In the past year, I've played a lot of shooters. 2016 was the year of the shooter for me and I played Doom and Quake for the first time, and immediately fell in love. Since then I've gone back and played a lot of classic shooters, but one series has always eluded me.
A few summers ago, a friend picked up the anniversary edition of Halo. We planned to play through the games together in co-op, and though our schedules never led us to finishing, we did have a blast with what we played.
So I decided to go back and finish where we left off, and play through the original Halo trilogy. I haven't played Reach or ODST yet, but I plan to. So consider this a look at Microsoft and Bungie's most iconic franchise from an outsider's perspective.
With that out of the way, let's begin.
Halo 1 is almost good.
It has a lot of things going for it that I will get into, but largely it fails in enough categories for it to get a soft 'meh' out of me. What made it enjoyable were a few of the amazing setpieces and playing with a friend. Co-op really alleviates some of the monotony of Halo's design, but it doesn't fix a broken product.
But let's start with what Halo gets right. It's weird to think that in 2001 shooters on console were really different. There were no unified control schemes, online multiplayer was basically nonexistant and aside from Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, there really weren't too many examples of great shooters to lead the Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube. So Halo came along and revolutionized everything.
The controls were fluid and responsive. Master Chief's jumps were slow with big and long arcs that gave you a lot of control. Guns felt powerful and had great sound effects. Overall, in terms of immediate presentation, while the original game looks pretty soft and bland in quite a few areas, its core mechanics are still wonderful to play with.
Vehicles were pretty clunky, but that was fixed in later games. I'd also argue the human weapons weren't as interesting as the Covenant weapons, but that's a matter of perspective, plus they also fixed that later too.
No. Where Halo's problems begin and end are with its terrible level design.
I hope you enjoy rooms like this, because oh boy are you going to be seeing a lot of them.
Halo's best moments are early on, when you're given a wide open playground with plenty of room to manoeuvre. You can drive around in a warthog, get out on a nearby hill and take potshots at the enemies from afar, and then drive up close and finish them with your rifle. Or you could just drive straight up with the warthog and run as many of them over as possible. The combat options were plentiful, and it felt great to feel like you were dancing around the battlefield, creating a trail of death as you go.
But then you get clustered inside cramped inside environments, into a big octagonal room with a bunch of walls blocking your view. And then you enter another octagonal room with more walls... and then another.
Control, C and V must have been very popular keyboard keys at Bungie's office during the development in Halo. Rooms are recycled very frequently, and when rooms aren't being recycled, it's entire levels. At least two levels in Halo are repeats of previous ones, except in reverse. Sometimes you'll be fighting different enemy types, and maybe you'll have a different vehicle, but the boredom sets in real fast regardless.
It wouldn't be so bad if it were uncommon, but oh boy is it common! It's incredibly disappointing that when you finally finish Halo your first thought is "finally!"
Halo had some amazing setpieces and environments, and really it ruins a lot of it with extremely poor level design. You can tell their budget didn't allow them to create a game of the length they wanted, so they just padded out the length with repeated content. It's a shame, but after Halo ended up selling so well, they got the budget and manpower to make a real step forward in the sequel.
Halo's sequel is a shitshow of the greatest proportions. Bungie employees have discussed at length at how this game went through development hell, and how after a demo at E3 that impressed the crowds greatly, they got back to the office and realized there was no way they could deliver the game they showed.
So they scrapped the project and restarted it. Halo 2 as shown at E3 was quietly revized and reborn, to be loudly released to critical praise everywhere.
And it deserves it. Halo 2 is a fantastic game and one of the best, if not the best, shooter on the original Xbox.
Remember the copy-pasted rooms from the original? Mostly gone, and although you might see a few rooms reused later on, for the most part you're always moving forward through new environments.
The human weapons were kind of uninteresting? Well now you can dual-wield, and combine human weapons with Convenant weapons for devastating combos. Even the targeting riticules overlap, to add an extra layer of customization with your weapon choices.
And fans got rickrolled hardcore when they get to the second mission and begin playing as the Arbiter, and man the Arbiter is cool.
I actually mean that. Most people dislike the Arbiter and his sections, and I'm sure they have their reasons for it, but honestly the Arbiter sections also some of the best moments in the game. Overall I have to say the Master Chief sections are better, but I do enjoy quite a few moments with the Arbiter.
The Arbiter levels were a nice shakeup that gave a different tone to the game.
And his mechanic of giving himself temporary invisibility is actually a pretty ingenius decision. A lot of sections of Halo games take place in very open environments, so when your shields go down, you really have nowhere to hide. The Arbiter's cloaking gives him a chance to breathe as he hides from enemies, and also gives a tactical advantage of allowing you to sneak up on enemies. The biggest drawback of this is that Master Chief lacks a parallel skill, meaning he's stuck with a lack of cover and no way of compensating for it. As a result, I found the Master Chief sections to be far more difficult, almost unfairly so at times.
But before I get to the cons, I do want to gush more.
I love New Mombasa. Every moment in the city section breathes a different form of life into the gameplay. At one point you're covering your allies, holed up in a building. The next you're clearing alleyways. Then you're riding along the riverbank on a warthog, and then you get to ride the tank down the bridge and feel like the ultimate badass.
Sidenote, I love how Halo 2 almost always gives you an option of which vehicle you'd like to use. Almost always when offered a tank, there's a faster warthog or ghost lying around. Giving the player options is key to what makes Halo 2's best moments so much fun.
But unfortunately it's not all gold. Halo 2 was rushed and incomplete, and oh boy does it feel like it. The second half of the game lacks a lot of the high-tension setpieces the first half has, and so many levels take place in boring indoor environments, where the player has way less options for combat. There's also the problem that there's a lot of unfair deaths. I'm frequently killed long before I have a chance to react, or am low on shields and enemies will be surrounding any nearby cover.
The game has boss battles, I think. They're a bunch of hard-to-hit targets that move around too much, which doesn't lend well to a console shooter that uses analogue sticks. Furthermore, I don't actually know if I beat the final boss. I think a random NPC ally killed him, because I was on a different floor looking for the boss when the final cutscene just started to play.
"I'm going to finish the fight... in a few years for $60 more."
And when you watch that cutscene and Master Chief says he's going to finish the fight... and then the credits start to play, you can tell even the story didn't make it out in one piece. Halo games have never excelled in story, but I expected much better than a blatantly incomplete ending. It's the worst form of sequel-bait, and it only encouraged games to intentionally copy its format.
But looking past the flaws, Halo 2 is an amazingly fun experience. It has moments where you just want to get the level over with, and the second half feels like an afterthought, but I still recommend it highly.
And Bungie got to deliver on a lot of their broken promises in the "final" installment.
Bungie's plan for Halo 2 was to make environments six times the size of the original Halo, and while Halo 3 doesn't reach those levels, it comes close enough that I'm willing to forgive it.
Here's an example of how Halo 3 feels like it's the complete version of Halo 2. In Halo 2 to defeat the Scarab, the massive walking crawlers that feel like walking Star Destroyers, you wait until a scripted part of the level and drop onto it and kill every purple alien on board.
In Halo 3, you need to cripple its legs to get it to fall to the ground, so you get on an ATV and pick up an ally with a rocket launcher to take shots at its legs while you avoid the main laser canon. Then, when its crippled, you run up and board it to destroy its core from the inside. Or, you can take up a position at the perimeter of the arena and shoot rockets at it yourself. Or you could find a ramp and drive an ATV off of it to land on the Scarab and destroy its core without damaging the legs.
The Scarab became so much more menacing when you had to drive between its feet and take it out on your own.
In Halo 2 the Scarab was a heavily scriped setpiece. In Halo 3 it's an incredibly interactive setpiece that allows for a lot of player combat options in open arenas.
And Halo 3 continues to expand on its sequel. Environments are more open, and stay open during the length of the game. Meanwhile, while Halo 3 came out pretty early in the Xbox 360's lifespan, the game still looks pretty gorgeous. Character models feel flat and lifeless, but the levels themselves feel awesome and breathtaking. There's a greater variety in Halo 3, and it feels like a few levels were almost reimaginings of earlier Halo levels, but with improvements.
Halo 3 isn't without flaws. I felt the least impressed by Halo 3's setpiece moments, even though some of them were way more interesting and dynamic. Rolling through the streets of New Mombasa in a tank in Halo 2 was an amazing spectacle and nothing in Halo 3 reaches that height. Even when flight combat is introduced, it doesn't hold the same amound of shock and empowerment as before.
And I liked that Cortana haunts you throughout the game, but it does become repetitive. Furthermore, while the Flood has always been an interesting and also annoying enemy type, I never skipped Flood sections as much as I did in Halo 3. In Halo 3 they introduce more damaging types of Flood, and combined with their ability to revive themselves, it makes way more sense to run past most Flood rooms than to fight them.
But Halo 3 is pretty great. Halo 3 is almost as good as what Halo 2 wanted to be. Halo 3 is almost as good as what people think of Halo 1. That's how good it is.
Here are just some random, meandering rambles I have. They don't necessarily impact my overall thoughts on the game, but I did notice a few interesting things I liked.
I like how, in Halo 3, the Brutes are starting to copy earth weapons. So they have traditional shotguns and SMGs that aren't necessarily in the style of the other Covenant weapons, and likewise the humans have started to copy Convenant weaponry, like with the Spartan Laser.
Johnson is pretty funny, and overall the banter between him, the Chief and Cortana brings a lot of life into the story. I don't think the story is good per se, but if it keeps me entertained I'm okay with it.
I enjoy how the series plays with bright colours. For a few years shooters really loved different shades of brown, but the Halo games have such a vibrant colour palettes. New Mombasa from Halo 2 is pretty drab, but it feels intentional. It plays on the fact that earth is being invaded and our home planet is being destroyed. Very rarely is the basic colour of an enemy in most shooters purple.
Fascinating how aliens were able to weaponize purple dildos.
The variety of enemy types has always been standout in the Halo series. Elites are the bread and butter, and are replaced with Brutes mid-game in Halo 2, and offer a pretty different attack pattern, preferring more reckless tactics. Then there's the Grunts, which are amazing at making the player feel powerful. I always had to take a breath whenever a Hunter popped up, knowing that I was in for a real fight. The best enemies got you got to fight in different ways, and Halo loves introducing new enemy types that play off of each other.
And while the Flood can be very annoying, I do like how they subvert expectations. The Covenant are organized and predictable, but the Flood are chaotic and viral. They spread throughout battlefields, and you can dampen them, but there's always going to be a few left behind. It's like the common cold: you can fight it, but you can never kill it completely.
Overall I really enjoyed these games. I don't think they're anywhere near as perfect as some people make them out to be, and if I excluded my thoughts on the stories of these games, it's because I don't have much to say. I had a former roommate who loved the stories in the Halo universe, and believed it was richly detailed and filled with wonderful storytelling. I wouldn't agree with him whatsoever, but I thought they set the mood pretty well. It's hard to not find yourself invested in the story about the last green man decimating the purple-alien Catholic church.
I already feel myself hankering to go back to Halo 2, and will probably pick up Reach and ODST later on. I've seen some concerning footage of Halo 4 and Halo 5 that show a change of direction I don't think fits the series, but I wouldn't be opposed to trying them.
But what are your thoughts on the Halo games? Do you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts?