Welcome to part 18 of a brand new mega list for CelJaded’s Top 100 Best Video Games. This eighteenth post features entry #2 – Halo!
Be sure to read the introduction that I put together beforehand too as it gives a more detailed introduction on what I’m trying to achieve here as well as a few other random musings that you may find insightful.
If you’re looking for another post in this same series then consider visiting the associated index which includes a readout of all published entries and the posts in which they appear.
“Men, we led those dumb bugs out to the middle of nowhere to keep ’em from gettin’ their filthy claws on Earth. But, we stumbled onto somethin’ they’re so hot for, that they’re scramblin’ over each other to get it. Well, I don’t care if it’s God’s own anti-son-of-a-bitch machine, or a giant hula hoop, we’re not gonna let ’em have it! What we will let ’em have is a belly full of lead, and a pool of their own blood to drown in! Am I right, Marines!?”
#2 – Halo
Principal Platforms: Xbox, PC | Developer: Bungie | Publisher: Microsoft | Genre: First-person Shooter | Year: 2001
I started writing the introduction to this post at least five times before settling on what you see now.
Of all the video games on this list; entries where I’ve rarely struggled to articulate my thoughts, you wouldn’t reasonably expect Halo; one the biggest, most successful and universally praised games of all time to really offer much of a challenge, would you?
After all, it should be an obvious process; just call it as you see it, right? But how does one truly do enough justice to Halo when armed with mere words and a few colourful screenshots?
Hell if I know! But I’m going to give it my best shot anyway.
Funnily enough, it must be a difficult undertaking for those of future generations to enjoy a game like Halo. Not because it feels dated or anything, but mainly because it’s commonly hailed as one of the best video games ever made.
As good as Halo is, could tomorrow’s players truly appreciate its excellence after several years worth of hype inevitably sets their expectations to a height that’s nigh unreachable?
After more than a decade of seeing its gameplay innovations, set pieces and narrative flourishes copied and recycled by a legion of copycat titles not worth a bucket of warm spit, will Halo still be as relevant in ten years as it was back in the early two-thousands?
Everyone will have a different opinion of course, but whenever I’m given reason to think of video games that have proven to be worthy of their immense praise, only two games instantly jump into my mind: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Halo; a pair of titles with the sort of rare quality that stands in stark contrast to the time in which they were created.
Yes, in spite of the hype and hyperbole, Halo will still be relevant. Halo will always be relevant. You don’t sell millions of copies and spawn a billion dollar franchise based on a game that isn’t considered the best in its class, but here it feels decidedly well-deserved.
And in short, that’s because Halo is one of the most consistently enjoyable, technically superior and downright interesting video games ever to come out of the West.
The story begins somewhere in deep space where a human-owned space vessel called The Pillar of Autumn has escaped a cataclysmic last stand with the Covenant; a zealous collective of alien races that have long since declared war on humanity.
Before being shot down by its pursuers, The Pillar of Autumn discovers a mysterious ring-shaped installation floating in space; an “artefact” that may help them change the tide of the war.
Also aboard the Autumn is Spartan John 117 (codenamed “Master Chief”); a physically enhanced super soldier literally bred for battle and the last of his kind.
After crash-landing on this new world, revealed to be “Halo”, Master Chief bands together with the remaining human forces in order to launch one last desperate assault against the Covenant in an attempt to uncover the secrets behind this mysterious installation and ultimately save humanity from extinction.
Halo‘s narrative structure may seem simple at first glance, but much like Deus Ex before it, the story here is told in such a mature and layered manner, that it’s hard not to get caught up in humanity’s plight. Bungie has nailed the setting perfectly by presenting environments that are both futuristic and perhaps a little familiar at the same time.
It may be your standard first-person shooter setup then, but the lack of inspiration pretty much ends there as what starts out as a typically claustrophobic close quarters firefight aboard the Autumn soon turns into an expansive hit-and-run road trip as you acclimatise yourself to Halo’s beautiful geography and untold danger.
In terms of video game ‘moments’ alone, Halo has a ton of them. From a violent crash-landing sequence to the perilous escape from an infested bunker and the unforgettable beach assault above The Silent Cartographer map room; the number of memorable encounters are vast in number.
The moment you first approach the controls you can feel it; that unmistakable weightiness and fluidity of the Master Chief’s movements. The game feels so substantial; it doesn’t feel ‘sped-up’ like so many Unreal games and the physics engine does an excellent job of making the world around you seem legitimate in both its solidity and potential.
Weapons don’t glow or float in place; they lay strewn convincingly near enemy corpses and in the remains of battered drop pods, melee attacks have a jaw-shattering edge to them that other games just outright lack, and you won’t find mission objectives cluttering your UI or playing space; they emerge as waypoints that link exciting set pieces together in an effortlessly streamlined fashion. Every tired and prohibitive mark against the standard FPS formula is either removed or rejuvenated here and the effect is spellbinding.
The Covenant; your primary foe for the majority of the game, are presented as a ruthless alien threat and the game’s superb AI does wonders in adding credibility to the race’s intelligence and aggressive zeal. The now famous ‘Elite’ officers are especially cunning; frequently trying to flank you with their plasma rifle fire and diving behind cover whenever their recharging shields are put under heavy duress.
Each enemy has a very particular pattern for its behaviour and whilst this can be exploited on occasion (pistol shot vs. exposed Hunter abdomen equals victory) it adds a real sense of believability to your opposition’s strengths and weaknesses and your immersion only deepens as a result.
With regards to gameplay, Halo is responsible for many popular FPS trends whose influence can be still be felt in similar PC and console games today.
Recharging shields or health points, instantly executable pistol whips and deployable grenades assigned to trigger buttons, cooperative campaigns, vehicle sections and two-weapon limits; all of them are now common facets of the modern FPS framework, but never have they been so well implemented as here.
It was extremely rare for a graphics-intensive FPS back in 2001 to feature cooperative split-screen gameplay, but Bungie were determined to make this little obscurity a key feature for Halo. Indeed, the entire 10 level campaign is playable simultaneously with 2 players and what makes this even better is that the game rarely shows any sign of slowing down as a result.
With twice the number of players, explosions and computations to make here, you’d expect a noticeable dip in terms of frame rate and playability, but the powerful Xbox hardware handles it all remarkably well.
The roomy levels are a perfect fit for a duo and you never get the impression that Bungie simply “slapped on” the cooperative mode as an afterthought; it’s something that’s a key aspect of the game’s appeal and a feature that has become integral to every Halo game released since.
The enjoyment to be had in the cooperative mode is boosted further by one of the game’s most identifiable and innovative features; vehicles. Whether it’s the armoured “Warthog” ATV, the hovering “Wraith” plasma tank or the airborne “Banshee”, Halo, without a doubt, feels like the first FPS to truly get vehicles “right”.
Once more, the weighty physics engine contributes the bulk of the effort; making each vehicle feel satisfyingly dangerous and lifelike. Again, pure realism isn’t always top priority here (as any Warthog jump on YouTube will gladly illustrate), but the sensation of speed, handling and the limitless power of any on-board weapons makes piloting a Halo craft extremely entertaining in its own right and a spectacle that you’ll soon grow to miss during subsequent indoor segments.
Vehicles gel beautifully with the game’s cooperative tapestry mentioned before in that many of them have gunner seats and external turrets that must be operated by a second player (or an AI marine) to get the most out of them. When you consider the local split-screen and system link deathmatch/team-based multiplayer modes (supporting up to 16 players!) being a factor too; you couldn’t really ask for a more inclusive and long-term sixth generation title than this one.
I recall that the two-weapon limit; a feature that restricts players to two held weapons at any one time, was seen by some as a controversial choice at first. I saw it for what it was however; pure genius.
Perhaps no single feature has had such an effect on the future of FPS game design as this one. Often imitated but rarely duplicated, the two-weapon feature (in Halo at least) isn’t some arbitrary concession towards realism or lazy game design; it’s a simple alteration that alters your perceptions of in-game strategy.
Suddenly, the type of gun you picked up actually mattered and the decision of which two weapons to carry became just as important as how good you were at actually shooting the damn things. Sure, you could drop that assault rifle on the ground in exchange for a brutal rocket launcher with two shots, but is the exchange in power worth the risk of running dry on ammo in the middle of a skirmish?
Mixing up the Covenant plasma weaponry with human slug-throwers is another nice innovation, as players will quickly discover that bullets do great damage against exposed flesh, but not so much against an Elite’s personal shield generator; something a fully charged plasma pistol certainly can help with!
Outside of the gameplay itself though, Halo‘s powerful setting cannot be overstated. As beautiful as the ring world is to look at, the lifeless surroundings quickly inspire a real feeling of dread. The flowing rivers and verdant hills of the second level seem more than capable at supporting abundant life and yet the place is wholly devoid of it.
It’s something you can’t help but wonder when traversing further across Halo’s terrain; that question of “what happened here?” is always in the back of your mind and when the secret is finally revealed it’s terrifying and quickly challenges the rhythm of gameplay that you had finally grown comfortable with in the first half of the game.
Adding to this sense of wonder is the quality soundtrack and quality sound production as a whole. The SFX and BGM are fantastic throughout and the wonderful orchestral compositions (including the now iconic Halo theme chant) by Martin O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori make the perfect accompaniment to what is already a class act.
All of this excellent design leads to one of gaming’s most thrilling finales; a momentum-fuelled closing chapter that leaves you breathless by the time it’s over. And, as is the case throughout, it does it all without resorting to a single boss fight.
I’ll admit that discussing Halo may sound a little pretentious at times, but when you look at what software defined its release period; games such as Red Faction, 007: Agent Under Fire and Turok Evolution, the difference is night and day.
It has its weaknesses, sure. The recycling of certain indoor segments is unfortunate, as is the rather unpleasant ‘Library’ level that fails to play to the game’s strengths at practically every turn. The Covenant weapons are not always as satisfying to wield as their human equivalents, there are times when the automatic check-pointing (which is still a superb feature overall) doesn’t always save your progress as often as you’d like and the less said about that nauseating Microsoft-induced subtitle the better…
But in the years since, we’ve learned that Bungie is a developer that often exceeds initial expectations and I would enjoy nothing more than to sit here for another eight hours and give you even more reasons why Halo is perhaps the best (if not the ultimate favourite) game that I’ve ever played. Alas, time is short and this article is likely already too long for what it is essentially a glorified retread of all-too-familiar sentiments.
I will end this conclusion with something I rarely feel comfortable giving; a recommendation.
If you have even a passing interest in this medium then you should not miss this game. It’s true that the power-armoured space marine vs. the world scenario has been done to death at this point, but Halo has more intrinsic quality than practically every similar video game of its time.
Quite simply a masterpiece.