Halo: Combat Evolved – The game the franchise left behind

Twenty years have passed since Halo: Combat Evolved first appeared on the Xbox in 2001, and over the years the franchise has grown into a true juggernaut.  With the release of Halo Master Chief Collection, it gives new players a chance to go back and replay the entire series.

It seems worthwhile to look through each game’s offering over time and to start with the originator.  This review will mainly focus only on the single-player offerings, though the Halo Master Chief Collection offers the multiplayer for Halo Combat Evolved.

But given the potential to remake Halo: Combat Evolved into a brand new version, players are instead getting the already existing PC version.  The Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary edition came out in 2011, and while that’s the 10th anniversary of the original game, 10 years after its release the game feels like it could use another update.  

The problem is that the original Halo: Combat Evolved looks a little long in the tooth, both through age, and imitation.  Halo came out at a strange time, becoming one of the first FPSes to succeed on the Console, and ushering in the era of the Xbox, but at the same time, it was in its ecosystem, alone on consoles where most FPSes were limited to the PC.  

The PC had just released Half-Life, and Deus Ex, both games changed what was expected from the FPS genre with a more story-rich format.  So if Halo was released on PC it might not have gotten the attention it received as a launch title for the Microsoft Xbox.

20 years later, the field for the FPS genre is a far different landscape.  Almost every First Person Shooter is now on both console and PC and most players have so many options they’re overwhelmed.

And with that stage set, we can look at Halo: Combat Evolved and the tale of two games, the game that launched a new console, and the game that is lingering two decades later. 

Halo: Combat Evolved scaled-down the massive complex First Person Shooter genre and made it accessible to consoles.  It did this by trimming staples of the genre and designed the controls for a simplified controller interface.  Even the move from mouse and keyboard to a controller was unthinkable at the time and the contemporaries had not made that look easy or possible.  Even those that attempted it struggled. 

It’s hard to deny that Halo is impressive as a first attempt.  The controls and gameplay feel right and the experience is very solid for an FPS on a console.  Yet a lot of the control scheme feels out of place, such as placing the flashlight on the left bumper, and while part of the reason is that it’s tied with TeamSpeak, it gets a position of prominence for a feature that is seldom used. 

The controls also feel strange when doing anything other than combat.  The vehicle control in Halo feels out of place and dated, and while having vehicles in a First Person Shooter at the time was a major accomplishment, in 2021, those controls just feel hideous.  Rather than pressing an accelerator or brake like almost any game, the vehicle controls based on the direction the player is looking and if the player is holding forward or backward on the analog sticks.  

The vehicles also handle weirdly, but there’s never a moment when the controls feel correct no matter which vehicle the player is in, and with multiple vehicle sections almost required by the game, it will keep hammering the player reminding them how outdated the experience is. These vehicle sections of Halo never really feel right, more as if they were put there to change up long shooting sections, rather than an enjoyable experience on their own.

Most levels in Halo are poorly laid out usually focusing more on exploration than a core narrative.  A simple nav point could make some levels feel better, but instead, Halo seems to want the player to feel alone on an alien world, which would make sense.  The problem is nothing in Halo is interesting to explore or looks that alien.  

Seeing large vast mountainous ranges as the player explores is fine, but being told to just find escape pods leads to long sections of the game where the player drives around.  This is only made worse when everything looks the same.  Multiple times in Halo I honestly thought I had been turned around because I was going through the same corridor or locations for the second or third time.  The level design is frightfully bad. 

And this is the level design that was used in the 2011 version which was updated from the original.  Halo Combat Evolved still has the original extremely dull version of the levels that released on the Xbox, available with a single button press, but even seeing the updated version of the level, not much has changed.  Exploration can work in an FPS, but seeing every area and level feel like one you just left makes the entire experience worse.  

Levels in the game feel like they’re three times as long as they should be mostly due to seeing all the same room layouts and level segments three times.  The repetition hurts the experience of the game, and nothing feels like it’s laid out well.  Whether it’s a ship, base, or just mountainside, Halo just seems to have level layouts that are there because that’s what a level looks light, rather than a location that is designed for a purpose or need. 

Of course, along with the level design is the checkpoint system.  Reaching certain locations will grant the player a “checkpoint” where they can restart from that location, and reattempt the next encounter.  However, it’s easy to accidentally stumble on a checkpoint when the player is out of ammo, life, or both.  Many encounters in Halo are challenging, but add a bad starting save state, and suddenly a challenging encounter becomes horrific.  At least one or two led to multiple hours of trying to beat the encounter because the game saved with the wrong weapon and there was no way to change out my gear.  I could have restarted and rolled back 30 minutes of progress to hopefully push forward, but the chance of getting stuck with a similar bad checkpoint was too dangerous to risk. 

I mentioned earlier that the story of FPS games was evolving, and Halo equally evolved, but never reaches the same level of quality as Deus Ex or Half-Life.  Numerous cliffhangers make no sense, and much of Halo is focused on the combat, or walking around in dead silence aboard ships.  This might make sense if our main character was forced to be by himself for the entire game, but at the beginning of the game, an AI is given to Master Chief, named Cortana.  

Cortana could easily have been a navigation system or at least a voice to talk to the player, but instead, she’s barely utilized except when the game can find some super cool way to feature her.  Even when she is is featured in a scene, she’ll say something vague like “the weapon cache isn’t a weapon cache.” and then stops talking without explaining to leave the player wondering.  An additional line would help explain that statement but instead the player has to go through another thirty minutes of gameplay to know the truth.  It’s cliffhangers like that which have no purpose and have no need to exist.  

When there are ten or twenty minutes of dead silence, I’m not sure what to expect, but even as big moments happen, nothing is said.  Watching an elevator get destroyed in silence and not even hearing “We’ll have to find another way.” or just plodding on in dead silence without hearing a version of “we’re on the right path.” makes Halo feel exceptionally lonely.  This had been done better before Halo, but looking back at the game makes all these issues particularly egregious. 

The areas that Halo exceled in are no longer that amazing.  The combat is excellent at times, but there’s so much of it, and it is mostly fighting the same tiered fighters over and over.  The AI was good at the time but is hardly that interesting today, and the weapons were improved upon by every game after it, even if it revolutionized a two-weapon carry limit.  

At the time, everything Halo does right would have been huge, and even with the poor level design, players would push on and look for the next big encounter, but looking back at Halo with the history of the franchise and the hundreds of imitators, there’s not much in the original Halo that is worth returning for.  

Halo in 2021 is mostly there for the completeness of the series.  If you want to see how the series started and is laid out, you’ll want to play Halo, but a couple of weeks have passed since I originally finished the series and I can barely remember much of what happened.  The finale of Halo had a big crescendo but also felt like a typical action movie.  There are a couple of scenes in particular that stood out but if anything this experience has made me nervous if I should continue with the series or find something else to play.  

Ultimately I have to give Halo an arbitrary 

6/10

Halo may have been the gold standard, but we’re so far removed from that point in gaming history, that I struggle to recommend it for anyone who isn’t already wearing nostalgia goggles, but there are many people with that love for the series. 

I’ll also be honest, I may pull the plug on this series just because if I experience Halo 2 and Halo 3 with the same lack of love, I don’t know if giving these games low scores will help anyone.  Halo as a franchise has been promoted because of the story and experience, and many people still claim Halo “holds up.”  In my history, I’ve attempted to play through Halo 3, ODST, and Halo Reach, and out of them, the only one that felt like it was told well was Reach.  

I assumed Halo 3 needed me to understand Halo 1 and Halo 2’s story but while I can’t remember Halo 3 as I played it at launch on the Xbox 360, Halo: Combat Evolved has me realizing that the “amazing story” that others have talked about, isn’t as amazing as I’ve been lead to believe. 

Who knows, maybe Halo 2 will turn around the series, but for me, I’m not looking forward to this and perhaps I’m just not the right person to cover the series.  Time will tell. 

If you enjoyed this and want to see more from me, you can check out my youtube channel at 

https://www.youtube.com/c/KinglinkReviews

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