Halo Combat Evolved

There were two types of gamers back in 2001; those who loved Halo and those who didn’t own an XBox. In 2021, FBT is neither.

In 20 years, Halo has become a £6.5 billion dollar franchise - impressive, but what's even more impressive is that figure doesn’t do enough to break the top 25 game franchises. It's no Candy Crush ($9.4 billion) - when Halo CE came out, I nearly bought an Xbox; the sheer volume of Gamer juice being spewed all over Master Chief impressed me that much. But I didn’t succumb, and the title and its endless sequels passed me by, even after they started porting them for PC. But it has always bugged me. Halo became a badge of honour for console gamers, a rite of passage. Halo Master Chief Collection is on sale though, time to give it a go and see if I missed the chance to become a console gamer…

I think my 2000-era PC would have been safe. This is a straightforward run n gun, and compared to the other killer of the era, Half Life, it feels basic. It’s smooth, clean and effective, but it’s got no heart, no dirt, and that’s not the remaster talking. It’s just inoffensive, careful to not do anything controversial. It feels corporate and contained.

And it’s nowhere near as innovative as I expected. There are no risks, it just refines what we’ve always done. The games that drove gaming forward took huge steps but surprisingly, Halo has a foot in the past rather than the future. Old-school shooter tropes like brief invisibility, cartoony aliens invading, everything brightly lit and unintimidating. Critically, nothing changes; we just load, shoot, reload. There’s no depth to our story, which I expected from this, considering this period included shooters like Red Faction or Max Payne - hell even Daikatana took more risks, had more of a story-arc and invested characters than this.

Even for 20 years old, I’m not totally sold on Master Chief’s Super-status. MC doesn’t have any exceptional skills or abilities that makes him a king on the battlefield, despite all the other grunts man-crushing on him. He can only carry two weapons! Wuss. We do generally outlive the standard grunts that pop up every now and then, but I don’t feel like a badass, just a typical silent hero. MC feels slightly aged in a period when heroes had started to find their voice. At least we have Cortana to explain the story. And what a story.

During a space fight with The Covenant, the spaceship Pillar of Autumn uses a hyperdrive to lead them away from Earth, finding itself orbiting a strange world with a ring encompassing it. The Covenant follow, and it’s down to Master Chief to keep them at bay while Cortana uncovers the mystery of Halo, which its revealed was created by a long-dead civilisation to keep a parasitic alien invader at bay, like an anti-Mass Effect. But all that boils down to MC stomping ever forward and pressing buttons when asked.

I'm not taken with the layout either. The levels often feel disorientating, disconnected, and dull – any game that actually has arrows on the floor to help you find the way has a level design problem. It is of its time, but at the time I was having more fun in stuff like Omikron and Deus Ex, games that felt progressive and triggered curiosity and drew you in. Even Elite Force feels more compelling than this on a replay.

The firefights are okay, the guns have a nice kick and shooting things is never boring. I am impressed with the accuracy; shielded villains can be shot in the hand or foot, some can be sneaked up on, and their ducking and diving feels natural. Just a shame killing something is never cacklesome - they just fall down dead, no gibs here. The Grunts look/sound like Jawas and take off running if you kill off their commander, screeching and crying while the heavies just stomp toward you. Later, they’re swapped out for the Flood, which are a bit more compelling, but not much. This doesn’t feel like where it all began again.

You can see Halo’s contribution to shooters – lobbing grenades without swapping to them first, a recharging shield, the motion tracker, a realistic load-out confined to a sidearm and a main weapon (thanks, Halo), and vehicles, even if the Warthog handles like a beach buggy and the hovercraft acts like Bambi on ice. But those just feel like natural advances not quantum leaps like I expected – I didn’t think I’d be surprised by the gaming experience, but I did expect to think “so this is where that idea came from”.

I don’t think I missed much. There’s nothing here that’s surprising and that surprised me given Halo's reputation. I’ve rediscovered many games from the era that tried to do something different, that caught my attention, that I wished I’d played first time around, but Halo never really escapes that feeling of a launch title, that it had a lot of hands on it to ensure it was a success. It wasn’t allowed to fail, Microsoft had too much riding on it.

Its just a deluxe 2000’s shooter, and it is rumoured that the game was pared back with innovations and ideas cut as if to ensure it hit exactly what Microsoft’s Research Group told them made a good shooter. Its bland and inoffensive, I never get that sense of edge I got from Doom, Half-Life, FEAR or Max Payne on their first go, that 'ohh' feeling. They are the ones that caused combat to evolve, their DNA is still evident in shooters now. And they didn’t do by following Master Chief’s lead. The only thing I see in modern games that Halo influenced is a mini loadout. Thanks.

If I had bought an Xbox, I think I would have regretted it. I feel Halo’s rarefied place in gaming history is less to do with how genre defining/defying it is, and more to do with the fact that there wasn’t anything else to do on an Xbox. You had to like it, otherwise you should have bought a PS2. I can see the momentum Halo brought, its impact on gaming, but not on games. Mostly I see hype.

The thing is though, while I’m disappointed, I had the same reaction to Assassin’s Creed when I finally caught up with that. And now, I pre-order AC titles. From ACII onwards I spew gamer juice all over the animus. So, next stop, Halo 2…