UPDATE (Spring 2012): After first publishing it in April 2009, I decided to go back and revisit this article and update it to take in to account the releases of Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach and all they brought to the table in terms of gameplay. The revision also fixes some formatting issues present in the original version and, due to the size of the article, splits the article into several properly-indexed pages for easier navigation and readability.
UPDATE (Summer 2013): The article has been revised to take into account changes in and features introduced by Halo 4 as well as the unveiling of the Xbox One, and to add some other minor revisions. Unless inspiration hits me in regards to writing a story or creating more level designs, this will likely be the last major update to this article, barring Halo 5 doing something really awesome when it comes out in 2014. Minor updates may be added to take into account other future developments that render portions of this article obsolete.
For me, the Halo series has always stood out from the countless other FPSs out there. The enemy units and the environments you fought them in were inventive and varied. The graphics and art design were wonderful. The sound was great, with the music being some of the greatest to ever grace a video game. The storytelling (at least that in the first two games and in the expanded universe novels) was outstanding as well, with the Haloverse being one of the most well-developed fictional settings in all of video gaming. Also, Bungie set the standard for the FPS genre, with Halo’s blueprint being the template for most modern shooters and the game’s success contributing a major change in the industry. While console FPSs started to emerge during the late 90s on the Nintendo 64 with exclusive titles like GoldenEye (the first successful console FPS), Perfect Dark, and Turok as well as various ports & remakes of PC shooters (e.g., Doom 64, Quake), the genre was still primarily a PC-dominated one throughout the 90s, with the biggest names in the genre including Doom, Quake, Unreal, Duke Nukem, Hexen, and Half-Life. While GoldenEye showed that an FPS could be done on a console, it was Halo that really proved what console FPSs were capable of, and from that point, the genre began to rapidly shift to a console-dominated one. Ever since the seventh console generation began in 2005, shooters were more likely to be designed first and foremost as console titles than as PC titles (the last notable PC-exclusive FPS was 2007’s Crysis), and many are exclusive to consoles.
Of course, Halo earned its distinction as the defining console FPS by being a very well-crafted title. The original game had superb gameplay that set the bar for console FPSs, and it was incredibly fun as well as innovative. The basic controls were excellent and intuitive, with the Xbox gamepad showing how well-suited it was for console FPSs, as opposed to the N64 controller, which while adequate was more limited and often awkward to use for shooters. Halo either introduced or popularized (often by virtue of being the first title to do them right) many mechanics that are now genre standards. One of the most notable examples is the so-called “Golden Tripod.” Being able to melee opponents or throw grenades without having to cycle through your inventory and formally equip a melee weapon (fists, chainsaw, or whatever) or grenades was something I had yet to experience in an FPS. Halo also had the first truly effective integration of vehicular combat in the genre, whereas in previous shooters I played you either didn’t have vehicles, or they were poorly implemented and tacked-on affairs. Both the Campaign and multiplayer stage designs were incredible and included a good mix of massive outdoors environments in addition to the smaller indoors arenas. The AI (at least that of the enemies) was often rather clever, especially compared to what had come before, and it has held up rather well over the past decade. Finally, you could only carry two weapons at a time instead of an entire arsenal, something that was as far as I know a first in the genre. The two-gun limit was interesting in that it forced you to make tough tactical decisions on the fly (“Do I go pistol and rockets, or shotgun and sniper, or maybe something else?”). The weapons themselves were generally well designed and useful, and included genre standards such as an assault rifle and shotgun as well as unique and interesting alien weapons such as the Needler. All told, Halo was the most revolutionary FPS since Doom was released in 1993, and many of the things we take for granted today in FPSs we have Halo to thank for. It really was “Combat Evolved.”
However, the series has had its ups and downs, with each entry having its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, I feel that the sequels weren’t quite as good in terms of gameplay despite having the same solid controls as well as the high-quality visuals, sound, and music that Bungie is known for, not to mention a couple of interesting new gameplay mechanics. Numerous changes and additions detracted from the gameplay and made for a less enjoyable and sometimes very frustrating experience, though in other ways the sequels surpassed the original. I have written extensive criticisms of the sequels elsewhere, so refer to those for in-depth details (there will be some commentary here as well, however). Of course, while the sequels didn’t quite measure up to the original, Combat Evolved was itself flawed in certain ways, and its follow-ups each had aspects that were the series’ strongest. Halo 1 was strongest on gameplay and had superb writing but its weakest aspect is its age, which results in it being both rough around the edges in certain parts and a comparatively bare-bones affair compared to later Halo titles (no XBL support, for example), though this isn’t exactly a fair comparison. Halo 2 had perhaps the strongest storytelling in the series (just edging out Halo 1), but it also had the weakest gameplay in the series, including being riddled with glitches, having the worst weapon set in the series, and being quite simply unfair on Legendary due to outright broken difficulty balancing. Halo 3 had a weak storyline but was very strong on extra features, introducing players to Forge and saved films. Halo 3 also improved on Halo 2’s gameplay, fixing many of the latter’s most glaring flaws, though it had its own flaws (the AI in Campaign certainly didn’t impress) and ultimately it still fell short of Halo 1’s gameplay. ODST had great gameplay and was an interesting change of pace from the typical Halo game, but it was too short. Reach had much better gameplay than Halo 2 & 3 (but not quite as good as Halo 1) and was even more feature-rich than Halo 3, but it had bad writing (namely retcons that conflicted with the novel The Fall of Reach and other parts of the expanded universe) and several nagging issues in the gameplay department. For example, there are difficulty balancing issues (though nothing quite as severe as Halo 2) and the new armor ability mechanic, while conceptually much better than Halo 3’s equipment, could have been implemented better. Finally, Halo 4 is… well, it’s a step in the wrong direction for the series, I can say that much.
While a combination of the best parts of the individual games in the series as well as a refinement of many game elements could benefit a future Halo game, it might not be enough to keep the Halo series on the cutting edge of shooters. Certain aspects of the series as a whole may have to be rethought entirely. If there are going to be other Halo FPSs in the future, perhaps it is time for combat to evolve once again. Continue reading