Revisiting Halo: Combat Evolved

The original Halo, released in 2001 developed by Bungie Studios and was my first experience with first person shooters. Before Halo, the only games I had the opportunity to play were Nintendo games like Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers. It quickly became one of my favorite games at the time, even though I had very little understanding about the overall plot. I just enjoyed jumping in vehicles and pretending to be an unstoppable space marine. At the time, it didn’t really matter to me if the levels were cohesive or helped to advance plot or ideas. I just liked feeling like I could have an effect on the artificial world. So I wanted to go back and level by level analyze the game and determine if it is worth revisiting Halo: Combat Evolved because Halo: Infinite drops sometime in 2021.

Halo: Combat Evolved opens with the mission “The Pillar of Autumn,” and is a straight forward corridor gallery shooter. The player takes control of the Master Chief, a super soldier, who has just woken up from cryo-sleep as enemy forces board the Pillar of Autumn and is tasked with grabbing an A.I. companion and escaping to the surface of the newly discovered ring world below them.

The first level is nothing special but it offers the player an opportunity to become acquainted with the basic enemy and weapon mechanics like plasma’s effectiveness on shields or understanding how grunts scramble over one another when their leader falls in battle. The player learns about crouching, jumping, and how to use a flashlight, and runs into combat situation after combat situation until they find a drop pod and leave The Pillar of Autumn behind. Fairly straight forward and a great introduction to the basics and plot.

After crash landing on Halo, the player find themselves to be the only survivor from their pod and Halo: Combat Evolved finally shows the player what kind of game will be. The second level “Halo” is where Bungie states their thesis to the player. If you don’t enjoy Halo a little bit after this mission it would probably be best to stop playing all together because it won’t change all that much from here on out.

The level “Halo” throws away the corridor gallery shooting for a little bit and lets the player loose in a landscape that is both familiar and different. Waterfalls pour from mountainsides, and trees and rocks sprinkle the hills surrounding the player. However, upon closer inspection the player can see the arch of the ring going around the world. Blue plasma is shot into the atmosphere from alien structures and Cortana can’t help but remind the player that some of this geography “is not a natural formation.”

The mission is an introduction to the larger scope of battle that Halo allows the player. The warthog (a jeep) and the sniper rifle are both introduced in this level for the player to learn. Given the large scope of the mission, both assets are crucial for the player to have any fun at all. The walk around the level can be brutal so thankfully the warthog can’t be blown up. The only way it can be lost is if it is driven over cliff without the player in it. The sniper is equally hard to miss using since it is given at several different drop points in the level. Like “The Pillar of Autumn,” the developers want players to use the tools they have provided and try to give as many opportunities as possible to find them.

The biggest issue with “Halo” is something that haunts Combat Evolved as a whole, and that is the repetitiveness of its level design. The mission has the player defend and rescue 4 separate marine squads, the difference between them being only the arena in which the player is located. Nineteen years after launch, it has come to be that the title level of Halo 1 has become one of my least favorites to replay due to the simplicity and tedium of its structure. What “Halo” did in 2001 can’t be understated but in 2020 the mission is boring and incredibly drawn out.

‘Truth and Reconciliation” continues the upswing in fun design (luckily it stays here for a while). The middle selection of levels in Halo: Combat Evolved are top notch and “Truth and Reconciliation” sets that pace. The player lands on a dark cliffside and must take out the enemies camped out there as quietly as they can. Of course, stealth elements in Combat Evolved don’t work too well, however, before the firefight fully breaks out, the player is afforded a few free shots.

The goal of the mission is to rescue the Captain of The Pillar of Autumn from an enemy cruiser, which means that the player is left to fight through hordes of enemies who are defending the lift that leads to their ship. The gravity lift is the set piece of the level as enemy reinforcements are funneled down the lift until finally a new enemy variant, the hunter, is introduced. A hunter pair, who shoot explosive fuel rod shots, land on the platform and this encounter for new players can be incredibly difficult to beat. For returners, Halo 1’s hunters are the easiest version of the foes to be exploited and put down. One well placed magnum or sniper shot will be enough to take one of the walking tanks down.

After this encounter, the player invades the enemy ship and is then made to navigate another large corridor shooting section. There are areas where verticality is emphasized but it is largely a cramped linear level from this point on. The same hallways and colors will cause disorientation for anyone not used to the ship’s layout but this is to be expected due to the time it was released.

The end of the level is an escort mission, where the player must protect Captain Keyes. However, the developers thought they were funny by making Keyes only have a needler equipped, while at the same time making him as frail as paper. He dies a lot. On harder difficulties, the only way to win is knowing exactly where every enemy spawns and who is the most likely to get a shot off at Keyes first and just a sprinkle of luck.

Arguably the best mission in the game, “The Silent Cartographer” is set on one island that the player will explore. The level opens with a D-Day-esk drop off, where the player lands in the thick of things with explosions sending dust into the sky and friendlies falling to the relentless plasma explosions on the beach. Cortona explains more of the ring’s secrets in the map room which unveils where the control room for Halo is and the plot can continue.

The mission itself, being an island, is completely open for the player to explore and uncover the secrets of the map room. The rocket launcher is introduced but does not offer the player any enemy vehicles to use it on. Instead, large hordes of enemy forces are used to protect the different objectives. The rocket launcher can make quick work of most of them if used sparingly. Hunters and higher level elite guards are positioned everywhere. I believe Silent Cartographer is the first level that truly demonstrates the heights Halo 1 can reach. Unfortunately for everyone, Halo continues hitting these high marks for only a couple more levels.

“Assault on the Control Room” could have been one of the best parts in the entire game. It is the first big vehicle section of the game and the player has the opportunity to use every vehicle that is playable which includes the UNSC’s warthog and tank and the Covenant ghost and banshee (single pilot plane). From the player’s perspective, huge battles are being fought between humans and the Covenant. The player must dodge and weave between wraith mortar shots and the cross fire of enemy plasma shots.

It can feel really intense when outside but that isn’t where this mission spends most of its time. Halo 1 is infamous for its repetition in design and there is good reason why. “Assault on the Control Room” uses the same network of hallways to stage firefights. The one room and hallway design is used 8 times in this level alone (because yes it is used in another level). The repetition in design is so bad the developers put actual arrows on the ground so players wouldn’t get confused which way to go since everything looks the exact same.

Master Chief makes it to the control room with Cortana, where she informs the Chief that there is another threat on the ring. The player leaves Cortana behind and runs off without being told what the danger is. But that’s okay because this dumb science fiction first person shooter is about to do something that I never expected when I first played and I still greatly appreciate 19 years later from a plot perspective.

In the next level “343 Guilty Spark,” the player is dropped off in a swamp and told to reconnect with friendly forces in the area. This mission is a complete tonal shift from the previous levels as it is dark and mysterious compared to bright and wonderous. The only enemies the player runs into in the beginning are a couple grunts or a jackal. It’s quiet. The player sees a fortress in the distance and upon approach enemy forces are running in fear and ignoring the player. Walking by the enemies and entering the structure, the player finds no enemies inside and descends an elevator.

The player walks through quiet hallways while investigating this structure that houses seemingly empty glass cases. A brown smog is seen floating in some of the cases. Many enemy forces are crumpled dead against walls with their blue florescent blood splashed around the entire structure like a horror movie. There are no direct signs of how the carnage took place and still no signs of friendly forces. The player eventually runs into a marine scared out of his mind but the marine only screams to stay back and tries to fire at the player. The entire mission is surprisingly suspenseful due to its mystery and lack of direct confrontation right away.

It all comes to a head when the player comes to a locked door and when the door opens a marine falls dead into the Master Chief’s arms. Inside the room, a body cam is uncovered where the player is able to watch the mission of the allies he was supposed to meet up with. It is a nice change of pace to see the mundane camaraderie of the AI marines. It gives them more character and fleshes out the world more. I really appreciate the segment and it’s something I don’t think we see from the recent iterations of the franchise.

The recovered marine’s body cam’s climax shows their squad being ambushed by a new enemy, the Flood. The Flood are essentially a parasite that take over whatever host organism they can find. The aliens who built the rings meant to keep the Flood trapped but the Covenant accidentally released the parasite which is what resulted in blood and carnage earlier. The player must now escape the facility because now this new foe is everywhere seemingly waiting for the most plot convenient time to pop out of the shadows. “343 Guilty Spark” is fantastic for being different but the plot points introduced change the pace of the gameplay and not for the better.

The Flood aren’t the most fun to fight and some weapons in Halo’s sandbox just are not productive when dealing with them at higher difficulties. Their attack patterns are predictable and suicidal. They have no regard for their safety because they are a parasite but the player must then stay back and use the same weapons for the remainder of the game. Which isn’t great because from now on the Flood are the main enemy. The covenant are still present but the Flood are fighting them too, so the Covenant more or less sink to the background of the conflict.

“The Library” is the only level where the Flood are the only enemy forces you fight and coincidently it is the absolute worst Halo mission. Remember “Assault on the Control room” and how repetitive it was? Well, “The Library” is THE poster child for repetition. This level has arrows on the ground too which is a great indication that the developers just didn’t have the time to develop a mission that was more organic in its navigation. Master Chief must ascend four elevators while avoiding a seemingly endless Flood assault. The entire structure is a maze of the same hallways and waiting for locked doors to open. It’s not fun. I don’t think I have ever had a good time on this level. On to the next mission, which also isn’t great.

“Two Betrayals” is one of the biggest middle fingers in gaming. Now that the player had their alone time, it’s time to pick up Cortana to finish the game. What this means is returning to the same level as “Assault on the Control Room” and playing it again. Except this time, the player plays through it backwards and with fewer options for engaging with the sandbox. There are fewer vehicles and now the Flood are running around causing havoc.

I will say it’s cool to see the firefights between the Covenant and the Flood. However, when it’s time to join in the fray it can become more than a little one sided depending on how well the player prepares for the fights. You might be thinking that the preparation is what makes a player good. My only critique for that line of thinking with Halo is that it has so far offered players the ability to choose how they want to get through situations. The introduction of the Flood completely eliminates parts of the sandbox from being useful in fights. This level is right up there with “The Library” for me. It’s tedious and I never look forward to playing through it.

The penultimate level “Keyes” is largely forgettable. The player returns to the Truth and Reconciliation, where they have to save Captain Keyes. Part of the mission takes place in the hills under the ship so it is not as bad as “Two Betrayals” in terms of its repetition but its still there. The only standout moment is meeting with Keyes and seeing that the Flood had gotten to him. When I was a kid, I was surprised to see one of the main characters taken over by the Flood. I think it was a good choice to remove the one friendly authority that might ease the player’s isolation in the game. The decision made the threat of the Flood feel more real.

Finally, “The Maw” has the player return to the Pillar of Autumn. The mission is partially replaying the first level and partially seeing different sides of the ship that were unavailable earlier. However, this reused section is a lot less annoying than the other one’s present in the game. The Autumn crash landed and the player must return to use Keyes’s codes to cause an explosion big enough to destroy the Halo ring. Master Chief wanders the corpse of the ship destroying key objectives to cause the explosion. Finally, when the player has done enough damage, Cortana says they have to go so the player hops in a warthog and a timer pops up. The final bit of gameplay is a race against the clock to escape the Pillar of Autumn before it explodes. It’s a great concept but I wish that the warthog physics were not so floaty. I feel like one bump and the hog goes flying causing me to float around trying to reorient the upside down hog while the timer keeps ticking away.

“The Maw” is a welcome bookend to the plot of Halo: Combat Evolved and has one of the most standout moments in the franchise with the warthog escape. It ties the game up and ultimately sets everything up for one of the better gaming trilogies out there at the moment. The level design can achieve great things with levels like”Truth and Reconciliation,” “Silent Cartographer” and “343 Guilty Spark.” The design not only gives the player an interesting setting to fight in but is able to tell an engaging story. Halo 1 does more for its single player experience, despite being 19 years old, than many of the FPS games being released today. I just wish the team at Bungie had the resources in 2001 to make the tail end of the game less of a slog down memory lane.

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