If you want to know why Halo: Combat Evolved is one of the games of the last decade, it’s not too hard to find reasons. You can almost reel them off – there’s the 30 seconds of fun, the two-weapon limit, the regenerating shield and the role as flagbearer for Microsoft’s fledgling Xbox console. There’s the context of where the console FPS was in 2001. The big things like AI and the small ones like incidental dialogue. Talking about why Halo was and is brilliant almost risks turning into a checklist, not least thanks to the sheer size of what Microsoft has subsequently built around it.
But what was Halo before it became Halo? A mould-breaking, market-cracking FPS that stunned players, critics and probably even Microsoft itself. A day-one release for the original Xbox that instantly legitimised its entry into the market, showing there was much more to Microsoft’s strategy than deep pockets. A brilliant, gorgeous FPS. An atmosphere that draws in influences and shades them in Bungie’s vivid greens and shining blues. Though it may be derivative of other material, though the alien war waged around you has been depicted in countless big-screen blockbusters, and though the journey of the Great Green Hope may be, by any standards, trite, everyone who’s played it remembers Halo. It sears the memory with Needler shards and fluorescent, hissing sticky bombs thrown in haste and detonating just in time. It’s written in purple lights, orchestral overtures, bullets, stars and Warthog tracks.
Halo is also a literal place. The titular, world-ending construct is an environment the like of which hadn’t been seen in games. That first glimpse remains remarkable: stepping from a cramped pod into fields and mountains, the sky bisected by a structure that goes on and on. The short and obligatory ‘abandon ship’ prologue exists purely to foreground what you expect from the genre: the confines of walkways and funnelled directives. Since Doom, the genre has shown snapshots of the outside world – distant cities painted in bitmap greys and brown hues – but Halo is the outside world. The environments are simply huge, and even the corridors give your seven-foot starship trooper a wide berth. Exploration isn’t encouraged by pickups or rewards – Halo has precious few treasures to be hunted – but is an end unto itself. It’s all a happy accident, because it’s a world that predates the Master Chief himself.
“Before we knew what we were making, we had most of those environments,” says Chris Butcher, AI programmer on the project (incidentally, and surprisingly, the first location built was The Silent Cartographer). A big part of why Halo’s environments are such a pleasure to traverse is how you traverse them, and upon considering that one of Halo’s prototype forms was an RTS, pieces click into place. Bungie wanted to take its show on the road. “I think the Warthog is the real reason Halo became an action game,” says designer Jaime Griesemer. “In the old RTS-style game it was just so cool to watch a squad of jeeps driving across the terrain [that] we wanted to drive them ourselves. And then we wanted to get out of them and run around as an infantry guy and from there it snowballed into what we eventually shipped. In some ways, Halo is the story of the Warthog and the universe we built to drive it around in.”
It’s certainly one of the biggest stars. Attaching camera control to steering shouldn’t have worked, but granted drivers the opportunity to fully observe their surroundings, like a mouse click directing the field of view of an RPG avatar. It’s a hulking beast in full flight, but requires co-operation (you driving, plus a gunner) to be a real threat, so keeping your comrade out of excessive fire is as much a priority as raising hell. The Covenant have their own shiny toys, but it’s a mark of the Warthog’s calibre that a Ghost or Banshee is no substitute. The car in front is a badass.
But Halo just as often strands you without a ride: out on a limb, outnumbered and outgunned in an environment that’s suddenly too big for comfort. And if the Warthog’s a star, the Covenant are showstoppers. “It was the AI, the encounters we didn’t have [when the levels were built],” continues Butcher. “So it was a case of figuring out where to place them.” Halo’s AI isn’t outstandingly complex, but it’s constantly surprising: the Covenant’s defensive rolls, grenades and squad hierarchies combine with their baser desire to shoot you lots to make a shifting, unified force. “We designed them that way because we knew we wanted to have wave attacks in our title,” says Butcher. “We went from that bunch of concept designs to a full-on console title in a very short time.”
A full-on army is more like it. Merely refined by Halo’s sequels, and mystifyingly uncopied (competently), the Elites and Grunts are the base for a pulsing cocktail of hostility. They’re like a pack, the group prodding and breaking on to you in tandem, Grunts sacrificed for attention while Elites creep outside of your sightline. Griesemer: “The idea was that the Elites were like graceful, predatory cats and the Grunts were like crazy little monkeys. The Covenant are a tool for the users to deconstruct and play around with.”There’s an encounter soon after your first steps on Halo that’s one of many peaks, and illustrates how your opponents work perfectly. Driving in to support a marine position, you’re presented with a maze of rocks that tower over your head, the high ground where the marines are posted, and a stretch of open ground to where the Covenant dropships are about to land. Gung-ho charge? Snipe with the marines? Hide in the rocks and pick off advancing enemies from behind? Whatever your answer, you quickly realise that the Covenant will soon give their own reply. They’ll cut you down with concentrated crossfire, or rush the ridge and overpower your meagre group with massed numbers, or perhaps start hunting you through those selfsame rocks. You adapt or die.
It’s why that shield works so well. Adopted wholesale by the FPS genre post-Halo, recharging health is more often than not a crutch for attritional can-shoots. Here it’s what the combat system is built around, a flowing switch between attack and defence that forces strategies to be changed and discarded over the space of seconds. The Covenant forces pick and poke at you before any all-out charge, almost like the Grunts are working up their courage, tempting distance shots and, inevitably, a hail of return fire. You’re hit, the reddening screen and urgent bloops switch your mind into turtling mode, and the hunt begins: seconds until you recharge, seconds you haven’t always got. Fights that should be epic brawls turn into tense, creeping affairs where the silence is only broken by your element of surprise – or theirs. Hide-and-seek is as much a part of Halo as headshots.
It’s an on/off type of play perfectly complemented by your armoury. The two-weapon restriction brings an element of practicality to your fantastical tools: maps didn’t direct you to weapons, they offered them to you. The talent was in choosing. Would you whittle away an overshield with a full clip then charge in for some buckshot to the brain? Or unload a Needler and finish off with a crown-caving pistol shot? Whether to leave behind your favourite, but half-empty, weapon for a fully loaded alternative is a constant worry – there’s nothing worse than stubbornly sticking to your old sniper rifle only to end up in a room crammed with Covenant and all the wrong kinds of ammo.
The choices and strategies that the Covenant, the weapons, and your capabilities open up are what gives Halo all those little degrees of freedom – which is where its nomadic, player-authored stories come from. Engagements, particularly in the game’s moody, tense opening, are stretched out across a vast terrain, travelled between in long stretches where the only sound is a pair of heavy-duty wheels. Halo’s pacing is cursed to forever be associated with ‘30 seconds of fun’ – not because that’s an inaccurate description, but because it’s only one part of a polymorphous whole. It describes the basic guiding principle that underlies Halo’s combat: each encounter should last just long enough to get the blood pumping and create a real sense of peril, before offering up a respite. Sounds neat, but Halo isn’t bound by it.
Engagements aren’t of a type, but switch from popping a few Grunt heads to full-on, drawn-out ambushes and counter-offensives, even entire levels constructed from waves, like the rings of zombie bullet hell (but more on the Library later). That respite can be a five-minute drive, a meet-up with reinforcements or three seconds snatched beneath a rock under withering plasma fire. As a rough principle you can see the place of those 30 seconds in Halo’s combat, but it’s grossly unfair to take it as emblematic of such an expertly measured and twisted whole.
It’s why, as much as any 4×4 leap of faith or sharpened one-liner, it’s the quiet times that get you. These are the moments in which you think. Standing alone in a clearing, you’re so awed by that construction looping the sky that the Master Chief almost seems on the wrong scale. The frequent, brief silences, or the tranquillity of the Cartographer’s underground hub, is heightened to modern sensibilities by the lack of a sprint or roadie run, now an FPS given (even, it seems, for the next Halo). There’s an unerring steadiness to the Master Chief’s movements across the galaxy that gives a sense of invincibility, a sluggishness that hints at your size and strength without restricting avenues for attack and navigation.
This was thanks in large part to a control scheme mapped to a somewhat divisive controller. Butcher didn’t see the plate with handles as an obstacle: “I actually think the original Xbox controller has the most responsive set of twin sticks around – even over any of the current-gen handsets. Initially we were developing and testing with Sidewinders, which had a similar setup to the Xbox controller. I really wish there was some way for me to use that controller with the 360.”Though it certainly wasn’t a one-size invitation to FPS fans, the control system proved to be another of Halo’s most lasting influences. Without the quick precision of a mouse, the console FPS hadn’t dared dabble with jumping since Turok: Dinosaur Hunter had made a prehistoric chore of it. The instant melee attack, too, was almost unheard of. The inspiration was close to home. “A lot of our ideas came from thirdperson action titles,” says Butcher. “Virtually every single one of them had ‘A’ for jump and ‘B’ for melee. We experimented with a thirdperson camera at one stage, having made [2001 PC shooter] Oni and really enjoyed it.”
And a word for the surround-sound score – another landmark. It’s at turns haunting, funny, sinister and brave enough to leave you alone. At its scene-stealing peak it fuses religious chanting and tribal bombast as effectively as the Covenant, creating a soundscape of exhilarating power and instant iconic status. “[Composer Marty O’Donnell]’s own voice is on the title screen, you know – a monk in that choir,” Griesemer says in the matter-of-fact way that’s so typically Bungie. “And his wife was in the choir for the sequel,” adds Butcher.
As for the effects, the weapons construct their own symphonies: the assault rifle’s bassline, a Needler’s percussion or the monotone drumming of a minigun. Grenades thump the air and break the silence. And finally the sheer usefulness of the audio: hearing where your enemies are – and what they are doing. Halo’s 8,087 lines of dialogue, which are mostly background chatter for combat, not only let you listen in on marines but also second-guess the chatty Covenant’s distorted English (Grunts, by the way, were given their ‘crazy monkey’ voicing by Joseph Staten, current series writer). Interestingly, the marines were originally supposed to be distraught in both action and words – but were charged up with a little levity to make you feel like a real hero. “With the marines, we had originally designed their animations vastly different to how they turned out,” Griesemer says. “The initial idea was that when you jumped in the Hog they’d be clinging to the minigun, crying their eyes out. But we wanted to encourage the player, so that’s why we decided to change it and have them hollering and screaming ‘woo-hoo!’ They’re with you, they’re behind you all the way.”
It’s a big part of why this gung-ho space epic is so great – Halo’s a world that really makes you feel like the big, bad Master Chief. Its huge popular success is testament to Bungie’s knack for crowd-pleasing storytelling and daft-but-brilliant lines. “We are going to blow the hell out of those dumb bugs until we don’t have anything left to shoot ’em with! And then, we are going to strangle them with their own living guts!” The words of Sergeant Johnson. Go on, then, one more: “Well, I don’t care if it’s God’s own anti-son-of-a-bitch machine, or a giant hula hoop, we’re not gonna let ’em have it!”
That said, Halo took its sci-fi influences from far beyond standard videogame tropes. “When we were starting out on PC we had designs on a much more text-based narrative,” says Griesemer. “There are hints of that in Cortana’s log books, something more like Marathon, which was popular and we loved doing.” Butcher adds: “I think videogame sci-fi tends to be much more concerned with lasers and guns, whereas literary sci-fi is about themes.”
The literary influence runs deep in the bowels of the Bungie ship. Shooting aliens may be Halo’s hook, but if the mechanics are an expert mix then the world is an equally considered concoction. “All of us here at Bungie are huge fans of sci-fi literature,” says Griesemer, “and of course there are shades of Iain M Banks – think of Consider Phlebas with the ship being destroyed. But the influence of something like [Larry Niven’s] Ringworld isn’t necessarily in the design – it’s in that feeling of being somewhere else. That sense of scale and an epic story going on out there. One of the main sources of inspiration was Armour, by Robert Stately, in which a soldier has to constantly re-live the same war over and over again. That sense of hopelessness, a relentless battle, was influential.”
Such grand ambition may sound hollow to those still digesting Sergeant Johnson’s B-movie wit, but it’s truly reflected in the design rather than the script. Wondering when the Library would crop up again? It’s the one link in Halo’s chain that can turn the most ardent supporter a ghostly grey, a linear map that gives you no avenue for escape, no space for improvisation and no longer a sense of invincibility. It’s the closest thing Halo has to a dungeon crawl. And, according to Butcher, exactly what was intended: “Don’t forget that The Library comes right after the Silent Cartographer – the pinnacle of your engagement with the Covenant. We wanted to change the pace and give you something different, and also it was about populating a space we had already designed.”That population was made up of The Flood, a mob of mutants with kamikaze pathfinding, hell-bent on destroying your shield and reminding you of the thin line between life and death. Jarringly grotesque in design, they’re a mass of beige blobs and limbs, the antithesis of the neons that inform everything else, and Griesemer cites one particular source: “A major influence I know of was a book by Christopher Rowley called The Vang, about an alien species that was invading and assimilating people. The Vang were basically The Flood but it took days for their gestation period to transform people.” Even in its flawed moments, Halo is offering a new experience rather than a retread of an old one.
It almost tempts you into that ‘Combat Evolved’ tag. When we say Halo we mean Halo: Combat Evolved, the subtitle that named a thousand magazine features. So, a slight digression into the making of a super-franchise: “Oh, man… the subtitle,” groans Griesemer. Those suspicious of marketers rejoice: “At the time, Microsoft marketing thought Halo was not a good name for a videogame brand. It wasn’t descriptive like all the military games we were competing with.” What can you do? “We told them Halo was the name.”
Things are, alas, never so simple. “The compromise was they could add a subtitle. Everyone at Bungie hated it. But it turned out to be a very sticky label and has now entered the gaming lexicon to the point where articles that have nothing to do with Halo get titles like ‘Skateboarding Evolved’. So I guess in hindsight it was a good compromise.” Let’s not leave it at that. “But the real name of the game is just Halo.”
From 2011’s perch, it seems laughable that anyone could doubt Halo as a brand name. It’s worth pointing out, however, that it’s arguably the trailblazer for today’s FPS-franchise-heavy console landscape – its success and subsequent building by Microsoft into one of gaming’s premier ‘brands’ the model everyone wants to copy. No other game, for good or ill, has had such visible influence on this generation’s HD consoles.
The force of nature gives Griesemer some pause for eccentric, grandiose speculation. “There were a lot of very talented people working on Halo, but it was also about timing. I think the world wanted an epic, heroic story in the fall of 2001 – they wanted to see the world saved.” In Griesemer’s defence, it’s not like Hollywood was in contention that year. But whatever the reason, from the fan-community engagement to spin-off books and multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, Halo didn’t just become a success, it became a beacon for the FPS as contemporary phenomenon and mainstream franchise.
But the story of Halo’s development, the Master Chief’s crusade and the receipts (lifetime sales are around eight million) are only part of the picture. Ask any fan, any clan member, what they remember most and you’ll be bombarded with anecdotes about Blood Gulch campers and Warthogs launched into the atmosphere by some cunningly placed grenades. The articulate and reserved Griesemer falls victim to goose-bumps himself: “It comes in one of the Arctic sections. You’ve just fought your way through the Covenant wall, you’ve broken their backs, and then you leap into the Banshee and take off and the music kicks in. That’s still what Halo’s about for me.” Does anyone not give into the temptation to chant along?
Halo’s the kind of game that gets grown men giddy at the prospect of a new instalment. Its legacy on discussion forums, on YouTube and in machinima is a story in itself, growing out of its freeform interactions – and procrastination. “The player agency really stemmed from getting lost in huge maps,” says Butcher. “That point when you just say: ‘Urgh… I’m totally lost, what do you do now?’ And you play around.” Most of all, Halo never repeats itself: every encounter’s somehow different. Things never happen the same way twice – and so you never react the same way twice. For all you can say about Halo, there’s the mark of a true original: its most distinctive quality can’t be quantified.
On Monday, we'll look at how a frighteningly powerful, dangerously successful and casually misunderstood game wrought havoc on an open world.