Halo: Combat Evolved review
This review originally appeared in E105, Christmas 2001.
Cynics smiled and shook their heads; it was so logical, so Microsoft. Everyone knows that there are strictly defined genres within gaming, that there are fans of each of those genres, and so, to please all of those fans – or at least to get them interested in your machine – you need to bring out a game in their genre. It’s a sensible, checklist approach to the launch of a new console. Put a tick in every box, and make sure you’ve got everyone’s attention. And that was what Microsoft appeared to be doing.
It didn’t really come as much surprise when they snatched Halo, a game the FPS community had been hailing as if it were the second coming of Gordon Freeman, from the bleeding hearts of PC gamers and into their carefully balanced starting line-up. It was an intelligent play for the hearts of people who’d never considered console gaming, except then, of course, came the rumours of missed deadlines and a reduced feature set. Online play, a huge selling point on the PC was dropped completely. It was all going wrong. Cynics smiled and shook their heads. So predictable. So Microsoft.
So it arrives. And, after forty hours of expletive-filled single-player immersion and countless more in multiplayer, Edge is left with a problem. Not because of issues with the game, and only partially because it’s difficult to find the words to do Bungie’s work justice. The problem arises because you can’t review Halo without talking about some of the moments that make it, and you can’t talk about those moments without spoiling it for those who deserve to experience them afresh, just like you did. It’s the sort of game that demands you enthuse about the situations you’ve found yourself in, but you can’t… “And what about the bit in level two, when…” – “And then when you get in the…” – “And when you discover you can…” – “And when the enemies first…” You can’t.
So what can you talk about? Well, you can discuss how Halo starts, with the player taking the role of Chief, a newly defrosted super-soldier on board a ship under attack from a warring alien race. Induction takes a few minutes; thereafter, the action is relentless. There are ten chapters, each subdivided into several captioned objective-based missions. Thematically, the game’s roots are in standard sci-fi, in alien xenophobia, triumph and betrayal: one man against the odds. Except, for much of Halo’s epic adventure, you’re not alone.
You can talk about the single-player team play. Chief’s travels around Halo’s world bring him into contact with pockets of marines, often under heavy enemy fire. If the player manages to keep them alive, they’ll fight with him. If he fails they become just another source of weaponry. And you can talk about the weapons, too; in a surprising concession to realism, Chief can only carry two at once, which means that, since almost every enemy carries some kind of weapon, every dead body provides another decision. Those decisions don’t just affect how quickly the player progresses through the next part of the game, but also how the next part of the game plays. Firing on an enemy camp with an assault rifle is significantly different to sniping a perimeter gunner and stealing his turret, and sneaking round dispatching sleeping aliens with stealthy combat is different again.
You can talk about the weapons’ balance; the Doom ethic that pervades the genre, where the pistol is sequentially replaced in usefulness by the shotgun and then the chain-gun and so on, is absent. For example, the pistol, the first weapon Chief receives in the game, is invaluable throughout. Some players will prefer it to everything else available, but they will be forced to change when they run out of ammunition, or when they perceive a situation demands a change of tactics. Thanks to the cascading AI, changing tactics results in different situations. Changing tactics changes the game.
You can talk about how the combat works. Chief’s status meter consists of a shield bar which starts recharging moments after the player has stopped taking damage, and six units of health, which don’t. On any difficulty level higher than easy, standard FPS close-combat reaction-test tactics will fail. Using the surroundings to provide cover for the moments it takes for the shield to recharge is vital, and every yard of every environment appears to have been designed with that in mind. While fighting can be frantic, it always possesses some measure of subtlety. There’s a smarter way out than just joining the fray.
You can talk, briefly, about co-operative play. Player one draws the vehicle’s fire, while player two picks off the pilot with the sniper rifle. Player one drains an enemy’s shield with an alien pistol, allowing player two to flank and get a clean shot with the shotgun. Player one uses a grenade to scatter the opponents down a corridor and towards player two’s rocket launcher. Tactics are planned and improvised. They arise from situations unimagined by the programmers or players, situations created by the game’s spectacular artificial intelligence.
You can talk about that AI. It’s outstanding on the normal setting, but on the hardest of the four difficulty levels, it is absolutely terrifying. Enemies will do everything you expect a human player to, and if there’s a single testament to its genius, it’s that it constantly creates situations similar to Half-Life’s best set-pieces. And then, on your second run through the game, those situations will be different because even if you behave exactly the same, even if you use the same weapons and fire in exactly the same places, the positioning and reaction of the enemies is randomised.
And, thankfully, you can talk about the multiplayer. List the box stats, if you want: Fourplayer splitscreen, 13 arenas, 26 different types of game and the opportunity to define the terms of combat yourself. Network multiple Xboxes and the number of conceivable fighters rises to 16, or four, each with their own machine, or eight split into four teams of two, or however you choose to define it. But the subtlety of the control and the balance of the weapons make it so much more than a list of numbers. GoldenEye was the standard for multiplayer console combat. It has been surpassed. And the single player? If you knew what happened on the third level, and the fifth, and so on…
That’s the problem. You can talk around Halo a lot, but you can’t talk specifics if you don’t want to spoil it for those who want to experience it. And that should be everybody: this is more than Edge expected, and exactly what Microsoft needed. This is not hyperbole: this is the most important launch game for any console, ever. It doesn’t mean the XBox will succeed, but it does mean that, if it fails, it will leave videogaming with one perfect, eloquently coded moment. That’s it. That’s all you can say.