Of all the games I’ve ever played, none of them stand out quite like Halo: Combat Evolved. I remember being invited by my dad to one of his friend’s houses, where a dozen guys got together for occasional Halo-fests. (Those would happen two or three times a year for more than half a decade.) I fell in love with the SciFi FPS experience, and my parents got me the PC version of Halo …which I played through three times in a row.
Since then, I’ve always come back to Halo every few years. I own the PC version, the original Xbox version, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (the beautiful 2011 remaster), and the version included in Halo: The Master Chief Collection. I’ve beaten the campaign close to a dozen times, and I poured hundreds of hours into system link/LAN parties in high school.
After Halo: Reach, launching Halo: Combat Evolved immediately filled me with giddy excitement and nostalgia. Sure enough, the opening shots of The Pillar of Autumn and the descent to the mysterious ring-world swept me back to my childhood and my first “grown-up” gaming experience.
IF I HAD A SUPER WEAPON…
Mystery defines Halo: Combat Evolved. From Master Chief’s first steps on the ring to the hunt for Captain Keyes to the discovery of the Flood, danger surrounds every aspect of the game. The setting of Halo is strange and otherworldly, ancient and futuristic. Master Chief is a near-silent protagonist, and the team at Bungie made little effort to fleshing out his character (or anyone else’s, for that matter). But it is all of this uncertainty that provides a compelling experience, the quiet mystery of a bygone era of video games that, somehow, remains just as relevant and impactful in 2018 as it did in 2001.
From the very first scenes, Master Chief’s duty is clear. The Pillar of Autumn left hyperspace into a Covenant trap, and after failing to overcome the alien armada, the captain decides to land the ship on a strange ring-like object in front of them. As an elite Spartan supersoldier, Master Chief needs to protect the artificial intelligence Cortana at all costs or else risk all of her knowledge (particularly the location of Earth) falling into enemy hands. From that moment on, Chief’s primary goal is to stay alive, safeguard Cortana, and find a way to get himself—and the other survivors from The Pillar of Autumn—safely away from Halo.
Visually, one of the best elements in the 10-year anniversary edition is the ability to switch from the remastered visuals to the original game…and it only takes a single button press. While the 2011 version has aged very well, I was surprised that the 2001 graphics still hold up. Playing through a level in the “old school” style certainly provides a different experience, creating a darker and more horror-esque title (particularly in the latter levels). The game is the same, but the emotions I felt varied considerably, and I think that speaks to both the changes in FPS gaming over the years as well as Bungie’s grasp of environmental storytelling.
So much of Halo’s experience is wrapped up in the moment-to-moment gameplay. The Covenant have become just as iconic as Master Chief (or, arguably, most of the other members of the pantheon of gaming heroes), and the Flood aren’t far behind—the looks, weapons, vehicles, and behaviors of these aliens inspired a generation of game developers, and Master Chief steamrolls through hundreds or thousands of this alien enemies over the course of the game.
Combat is where the Halo series truly shines, and nowhere is the more clear than in the first installment of this blockbuster gaming franchise. Bungie has always combined guns, grenades, and vehicles into the perfect combat loop, a masterful grasp of the “30 seconds of fun” idea that spearheaded the actual gameplay design. And with the focus on a superhuman soldier (who often borders on “superhero”), Halo: Combat Evolved provides a compelling and nostalgic power-fantasy that modern FPS titles are still trying to replicate.
IN A NUTSHELL
Even after more than 16 years, there’s something inherently magical about Halo: Combat Evolved. The anniversary edition certainly modernized the visuals (although the option to switch to the original graphics is incredibly seamless) without taking away any of what set the game apart as a trailblazer for the genre and the industry. I’ve played a lot of games over the years, a lot of FPS campaigns, and a lot of intense set pieces, but there is still no comparable experience to Bungie’s mastery of the genre. The combination of smooth gameplay, sound design, and enemy AI intensity creates an adrenaline high like no other, rolling through rooms and corridors of Covenant, feeling invincible as the legendary Master Chief, and mowing down aliens to a swelling electric guitar riff.
You’ll love Halo: Combat Evolved if you enjoyed Halo 5, Destiny 2, or… You know what? Just go play it.