Halo: Combat Evolved – Into The Gem Vault

Welcome back to our irregular series, this time covering Halo: Combat Evolved, “Into The Gem Vault”. If you haven’t read one before, here’s the idea:

We pick a game, released before 2015, that we deem is worthy of being considered a true “Gem” as it were. We’ve done a bunch of these, and we feel it’s a great way of putting out mini-reviews of older titles! So far, we’ve covered games like Dead Space, The Last Of Us, and the Portal franchise! Plus a couple more of course. 

If you haven’t heard of Halo: Combat Evolved, often shortened to Halo: CE, or even just Halo 1, you’re either a liar, or on the wrong website. Fact is, the Master Chief is a videogame pop culture icon now. Up there with Solid Snake, Mario, Sonic, and Crash. No, I don’t care whether you agree with me.

While not ALL his digital media appearances have been brilliant, the OG trilogy is one of the best threesomes ever made, and of course Halo: Combat Evolved kicked it off. 

Originally released on November 15th, 2001, on the Xbox, I was but a young boy at the age of 8. Now if you were to ask me, I’d have to say I definitely didn’t play it at release. I can’t imagine my parents willingly allowing me to play an age 16 rated game, at half the age. 

But whenever I did eventually play it, it was a revelation. That’s not hyperbole, it changed my life. Up until that point, I HAD played shooters, in the form of the Dooms and Quakes of the world (and the various clones) but honestly? They never really caught my attention. If you haven’t read my About Me, you won’t know that for much of the early years of my life (and even now) my attention span has been an issue. Diagnosed with ADD/ ADHD as a child, I always had trouble committing to anything. Some of my best times in my early gaming life were found on demo discs for that very reason. 

The first time I played Halo: Combat Evolved, I didn’t even own it. The son of a family friend owned it on this console I’d never heard of – the Xbox. A big cool looking black box, I was clueless. But when I first played Halo: CE, something just felt… right, you know?

It’s like when you have a slice of really good pizza, or drink a perfectly pulled pint, or hear THAT song. Maybe those are terrible comparisons… okay how about this. Do you remember the first time you watched Jurassic Park? Terminator? Star Wars? 

Yeah maybe that’s a better emotional comparison. 

Fact is, Halo: Combat Evolved is one of the most influential shooters ever made. While some other games, like Half-Life, were actually trying the whole “genuine compelling narrative inside a shooter” thing, Halo: CE was the first I’d personally played.

Actually caring about characters in a video game. Nowadays it’s practically a requirement, but back in 2001? It was untested ground, at least for me. Most of the shooters I’d played were fueled by a blind rage, moving from room to room, clearing pixelated enemy after pixelated enemy. It was fun, but it wasn’t fulfilling.

We’ll come back around to that subject shortly, but let’s revisit my previous statement:

“Halo: Combat Evolved is one of the most influential shooters ever.” 

How so, you might be asking?

Well the first major one, is the two weapon limit. Before Halo, to the best of my knowledge, all shooters would let you store any weapon you picked up. Now I’ve heard arguments before, valid ones at that, that this new two weapon limit was actually reductive and hurt the variety of shooters going forward. While I can see an argument for this, it’s not like storing every weapon you pick up has disappeared from gaming. The new Doom titles, Wolfenstein, Prey, The Last of Us, Uncharted, Tomb Raider, all of these titles still somehow allow you to store 15 weapons on your person at all times. Slight hyperbole there, but I’m sure you’ll excuse it.

These two weapon restrictions added a certain amount of tactical consideration to the gameplay. The shotgun is HANDS DOWN the best close range weapon for dealing with the Flood, but what do you partner with it? The AR isn’t amazing at dealing with Elites, whereas the Pistol is great but has restricted ammo. This weighing up of the options and balancing ammo pools wouldn’t exist in a Halo title where you just cycle through a dozen weapons in your inventory. 

This wasn’t the only revolutionary change either, Halo: CE is the first shooter that I remember giving you a regenerative health source. The shield over your MJOLNIR suit of armour would eat damage until broken, and then you’ll lose health. As you all know, avoiding damage for a short period of time would allow the shield to recharge. Before Halo, a ton of time in first person shooters was spent making sure you knew where the next health or armour pickup was. Halo traded this difficulty margin for a system that encouraged tactical counterplay. 

While I could go on forever quite happily, there’s just one more quietly influential mechanic I need to point to. Mapped grenades. It may seem like second nature now, but before Halo: Combat Evolved, games had grenades set as a selectable weapon. You’d have to select them, pull the pin, and throw them. Halo changed the game by mapping grenades to an entirely separate button that you press once. 

It’s these small, but endlessly significant changes to an already solidified formula that elevated Halo: Combat Evolved above its peers. There aren’t many games that can claim to have actually laid the ground for its successors. It could even be argued that Halo 2 and Halo 3 are the better games overall, with the second game championing Xbox Live, and the third offering the best mix of both games. 

But Halo: Combat Evolved is where it started. It put Xbox on the map, it put Halo on the map, and it helped spawn novels, merchandise, TV shows, Machinima creations, and much, much more.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the story at all yet. This is mostly because, at this stage, Halo: CE’s legacy is so much more than its narrative. Even so, here’s my brief synopsis:

The game is set in 2552, at the tail end of an interstellar, and planetside, war between a host of alien races known as the “Covenant”, and the Human race, that started more than 20 years prior in 2525. A war that the humans are losing. Halo: Combat Evolved takes place shortly after the Covenant destroy one of the last remaining Human planets, Reach. A lonesome ship, piloted by Captain Keyes and the ship AI, Cortana, escapes the planet with you on board and the Captain intends to lead the Covenant away from their discovery of Earth. 

In performing a random Slipspace jump, Captain Keyes and it’s crew discover “Installation 04”, a Halo ring. A planet sized space station, capable of supporting life, that the Covenant worship. The ring holds many secrets, and across the 10-12 hour campaign you’ll strive to uncover and understand them. 

There you go, there’s my brief synopsis. What does this story provide you with in terms of gameplay? Well this is the golden goose. 

Before Halo: Combat Evolved, I’d never seen a world so well created in a First Person Shooter. A world with next to no realistic grounding, it’s something that was completely unprecedented for the time. Featuring expansive level design, with vast open areas, it took full advantage of it’s notable graphical power advantage vs the PS2 and GameCube. 

The second level in the game, taking place on the surface of the Halo ring, has you driving around in the famed 4×4, the Warthog, and rescuing teams of UNSC soldiers. There’s 4 teams spread out amongst the game area, and aside from the first one (where you first meet Sgt Johnson), they can all be tackled in any order. 

To reiterate, a game released in 2001, gave you a beautiful, vast area that was free to explore from any real loading screens. Of course there were slight stutters when entering a newly rendered area, but within these missions there were none of those *cut to black and sit through a loading bar* moments.

A revelation is the only real way to describe this. Not only were you given a motive to care about, you had a genuinely believable cast of characters, an alien world, alien races, vehicular combat, hidden weapons to find, open objectives, and more.

A nice touch in that particular mission is that upon rescuing a squad, the Pelican (air/ space transport) will fly in, and you can see all the soldiers climb in and fly off. One might even stay behind to man your Warthog’s turret if the position had opened up. For the time, it was a monumentally detailed game. There were missions where I’d genuinely feel awful if all my squadmates died, and there were others where I’d go out of my way to preserve their safety.

It’d be remiss of me to not mention how well Halo: CE has aged, in that it maybe…. hasn’t, at least entirely. The story and the actual combat have all aged remarkably well. As has the acting, and overall delivery of each plot device. It’s mostly the level design that’s suffered. The game, I’m assuming to cut down on individual assets stored on the disc, was occasionally a little too over reliant on backtracking, especially in the late game. To the point where one of the later levels is a carbon copy of one before it, just in reverse. Of course there’s a story reason for it, but it still stands out as a low point of the stellar campaign in 2020. 

Overall though, it’s easy to tell for even a casual eye, how damn good Halo: Combat Evolved is. I’d make arguments for it being the best Halo story even now, after 7 main-story games have been released. I’d also recommend it to anyone in 2020, not just as a good game, but also as a respected piece of gaming history. 

One of 3 reasons I lean on the side of Xbox (wonder if anyone can guess the other two), Halo: Combat Evolved is almost solely responsible for my passion for video games. It’s probably the reason I’m sitting here today, writing video game related articles for a hobby. 

Not only that, but Master Chief is one of the most instantly recognisable characters in all digital media. Not just video games. 

There is no real way to oversell the legacy that Halo: Combat Evolved created. It’s a legacy that has, at times, suffered for a variety of reasons. But it’s one that wouldn’t exist without Bungie taking that first step onto the Halo ring. 

It’s a legacy I’m eternally grateful for.

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