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Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox) artwork

Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox) review

"Paradigm Shift"

Halo: Combat Evolved represents a turning point in not just FPS design, but game design as a whole. More than any other game before or since its release, it demonstrated a design philosophy that the industry immediately took note of, much to their financial success. To understand this unique approach of Halo, we must first understand some fundamental differences between it and some of its ancestors.

In a tumultuous development cycle involving entire genre shifts, Bungie intended to release Halo on Mac and PC, but their plans to work on hardware ideal to the FPS genre were thwarted after an acquisition by Microsoft; the game's core design is compromised as a result. Objectively speaking, a gamepad has fewer options than a keyboard and less precision than a mouse, meaning that diverse control, fluid movement, and accurate gunplay are forbidden from their full potential. Handicapped control schemes inherently limit how a game can be designed, for the fast movement and accurate gunplay of the likes of Quake 3 cannot be captured as well on a gamepad as with a keyboard/mouse setup. Halo's approach to atone for this was not to add some particularly unique feature (such as Perfect Dark's nigh-unsurpassed mulitplayer options), but to simply polish presentation and build its weapons, enemies, and level design around these flaws.

Lack of fluid movement severely affects how an encounter can take place, and this can be seen in Halo's stoic protagonist. Master Chief wears armor weighing half a ton; appropriately, he walks as one wearing concrete Moon Boots. Since his sluggishness precludes the graceful projectile-dodging of Unreal or Quake, a regenerating shield system was used to make up for the damage that the player has no way to avoid, regardless of skill. Taking cover was once among many options to approaching combat in a PC FPS but is now your only hope of combating your fragility; time-to-kill -- the amount of bullet fire one can stand before death -- is low in these games to force a slow playstyle that demands more patience than ability. You have two options in most given firefights: move in the open only be shot or to hide behind cover and hope the enemy doesn't do the same. The result is certainly playable, but is it combat evolved?

When he isn't sticking his head in the dirt waiting for enemy gunfire to cease, Chief must use one of the two guns he can carry at any given time. Good FPSes have accurate gunplay accompanied by precise crosshairs and other reliable methods of demonstrating bullet trajectories, such as tracer rounds. In Halo, bullets can hit anywhere inside the oft-large crosshairs, if they don't leave these vacuous confines altogether. This, along with the lack of bullet tracers, makes gunplay an unreliable guessing game as to whether or not you can hit an enemy; incidentally, the need to memorize the uncommunicative trajectories of weapons may be partially responsible for the high skill ceiling in the multiplayer scene of Halo and other console FPS games. To address this, Halo wisely makes excellent implementation of bullet decals and enemy reactions, yet these would not be enough to deter frustration if the computer didn't autoaim for you. Still, there is plenty of demand for tactics, mainly due to the level design.

Since many weapons are inaccurate from a distance, you may need to figure out the best way to advance on an enemy position, moving from points of safety and trying to flush out or otherwise fend off opponents by using such tools as grenades. Enemies tend to come in groups, which means the player cannot get too close else he become overwhelmed, demanding those classic FPS challenges of crowd control, resource management, spacial awareness, and target prioritization.

Regardless, you don't need limited movement and gunplay to pull this off; just look at any of the classics, which accomplish these things through wide versatility not only in sandbox elements but in mechanical freedom. Halo does not set its structure with the sturdiest of materials but instead uses the most powerful of glues to keep itself together. The industry surely took notice of this, realizing that excellence in foundation was not as necessary as surface-level presentation when it came to increasing appeal.

If there's anything we can thank Halo for, it's unprecedented presentation that raised the bar for future games to meet. Countless well-deserved praises have been sung to composers Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori; we must remember also the truly inspired art direction, which takes ideas from Starcraft and Larry Niven's Ringworld but adds new elements that make Halo's universe something worthy of immersion. The presentation extends to combat, as well, with unique and appropriate sound effects attributed to even the more fantastic firearms. Attention to detail seen in enemies, such as their damage animations and how Grunts panic upon the gurgling demises of their squad leaders, makes the game's world that much more tangible. The plot itself may not be particularly well-written, but its setting and presentation are sufficient to make returning to this fascinating universe enjoyable for me.

I grew up with this series and was spoiled by better gameplay on PC games I played later on before I realized the reasons for the quiet frustrations I experienced while playing Halo. We can be grateful that the PC port alleviates some flaws by providing such improvements as mouse aiming & field of vision options, yet there's only so much one can do for a game with fundamentally bad gunplay and movement. However, one would be remiss in neglecting the fantastic Halo PC modding community; work has greatly slowed down in recent times, but their achievements include various welcome tweaking options, new campaign levels, Firefight maps, and some truly awe-inspiring additions to what was already a fantastic array of maps surpassed by only Halo 2 in the series. The (somewhat rough) multiplayer isn't quite dead, but there are no bots to immortalize the amazing work put in by fans to create so many great maps. It's an even greater shame that all of this content is held back by the fact that the game itself is, at its core, a quintessential console-shooter with typically sluggish movement and poor gunplay.

As painful as it is to see the gameplay for what it is, Halo still holds a special place in my heart. It introduced me to the first-person shooter and showed me how far creative presentation and immersive atmosphere can carry a game, and that has shaped my view of the medium as a whole. Unlike the game industry, I have outgrown the gameplay of Halo: Combat Evolved, but that hasn't stopped the game as a whole from continuing to grow on me.


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (September 02, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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