Halo is a franchise that utterly passed me by. I’ve never owned a console and I guess I never knew that its first entry was also out on PC. I’ve always been curious, though; it’s had a lot pop-culture influence through the ages, and hell, I like sci-fi shooters anyway.
So when I heard they were finally (re)porting the full series to PC, I must admit I was a little bit excited to finally see what all the fuss was about. Fast-forward long enough that the porting is complete and has had plenty of time to stabilise and… here we are.
So let’s begin, in release order, with Halo: Combat Evolved.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Of course the first caveat is that this is the “Anniversary Edition”, which foists fancy remastered graphics onto you by default and won’t let you switch back to the original artwork until the intro cinematic is over. Sorry, mate, I’m not here for how you think the game should have looked — I’m here for how the original team actually made it.
Now since we’ve got the trappings of the Master Chief Collection wrapped around it, we’re not going to get all the way there; but this is the best we can expect without the bother of sourcing an original disc and a system to run it. While the MCC gives us the guarantees of compatibility with modern systems and gives us all of the games in one convenient package, it also adds a lot of the traditional annoyances of modern gaming, such as enfored online login with XBox Live (which at least accepted my Hotmail account with no fuss); and it mentions “Easy AntiCheat” in the splash screen so I fully expect to now have a kernel-level exploit installed on my computer.
It also needs you to rebind the controls for each entry in the franchise independently, because of course I’d want to use the arrow keys to move in Halo but WASD in Halo 2. (I get that some games may have an extra button or two to bind, but the core controls are identical. Sure, they might be five different configuration files under the bonnet depending on how the individual games are integrated, but collapsing the bindings in the UI seems like an easy win for a monstrous wrapper like this.)
Immediately on starting the game, I felt like I was missing an instruction manual. The opening cinematic sees a human flagship, the Pillar of Autumn, having retreat-warped to a random location and conveniently arrived at the titular Halo… pursued by loads of angry aliens. You, the Master Chef himself, are defrosted and need to fight your way through the boarding parties to escape your stricken ship.
Who are these people and why are they fighting? Who knows! In this age of ephemera where no physical objects are allowed, game introductions are designed to stand alone, but as a reliquary I feel like the MCC has failed to adequately support this game from the past by fronting the Story So Far section of the manual, which I had to look up myself and contains that much-needed missing context.
Okay, fine, the MCC wants me to play Halo: Reach first, so maybe that has all the context in a different form — but that was originally released 9 years later. Maybe it’s a prequel that comes first in the narrative, but the series wasn’t written in that order so I’m not having it (because prequels written after the fact often come with their own expected foreknowledge problems).
Okay, enough grumbling about introductions, we’re into the game and we finally understand what’s going on. Time to shoot some aliens!
Of all the things I was expecting from Halo, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so… goofy. The main front-line troops of the Covenant, the Grunts, are screechy little things who start running away with their arms in the air with barely a shot fired. They can even frequently be found sleeping on the battlefield, ripe for silent melee murder that doesn’t alert their allies to your presence. Not once in the last twenty years have I ever heard anyone mention Halo’s “stealth mechanics”, so that was a mildly perplexing addition I didn’t expect… though I question how the Covenant has been so successful at this war with half its troops not even paying attention.
Well, it’s probably something to do with overwhelming numbers. Most battles in Halo are busy affairs, with poor lonely Master Chief (and the occasional few allies) having to rake through wave after wave of enemy before being able to proceed to… the next room full of enemies.
While it’s nice to be cavorting through grand low-poly outdoor areas, once you get into the bowels of the Halo things get extremely repetitive. Chamber after chamber and corridor after corridor are recycled with little to no change, giving the game huge sections of monotonous slog where it’s impossible to measure your progress; and neither do such sections have much sass from Cortana to fill the emptiness (which is even more hilarious when she gets to a point where there’s “no time to explain!”).
This feels particularly egregious in a game from 2001 — a time in which shooters like Unreal and Shogo: Mobile Armor Division already existed with long ranges of utterly unique levels. Was the XBox hardware really that bad, that they had to resort to such padding to get a decent length of game out the assets they could fit in memory?
The lack of interesting weaponry doesn’t help the feelings of repetition either. Your options are fairly limited; there are both human and alien pistols, and human and alien rifles. Sometimes you get a rocket launcher or the glorious sniper rifle, but ammunition is scarce so these are always discarded very quickly. Since you can only carry two weapons at a time, you’re encouraged to swap things out regularly — but since there are so few weapons, most of the time you’re just swapping a depleted plasma rifle for a fresh one.
Even the most interesting weapon, the alien Needler, just feels weird. It looks like it should be shooting crystal shards, which is always a cool variation on a machine gun — but then they are actually homing projectiles, and they explode a moment after getting embedded in an enemy? I mean… what? I should love this but once again Halo has simply left me perplexed.
You don’t even get a shotgun until about half-way through the campaign! How can you do a military shooter and withhold the shotgun until half-way through the campaign?!
So yeah, all in all, not really seeing what all the fuss was about. Its campaign is a serviceable sci-fi romp with some fun cinematics that’s blighted by chunks of obvious padding and a conspicuous lack of more interesting boss fights at obvious places for boss fights.
I guess it was more famous for its multiplayer?
Ah well, I’ve bought the whole Master Chef Collection, I’ll be continuing through the series regardless. Are the others any better? … don’t tell me: I want no spoilers!