box's flagship Halo franchise has sold over 34 million game units worldwide, been spun off into novels, comics and animated features and garnered a huge amount of critical acclaim. On the buildup to the launch of developer Bungie's Spartan swansong Halo: Reach, we take a fond look back at the trilogy that the saga sprang from.
It's hard to believe that the series that defined the original Xbox originally started life as a real-time strategy game for Mac and PC. Initially it was compared to Bungie's past game Myth and even announced by Apple's Steve Jobs in 1999.
Little did anyone know that it would end up sharing more similarities with another sister series called Marathon and end up on a system produced by Apple's archrival. Within the next year Halo had transmogrified into a third-person action game, eventually becoming a first-person shooter after Microsoft purchased Bungie.
Though gameplay and presentation changed dramatically from its inception to its launch, Halo: Combat Evolved largely retained the story of its original vision.
Though changing dramatically from its inception to its launch, Combat Evolved largely retained the story of its original vision.Having built an extensive interstellar empire over the course of centuries, humanity thought it was alone in the galaxy. But an aggressive and vastly superior alien force known as the Covenant appeared and began to emphatically and clinically annihilate any and all human colonies in its path.
After the destruction of humanity's critical military hub world Reach, the cruiser Pillar of Autumn attempts to draw Covenant forces away from Earth and ends up stumbling on a mysterious ring-shaped structure in space. With his ship heavily damaged, Captain Keyes has no choice but to destroy the Autumn to prevent data on Earth's location falling into enemy claws. All hands are sent to the escape pods and ordered to head to the habitable "Halo" world.
Amongst the beleaguered crew is perhaps their sole hope of survival — an enigmatic super-soldier commonly known as the Master Chief. The game's protagonist and player character, he's thought to be the last of an elite battalion of genetically engineered, power armor-wearing troopers called Spartans. Accompanying him is the highly advanced artificial intelligence construct called Cortana, who will provide guidance to both him and the player.
During the course of the game's campaign, the humans fight to hold out against the alien forces, the mystery behind "Halo" will be unraveled and a force that poses an even greater threat than the Covenant will be revealed.
Combat Evolved popularized — if not pioneered — many elements that have become standard in first-person shooters, especially on consoles. Regenerating health, intelligent AI, split screen co-op, expanded melee combat and vehicular gameplay: all elements that have become commonplace in so many shooters that followed. Its sharp graphics and a unique visual design meant that it was also an impressive-looking showcase for Microsoft's then-new Xbox console.
Its gameplay popularized — if not pioneered — many elements that have become standard in first-person shooters.It rightfully took the crown of king of console multiplayer from N64 shooters GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, with unprecedented split-screen and LAN support for up to sixteen players (correct equipment and friends permitting, of course). The game provided a wealth of modes, maps and options that kept many a group of friends gripping those bulky black controllers for hours on end.
Combat Evolved changed the FPS genre and attracted a legion of fans. But much like its spiritual forefather GoldenEye, it probably won't hold up quite as well as you remember. This is due in part to the additions and refinements that subsequent sequels would introduce that would go onto become standard for the series.
But the main annoyance is just how much filler there is in the game. Wave after wave of redeploying Covenant troops, protracted sequences of moving from point A to B and repeating chunks of level design really do stick out in contrast to the faster pace and slicker structure of modern shooters. These problems come to a head in The Library level (which was infamous even at the time), an agonisingly long stage in which you had to navigate a series of identical-looking corridors while constantly under siege by mobs of space zombies.
Though there's something to be said for the fast and floaty physics and the simple but strategic maps in the game, the advent of online play in later sequels has largely rendered its multiplayer offerings redundant. Unless you've got a group of friends who are willing to throwback to the days before Xbox Live, you're not likely to want to get back into it in any serious way.
Regardless of how it holds up now, Halo: Combat Evolved was a bona fide success story. Not including subsequent PC and Mac ports, it has sold over 5 million copies worldwide, placing it as the second best-selling Xbox title. It not only raised the bar for the console shooting genres but proved that there might just be something to Microsoft's hulking black box.