A little over a year ago I wrote a two-part history of Bungie Software. It took in their early games – Pathways into Darkness, Marathon and Myth — which were nearly all superb in one way or another, and then abruptly stopped with only the barest mention of the series that’s eclipsed all Bungie’s other achievements: Halo. There were several very good reasons for this, first and foremost of which is that Halo is Microsoft’s flagship game series and it’s already had countless column inches written about it. There’d be little if anything new that I could add to the discussion, even if that discussion is one so corrupted by PR and marketing that it’s now reaching the point of parody, and so that was where that particular pair of posts ended.
That you are reading these words now is evidence enough that I’ve since warmed to the idea of writing something about Halo. It started with the recent Xbox One console reveal, where the mock UI screen they’d worked up for the thing featured a splash banner for Halo 4 in amongst all of the TV programmes Microsoft thinks you’re going to buy an Xbox One for. Wait, Halo 4? It seemed like only yesterday that I was playing and enjoying Halo 3, which itself came out a good five years after the original Halo, and it was at this point that I realised that both I and the series were old; Halo was released as a launch title for the Xbox – not the Xbox One, or the Xbox 360, but the first Xbox – back in 2002, over a decade ago. Given enough time any game will seem pretty good in comparison to whatever modern variants of it exist since nostalgia tends to paper over all the little niggles and annoyances that would probably drive you up the wall if you played it today, but this realisation happened to coincide with a trip back home where I had little else to do except dust off my Xbox1 and see whether or not Halo really would stand the test of time.
In order to understand Halo, and why Halo turned out to be simultaneously groundbreaking and yet disappointing, you first need to understand its protracted development process. Bungie started making Halo shortly after the release of the Myth games (for a time Halo itself was an RTS) and since it ended up being the spiritual successor to the Marathon series I imagine they’d been thinking about the general themes of the game since long before that. The difference between the first preview of Halo that I read in PC Gamer and the finished product is particularly striking: Halo was originally supposed to be a multiplayer-focused game for the PC (similar to Tribes) set in vast living and breathing open world arenas with gorgeous landscaping and herds of alien fauna, both of which were heavily featured in the promo shots scattered throughout the preview. They also showed vehicles that could be crewed by multiple players – almost unheard of in multiplayer gaming at the time – and hinted at a broad power symmetry between the human soldiers and their alien counterparts. One picture showed an alien brandishing the energy sword that has since become a series icon, but the human opposing him was also armed with his own more conventional metal machete.
Of course this was a first look at a game that was still in the early stages of its development and the preview shots were likely all mockups intended to demonstrate planned game features that wouldn’t necessarily make the final cut (which is one reason I doubt the machete would have featured in the game even if it had stayed on its original development path), but the design decisions that focused on an open-world multiplayer game also had a large part to play in how the release version of Halo would turn out four years later. They’re what provided the first game with its most striking signature characteristics; the large, open levels and the vehicles with which you traversed them are both legacy features from this earliest iteration of Halo. Ever wonder why the tank can accommodate four passengers sitting on each of its tread mountings, since to my knowledge it never shows up in any of the multiplayer levels that shipped with the final game? It’s because that tank was designed for a much larger-scale multiplayer experience, and even though the AI marines riding along on it with the player are all but useless it still looks kind of cool, so Bungie left it in.
Fast forward to E3 2000, where Bungie show this video of the game. It amazed pretty much everyone who saw it, since it was a) phenomenally pretty for the time and b) promised gameplay far in advance of anything previously experienced in single-player FPSes (having AI companions that would sit in vehicles the player was driving and crew weapons systems was particularly mind-blowing). However, the fact that the phrase “single-player” has snuck in there belies a shift in the game’s design goals. Multiplayer is no longer the focus. There’s now a clear power asymmetry between the humans and the aliens. The armoured human soldier has become the main character, and his squadmates are now basic human grunts. This is Marathon’s influence showing through, a combination of Bungie reverting to what they know best and also probably realising that 1999-era PC technology didn’t really have the power to achieve the sprawling multiplayer battles the game was originally intended to portray with the level of graphical awesomeness they’d been showing off in all their videos. And so Bungie took the solid base they’d built up for those multiplayer battles and tried to build an amazing single-player campaign out of it instead.
They probably would have succeeded, too, except their E3 video was so good they ended up getting bought by Microsoft. Halo was named as a launch title for Microsoft’s very first games console in November 2001. Suddenly Bungie had to finish the game in a little over one year. It’s no wonder that the final product ended up being a little… rushed, shall we say.
There are two common complaints levelled against Halo. One of them is that the last five levels are merely the first five levels quite literally done backwards, making the player retrace their steps through terrain they’ve already covered. This is kind of a problem because while Halo did the vast open areas very well its interior environments were all abstract geometric shapes and odd, alien design. This was great for projecting a general atmosphere of unease, like the ring was made by somebody whose building psychology was very definitely not human, but it also ensured that those environments were confusing as hell to navigate through – especially since Bungie’ level designers had a tendency to use certain chunks of level over and over again, giving the overall impression of running through a maze of twisty passages all alike. They were infuriating to travel through once, and so making you turn around and go back through them again seemed like a calculated insult on the part of the developers.
This recycling of level design can at least be explained away by the sudden deadline that Bungie had to meet, however. It doesn’t really excuse it and it doesn’t make the last five levels any less of a pain to play, but I do understand that it was the only sane way for them to finish the game on time. I also believe it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much of a problem had this sudden volte-face not coincided with the introduction of the other common complaint about Halo: the Flood.
Even after twelve years of other, lesser games stealing its mechanical innovations – regenerating health, a two weapon limit, dedicated grenade and melee buttons2 – and flogging them to death in unimaginative brown desert environments, the most striking thing I found about Halo when I went back to play it was how downright fun fighting the Covenant is. Each enemy type is clearly identifiable and has its own niche in the Covenant war machine: Jackals provide cover, Grunts provide firepower in numbers and the Elites… well, the Elites are basically alien versions of your character, the Master Chief. They’ve got regenerating shields just like you do, they’ll dodge out of the way of grenades unless you physically stick one to them, and they’ll use cover to great effect in flanking you and peppering you with deadly accurate plasma fire. When you see an Elite on the battlefield you target them first, not because they have big guns (they have much the same guns as everyone else) or because they’re particularly tough (once you get the shields down a single headshot will down an Elite) but because their simulated intelligence allows them to make the best possible use of the terrain and other Covenant forces to kill you stone cold dead. What impresses me about the Covenant’s design as bad guys is that it’s almost never a question of weight of numbers. There are no respawn closets in Halo, and you’ll never face more than three or four Elites at once, but they still provide a challenge simply because they’re so hard to bring down thanks to their shields and their AI.
And of course they’re not shy about using their superior Covenant technology to mess you up. Elites are invariably the drivers of Covenant vehicles like Ghosts and Banshees, and they also occasionally pop up disguised in active camouflage that makes them very hard to target. They also have a visible rank structure as indicated by the colour of their armour, with red and white Elites being much harder to dispose of thanks to tougher shields and increased accuracy. Then there’s the golden energy sword variants, who not only have the strongest shields of all but will kill you in one hit if you let them get into melee range. Bungie managed to make that single enemy type stretch a long way, and it’s repeated to a lesser degree with the Grunts and Jackals. Pushing the difficulty level up a notch won’t throw more baddies at you, it’ll merely replace the already-existing ones with tougher, smarter variants. It’s an approach to enemy design that I’ve always admired, and I’ve often wondered why, when they were so quick to draw “inspiration” from Halo’s other game mechanics, the Medal of Honors and Call of Duties of the world just double enemy health and accuracy when you stick it on Hard and then call it a day.
(Well, I actually do know why this is. It’s because they probably have stats saying that only a fraction of players attempt the single-player campaigns on a difficulty setting that’s not Easy or Normal, and so they don’t waste development resources on Hard mode. This quite overlooks the possibility that if they maybe put more effort into an engaging and challenging difficulty system more people might be inclined to try it.)
Anyway, about halfway through the game these interesting and engaging Covenant enemies are rudely shoved aside and replaced with the Flood. The Flood are not a result of a rushed development schedule, since they have appeared in every subsequent Halo game I’ve played3 and so the blame for their existence must be placed solely on the shoulders on Bungie somehow thinking it would be a good idea, after five levels of the most engaging skirmishes to be found anywhere in gaming, to suddenly introduce space-zombies into the equation. The contrast between the Flood and the Covenant couldn’t be starker; the Flood simply run towards you firing their guns, and if you somehow manage to open up a bit of distance between you and them they’ll do a bullshit power-leap to close it again. The Flood are practically immune to melee, removing one of the player’s key close-quarters tools, and they themselves punch like trucks. And they are always in melee range. If you asked me to make a list of the top ten most unfun enemies to fight in gaming the Flood probably wouldn’t be in the number one spot, but they’d definitely be somewhere in the top ten.
Because of these twin missteps in design – one of them forced, one of them not – Halo ends up being only half of possibly the best console FPS ever. It hits all of its highest notes within the first five levels; after the so-so escape from the Pillar of Autumn you start traversing the wide-open environments of Halo in a Warthog jeep having pitched battles with dropship-delivered Covenant infantry. The assault on the island in The Silent Cartographer is still the touchstone Halo moment for me that no subsequent game has ever managed to top. Assault On The Control Room has a few too many dreary interior bits, but outside it’s pure vehicle warfare (this is the first level where they give you a Scorpion tank) in a glorious snowscape. And then the game comes to a screeching halt in 343 Guilty Spark, which – appropriately – starts off in a swamp and steadily gets worse from there. The only moment in the game really worth talking about past here is revisiting the crashed Pillar of Autumn in The Maw, which actually employed the recycled level design to good effect as you last saw the Autumn in the opening level 6+ hours ago and it’s now become a wrecked, zombie-infested shadow of its former self.
Still, for the five-odd levels where the Flood weren’t around to ruin the experience, Halo delivered something truly unique. With modern FPSes trending ever further towards heavily-scripted and barely-disguised linear level design I have to say I was rather surprised to rediscover just how open the environments in Halo were; ultimately they’re just as linear as a Call of Duty game but they do a much better job of providing at least the illusion of a world existing beyond the confines of the level. It’s a legacy feature left over from Halo’s roots, and yet it serves to give that first game nearly all of its character. It would have been interesting to see what Bungie could have achieved here if they hadn’t had that Xbox release deadline forced upon them. We still would have had to put up with the Flood, of course, but maybe with some improved level design the game could have made better use of them as enemies and we might have gotten a second Silent Cartographer moment into the bargain. As it was all we got was the most influential FPS since Goldeneye. Halo is a hell of an achievement, and it still (mostly) holds up twelve years later, but it nevertheless represents one of the great missed opportunities in gaming – and since subsequent games in the series have subtly shifted away from the open-world design base used for Halo, it’s probably one that will remain missed4 for the foreseeable future.
- Which is still working after ten years of heavy use as a DVD player, in stark contrast to Microsoft’s record with their 360s. ↩
- I have no doubt that other games experimented with these concepts before Halo, but Halo was the first to bring them all together into one paradigm-shifting package. ↩
- I would like to take a moment to point out that I have only played the first three; my 360 red-ringed shortly before ODST came out and as much as I love the series I really couldn’t justify buying a new one just to play Halo games. My job situation should be improving shortly, however, and it’s near the top of my list of things to do once I actually have money, so please don’t spoil them for me. ↩
- Of course we do live in a world where Planetside 2 exists and hits most of the design points for the original version of Halo. ↩