Love it or hate it, you have to admit Halo changed almost everything we took for granted about first-person shooters. With the Xbox 360 hi-definition re-release HALO: COMBAT EVOLVED ANNIVERSARY out next week, four BeefJack writers talk about their first experiences with the original game.
James H. sez:
Halo was the game that turned me into a console gamer. Up until Bungie switched to working on the Xbox I’d enjoyed consoles, but the PC had won my heart. Halo wasn’t even a game I’d heard of: my Xbox was a prize in a competition.
It was my flatmate at the time who brought Halo home. He’d rented it from the Blockbuster Video at the top of the road, because he’d “heard good things”.
We started mid-afternoon, and the first level passed us by. This was… kind of cool? The gun system was different, though. Still, finally an FPS control system that worked on a console – then we escaped the doomed Pillar of Autumn, crash-landed the escape shuttle on Halo’s ringworld and Master Chief stepped out into the light. The moment I took in the valley in front of me and saw that blue sky overhead I had to catch my breath. It was love.
Five hours later and our university mates were badgering the two of us to make a move for a night out. It took my girlfriend to finally get me to move off the sofa and out the door; the Xbox was left on pause and I’m pretty sure I cut the night short to get back to it. Either way we completed Halo the next day, and I went out and bought my own copy not long after.
Over the next two years we lugged our Xboxes between flats for system link games, which peaked with network cables spread through three flats, four consoles and about fourteen players involved (we never did manage the mythical sixteen). However the high point was a Capture the Flag on Blood Gulch (of course) with eight people, each team of four with a room to themselves, but close enough to the opposition to shout obscenities.
My memory says the game went on all afternoon, but who knows if I’m remembering that correctly? I’d like to think my team won, partly because I remember an epic flag capture of mine during the later stages. My friends thought we were losing, with our flag away, until I quietly instructed them to check my quarter of the screen – where they could see me running through the side tunnel of the valley carrying our rivals’ flag, the other team completely unaware of my stealth extraction.
Matches after that devolved into insanity with one configuration that allowed some truly ridiculous carnage, including infinite grenades, a trick I’m not sure we were ever allowed again on future Halos. We called it Britney (no, I really have no idea why).
Ultimately the madness died down: nothing ever quite reached those dizzying heights the first time we put on Mjolnir armour. Still, if I can see ‘Achievement unlocked’ as I jump off the Pelican and hit the beachhead on Silent Cartographer that’s reason enough to try it all over again.
I was 17 when I scraped together the money to buy an Xbox along with Halo. I was in sixth form college, working a part time job on the weekends and evenings which fortunately paid a fairly decent wage. This was money I was happy to turn into a steady stream of awesome gadgets. I was pimped out, all the consoles, a powerful PC, a huge TV and a minidisc player (What? Minidisc was the future, obviously, not this MP3 malarkey).
I was pretty well versed in videogames at the time, another reason I thought Halo was so spectacular. The visuals were certainly a hook, significantly better than any other console title and even putting a few PC titles to shame. But when I finally played it I knew it was something special.
Halo had a remarkable use of cinematic presentation. This was quality writing and characterisation through the gameplay mechanics that gave me an insight into what it was to be a Spartan – which in turn clued me into the Halo universe. For me Master Chief conveyed a huge amount of character through just his voice. It was a way of delivering narrative I’d seldom seen before, and made Halo a significantly more advanced title than the majority out there already.
And it only got better as I dove in. A melee attack mapped to a specific button that didn’t require changing weapons? What a marvellous idea. Large open areas with vehicles you can choose to use? Wonderful! Recharging over-shields and weapon pickups limited to two at once – this was a new kind of FPS, one that aimed to shake up the formula. And then there was multiplayer.
You could play through the campaign cooperatively, either locally or via LAN, and this was a mode I frequently spent time with. At first I’d play locally with a friend or my father, taking on the Covenant on each difficulty setting and celebrating our glorious victory when we finally completed our legendary play-through.
It was awesome. Not to mention it got my father into the FPS genre, which eventually led to him buying his own console, which then led to our own LAN battles, so we could both have a full-screen view.
My father and I would play though the traditional modes available but we gained most of our enjoyment from the mode we created ourselves through all the things you could modify about the multiplayer game mechanics. We hiked the health and over-shield strength up to maximum and loaded up the Blood Gulch map. The goal was to kill your opponent a certain amount of times, deathmatch style, but we would only try to score a kill after crashing Warthogs into each other until one of us had been knocked out of his vehicle. (We called it Joust.)
Halo: Combat Evolved was a truly magnificent title, one that changed the FPS scene on consoles and captured both my heart and my imagination. The Halo universe is such a wondrous place, full of story and character, which the newer titles continue to develop. I’m excited to see what comes next, but the opportunity to come back to Halo Anniversary and celebrate where it all started is great. I’m looking forward to the nostalgia trip.
I grew to hate Halo. Which is a shame. I never hated it for what it is, but what it became: the poster-child for people who played games but had no idea of how special they could be. The trouble was, I’d forgotten that Halo itself is special. It always was.
I remember heading up to my local LAN cafe as a teenager, when Halo was first released. It was a PC gaming haven, really, with rows of computers connected to Counter-Strike or Unreal Tournament. The problem was, it was always a busy place in a little town like ours, where all there really was to do was play computer games. And so, to mitigate the long waits, they’d installed a couple of Xboxes in the corner of the room. Halo: Combat Evolved was in the disk drives continuously.
I didn’t have an Xbox at the time, and nor did the friend with whom I regularly used to play. So we’d pick the busiest times at the LAN cafe, just so we knew we could get in some Halo time before our PC-based blasting. This became a regular occurrence, to the point we’d very quickly progressed a fair way into the singleplayer game and spent countless hours in multiplayer.
My prevailing memory? That, finally, the humble games console had a shooter to be proud of. Because GoldenEye was rubbish. No, honestly, it was. When my mates were playing that, I was playing the Quake games and Unreal and stuff, all of which were a hundred billion times better. But Halo? ‘Man,’ I remember thinking. ‘Could this actually be… one of the best shooters in the world?’
It was, you know. It had style, and it had sheer brawn. It looked and felt extraordinary. It was fresh and exciting. And having got over my little Halo grump that lasted for a few years, I now look back at Combat Evolved with a nostalgic smile. Is it still one of the best games ever? No. Is Halo: Anniversary going to set the world alight? No. It feels a little archaic these days, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves. But back then, it was something magical. And that’s why it’s still worth celebrating a decade on.
Silent Cartographer started it. It’s the fourth mission in Halo’s campaign, but Silent Cartographer – referenced internally by Bungie as ‘E30′ – was the first level started, and completed, during the proper development phase of Halo. They scrapped the idea of Halo as a third-person shooter, or an RTS, and decided the game would be first-person.
E30 is where Bungie started to test that concept, though I first played it not in the retail version of Halo: CE that released in November of 2001, but on the magazine demo disc released the next year. It’s fitting, now that I think about it. Silent Cartographer isn’t the start of Halo, but it’s where Bungie started, and the same is true for me.
I didn’t consider it anything special at first. I played around with the demo, in co-op mode with my older brother, and didn’t bother finishing it. But I came back to it – several times. Eventually I had beaten that demo more times than I can remember. There was something about it, intangible but compelling. Thirty seconds of fun, packaged with military sci-fi, and a hint of humour.
If you don’t remember ‘thirty seconds of fun’, the core tenets of Halo were tested, refined, and for the first time successfully implemented on Silent Cartographer. Jaime Griesemer, one of the long time Bungie designers who worked on the Halo series throughout its life at Bungie, is responsible for the famous quote that coined Halo’s best-known design mantra – “If you can get thirty seconds of fun, you can pretty much stretch that out to be an entire game.”
E30 proved that; it was fun, it was simple, and even if it was fundamentally repetitive none of us cared. The enemy A.I., the weapon design, the physics – everything worked. Marty O’Donnell, long time Bungie composer, would later comment that the first time the main Halo theme was played in its entirety, in game, was on E30, storming the beach while mowing down Covenant enemies with assault rifle rounds. Silent Cartographer was where Halo made the leap from concept to fully realised game.
Chris Butcher, a senior engineering lead with Bungie, later commented that around the time he joined Bungie Halo’s enemy A.I. was composed of three source files, mostly comprised of comments by project director Jason Jones who was trying to get something up and running. Butcher, along with Jaime Griesemer ended up focusing their attention on honing two specific encounter types that would nail Halo’s core experience, and one of those was Silent Cartographer.
“Jaime Griesemer and myself, we just sat down and worked on two signature encounters. One was the beach on Silent Cartographer which was the classic kind of wave advancing encounter,” Butcher said, in one of Bungie’s recent ViDocs. “We really only had one shot at it, because we weren’t going to have time to go back and scrap the A.I. System, so we knew we just had to get it right.”
They got it right. They got it so right it formed the core of a juggernaut franchise. Silent Cartographer sparked a passion for the Halo universe and its bravura design – a passion that for me, and several million others, is still alive a decade later.
How was your first time with Halo? Do you have a shrine to Bungie in memory of everything they did to change the first-person shooter? Or maybe you stick pins in a voodoo doll of Jason Jones and dream of the days everyone in video games will be back to lugging ten weapons around at once at the very least? Let us know in the comments!