Let’s do a quick little experiment, shall we?
What does a video game look like to you? If you go back to your earliest days of playing video games or even watching them be played, what do they look like? Which game represents what a game looks like in your mind? What was the game that set the template? I want you to close your eyes and try to picture it. Don’t think about it too hard; just go with whatever comes to you naturally.
I have no doubt that each of you will have a different answer. Maybe it’s something you played as a kid. Perhaps it’s something more recent. It might be the first game you can remember of it might be your favorite game of all time.
This is a really roundabout way of me telling you that I love Halo 1.
Halo: Combat Evolved is one of the first games I ever remember playing. I still recall going to the Blockbuster (remember those?) with my Dad when I was four and picking up both this and Halo 2. My brothers and I would always play it together, much to the chagrin of my poor mother (she never liked us playing violent video games). Sure, I was never any good at it. But I loved it all the same!
But that brings me to a question. Does this game hold up? Or is it only good in my memory? Let’s find out!
Plot: The Mysteries of Halo
You know, this plot was a lot cooler when I was four. Especially the dialogue. I used to think these lines were so cool!
The game starts on the Pillar of Autumn (remember that ship from the end of Reach?), which has just fled from the rampaging Covenant. In the orbit of a mysterious ring, which they dub Halo, they’re once again attacked by their alien enemy. In order to save everyone, they awaken the ultimate Spartan: Master Chief. With Cortana in tow, you as the Chief must save your fellow humans, defeat the Covenant, and uncover the mysteries of Halo!
Let’s be honest: the story in this game isn’t all that good. None of the characters have any personality, with all of them boiling down to ‘soldier’ or, in Guilty Spark’s case, ‘crazy’. The only memorable ones are Cortana and Chief themselves, and that’s because they’re the flagship characters of the franchise! Looking at them in this game alone, they’re fairly boring and forgettable. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is robotic and kind of impossible to take seriously, thanks in no small part to the voice actors.
Friendly reminder that this was originally on the first Xbox.
The ‘twist’ at the halfway mark isn’t all that strong either. Not only does it introduce the most annoying enemies in the game, but it was also very weakly foreshadowed. Plus, after this happens, the Covenant take a complete backseat in the story, making them effectively useless. All they really did was serve as a tool to get our characters onto Halo. A tool that can easily be replaced with the word ‘expedition’.
But you can’t franchise that! Comparing the Covenant and the Flood on marketability is like trying to compare Mickey Mouse to Trubbish!
Now, to be fair, it isn’t all bad. The story, while sloppy, is very well-paced! Each mission links into the next perfectly. Some missions get pretty long, but few of them are too long. The story has a perpetual sense of movement that builds up perfectly to the finale.
Unfortunately, said finale is far from satisfying. Sure, the conflict is resolved in a grandiose manner. But ‘rocks fall, everyone dies’ is hardly a satisfying conclusion, wouldn’t you say? Plus, it does literally nothing to resolve the Covenant plotline! You set out to save humanity and stop the Covenant at the beginning of the game! Then, in the end, you fail at both!
I guess they were just that confident they’d get a sequel.
The setting is also incredibly interesting! Halo is a unique, beautiful, seemingly impossible phenomenon that’s rife for exploration! The Covenant and the Flood are both amazing aliens that just beg further exploration! Hell, even the humans are fascinating! The universe feels expansive and just begs to be explored!
Which it has been. A lot. I’d argue too much, actually.
By the standards of the time, Halo’s story isn’t all that bad. Unfortunately, standards have risen since it came out. It’s shown its age in a lot of ways. But it’s definitely not the worst thing ever.
I’m not talking about the warthog run. At least, not yet.
Presentation: Them Sweet, Blocky Aliens
I know that I could be playing with the enhanced graphics. But you know what? They just don’t have the same charm as the old ones!
This game is what I think a video game should look like. Blocky character models? Check! Low-detailed but convincing backgrounds and environments? Got ’em! Music that is unironically still amazing, even today? Hell yeah! Everything’s here!
Seriously though, that music is amazing! Halo music has always been incredible and this is no different! These sweeping, dramatic orchestral pieces have stuck with me ever since I was a child! Sometimes I’ll just start humming the main theme to myself without even noticing it.
It’s especially fun when other people join in. That’s happened a few times. Mostly at my old dishwashing job.
Still, personal bias aside, this game has not aged gracefully. Like I said earlier, the character models and environment are definitely products of their time. They’re all rough, low on details, and animated very stiffly. They all get the job done, but they don’t hold up when compared to modern standards. Though I still love them for what they are.
What can I say? I’m tired of photorealism. I want my video games to feel like video games, not reality.
Gameplay: Pistol, the FPS Game
Seriously, just use the pistol! Only the pistol and nothing but the pistol! Everything else is worthless! Just use that!
Once again, this game has two identities: a single-player FPS adventure and a multiplayer game. The first is pretty simple; you can go through ten set missions with four varying difficulty settings (but if you’re a grown-ass man, you’ll stick to Heroic or Legendary). You can spend some time here, but you won’t find too much depth beyond your first playthrough.
Unless you want to play on Legendary. In which case, you’ll be there for seventy hours. And that’s just the first mission!
Multiplayer is where the majority of the game’s depth can be found. It’s got all the typical Halo modes; team deathmatch, capture the flag, point control, etc. And just like usual, if you’re playing online via the Master Chief Collection, you’ll hear a ton of people throwing slurs like they were dollar bills at a strip club.
It just wouldn’t be Halo without that, would it?
Now, this is where things get tricky. See, I can’t quite tell if the game is horribly unbalanced or if I just suck at it really badly. It could be a mixture of both; as I jokingly mentioned earlier, guns like the pistol are stupid overpowered. Point is, I often find myself being curb-stomped in multiplayer and I can’t tell if it’s the game or me.
It’s probably me, let’s be honest.
Also, I want to take a moment to complain about the end of the campaign: the warthog run. This shit fucking sucks! You’re left at the complete mercy of the physics engine; will you flip over and have to reset? Or will you keep going just fine? Good luck and pray for mercy! Oh, and did I mention that the only checkpoint is at the beginning of the run? If you fuck up right at the finish line, you get to do it all over again!
But aside from that, the campaign is great! I just never want to get into a god damn warthog ever again.
That’s all that I can say about this one. It’s a classic multiplayer FPS game. It may be unbalanced (again, I also may just suck) and it may be old. But it’s still a lot of fun! It’s a classic through and through. Better yet: it’s a classic that still holds up!
But it’s no Halo 2.
Admittedly, this game isn’t quite as good as I remember. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, especially when it’s rooted in early youth. Four-year-old me definitely enjoyed it a bit more than twenty-year-old me did.
Not to say that I didn’t enjoy it! Just because nostalgia set my expectations high doesn’t mean it isn’t good! This game is still wildly fun! It’s the perfect first step for the Halo series. One that perfectly set the stage for Halo 2!
Unfortunately, that one isn’t on PC yet. So… I’ll just have to continue my painful wait for a while longer. My duel-wielding needler dreams can wait.
You’ve probably played it already, so my recommendation isn’t worth much. But if you somehow still haven’t touched Halo 1, I’d recommend you fix that! It’s an important game that set the stage for the FPS genre as we know it today! Sure, Goldeneye may have laid the groundwork. But it was Halo that truly built it up!
Also, Goldeneye fucking sucks. Come at me.