A Halo virgin does it for the first time

For a hardcore retro fan, Halo is the enemy.

And not the oh-I-am-just-not-a-big-fan-of-that-game kind of enemy. No, retro fans think Halo actually is the devil and the main thing that is wrong with videogames today. Trust me when I tell you, we have had many passionate discussions about this exact topic on RetroforceGO! They have almost turned violent.

So, it goes without saying that I have avoided playing Halo like the plague after all these years. But after crossing my arms like a baby and refusing to play the game, I was finally, unceremoniously pushed over the edge by Destructoid community member Dexter345. He sat me over a chair, hit me with a belt (metaphorically, of course), and chastised me for my stubborn attitude about not wanting to play one of the most popular and influential videogames of the last ten years.

After rubbing my now sore metaphorical behind, I thought to myself: maybe he’s right. Why shouldn’t I, at the very least, try a game that, for better or worse, has made a huge mark on popular videogame culture?

So, I finally bit the bullet, borrowed Dexter’s copy, and decided to play through the first Halo on my Xbox 360. The good news: I still like retro games. Whew! But what of my eight-years-in-the-making experience? Is there a reason so many retro fans hate the game so much? Hit the jump for the sexy details.

Epic foreplay

When I first popped in the Halo disc, I was impressed by the booming score that met my eardrums when the Bungie logo appeared on the screen. Sure, it was a tad overdramatic, but it really put me in the mindset to play something epic. That’s always a good way to start, right?

After a moody enough title screen, I quickly created my profile and got into the single-player campaign (calling it a “campaign” is so Halo). To my surprise, the entire opening sequence was pretty gosh-darned creative.

You see, in my mind, after all these years, I have always considered the Halo experience to consist of nothing more than running around a big, open area, generically shooting people and crouching on them to make it look like you were putting your scrotum on their face.

Needless to say, when Halo starts inside a ship with a very understated but well implemented tutorial, I was shocked. Although I had played games previously — such as Half-Life and System Shock — that presented most of their cutscenes in-game and directly from the first-person perspective of the main character, seeing it in Halo was a pleasant surprise.

Maybe this Halo game wasn’t going to be so bad after all?

Generic graphics (a.k.a. the shock of seeing Halo nude)

As I played through the first few chapters of the campaign (so Halo!), the initial appeal of the game started to wear a little thin.

Now, this is where things started to get a little confusing for me.

After waiting eight years to play it, was I spoiled by all the technologically superior first-person shooters that have come out recently (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, BioShock)? Because there was no way of avoiding this train of thought, I tried my darndest to put myself in the shoes of someone who was playing Halo for the very first time.

Once I did this, I came to two conclusions:

1. Halo is a fun, addictive game.
2. The graphics in Halo are still generic.

Even trying to act like it was 2001 again — and even though the texture work is mildly impressive — I was still underwhelmed by Halo’s art direction. Every spaceship looked like every other spaceship; every section of the ring looked like all the others, with a new splash of color here and there.

There were slight moments of awe — such as the first time I saw how the Halo ring wrapped around the screen, making everything feel so large and epic — but, all in all, the graphics in Halo are pretty generic. Sad, but true.

Now, before you scream that any game on the Nintendo 64 looks even worse, let me say that I agree with you … to a point. Looking back, Ocarina of Time — one of my favorite games of all time — has muddy colors and some of the blurriest textures ever, but the design of everything is superior. The way that the dated graphics are used in the game far surpass anything seen in Halo.

Halo looked decent at times, but the visual weren’t memorable enough for me to be impressed this many years later.

I love the Needler!

Let’s get into some of the details of my virgin Halo experience.

The story? I loved it. Well, I loved it because I thought there wouldn’t be one. Even looking past that, though, the story presented in Halo was interesting and told in a very clever way. I have to admit: I was sucked in to Master Chief and Cortana’s tale of bringing down the massive Halo weapon. Add in a few unexpected twists along the way, and the Halo story emerged as far beyond passable.

The weapon selection? Aside from the boring Pistol and Assault Rifle, Halo had some pretty cool, creative weapons. It is important to note that one thing I look for in first-person shooters is their ability to add clever, fun-to-use weapons to the mix. Halo didn’t have a huge variety of weapons to choose from, but the ones they had were different enough to make me happy.

When I got my hand on the Needler — a bulky gun that shoots sharp, pink crystals — I was impressed how differently it handled when compared to the other weapons in the game. It didn’t hold that much ammo, but I loved the way the Needler’s projectiles were slightly heat-seeking and stuck to their target before exploding and causing damage.

Halfway through the game I became an expert at meeting large group of enemies, shooting a hail of Needler fire into the air, hiding behind cover, and watching as the devastating crystals worked their destructive magic.

But as the game progressed, I picked up the Shotgun, more and more Plasma Grenades, and was introduced to the alien race known as The Flood.

It was at this moment when I realized that …

I hate the Needler!

Seriously, the weapon sucks.

I compare my initial attraction to the weak, unwieldy gun to a kid walking in a candy store. At first, the kid gets super excited about all the colorful, swirly pieces of candy sitting before him. Everything is so different, new, and … pink! Once the kid gets a piece of the strange new candy, it tastes great at first. But then it starts to get old — its flavor wears thin. At this point, the old, standby candy that the kid could have purchased (Gummi Bears, candy bars, etc.) starts to look really good.

The shotgun was my Gummi Bears and the Plasma Grenades were my candy bars.

Once I started fighting the Flood and the constant hordes of enemies that would attack me at once, the Needler became almost pointless. For the entire second half of the game, it was the Shotgun, Assault Rifle, Plasma Grenade trifecta for me. Seriously. That’s all I used.

Nothing was more satisfying than throwing a Plasma Grenade into a giant group of battling Flood/Covenant.

Nothing.

And, yeah, I will never type that sentence again as long as I live. Embrace this historic moment!

Worst vehicle controls EVER!

Um, did the designers really expect me to control the Warthog like that? Seriously? I have to accelerate with the left stick and turn only with the right stick. Seriously. For anyone out there that hasn’t played Halo, you really have no idea how horribly annoying this is. You drive most of the vehicles in Halo by pushing forward on the left stick and turning with the right.

Now, that may not sound so bad, but in practice it is awful. The natural inclination is to steer your vehicle with the left stick while pressing down a button to accelerate (A, B, right trigger, ANY OTHER BUTTON!). Trying to use both control sticks at the same time is ridiculously frustrating. Anyone who has experienced the game’s final action sequence can attest to this.

And it’s sad because the vehicular sections are pretty fun and help mix up the gameplay.

Too bad a blind person with no arms must have designed them.

Guidance, please!

Once I started exploring different parts of the Halo ring, I was impressed by the way the game feels like you are exploring a giant multiplayer map. What I mean is: instead of the path feeling very linear like most first-person shooters, Halo’s maps were huge, open, and contained tons of extra space for exploring and hiding.

When I was battling around the world, there were plenty of places to perch myself during a firefight, and just as many to find cover behind when things got intense. Huge structures were littered around the world that — in most other games of the type — would be used as part of the level progression. In Halo, some major locations were just there to explore and hide out behind during a gun battle.

At one point, I made my way up a giant power structure with an actual interior filled with hallways and rooms. Thinking that it was where I needed to go next, I explored the building for a good twenty minutes, confused as to why I couldn’t find the next location.

I came to find out that the building was just there as part of the environment. While this random structure served no point from a story perspective, I was blown away how much it made the world feel organic, lived-in, and thought-out.

In this regard, Halo’s level design really impressed me.

But … as the game went on, things started to get a little confusing. At times, Cortana would place an on-screen arrow to show Master Chief his next objective, but this did not happen often enough. I am all for games staying away from holding your hand too much, but sometimes the giant maps in Halo were a little overwhelming. I am fine with the open areas during multiplayer, but I need a little more contextual guidance for single-player.

And speaking of multiplayer …

Multiplayer is [insert future adjective here]!

Sadly, I did not get a chance to play multiplayer — the mode most Halo fans agree is the best part. For this, I feel a little unfair writing an eight-year-late critique on a game that apparently thrives off its experience with other people.

As of writing this, Dexter has promised to get me in on a massive Halo LAN party, which is, according to him, “the only way to truly play the game.” I did play a little local multiplayer — which was very GoldenEye fun — but I know that doesn’t really count.

I guess … just think of this post as my single-player impressions. Heck, I have played Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty 4, and a few other FPSes online and had a great time. I will just replace the soldiers in Modern Warfare with multi-colored Master Chiefs and officially say, “The online multiplayer in Halo is super addictive! I love how you can upgrade your character’s experience points to gain levels!”

Oh, Halo’s multiplayer doesn’t have experience points? Ah, well, I guess it’s terrible, then.

Lighting a cigarette

All in all, I had a much better time with Halo than I thought I would. The presentation — while not aging well — was good, the story was interesting, and some of the massive shootouts I was involved in were absolutely tense and satisfying.

Despite all this, though, I am still unsure what all the hype was about.

The game is obviously not bad, but I just don’t get what it is about it that made people flip out all those years ago. Even putting myself in the (much younger) shoes of a guy in 2001 playing it for the first time, I still can’t figure out what makes Halo so special. It’s a very decent first-person shooter, but that’s really all it is: a decent first-person shooter.

My mixed feelings still haven’t helped me decide if I want to give Halo 2 and Halo 3 a try to make this a truly complete experience. I am curious as hell to play the sequels, of course, but since I heard the original game was by far the best, I am a little dubious.

Am I happy I took ten hours to play Halo? Most definitely! As a person writing for a videogame Web site, I felt a little obligated to play something that is such a force in the gaming industry. It’s like being a movie critic and refusing to watch Titanic just because you don’t think it’s something you would like. You jump, I jump, Master Chief.

Most importantly, though, do I now understand why retro fans hate Halo so much? Not really. I understand the negative connection to Halo and the hate-spewing bowels of the online multiplayer world — something old school gamers (including me) despise — but as a game, it’s not half bad.

I do have to admit: I feel a little weird having played it, and I have no idea why. And the only reason I can think of is embarrassing and makes me sound like a complete snob. The game was fun, I had a fine time with it, but there was this weird exclusive club for retro fans refusing to succumb to the enemy and play Halo. I am now no longer a part of that club.

Is the club super-elitist and a little obnoxious? Oh, for sure. But I like being part of clubs and it makes me sad to get rid of my membership card.

Regardless of my feelings, I have officially lost my Halo virginity. I guess I am a man now. To be honest, I feel a little dirty. A little used.

Luckily, it only hurt a little.

Chad Concelmo