Game Changers – Halo: Combat Evolved
When Halo exploded onto the scene at the start of the millennium, it proved the first-person shooter as a valid console genre and introduced subtle gameplay innovations that are still emulated today.
For the majority of gamers, Xbox and Halo are symbiotic. If you were one of the five million people who picked up the original Halo at the launch of Microsoft’s first console, then chances are the brand and world of Halo: Combat Evolved has, in some way, shaped how you play games today. Bungie’s first console offering is widely regarded as a revolutionary landmark for console gaming; it was the first FPS game on a pad that used dual-stick mechanics to the standard that we see in games today.
Halo ushered a whole section of the gaming community into the FPS realm – the genre was once the domain of keyboard and mice players on PCs and Macs, and the thought of dropping into the first-person perspective with a pad seemed ghastly. While TimeSplitters and Goldeneye had come before and shown that it /could/ be done, Halo took the best parts of its peers and fused them together to create a game that defined console gaming for the new millennium.
Many of the standard tropes we see in modern FPS games owe their shape to the original Halo. Before the sci-fi shooter’s release, FPS games would have seemingly infinite weapon slots, letting you choose and equip your loadouts on the fly. Halo dropped that mechanic in favour of a two-weapon system, whereby you can raid the battlefield for weapons discarded by your foes should one of your guns become depleted. Grenade usage was also altered – forgoing the conventions of its day, Halo opted to map grenades to their own button, so they were always usable and could be thrown on a twitch-instinct basis. Mix in the fact that Halo was the first game to introduce a rechargeable shield (alongside health packs that were later phased out) and you have an FPS that pretty much created its own sub-genre.
These alterations to gameplay made Halo a more tactical shooter, with an emphasis on strategy and foresight – no longer could you rush into a level all guns blazing, a desperado attempt at clearing out a structure. Halo established itself as a more cerebral brand; a thinking gamer’s FPS, a game that forced you to plan ahead.
The AI compounded the strategic element of the game – smarter and more dynamic than anything that had come before it, Halo’s AI engine ran unscripted encounters with the Covenant, a devoutly religious alien race that saw protagonist Master Chief as the anti-Christ and would stop at nothing to destroy him. The random nature of enemy encounters made firefights more chaotic, and gave an added element of challenge to the myriad battles you’d fight throughout the game. Since Halo, intelligent enemy AI has become the standard, but at the game’s launch, the different behavioural patterns enacted by the Flood and the Covenant was truly ground-breaking.
The level design in Halo was an advert for what the Xbox could achieve. For an Xbox launch game, Halo managed to extract a ridiculous amount of power from the console; the levels Halo showcased were huge, and the game had no issue running the impressive graphics or animations. Even compared to the PC releases of the day, Halo was massive. It operated on a scale unseen in FPS games, with maps and levels so large that Bungie introduced vehicles to help traverse the terrain. Once again, vehicular combat was something never before seen in an FPS, and for a first-time incorporation into a game, Bungie worked wonders with the driving mechanics.
Level design was symbiotically tied with narrative in Halo, playing with the way gamers would explore and progress through the game. The first set of missions would have you pushing through the world you’d crash landed on – an almost alpine alien realm encircled by the eponymous Halo ring – before you’re chased back through the same areas you’d already explored. This sounds trite, but the repeated textures and environments were populated by a variety of encounters, culminating in ambitious four-way encounters between the player, the Covenant, the zombie-hoard style Flood and the planet’s native defence systems, the Sentinels. It was this scope – this immense scale – that drove home exactly what Halo and the original Xbox could achieve.
Bungie didn’t stop at the single player, though; Halo was the first console game to have an option to play 16-player LAN on its open multiplayer maps. Despite the lack of online capability (that would come in Halo 2), Halo’s multiplayer mode was a huge success – popularising LAN parties for console gamers by taking advantage of the native connectivity worked into Xbox consoles.
Halo was a significant release in the history of both the FPS and the Xbox, and after its phenomenally successful launch, it’s clear to see why it became the flagship title for Xbox. It’s a huge credit to Bungie that, 12 years later, the Halo name carries the same weight it did at launch. There’s a lot to be said of legacy in the games industry, and it’s safe to say that with Halo, Bungie introduced a series that will rest in the annals of gaming history forever.