Retro Game Review: Halo

Man, this game is old…

Oh man! I am old!

Old enough to remember when Halo was first announced. At that time Half-Life and Unreal were the big first person shoters of the day that everyone had to have played. (Though I admit I never played Unreal.) Call of Duty and Battlefield didn’t even exist yet, though there was the Medal of Honor series, which quite likely many of you never heard of. It was the time before the decade of World War II shoters and science-fiction was really the big deal, continuing the tradition of Doom and Quake. The first screenshots were just mind blowing. Because it had outdoor areas that didn’t look like total crap! The first videos of the Warthog jeep were just out of this world. The hype was on almost instantly. When Microsoft bought Bungie and announced that Halo would be the launch title for their Xbox project, it really ruffled some feather. The internet was much smaller back in 2000, but there was still plenty of nerd rage in which I heartily participated. In 2001 the game was released and a huge success, and a few years later we actually did get a PC port of the game. In 2012 followed the 10 year anniversary edition with improved graphics for Xbox 360, which I did get used last year. This review is based on my recent playthrough of this version and how it plays now, looking back at the game 13 years later.

When I first played the game, I really quite liked it a lot. Not quite as much as Half-Life or Half-Life 2, but still a fun game. And when I later got an XBox 360 I also got Halo and played through another two times. So this one it was probably my fourth playthrough of the game. I played it on Hard. The one above Normal and below Very Hard. The game doesn’t call it like that, but I already feel too old to learn all the fancy difficulty names games have these days. It was hard. The one with the two swords, but without the skull. And I have to admit, that game is really terribly boring. Okay, in the games defense, I played it the fourth time and I have an exceptional memory for environments, so I always had a pretty good idea what would be behind the next corner and where all the surprise enemy spawns would be. But still, it’s mostly a straight corridor shoter where you run down these big long hallways. These very, very long hallways of constantly repeating copy and paste segments. And playing on Hard meant I died a good number of time and checkpoints are not nearly as tight as in recent Call of Duty games, so effectively I probably ran down twice as many corridors as the actual level length. On top of that, Halo is also very effecient at recycling levels. Usually you have to fight your way from point A to point B, then there is a cutscene and you have to go almost all the way back to A again, this time with different enemies. Generally I like the idea, as fighting your way out of the base you stormed makes perfect sense. But since there is such an excessive amount of copy-paste corridor segments it really becomes very repetitive, as the levels are also pretty long.

The enemies are a very different story though. The enemies in the game are great and are still fun to this day. The alien Covenant is an empire of many different alien species and you encounter four different types in the first game, with two more added in the second. They also come in various different color schemes, with the Elite also having different ranks and special units. In addition to that you also get the Flood, which is a swarm of alien space zombies, which comes in four types as well, and one type of automated defense robots. The four different species of Covenant are the best, though. You got the little Grunts, which are basically hordes of goblins. Individually they are laughably weak, but usually you get to encounter a whole dozen or more of them, and getting into their crossfire kills you very quickly. They also have grenades that stick to you when they make a direct hit and will instantly kill you. The grunts are supported by the Elites, who are two and a half meter tall aliens who serve as officers for the Covenant army. They are much stronger, have a much better weapon, and are almost always accompanied by a small horde of grunts. But what really makes them dangerous is that they have a rechargable shield, so it’s not enough to just hit them a lot, you also have to hit them a lot in a short amount of time. If they can get into cover for a few seconds, they just recharge and will be almost as good as new. Also, the human pistols and assault rifles do shit against their armor, but thankfully you can pick up their own plasma weapons, which work a lot better. The third type of Covenant are the Jackals, which come in two type. One type carries a large energy shield that covers them almost completely and you can really only hit them by getting behind them, using grenades, or hitting their feet or a small hole they use to put their own gun through. Plasma weapons can punch through the shields, but with human weapons you really have no feasable option other than throwing grenade. The other type of jackal is a sniper, which thankfully leaves a bright pink line in the air after each shot, so you always know where they are hiding. The last, and coolest species of the Covenant army are the Hunters. Hunters are huge ogres who are almost completely covered with impenetrable armor, carry a really big shield on the end of one arm, and a plasma rocket launcher in the other. The only way to hit them is to either shot them in the back, which strangely is not covered by armor at all, or into a gap on their stomach, which they expose when they raise their fucking huge shield to bash it into your face. Which wouldn’t be so bad if they wouldn’t always appear in pairs, which allows even the relatively simple AI to cover each other pretty effectively. It’s rare that you encounter any type of enemy alone, except for the hunters, which makes combat really quite exciting almost the whole time. Every enemy has very different abilities and behaviors, which keeps things always interesting. Another fun thing about the covenant aliens is that each of them has a different, but always very bright color of blood, and that stuff gets everywhere. After a big fight in a tight corridor all the walls are painted in bright orange, purple, blue, and green.

The Anniversary edition has improved graphics that look pretty much like those of Halo: Reach (the fourth game in the series), but you also can switch them to the original appearance and back any time with the press of a button. That way you can directly compare the different between the two. Neat feature, something I’d like to see in other remastered games. Back in 2001, the games looked quite incredible. Some games age really well when it comes to graphics and are still enjoyable in a certain retro way. Halo is not one of those games. The original graphics look like shit. They tried to get over the pixelated look of Quake engine games like Half-Life, but in practice everything simply looked blurry and like shiny plastic. I do really quite love the general art style of the game and the series as a whole. It’s primarily a color palette consting of turqoise, blue, and purple, which gives the whole game a somewhat dreamlike quality. That was a very strong contrast to the brown, gray, and olive that dominated in previous games and that came back in the mid 2000s (“real is brown”). Halo always looked different. Perhaps a bit fake, but I rather take that over always the same thing everywhere.

Regarding gameplay, Halo was the first big shoter build for consoles and then ported to PC. That required some adjustments to established conventions of the first person shoter genre, as a game controler only has about 10 buttons while PC games can make use of over a hundred key combinations. (And back in the 90s, when space fighter and jet simulators were a big thing, you needed all those combinations!) The result was the quite controversial idea to not let the player keep every gun he found througout the whole game (which often could easily be 20 or more), but to be limited to only two. With the press of a button you would switch to your other gun and back, instead of cycling through a dozen weapons until you get to the one you want in the middle of a fight. For the World War 2 shoters it made sense, but for a space marine game it seemed a weird choice. In practice, it really didn’t matter a lot, because there were no real “special weapons” in the game. Every gun you could use would either be regular marine equipment you find on the plenty of corpses lying around everywhere, or be used by the enemies. If you wanted to use a specific gun, you usually could find it on the floor within a few minutes, as well as a good supply of ammo. The alien weapons can not be reloaded (presumedly they would do that between fights back in their ship or at recharge stations you can’t use) but have pretty large amounts of ammo. Once they run out you simply throw them away and grab something else. Which in really big and long fights can be quite fun, as you throw away the useless piece of metal in your hand and grab whatever happens to lie at your feet. Total badass carnage! The game also was more “arcade” by giving your character a rechargable shield. The shield can not take a lot of hits before it runs out, but if you simply avoid getting hit for 10 seconds or so it recharge back to full energy. This is now standard for most shoters, except that in the case of energy shields it actually made sense! Healing 50 bullet wounds in 10 seconds does not. Halo did also have a health bar which you could refill by walking over health packs, but that usually made such a little difference that this feature was discarded for Halo 2 and Halo 3 (but returned for Halo: Reach, as it was a prequel and supposedly retro). Again, the nerds were raging, but it really improved the game. I know that Half-Life is quite different in mood and themes, but in that game I would always try to keep maximum health and shields and constantly quickload when a fight went not perfect. Which for me meant losing more than 20 shield energy of 10 health. In Halo that just doesn’t matter so I was much more willing to just throw myself straight into a horde of enemies guns blazing. As long as I didn’t die, I was good to keep going, even with just one health bar.

However, and saying this should cleanse me of any appearance of being a bro, I always played Halo for the story! I never played any Halo game online. (Okay, I did play Counter-Strike for a while and had a week or so fun with Jedi Knight 3, but that’s about it. Playing plenty of Quake Live years later wasn’t broish at all; that was much more hipster.) And I really quite like the story of Halo. The humans have build a huge interplanetary empire throughout the galaxy for several centuries until they encountered the Covenant, a large alliance of many alien species who are better than the humans at everything! They immediately that by now has been going on for 30 years, but the humans have really only held out so long because they keep very few copies of the coordinates of their planets and go to any lengths to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. But at the start of the game that has become pretty much irrelevant, as just a few hours before the Covenant completely annihilated the colony on Reach, which really was the last human stronghold left other than Earth. However, a single human warship escaped from Reach, which had the coordinates of an ancient alien artifact of great signficance. With noting else to lose they try to get there, but the Covenant seem to know where they are headed and really don’t want to allow them to get there. As soon as the ship gets out of hyperspace it’s immediately shot down by an enemy fleet that has been send to intercept them, but they also appear right next to a giant ring shaped space station on which they crash. Since the aliens really don’t want the humans to get there, it must be something very powerful, and maybe it could be just the miracle the humans need to change the outcome of the war and to prevent the completely destruction of their species? In subsequent games, the story becomes a lot more complex and interesting, but in this one it’s fairly simplistic and rather bland. It mostly sets up the situation on which the whole rest of the series is based, so I doubt the following has any major spoilers for anyone left. You are the Master Chief, a genetically engineered super soldier with armor that qualifies as walking tank. These super soldiers were created to be able to beat up an Elite in a fist fight and they can do that, but the war went so terribly that you are the only one left. All the others have since been killed in battle. (Or to be more precise “Missing in Action”, because “Spartans never die”.) Since the ship is shot to pieces and the Artificial Intelligence of the main computer must not fall into enemy hands, you install the nice lady in the computer of your armor. Who happens to be a snarky and smug lady who is full of mean comments and doesn’t take shit from everyone. But I like her, she’s fun. First you travel over the ring world to find other escape pods, then you go to the Covenant command ship to rescue your captured captain. Then you go to a building on the ring to get the location of another building that has the control center of the station. Once you get there your AI companion sends you to immediately get to another bulding (“no time to explain!”) where finally something interesting happens. Turns out the ring had stasis chambers with an alien parasit, which your people unfortunately released when they were searching for the crates that said “Warning: Can destroy everything in the galaxy!” It turns out not to be weapons, but a parasite that turns humans and aliens into mutant space zombies that already almost destroyed all life in the galaxy. You meet the friendly happy artificial intelligence of the station which is excited to inform you that the ring has been created for the explicit purpose of containing any outbreak of the Flood. However, as a safety measure, it requires the assistance of a living volunteer to activate the ring and can’t do it by itself. So you go to another building to get the key. Then you go to another building to enter the key, but then your friendly computer lady informs you that activating the ring will not just kill the parasites, but everything within several thousand lightyears. Because even though they look like zombies, the Flood is actually a highly intelligent hive mind which can not only use weapons (mutant-alien-space-zombies with freaking laser beams!) but also use, repair, and build space ships. So whoever build that thing really wasn’t taking any chances of any parasites escaping after an outbreak. Of course, you would rather not kill all humans and Covenant alien and take your chances at killing the Flood by hand. To do that you have to go back to the alien command ship where the Captain is held prisoner again and once you get his key card you go to the wreck of your ship to blow it up. Which you do. The End.

There really isn’t much more to it. There are maybe four important cutscenes that make up the story and the rest is running through endless hallways shoting at hundreds of aliens. Given that there are more games of the series now, it has very little replay value. The story bits are barely worth mentioning, the levels not really that fun to play, and gameplay also gets a lot better in the later games. If anyone is interested in getting into the series, I would actually recommend to simply skip this one. After having read this review, you know all there is to the story and can jump straight into the second game, where the story really starts to get off the ground. I got the game for pure nostalgia reason and while I don’t regret it (having paid only 15€ or so), I think I could have done without it.

14 years back it might have been a really exciting game, but it really hasn’t aged well at all. So when it comes to yay? or nay?, I think I have to go with nay. If you don’t have it, it’s not worth getting anymore.

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