Halo: Combat Evolved review

Reading a review of the first Halo game for the original Xbox in 2011 is probably a bit disorienting. Have you stepped into a ten year timewarp, or is there a more simple explanation?

Regrettably, I experienced a lost decade of gaming. The seeds were sown with my stubborn dislike of any controller other than the kind of joystick I grew up with on the C64 and Amiga. As I transitioned from the Amiga to the PC, I learnt to like the keyboard but I just couldn’t get on with D-pad style console gamepads. Despite owning a Playstation for a few months it wasn’t for me and was quickly sold. When the Dual-shock style controllers came in with stubby thumbsticks I should have given console gaming another go but didn’t. Apart from some occasional MAME usage I stopped gaming completely from about 1998 to 2008.

The long road to Halo

It was Nintendo that pulled me out of the gaming abyss with the Wii. The Wii seemed like a breath of fresh air to someone who’d been sitting on the sidelines of gaming and stupidly bought into the argument of games being desperately unoriginal with the only thing improving being the graphics. So I bought one.

Buying the Wii coincided with a change in lifestyle – going out less and spending more time in the house at the weekend. Suddenly, I was really enjoying gaming again. Wii Sports kept me entertained for a while, but when I got Mario Kart Wii I just couldn’t put it down. I got into online play for the first time and loved it, apart from struggling to keep my temper in check after getting repeatedly wiped out by the blue shell.

Much as I enjoyed the Wii, I was left wanting more. The system suffers from a well known problem of a lack of decent third party games, and Nintendo are not the most prolific at releasing titles. At this point I went in the wrong direction a bit and bought a DSi handheld, hoping to enjoy playing the larger library of games. To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy anything on the DSi apart from being able to play Mario Kart DS while out and about.

My luck improved in early 2009 when I went to a friend’s house and saw Race Driver: Grid running on the PS3 and a large HDTV. The quality of what I saw blew me away and made me realise what I was been missing out on. It was clear that I had to get back into serious gaming. The only question was which seventh generation console to buy – the PS3 or the Xbox 360? After a good month of deliberating I went for the 360, and have never regretted it. It’s been one of the best things I ever bought – for the first twelve months it was connected to a 32″ LCD TV but since moving house it’s in a small cinema/games room hooked up to a 720p projector. With an 8ft wide image on the wall the gaming experience is vivid and immersive, and really makes use of the machine’s HD graphics.

Entering the Halo universe

After playing major xbox 360 games like GTA IV and Gears of War, last summer I picked up the budget release of Halo 3. Being a 2007 release, the graphics were slightly disappointing compared to other 360 titles and – being new to the Halo franchise – I found the storyline a bit bewildering. The game itself is top notch though – a superbly polished shooter with bags of atmosphere including a genuinely scary trip into a Flood-infested Covenant battle cruiser. I also bought and played Halo: Reach – another great Halo title, this time backed up with graphics that do real justice to the 360.

Back in January, I bought an original Xbox as a retrogaming rig to soften the blow of selling my lovely Blizzard-accelerated Amiga 1200. I’ll save the story of hacking the xbox, installing emulators and adding a new hard drive for another time as it’s a long one. Shortly afterwards I came across some used Xbox games on offer at the local Gamestation so I bought Halo and Halo 2.

In the last few weeks I’ve been playing the Halo campaign extensively and even though the game is nearly ten years old, it’s still a magnificent experience. The opening level onboard the Pillar of Autumn ship is perhaps a bit dull – mainly due to the grey graphics – but once you get onto the halo ring itself the game really hots up. The world design is wildly imaginative and at times has a profound feel to it thanks to the vast sense of scale the game conveys. Rolling green hills and plant life sit alongside the vast metallic structures of the artificial ring world. Whenever you look up at the sky the arc of the rest of the halo world is visible to remind the player of where they are.

The main adversary in Halo is the Covenant, who as the name suggests are a collective of various alien races. Most common are the grunts with their basic armour and weaponry, and a cowardly nature which often results in them running and hiding at the sight of the player’s Master Chief cyborg. While Grunts are almost always simple cannon-fodder, Brutes, Jackals and Elites are more challenging to take down. The top dogs of the Covenant are the Hunters with their almost impenetrable armour. They are armed to the teeth with assault cannons and to make matters worse, they usually hang around in pairs.

The first Halo game has little in the way of an introductory story, preferring to drop the player into the action and fill out the story as the game progresses. This works brillaintly and allows for some exciting surprises like a third antagonist being revealed in the latter half of the game. The Flood are a nightmarish parasitic infestation which live inside the mutated bodies of others. The mutants are tough to kill and the tiny parasites can cause major problems with their ability to reanimate foes already downed.

What separates Halo from other first-person shooters is the rich world design and storyline, flexible game play and the enemy AI. As an example of the brilliance of the Halo’s computer AI, in Halo 3’s Sierra 117 campaign I tried to cross a bridge and was rushed by five or six Covenant baddies. What happened next both surprised and impressed me – I switched weapons to the devastating Gravity Hammer and the computer characters stopped, re-evaluated the threat I posed, and turned and ran! And the first Halo game is just as good in this respect. It amazes me that first-person shooters like Call of Duty attract so much attention when Halo makes them look so primitive. You could argue that the focus on online play means it’s less important, but is the reverse not true to some extent – would there not be more interest in CoD offline play if the computer AI was decent?

The best thing I can say is that even after first experiencing Halo 3 and Halo:Reach on the 360, playing the first game on the original xbox is in no way a disappointment. In fact it is surprising how many of the things that impressed me in the later games has been there right from the start. The brilliant production values, storyline, atmosphere, superb combat, level design that can stop you in your tracks and the awesome vehicle driving sections are all present and must have been mindblowing back in 2001. Even the title screen is worth watching and listening to. What we have here is a rare example of an older game that is still glorious to play today.

If you’ve not played Halo yet, believe the hype. If you are a PlayStation owner, it’s worth picking up an Xbox just to play this. My local Gamestation sells used consoles for something like £20 with a 3 month warranty. Used copies of Halo are £4.99 or less. So for under £30 you can get the game and a console to play it on! Even factoring in the cost of the hardware, it’s one of the best value gaming experiences around today.

xbox 360 owners have two options – play the title directly on the 360 using the emulator, or wait for the rumoured HD remake due later this year!

You owe it to yourself to get involved, Master Chief!

2 comments

  1. Michael Binks says:

    Unfortunately it is easier/cheaper to produce a game focused to online play rather than a competitive and tactile AI, which means we also have to stump up our £40 xbox live subscription to get the full gaming experience.

    To top this off you now also end up get your butt kicked by a ten year old everytime you play online!

    • Dorian says:

      Good point! I’ve never really gotten into online gaming that much, I like the storyline and atmosphere of campaign modes, so offline is important to me but like you say lots of games come up short in this area.

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