How Halo: Combat Evolved Originally Subverted Expectations

I have recently restarted playing through the Halo Master Chief Collection to remember why I enjoy the series so much. I am about halfway through the first game and I realized I needed to talk about what made Halo 1 so special in the first place and no it’s not the innovative console shooter controls.

The Halo franchise launched for the first time on the original Xbox in 2001. At the time, console shooters were considered unplayable to severely limited compared to PC shooters. For example, we all know about Golden Eye 007 on the N64 being one of the most fun party games of the time but Goldeneye couldn’t hold a candle to what games like Half-Life were doing on the PC. Halo would come along to change not only how shooters were played on the console but how shooters were expected to be designed. Halo introduced a sandbox that was far more expansive than any other shooter on a console at the time but before the game let you dive too deeply into the playground, Halo required that you test your footing in a level that was more familiar to the status quo.

The first level of Combat Evolved is “The Pillar of Autumn” and many first generation Halo players have a soft spot for the level that introduced us to the Master Chief, Cortana, and Captain Keyes. The plot of one of the biggest video game franchises of the aughts is introduced in this level. The Covenant are set up as a dangerous foe and the humans are shown to be fighting a losing battle right from the start.

However, from a strictly gameplay perspective, “The Pillar of Autumn” does little to distinguish itself from many of the other games on the market. The Pillar of Autumn (the section that is played in the first level at least) is restricted to almost entirely hallway battles. That means the player is aiming down a corridor and there are few opportunities for an enemy to flank the player or vice versa.

The player is instead forced down each hallway becoming accustomed to how the elites and grunts behave. Grunts are weak but make up the majority of the enemy population. Their strengths come from numbers. Elites have shields and can be formidable adversaries and when an elite is taken out cause the grunts to run in fear for the loss of their leader.

Through the level, the player is introduced to various UNSC weapons and their effectiveness against the Convenant, while learning basic controls for maneuvering the game. The player must navigate a ship in distress as explosions rock the halls and passageways become entirely blocked off. This means crouching, jumping, and a flashlight are taught to the player in an organic way. By no means is any of this unique but the level affords the player an opportunity to learn the mechanics in an environment that is familiar to them. That is, assuming that the player is familiar with other games in the genre, the level is basic enough to deliver the plot, mechanics, and some of the enemy attack patterns without overwhelming the player with decision. The simplicity is a great tutorial for the player.

By the time the level ends, the player has a decent handle on the basics of the plot and the game mechanics. That’s when the player is thrown in a drop ship, plummets onto an alien structure for the remainder of the game and changes the scope of FPS games for years to come.

The second level’s name is the game’s name sake, “Halo.” The level name itself not only represents the player’s first experience on the ring world but the game’s entire schtick. The player up until this point has done the industry normal of participating in a corridor shooting gallery. Having escaped from the Autumn, the player is woken, dazed and confused, by Cortana and told to leave the drop pod. The player is immediately presented with an entirely different landscape. There are trees, grass, waterfalls, and the arch of the ring on the horizon. The world is both alien and familiar and much more sprawling than the previous level. The player can see enemy aircraft (banshees) in the distance and Cortana says that a drop ship is approaching to drop off enemy forces.

On the run, the player is tasked with reuniting with UNSC forces, however, now the player has more area to move and plan attacks. No longer restricted to the equivalent of a cattle chute, the player was given freedom to adapt to the sandbox that the previous level didn’t allow.

After reconnecting with some friendly forces, the player is given a warthog (basically a jeep) and the level completely opens up. Master Chief is tasked with saving the rest of the friendly survivors in the area. This means traveling to three distinct areas that offer various combat grounds for the player to become accustom to items like the warthog and sniper rifle. The increased level area and use of verticality in the forms of, what looks like, natural geography and Forerunner structures offer a breath of fresh air compared to the previous level’s brown hallways.

The entire level is left in the player’s hands to decide how to save all the marines. By today’s standards there is nothing too groundbreaking by the level “Halo.” In many ways, the level is repetitive, slow and doesn’t offer enough player choice given the weapons available. The point being to simply engage in 3-4 firefights in different arenas until the game says you can go to the next level. However, in 2001, it was a glimpse into the future of shooters and the adventures that can take place within them.

I believe there are levels, even in Combat Evolved, that do a better job of doing what the level “Halo” does. The difference is that “Halo” was first and the was preceded by one of the most restrictive levels in Combat Evolved. The juxtaposition between the two sections is what really emphasizes the opportunity that “Halo” represents for the player and the franchise as a whole. The reveal of Halo’s sandbox will always be a cornerstone in gaming history but the developers made the event much more remarkable by giving players the time to see what a restricted level looks like in the same context.

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