Across the long roll of video games that have been experienced during my relatively short time on this planet, there have been a virtual plethora of titles that have been played. Some games have only been completed a solitary time for the sake of seeing how a story pans out towards a hopefully fulfilling ending. Other titles may never be completed, confined to a drawer for a time when some poor, innocuous quality might be overcome before collecting too much dust. Some however, achieve a level of appreciation where they bump themselves to the front of the line of play multiple times, occasionally even superseding an ever growing backlog. Halo is one such title, if not the top title in my collection.
As to not be disingenuous, it bears fairly noting that I followed both Bungie as well as the game itself long before it ever appeared on the Xbox. The idea of a far flung force of humans battling it out with a merciless, bloodthirsty alien Covenant became more than enough to intrigue me, regardless of whatever form the game took. Coming from a house of PC owners as a kid, I began vehemently saving ever bit of allowance I could get my hands on in preparation to buy a Mac, solely to play Halo. But, before that could happen, Microsoft swooped in and the game was changed, seemingly overnight.
Poorly streamed videos and crisp screenshots scattered in magazines became the means to fuel my wanton love affair with a game that was still an indeterminate amount of time from hitting shelves. But watching what would become the Master Chief and the UNSC forces shape and evolve was more than enough to justify my addiction. Having been growing up reading Heinlein, Asimov and other slews of science fiction, watching Halo progress merely fed the vicious addiction.
In October of 2001, Bungie was still a small developer, nestled in Chicago doing what they did best: Making awesome games. Yet, prior to Halo and the Xbox hitting store shelves, they opened the doors for a launch party of their intrepid game at Hotel Monaco. By the grace of my older brother, driving me down to the city as I was still shy of my 16th birthday, I was able to see Halo first hand. Had the grin on my face as the Xbox controller settled in my hands been any wider, it may have been stuck like that.
Halo was beautiful. In every sense of the word, the game was what I had hoped for. A stunning sci-fi adventure complete with in-your-face aliens, determined, battle-hardened heroes and an almost gratuitous use of gunfire and explosives – in that moment and since, Halo became my favorite game of all time.
Yet everything that has happened since, for a game that sparked a media empire, even today it’s still capable of holding up. Briefly take everything that followed after Halo out of the equation, treating it as an isolated story. Doubtlessly, it falls amidst A and B-sci fi films and novels, never underserving the player by insulting their intelligence or serving up something that’s positively incredulous, but ingeniously shapes and creates a tale that anyone, science fiction fan or not, can relate.
Humans fighting Aliens, after all, is a universal concept on par with Cowboys and Indians or Axis fighting Allies – people can easily identify with a struggle between what is inherently identified as “good” and “evil” and are willing to pursue the story doggedly to its conclusion. Along the way, presented with characters in the Halo universe like Sergeant Johnson, Cortana, Captain Keyes and even “Foehammer”, the pilot of Pelican Dropship Echo-419, there is a connection that briefly transcends even the co-op gameplay that allowed for two players to sally forth through the campaign as a dynamic duo, making it a memorable experience not just based on a player interacting with the game, but with each other.
Proffering cohesive weapon selections, which forced players to pick the two they needed most at the time, or simply taking the pistol and something else, has seen a mechanic that’s been copied by slews of titles since causing Halo to more or less serve as a blueprint for many First Person Shooter titles enjoyed by gamers today. The MA5B Assault Rifle and Rocket Launcher are still perhaps two of the best weapons in the history of video games, at least in my opinion. The explosive crescendo of gunfire from the weapons blasting from television speakers is still a hallmark trait of Halo, as it welcomed many gamers into what they could expect from the next generation of consoles.
Taking it a step further, the vehicles, which have since become pop culture icons for many assume a life of their own. Certainly enough, the Warthog, a futuristic jeep mounting an incomprehensibly large gun is still one of the first things that pops into the minds of just about anyone who has played Halo when they fondly remember the title – or in some cases, when someone begins discussing pumas. Turning two players into a force of nature, a pair mounted in a Warthog, speeding across a level became a force to be reckoned with. If not splattering the enemy, the gunner would simply mop up whatever was left in the destructive wake.
Yet for every other element in Halo, the large set piece levels seem to be the most overlooked. Inimically, they transition seamlessly between indoor and outdoor environments and while not as varied as later titles or alternatives such as Epic’s Gears of War, they atmospherically convey each respective mood of the levels the player inhabit. From the inside of a Covenant ship, to the swamp-surrounded chambers containing The Flood to the wracked corpse of the Pillar of Autumn, each level seethes intrinsically beautiful tonal disposition, making them some of the most beloved and memorable, not just in the franchise, but in the history of gaming.
Nevertheless though, since it’s inception Halo has since received multiple iterations, spin-offs and slews of media in the form of books, toys and even a DVD compilation of anime-style cartoons. While many could have argued that this was the last thing that Bungie, a humble company from Chicago, could have foreseen – it is a testament to what creating a properly elegant, yet formulaic gameplay can be when packaged in a spectacularly fantastic world – not just a science fiction fans wet dream, but any gamers.
Stay tuned for Day 2, A Hated Game, tomorrow.