Friday, May 27, 2011

Halo Review

Is the Halo franchise on the wane? Perhaps. It no longer dominates the Xbox live online stats, it's records for largest entertainment launches in history have been eclipsed and re-eclipsed by Modern Warfare sequels, and the fever-pitch of a new iteration's announcement has taken a cold shower compared to the initial teasers for Halo 2.

But, while it doesn't generate the same buzz that it once did, it has aged, like a fine wine, into an iconic franchise. A staple in the modern buffet of video games. A hero with a look so recognizable as to be placed in the elite branded leagues of Mario, Sonic, and Lara Croft. We here at BofHam enjoy our Halo, though our affection is certainly tempered by the franchise's more questionable decisions. (Halo 2 tried a bit too much graphically, Halo 3 jumped the shark story-wise, etc.) But with the rumor mill whirling full-tilt with speculation about a re-release of Combat Evolved, we decided to sit down and blow through the first iteration of Bungie's cash-cow.

And boy, were we ever blown away all over again.

STORY: 5/5
What mysteries lie within?
Halo spins a simple enough yarn about space marines and aliens, battling for survival. It's a zero-sum game at first with humanity seemingly on the ropes. But the real appeal of this world are the hints of something bigger. The titular ring is an unknown quantity for both the player and his avatar. Cavernous bunkers and monolithic spires dot the landscape of Halo, their very existence representative of deeper mysteries that draw the player in. Friend and foe alike are aliens here, both exploring the world in their separate attempts to harness its power and ensure their victory.

In spite of its sweeping scores and epic atmosphere, Halo is basically a story of exploration. Unlike the ensuing games in the franchise which focus less on the rings and more on humanity's survival, Halo never takes the player off this single world. This tight focus allows Bungie to pull deeper emotional and atmospheric heartstrings with a comparatively weak engine. And while assets and architecture are recycled throughout, their recurrence lends the title a dreamlike atmosphere where each new hallway is familiar yet slightly off.

One eerily familiar hallway after another.
Roughly halfway through the game though, a new threat is introduced and with it the tone shifts from unsettlingly dreamlike to the stuff of nightmares. The eerily empty caverns are suddenly splashed with blue blood and destroyed doors. Flickering lights evoke the best of last generation's survival horror games (Resident Evil, Silent Hill) but their appearance on top of the already haunted labyrinths stirs an emotional cocktail that rises above pure shock. And when the third party of Halo's threesome makes their ugly appearance, Halo achieves an atmospheric resonance that none of its ensuing iterations (nor any ensuing first-person shooters) can match. It is more epic than Call of Duty without relying on scripted chaos. It is more haunting than Dead Space without resorting to shock-scares. It is frightening, stirring, and, ultimately, tragic.

We are now far-enough removed from the sensibilities and culture in which Halo was created for its conventions to seem truly old. Not in a pejorative sense, but a surprise nonetheless. Modern video game blockbusters feel compelled to explain every nook and cranny of their realities. To make sure the player is up to speed at all times. The clammy hand-holding extends beyond tutorials to the game itself. Video games have undergone a fundamental change from mysterious playgrounds to thrilling roller coasters. Even the open world sandboxes of Grand Theft Auto and Oblivion have lost their mystery. It's an elusive feeling, akin to that extra something that separates the attractive from the sexy, but it's a sensation that grows on you after logging your third straight hour in Halo. Graphics that detail every contour and development teams with the time to flesh out every backstory fill in the various tabula rasa with which the gamer's imagination used to engage.

Halo's fame is largely attributed to it's now-famous '30 seconds of fun' principle. Bungie focused on creating a responsive, fluid first person shooter mechanic in which players were fast, powerful, and accurate. Battles would last 30 seconds, long enough to be engaging but short enough to keep from becoming tedious. The three methods of dealing damage established the parameters for strategy as players would choose between throwing grenades, firing their weapon, or cold-cocking with the butt of their rifle.

Written in paragraph form, it's almost inconceivable that something so short could remain engaging for hours on end. But, by adding unique enemies and diverse environments (recycled assets notwithstanding), both requiring the player to adjust their strategy, weapon, and approach, Bungie created gameplay crack. Throw on top a set of vehicles each with their own strengths and weaknesses and the limits of '30 seconds of fun' know no bounds. Simply put, Halo is a dream to play.

Again, the revisit highlights how much has been tweaked and changed in Halo's ensuing iterations. Master Chief is faster and can jump higher than in ensuing episodes. Conversely, his melee attack is less powerful and, at least on legendary, the shields of the Elite's can soak up thousands of bullets before finally succumbing. These differences, though slight, combine to make the player feel both more vulnerable and more deadly. Unlike the later iterations in which the player truly felt like an 8 foot tall, walking tank, the original Halo keeps the action faster.

And well it should. As the enemies increase and the odds of survival fall, flight becomes more necessary. The recharging shield mechanic, novel for its time, creates a wonderful sense of tension and release. The Master Chief is no longer a lumbering tank but a rapier; darting in for quick kills, picking apart the enemy forces, and retreating to recharge before darting in again. The player feels more lethal and more in control of their kills. Deep into a session, the recognition of playing a game blurs and Halo becomes more like an athletic endeavor. There is a zone in Halo that will suck you in.

Heightened stakes. 
Halo is also wonderfully difficult without feeling frustrating. The threats multiply until, by game's end, you are wading through enemies at whose first appearance you were worried about just one. The final moments of Halo are harrowing, thrilling experiences that outshine the more graphically arresting segments of its progeny and competitors. Again, it comes back to the independence the developers give the player. As the Flood literally floods your radar with red, you know you are on your own against incredible odds. This recognition makes your eventual triumph all the more glorious for it.

VERDICT: 10/10
Far from showing its age, Halo: Combat Evolved highlights the strengths of a previous generation in which more trust was given to the player, both in terms of imagination and gaming ability. It is infinitely more engrossing and rewarding than today's first person shooters and a testament to the importance of player participation in a gaming experience.

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