It probably ranks as the greatest turnaround in the history of gaming, and it’s impossible that more could have been riding on it. When Halo was released, Microsoft was seen as a mistrusted outsider with predatory motives and a ridiculed console design. Within a matter of weeks in late 2001, all that had changed. Halo did that.
There was a time, too – its dismal showing at E3 earlier that year, to be precise – when Halo was a once-promising PC and Mac shooter that seemed broken on its new host. When Bungie was a talented independent that had sold out to the biggest and baddest of the big bad wolves, and lost its way. When it looked like GoldenEye would be the only FPS ever to truly work on a console. Little more than six months later there was a new gold standard for the genre, an Edge ten, as inseparable from the Xbox as Mario from a SNES, and the story wasn’t Microsoft changing Bungie, but Bungie changing Microsoft. Halo did that.
According to Bungie’s technical lead Chris Butcher, it all happened during the last four or five weeks of Halo’s development: a “perfect storm” when Bungie was applying the polish to its sci-fi epic at exactly the same moment that Microsoft’s engineers finally got the Xbox hardware to come together. Those few weeks birthed a classic and turned gaming upside down.
But none of this is why Halo is so worthy of this retrospective.
It wasn’t just the market that Halo changed. Elements of its design, particularly the famed two-weapon limit and recharging shield, have become so ubiquitous that they’ve changed the dynamics of action gaming forever. The shield made taking cover make sense, and imparted a steady pendulum-swing rhythm to firefights that made them feel more intense, tactical and balanced, even if they weren’t, necessarily. After Halo, the relentless, run-and-gun shooting gallery fell out of favour for good, steady crescendos replaced by short, pulsing bursts of action. Even games that didn’t adopt any kind of recharging health system were marked with the impression that it left. The shooter had learned how to catch its breath.
The stern stipulation of only being able to carry two guns at once had a subtler, but no less profound effect. It was a useful simplification, of course, and a way to encourage players to explore the full range of weapons that Bungie had crafted, the charms of which were not always immediately obvious (needler, anyone?). It was also a way for Bungie to encourage its own designers to make sure that those weapons were all balanced, all useful, and that they fell into natural one-two combinations that would add a second layer of seesaw swing to the combat. But above all it was about variation and creativity, about liberating the player from the lock-and-key prescription of traditional videogame tools – one weapon for one situation, one enemy. You used what you had, or what you felt like using, and you made it work. By limiting our options, Bungie expanded our horizons.
Combined with these paradigm-shifting rules are concrete elements of design, surprisingly limited in number – the weapons, the enemy designs and AI, the ally AI, the simple, building-block map design – that mesh together in a perfect web of action and reaction. Perfect, that is, until Bungie broke it on purpose. Debate will probably never stop raging about the introduction, halfway through the game, of the Flood, a numberless, ceaselessly aggressive monster horde in stark contrast to the tactical and characterful Covenant aliens, a seemingly deliberate relic of old-style videogame design.
For some, it ruins the game, and it’s true that the Flood’s appearance coincides with some of the less accomplished and interesting level design in Halo, especially the long dark night of the shotgun that is the gruelling, repetitive Library. But it’s also the best example of an element of Bungie’s genius at work that has little to do with game design. We may not want to admit it, but Halo’s tremendous popular success has more to do with its confident, crowd-pleasing storytelling than its superlative design, the fact that it served up a gung-ho space-war epic at a time when cinema was proving reluctant. The deliberate self-disruption of introducing the Flood, contradicting the game you thought you were playing, was a bravura twist, the grandstanding coup de grâce of a gripping yarn. Halo would not be the same without it.
And what scale, what ambition Bungie brought to its momentous galactic scrap; by the end of the game, there are no fewer than four factions on the battlefield. Few, if any, games (and certainly not the overcooked Halo 2) have so effortlessly combined lone-wolf heroism with the sense of being caught up in a huge event that’s out of your control. It’s an amazing spectacle, and it’s aged incredibly well – polished, colourful and crisp, with reach-out-and-touch-it texture work, eye-popping effects and that landmark surround soundtrack, still to be bettered for exhilaration, humour, atmospherics, information and sheer, thundering power.
We haven’t yet even mentioned the unique vehicles, the organic AI, the exaggerated low-grav physics, the taut, adaptable multiplayer (which spawned a healthy LAN gaming scene on a console for the first and only time), the ceaselessly entertaining co-operative mode, the mighty Heroic and Legendary difficulty settings that added months’ if not years’ worth of challenge to the game. All these, too, are reasons why Halo is a true great. But still, none of this is exactly why it’s so revered.
It’s simple: Halo is never, ever the same twice. Even in the Flood-swamped doldrums of the Library, even over hundreds of man-hours of replay, it somehow manages never to repeat itself, not once. There’s an alchemy at work here, a precious equilibrium in the AI and the design and the psychology of the game which means that things don’t happen the same way and, crucially, you don’t behave the same way in the same situation two times over. It’s a game that has broken free of its binary origins and come, gloriously, to life. Even among the medium’s greats, that’s rare indeed.