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Revisting the Gameplay of Halo: Combat Evolved

Revisiting Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo: Combat Evolved was released on November 15 2001. Developed by then-Bungie Studios (now just Bungie, Inc.), it spawned a whole new franchise. Between the compelling gameplay and amazing story, the former of which will be covered in this article, Halo was a smash hit. It’s hard to make a case that Microsoft would still be in the hardware market if Halo wasn’t as great as it was.

But it didn’t just launch a console, Halo also brought forth many innovations to the console FPS scene. From setting the standard control scheme that would be borrowed by other developers for their games later down the line. So let’s look back at what made Halo great by looking at the magnificent campaign.

Co-op, the way Halo was meant to be played

Basic Training

Right from the start, Bungie teaches us how to play their game. On Pillar of Autumn, we’re given a quick overview of how to move and look, as well as how the recharging energy shield works. This was something of a big deal at the time because tutorials weren’t readily accessible in console games. Often times, you had to select a “Training” option and run some sort of obstacle course to familiarize yourself with the controls. With Halo, the tutorial was integrated directly into the game. However, the basic move and looking tutorial wasn’t mandatory, as it would be skipped on the Heroic and Legendary difficulty levels; informative prompts instructing how to jump or control a vehicle were also disabled on higher difficulties.

As we leave the Autumn’s bridge, the Master Chief unholsters the pistol given to him by Captain Keyes. Our first targets are the diminutive Grunts; easy targets that don’t pose much of a threat. Immediately after dispatching them, we pick up an assault rifle, and our introduction to Halo’s gunplay begins. It’s very effective without being overwhelming.

But the game wasn’t all about teaching players the controls. Bungie did subtle things to introduce new concepts before they were used. For example, as we make our way to the bridge, we see the Covenant in combat; Grunts die quickly, Elites have energy shields much like our own. When we’re finally given a weapon, we know what to expect in combat. As we go further through the ship, we start encountering stationary hard-light shields. Bullets bounce off of them, but plasma weapons can strip them down quicker; portable versions of these shields are equipped by Jackals on the very next mission, and we can quickly intuit how to deal with Jackals when we see them.

When we land on Halo, we go from grey and beige corridors to the greens and blues of nature. Where there was an artificial environment of right angles, we quickly find ourselves in a natural environment. We’re introduced to Covenant dropships and Banshee flyers, and these come from above. We’re quickly taught that there will sometimes be things in the sky and we will hear them coming before we can see them.

The first big encounter of the second mission is to defend one of Halo’s infamous blue beam towers. Covenant come in waves, brought by their dropships. Up until this point, every time we engaged the enemy, we were entering into a new encounter space; with this encounter, we are already in the encounter space and the enemy is coming to us. We’ll be seeing this type of encounter again and again; we see it in the cliffs leading to the Truth and Reconciliation, we see a new variation on it immediately after we get into the ship, we see it again when we’re introduced to the Flood, and once more seven times as we make our way through The Library.

Anyway, after defending the blue beam tower, we see our own dropship, the Pelican. It drops off a Warthog, and we’re introduced to vehicle mechanics. The terrain on Halo is bumpy and rugged, which greatly reduces the Warthog’s combat effectiveness. We spend more time learning how to control the beast than we do using it to engage the enemy; the terrain signals to us that we’re here for exploration. Contrast the relatively empty hills to the unnatural cave formation; it leads us to a large, flat enclosure where there are many Covenant. When we’re in a Warthog, flat surfaces are for combat and hilly surfaces are for exploration. This is a consistent pattern that exists throughout the entire game.

On Truth and Reconciliation, we’re introduced to stationary guns, Shade turrets. We’re also given a sniper rifle with more ammo than we can normally carry, which encourages us to use the weapon. The combination of these two elements and good level design means we get many opportunities to see the turrets in action while also having multiple angles to deal with them quickly—something we won’t see the next time we encounter Shades.

At the gravity lift, Bungie also introduces us to Hunters, but they do so by pitting us against them when all other Covenant are dead, and we also have Shade turrets we can use. This is a good way to introduce a tough (bullet sponge) enemy, because we have a lot of firepower we can use against them as well as extra marines to act as targets; the next time we encounter Hunters (on a different mission), we’ll be alone and we won’t have a sniper rifle nor Shade turret to make killing them a breeze.

On board the actual ship, we see Ghosts and Wraiths parked in cargo bays and hangers. We’ll be seeing those later, but this introduces us to the idea of the Covenant having ground vehicles before we see them in action.

When we find our first rocket launcher, Ghost, Scorpion, Banshee, and shotgun, there is no formal training session. We’re handed these things and then we just use them. We don’t have to deal with advanced maneuvering or anything of the like. This is a mixed bag, because Bungie is relying on us to apply our other skills in a new way. The only saving grace is that there are small buffers so that we’re not overwhelmed with too many new things and having to figure out all of it at once.

Assault on the Control Room

Off the beaten pathos

When we’re brought into the game, we start with our basic movement tutorial. After that is finished, Covenant Elites bust through the door into the observation room. We’re looking up at them from below, so this low-angle shot makes them seem fearsome to us at first. Also, we’re unarmed and the Elites just  gunned down the lab tech. Halo is the first game I can remember playing where cinematography was used to great effect in order to guide the player through the levels and get them to feel.

As we navigate the Pillar of Autumn, we see basic crewmen and marines fighting to repel the Covenant. In the opening cutscene, we heard that boarding parties were on their way, and now we’re actually seeing them in action. We’re unarmed and thus unable to do anything other than head for the bridge. There are also invisible barriers (and closing blast doors) that prevent us from going off the rails or getting stuck in a dead-end room with no exit. We instinctively run towards where we see humans, so all of these factors come together to create something that flows and naturally guides us to our objective. Along the way, we see minimal Covenant casualties, but we see crewmen dying and wounded marines in secured areas; we’re losing on our own turf, and we can’t do anything about it.

About two-thirds of the way through Pillar of Autumn, there is an encounter in a large room with two levels. A stairway connects both levels together. As we approach the room, we can hear marines and Covenant fighting it out, but as we turn the corner we see a stairway leading upwards. We know that the Covenant are going to be on the upper level before we see them. As we kill the Covenant, more start coming in through the blast doors on the lower level. This is supposed to push us up the stairs into a more advantageous position. We’re left feeling that no place on the ship is safe, which is a secondary motivator to get us up the stairs and find an escape pod. Not too long after climbing the stairs, we see escape pods being launched; some make it out alright, while others are immediately obliterated by plasma torpedoes.

The Pillar of Autumn starts off bad and gets progressively worse. We see fewer and fewer humans as we move through the level. We start in a pristine environment that is slowly ravaged by combat and fire. This gives us a very dire outlook on the rest of the game. As we descend upon the ring in the last escape pod, we’re acutely aware that there is no going back.

On Halo, the open environment doesn’t lend itself as well to guiding the player to the next objective. However, there are a few cues we can take: there is a metal bridge spanning a chasm that draws our eye to the opposite side. Following that path, we can see a cliff and a waterfall, the latter of which we trace down and see that going straight forward out of the escape pod is a bad idea. We’re drawn to the metal bridge.

Later, as we begin searching for survivors after we acquire the Warthog, we’re given a large area and the freedom to explore it. There are a few small blue dome lights marking each path we can take to a blue beam tower, but there is a better cue we can follow: the blue beams fired by each tower. We know that the marines have been using these as flares because of our encounter at the first blue beam tower. If we get lost, there are a few landmarks we can use to orient ourselves; notably, the waterfalls.

For Truth and Reconciliation, the level is set at night. We are guided by two things here: the Covenant cruiser in the sky, which we’re constantly moving toward, and the numerous lights on the ground. Because the level is set at night, the lights become an important guiding feature because every entryway to the next area is lit up, while the exit points (entryways to previous areas) are not. The design here is smart and subtly guides us forward without needing to put a waypoint up.

Once we get onboard the ship, the spacious interior becomes a maze. In the lift bay encounter, we see doors open by flashing white before turning red and locking again; noticing this, we start moving toward unlocked doors. When we get to the cargo bay and hangar, we see multiple levels, informing us that there will be a lot of winding through the level and revisiting the area. It’s not needlessly convoluted to the point where the player gets lost easily, but everything is unfamiliar to the point where we truly feel like we are in an alien ship.

The opening of The Silent Cartographer is the first time where we actually get to ride inside the Pelican instead of watching a cutscene of it flying away. It works to good effect, as we can see a brief glimpse of the beach we’ll be landing on. We don’t see the Covenant occupying the beach until we’re just about to disembark. Between the music and seeing the Covenant shoot at the second Pelican, which lands first (and closer to the fight) makes us want to get off and fight.

This landing sequence is notable because we think of it as one large encounter, but it really isn’t. Every previous encounter up to this point has been simple and relatively straightforward: we enter an encounter space, we clear the enemies out, and then we move to the next encounter space. For this landing sequence, we’re actually moving through three encounter spaces that are very close to each other: the beach, the rocks between the beach and the arch, and the arch. If this were a single encounter space, we would be overwhelmed quickly and it wouldn’t be fun. Now, this isn’t the first time we see a large space with multiple encounter spaces; the last two canyons before boarding the Truth and Reconciliation have this setup, as do many of the large interior spaces. This is just the most notable because you can just load up the level and play it out without having to do anything else to get to that point.

When we unlock the map room and head down into the main facility, we’re always moving down. We go down to get inside. We go down when we get inside. We go down when we’re going down, and then we go down some more. There are seven levels to work through on the way to the map room. Every time we descend, we’re moving from light into darkness. After finding the map, we ascend by moving from darkness into light each time we move up. The lighting guides us through seven levels of hell and back again.

Assault on the Control Room starts in a large tunnel structure. We leave and see snow falling as we stand on a bridge spanning a chasm. The Grunts here are sleeping, giving us a chance to admire the view. The railings on the bridge tell us that it’s a long drop, so we’re not inclined to investigate. However, a Pelican flies overhead and begins descending; this is unexpected and the spectacle pulls us to the side and look down to follow the dropship descend. It is at this point that we’re in a large snowy canyon, and we get a look at what is yet to come.

At the bottom of the canyon, we see a rather flat surface, the Warthog the Pelican dropped off, and a pair of Ghosts. There is also a Wraith lobbing plasma rounds at the marines, but not quite being able to hit them. The problem with this encounter is that it’s our first vehicle-vehicle fight, and we have a few things to keep track of. If we take the Warthog and engage the Wraith, we quickly find that it is hovering over ice, and the Warthog isn’t agile enough to outmaneuver the mortar cannon; if we stick to the snow, the marines will be too far away to reliably begin firing at the Wraith. This puts emphasis on stealing one of the Ghosts, which we might have already destroyed. We’re called to action to the Warthog when we should be pulled toward the Ghosts.

In the final canyon before we reach the Control Room, we have to abandon the Scorpion tank we found. We’re lead into a small tunnel, and on the other side is a small path leading upward. As we climb the path, we can see the two bridges suspended high above on the opposite end of the canyon. Just as we saw the start of the canyon system from up high, we’re seeing the end of it from down low. In the final canyon, we see the spire leading up to the control room. First we see it from above, which gives us a good look at what to expect on the ascent, and it doesn’t look too bad. When we get down to the canyon floor to begin our ascent, we’re looking up at it—another low-angle shot—which makes it seem all the more imposing.

Upon reaching the top of the spire and securing the control room, we’re treated to a nice little cutscene before being whisked off to the next mission. There are a lot of things specific to the mission that lead the player and plays with them, and so it requires it’s own little section.

343 Guilty Spark

We’re dropped off into a dark and foggy swamp. It’s also quiet and devoid of life. There are a few lights—beacons and spotlamps, mostly—to guide us through. We see a crashed Pelican, which is nothing new; we first saw a crashed Pelican on The Silent Cartographer just after coming out from the security station. As we move forward, wee see a frag grenade explode above us, causing dead Jackals and Grunts to fall from the sky. But as we round the corner, we see a Spirit dropship crashed into the swamp; we have never seen this before, so it is shocking to us. Around this crash site, we see a few Grunts and Jackals running in terror.

As we move further into the mists, we see a fallen tree spanning a small drop. As we cross the makeshift bridge, we see friendly blips on our motion trackers, but we only see them briefly before they vanish into the fog below; if we follow them, we’re lead back to where Echo-419 dropped us off, and the crashed Pelican we saw before. On the other side of the bridge, we see Covenant pouring from a structure that is flooding the area with warm lighting; Assault Rifles are being used to flush them out. Finally, it’s nice to see Grunts run from something that isn’t the player for once!

Except that we don’t see any marines when we look into the structure. Once we’re inside, we see the elevator come up to ground level. When we get to the bottom, there are Grunts and Jackals running in fear. There are a lot of Grunts and Jackals inside of the structure, but not a single Elite, alive or otherwise. The deeper we go, we start seeing abandoned equipment and munitions. We see locked doors and unlocked doors with red flashing lights next to them. We eventually come upon a trio of Jackals guarding an unlocked door, but they’re facing the door, as if they’re holding the line against whatever is on the other side. When we kill them, we’re treated to a warmly-lit corridor painted blue with Grunt blood, and the blood leads to a chamber on the side. We cannot get into the chamber ourselves, but we can see several dead Jackals and Grunts inside.

We soon find a single marine, but he shoots at us and spouts nonsense about how he doesn’t want to be turned into “one of those things.” In the corner behind him, we see a dilapidated floor forming a route up to the second level. We discover another light bridge that takes us across the room to a door that has been busted down… but the debris lays on our side, as if something has broken out. On the other side is a curious and sterile chamber with an observation room above it. This is very much like the opening sequence of Pillar of Autumn, where the observation room overlooked the cryobay, except we’re in the observation room this time. As we move down the ramp toward the chamber, we hear a violin; up until this point, there had been no background music.

The Flood smash several doors open and come pouring into the room. When the Flood finally bust the door down and infected Elites start coming in, we can begin backtracking through the complex. We have to escape. We can pass all of the old locked doors and see them unlock as Flood begin escaping. When we finally reach the elevator we came in on, we find that it is at the top of the shaft, but when we press the holopanel to call it, nothing but flaming debris comes down. We have to find another way out, but we have to go deeper into the complex to find it. So, back into Hell we go.

Not too far off from where we first came in, there is a second elevator on the opposite side of the room that takes us deeper, but we see the walls of the elevator shaft coated in more Covenant blood. Below, we find infected humans, but they’re wielding weapons. We find our first shotgun, because you can’t have a zombie scenario without a shotgun (and you’re likely to be out of ammo for your other weapons at this point anyway). We find more Flood and very few Covenant. We see a light bridge that is flickering on and off. Everything is chaos down here; everything has fallen into disrepair. We start seeing strange and bizarre devices, but they don’t seem to have a purpose at the moment. Eventually, we find another elevator. With trepidation, we approach the holopanel. We press it expecting to descend further into the madness, but it starts taking us upward. We hear Foehammer come in on radio, and we see a large cluster of friendly blips on our motion trackers. It’s a rescue party! We’re out, we start to think, but we notice the mission isn’t over. As we march up the ramp toward the swamp, we notice figures in the fog once more; Flood, just as we saw before we entered the complex. We’re not out just yet.

This mission is quite unsettling from the start. We start off with a distress signal that periodically cuts out. We see strange figures moving in the fog, and other strange happenings. There are only Grunts and Jackals throughout the entire mission until we meet the Flood. It isn’t until the bloody hallway and the crazy marine on the other side that we start seeing battle damage in what had been an otherwise sterile environment. We are lead through the complex with minimal resistance and increasingly unsettling imagery. It all comes together and pays off in a big way. This mission was legitimately horrifying, and Bungie pulled it off without resorting to the monster closets we would later see in Doom 3 and the Dead Space games. Watching the flaming elevator debris come down was icing on the cake; we were finally at a point of sweet relief, only to have it ripped away from us, filling us with dread that the only way to go from here was deeper into the complex. When we come out the other side, we feel relieved.

The Maw

Closing thoughts

It’s interesting looking back at Halo as so many games have come and gone since it was published in 2001. Halo introduced a lot of the popular mechanics present in modern games, such as the two weapon limit, for example. If you consider the button to switch between weapons as a toggle between your primary and secondary, you can easily keep track of both weapons this way. It brought forth the concept of grenades as a secondary resource instead of a primary weapon you have to pull out. Using your gun as a melee attack wasn’t necessarily new, as I recall seeing something similar with several of the weapons in Perfect Dark, but Halo had melee attacks available for every weapon. It set the standard for vehicular combat, and I have never seen a game since Halo implement it as well, or even do a good job at it.

Bungie realized aiming with a joystick instead of a mouse (they used to develop for mice and keyboards) was going to be an issue, so they added magnetism to assist with aiming, making Halo the first FPS on a console that had a good game feel, although they could have done a better job with it, as I had to fight with it several times when I replayed the game in preparation for this article. For example, I would be swinging around to my right to shoot at a Grunt, but an Elite moving to my left would cause the reticle to track the Elite for half a second before returning control to me; another example would be when I was trying to shoot at a Jackal in the foot with my pistol, but because the reticle was slightly overlapping the energy shield, each shot would pull the reticle progressively closer to the center of the shield. Even the control scheme has been copied from other FPS games, and I’m not talking about the obvious two-joystick setup for aiming and shooting.

Bungie added several levels of difficulty, with “Easy” still being somewhat challenging if you’re absolutely reckless while Legendary demanded that you mastered the game and could deal with the numerous changes. On the subject of difficulty, as you get further into the game, plasma projectiles get faster and more accurate, requiring the player to be more careful or more agile; increasing the difficulty level also made this more apparent, as did the increased damage and reduced shield capacity. As for the recharging energy shield, it set the template of allowing players to have a buffer for health; take cover, play it safe, and you can make it through every difficulty with virtually no health.

Basically, almost everything we hate about modern third- and first-person shooters originated with Halo: Combat Evolved. But when the game first came out, we loved these things because they were done right. There’s aim magnetism because enemies get more agile as the difficulty increases, and joysticks can turn your character only so quickly. The trifecta of guns, grenades, and melee became a thing because the enemy types were varied, the level design switched between open and closed spaces, and encounter spaces allowed for many different plans of attack. Everything fits together in a clear and logical way, and that’s something you just don’t see from modern FPS games these days.

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