Late to the Game: Halo: Combat Evolved
“Late to the Game” is our editorial series looking back at classic titles through today’s lens, and reflecting on their influence and legacy from the perspective of those playing them for the first time.
In celebration of the upcoming release of Halo 5: Guardians this week, we’re focusing our attention on the series by looking back where it all began with Halo: Combat Evolved, originally released in 2001 for Xbox and bringing with it the very definition of the term “killer app.”
For more on our “Late to the Game” installments on the series, you can click here to check out everything from Metal Gear Solid, to Half-Life, and beyond – for now though, let’s grab an Assault Rifle, get in a Warthog, and dive into some Halo…
When I first tore into my copy of Halo: Combat Evolved (on the PC back in 2003, no less) and went right into the main menu ready to boot up the game, it’s one of the few games where I just let it sit at the menu: I did that for a good long while, maybe about 10-15 minutes.
I was so psyched and ready to go: at the time, I was just about ending middle school and entering high school, and Halo was one of those games that just floored me with its (at the time) stunning visuals and insanely fun multiplayer. I’m sure at the time I would have found it odd to just let a game sit at the main menu, but for Halo: Combat Evolved it was an entirely different experience, as the game’s iconic choral theme swept me away into the world of Master Chief, and that moment still is lodged into my memory fondly, and vividly.
Originally released in 2001 as a launch title for Xbox, Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved is one of those titles I see as representing a legacy as much as it does a singular, iconic video game by itself. While I didn’t get into Halo until the title’s PC release several years after its release, it was easy to see the impact that Halo had when it first released, and ever easier to see that now after 14 years since its debut and (finally) finishing its campaign for the first time.
In previous Late to the Game editorials, most of the titles I was aware of previously but had just never quite gotten around to playing, either little or not-at-all. In the case of Halo: Combat Evolved, I had already been pretty well-versed in the series when I played the PC version back in 2004 on a crappy Dell desktop that could just barely handle it. I can still fondly remember having the game chug when I sprayed enemies with the assault rifle, and having to tone down the game to its pretty bare-bones state for my aging desktop to run it.
Regardless, I had played the multiplayer component of Halo: Combat Evolved pretty endlessly: even before I had the full-game, I still remember having downloaded the multiplayer trial for the PC version of the game. I’m pretty sure that the demo pretty much had Blood Gulch as the only map and either Slayer or Capture the Flag available for me to play, and yet I spent countless hours plunging myself deep into the game’s multiplayer on my crappy PC, since I didn’t have an Xbox at the time to enjoy the game during the height of its fresh, new take on multiplayer.
In the type of experience that I can really only compare to few other games I experienced during my childhood, Halo: Combat Evolved is one of those few games that you could see leaving a lasting legacy: a fact that made me far embarrassed at the fact that I had never truly finished the game’s single-player campaign, and decided that needed some correcting quickly.
This time around, I booted up my copy of the original Xbox title on my Xbox 360 and jumped right back in to the campaign where it all started for Master Chief, Cortana, and the countless other characters I had come to love since I was first introduced to the series with Halo 3. Though it’s aged considerably and shooters as a whole have changed immensely since 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved still felt enjoyable to play and speaks volumes on the series’ place in modern shooters.
Compared to what the modern consoles can offer now for a series like Halo (and surely what we’ve seen of the upcoming Halo 5: Guardians this fall), it’s striking how Halo started so sparse in contrast to what we’ve seen of the series now. By modern standards Halo: Combat Evolved has surely aged, but it’s funny how in my imagination and looking back on the game, it’s almost as if the game makes up for its shortcomings nowadays with its tone and style.
Even if it’s limited compared to what’s available now graphically, its music, its tone, and its art direction always made Halo stand out. Its choral opening theme suggested something grand, epic, and beyond the scope of even the mission that Master Chief undergoes in Combat Evolved. In particular, the first time landing on the ring world of Halo still evoked a sense of awe and wonder in my playthrough, even if the effect by today’s development standards is pretty simply a pre-made background.
There are plenty of moments that I’m sure Halo fans of old will surely be able to recall from the game’s striking mission variety and locations, from the opening fight on the Pillar of Autumn to one of the game’s more infamous firefights in the Library. Of course, I got lost and confused plenty of times trying to get through the Library, in a level that I can probably only compare my frustrations with to something like the infamous Water Temple of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Even then, I had a blast. Going through the familiar weapons of Halo: Combat Evolved and its firefights felt almost like new, and even so early in the series’ life it still managed to provide plenty of crazy and unique weapons. Though I might have stuck to some of the more traditional weapons like the Assault Rifle and the infamously-overpowered magnum pistol (headshotting enemies with a scoped pistol from across the map still never gets old for me), going back and blazing through with weapons like the plasma pistol and the Needler still had their charm and use in particular scenarios.
In going through the campaign and finally seeing it through to its end, the moment that will always still stick out for me as the quintessential Halo experience is Combat Evolved‘s “The Silent Cartographer” mission. From the opening cinematic of being dropped off in a Pelican to storming the beachhead against Covenant forces, going back and experiencing that mission in particular still resonated as my absolute favorite Halo experience, especially in its openness and freedom in how you can accomplish it. By blasting through Grunts and Elites and hopping in to a Warthog with other soldiers, “The Silent Cartographer” in particular still stands out as the defining Halo firefight that I still hold dear compared to others in the series.
On the eve of Halo 5: Guardians releasing, going back to the beginning to see where everything started held up far better than I ever could have expected it to with Halo: Combat Evolved. In going through and finally completing the game’s campaign, even if it was 14 years later, it’s as much going through a time capsule as it was going through one of the most important shooters to come from the last few generations, in much the same way that GoldenEye 007 established multiplayer for first-person shooters before it and in this day, where Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and countless others are redefining it.
Where Halo 5: Guardians is exploring the story of Master Chief as a potential traitor to humanity, going back through Halo: Combat Evolved brought me back to that place where in many eyes, he was still a legend. In the same way, by finishing the game it’s clear that Halo: Combat Evolved is just as much a legend in every way.