayer mode in Halo is undoubtedly the co-op mode, which lets you play through the single-player campaign with a buddy by your side. Co-op is so incredibly fun. Not only do you have someone else to help you during tough missions, but it's the teamwork factor that's the real draw here. Sure, you'll be flanking enemies together on foot, dividing and conquering your foes, that's fun enough, but how about double-teaming with a Warthog, with one driving while the other takes the gun? Now that is what I call teamwork. That's not all though, no, the guys at Bungie have you covered on traditional multiplayer as well. There are just so many different variations you can use to play. What sets Halo apart though, is the ability to include vehicles in multiplayer. Now how many FPS games have you played that let you do that?
   All said, Halo is just a masterpiece of a game, definitely one of the best I've ever had the pleasure to play. I'd recommend it to any gamer that wants an enthralling experience on their shiny new Xbox. And before asking, yes, this game is well worth the system's price of admission. Yes, this is just one of those games.

Halo: Combat Evolved is runner-up to Insomnia's 2001 Game of the Year. Join The Cult today and play Halo the way it should be played!