Halo: Combat Evolved’s Lasting Formula

Halo: Combat Evolved is one of the most formative video games to ever release, a staple first-person shooter that is held on the same level of regard as Doom, Quake, Goldeneye, and Half-Life. It developed right as much of the modern internet coalesced, forming the basis for a large portion of the internet community. As such, and after more than a decade since a universally acclaimed installment, 343 Industries definitely feels the pressure to not disappoint with Halo Infinite.
If you want my opinion, I think it looks promising (with a few nitpicks) but that’s neither here nor there.
Halo remains a mainstay of popular culture, the story of the Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana allied with the human UNSC, exploring the mysterious Halo ring after crash-landing the UNSC Pillar of Autumn, hoping to prevent this weapon from falling into the hands of the alien Covenant; lowly grunts, cowardly jackals, hulking hunters, and commanding elites.
As such, I decided to see what all the hype was about. Also as such, here’s a review of Halo: Combat Evolved’s campaign, based on my playthroughs on Normal and Heroic difficulty (I refuse to do Legendary for fear of the Library).

Story: It’s aight. 7/10.
I think the context for when Halo came out is important because at the time, most shooters had little story to speak of. There were obviously outliers to this rule, and have become more and more common in the two decades since, but when it came out Halo: CE’s story was good, and remains passable. This point relates to dialogue and writing as well, but there are certainly story points that were quite obviously rushed, or outright deleted, during developer Bungie’s death run to the November 15, 2001 deadline.

There’s a reason the Halo formula has lasted so long.

The one part of the story that has retained its luster is the the sixth level, 343 Guilty Spark, and its reveal of the parasitic threat to sentient existence known as the Flood. What was up until then a relatively simple gung-ho story of humans vs. aliens is subverted in an atmospheric trek through a foggy swamp, down into an abandoned installation with mysterious figures running off in the foreground, dead bodies scattered around and blood splattered on the walls until a cutscene plays and you begin to get swarmed by what amount to space zombies.

The execution of this twist is excellent, paced incredibly well, and has a perfect atmosphere. It is one of the main parts of the story, along with the introduction of the anti-Flood Forerunner faction, that elevates Combat Evolved from a brainless “us vs. them” to “us vs. them vs. them vs. this zombie-fungus eldritch abomination”.

That being said, the story bares few teeth besides this twist. It’s the presentation that matters, and it presents itself as not-too serious. When it is serious it wants to be, basically entirely carried by the score, but it remembers to have fun with characters like 343 Guilty Spark, a self-congratulatory floating ball, and Sergeant Johnson, the gung-ho recurring character.

Art/Music: I feel like the Halo soundtrack really needs no explanation.
It’s ubiquitous. There’s a reason Halo is credited with the semi-revival of gregorian chant, or why it suddenly became a meme in 2018, or why apparently literally every person on the planet has referenced it at some point. It’s incredible to think a single soundtrack is still held in such high regard, especially considering the iconic main theme was written and composed in three days.
The art style is still excellent to this day (so long as you have Anniversary graphics turned off. I don’t want to talk about it). The beauty it can portray of its different environments is impressive, and the atmospheres it goes for are so vastly diverse that sometimes it is difficult to believe that you are playing the same game. A great example is the aforementioned 343 Guilty Spark, with its gloomy, wet swamp setting combined with the wrecked underground structure. There are also levels that excellently use lighting; again, 343 Guilty Spark comes to mind, but Truth and Reconciliation with its theme of sneaking around in the darkness with a sniper rifle is also very pretty.
However, it is difficult to say that it “looks good” because you’d have to jump over the official “this is a 20-year-old console game” barrier of entry. I like to think of it as charming, almost like playing a retro game while still being bearable to look at, but it has certainly aged, both in terms of textures and character animations (though the Chief’s first-person animations still look pretty dang good). I have a certain tolerance for “bad graphics” but for others the hurdle might be too high.

Gameplay: There’s a reason the Halo formula has lasted so long.
At the time Halo marked a massive shift from its FPS cousins, using a soft-aimlocking system and pioneering the modern console control system of using the analogue stick to control camera movement, and the triggers to interact. Aiming is smooth and feels like it takes skill while still being fair to the less-precise movements of a controller, and thus has been copied since. This system is why Halo: CE feels good to play to this day while its contemporaries fall falt.
Two other important elements were the two-weapon inventory system and regenerative shielding. Seeing as using keyboard numbers to access one of 10+ weapons for every situation was out of the question, Bungie created a system of keeping only two weapons, with dedicated buttons for melee attacks and grenades. This smoothens the combat process, allowing players three separate ways of dealing damage without having to fiddle with buttons to select the one particular course of action. This, combined with the stable camera, makes you feel efficient and buttery smooth. It also creates much more dynamic gameplay, as all weapons are viable to a degree but work better in different situations (the exception being the so-called “God Pistol”, apparently), so picking up and swapping weapons is encouraged while not forced.
The diverse weapon sandbox aids in this department as well. Again, while some weapons can fulfill others’ tasks (seriously, the pistol is way too good), none of them are redundant. Even seemingly equivalent weapons (i.e. the plasma pistol to the pistol, plasma rifle to the assault rifle) have entirely different functions; covenant weaponry is excellent at shield-stripping and has no reload time, but comes at the cost of slower projectiles, limited battery, and overheating. The plasma pistol in particular has an overcharge shot that completely nullifies energy shields. Even the plasma rifle, which seems bland in comparison, has a hidden function of “stunlocking” shielded entities like elites. The vehicles, although primitive and floaty considering the improvements made by Halo 2, are also advanced for the time and integrated perfectly with the rest of the gameplay. These all, combined with the level design, offer a degree of choice; players can go in guns blazing with no plan, carefully time entrances and exits based on enemy movement patterns, or avoid fights entirely.
I did, however, sometimes feel pigeonholed because of the weapon system. There were areas with large groups of enemies at longer range and I only had medium- or close-range weapons, and those were awful to deal with. And some areas artificially provide weapons, such as vehicle sections almost always coming with rocket launchers, or hunter encounters coming with extra pistol ammo to take advantage of their infamous backside weak spot.
Regenerative shielding allows players a cushion to perform risky and rewarding maneuvers, playing into the power fantasy of an elite supersoldier, while still being fragile enough to force players to not play recklessly. It also reduces the number of invasive health packs needed, letting players explore and progress instead of scouring the landscape for a health restore.
And finally, we come to the enemies and AI.
The Covenant are excellently designed, both in terms of visuals and gameplay. The grunts are oddly cute and inject a sense of humor to encounters. It also helps that their AI has many interesting quirks, such as panicking and diving into crowds when stuck with a plasma grenade, or running away in fear when their leaders are downed. Jackals are not as interesting but have their own quirks, with their gauntlet-held shields necessitating a modicum of precision by shooting their weak spot, meleeing, switching to a plasma weapon, throwing grenades, or strafing to get a better angle on their backs and sides. They also run away when their shields are destroyed, another nice touch. Hunters are few and far between, but their hulking size and capacity for massive damage are menacing, requiring all of your attention and spacial awareness to fight. The elites are by far the most interesting, having a massive presence both due to their imposing height and design, and the fact that they are the most difficult enemy to face; they have regenerating energy shields, wield stronger weapons, dodge your attacks, perform melee attacks, flank, retreat, and even charge at you if stuck with a plasma grenade. All four enemy types also come in different ranks with their own traits and tactics (higher ranking elites have stronger shields, more complicated movement, and more powerful weaponry), adding complexity while maintaining clarity with simple color-coding denoting rank.
The Flood are fine, if basic in their swarm tactics. Later games, particularly Halo 3, tried to rectify their simplicity by adding more subtypes, but never truly fixed their inherent problem: they force the player to play a certain way. I’m lucky that I love that type of gameplay — run-and-gunning while panic-pumping a shotgun, hurriedly scampering away from a inundation of alien zombies, is a heck of a lot of fun. I even enjoyed the infamous Library. However, it is restricting for players who do not like this playstyle. It also is very explicit in that only two weapons are truly viable for these enemies: the shotgun for close range and pistol for medium-to-long range.
This talk of the Library brings me to the level design.
The first half is excellent. The introduction to the game with Pillar of Autumn and its tight corridors is smart, and quickly introduces you to your enemies, allies, and world without plunging you headfirst without a clue on how to play the game. It starts you with the universal weapon, the pistol, against the easiest enemies in the game to get you warmed up before sprinkling in higher-tier jackals and energy shielded elites. Once you finish the first level and crash-land on the second level, Halo, and see the world open up and several ways of progressing, there’s a sense of freedom and gravitas that heavily identifies the game as unique. It’s a small touch and nowhere near a true “open-world” experience, but getting the option to choose where to go first without intrusive maps, waypoints, or cutscenes is a refreshing experience (though I do admit I got lost the first time). It also helps that Halo is based off the Snoqualmie region, so it looks very pretty.
The next levels are also great, with Truth and Reconciliation having an extremely fun night section (albeit a bit of a boring hallways-only second half), The Silent Cartographer having amazing large-scale battles contrasted with excellent atmosphere and progression, and Assault on the Control Room having awe-inspiring open vehicle segments (the first tank section in the franchise as well).
It’s around the middle when things get muddy. Starting with Assault on the Control Room there are significant portions that are copied and pasted, and despite encounters being different due to weapon and enemy differences, it gets repetitive. I’m also not a fan of how long it is, and how long it can go without enemy encounters. While I appreciate Halo: CE’s more atmospheric moments, particularly when the action dies down and you can appreciate the world-building, there’s not much intriguing world-building to be had by the same metallic corridors repeated three times. At least the Library had the decency to always throw Flood at you to run away from, even though its three sections are also copied and pasted.
After the Library is when every level is actually ctrl+c, ctrl+v, the same levels but in reverse. I am fine with it, though, due to how contextually different it is with the Flood taking hold over the landscape, the Covenant losing their iron grip, and night settling on the ring. This is especially true with Keyes, which introduces a revamped ground section infested with Flood and completely new level architecture, as well as the Maw, with the Pillar of Autumn being covered in a dusty coating and seeming to break apart as four separate factions duke it out aboard its ruined decks. I also adore the final Warthog Run, making up for the frustration of the engine room being absolute BS.

Conclusion: Halo: CE is good. Flawed, perhaps a bit overrated and overhated, but good.