Welcome to the very first installment of The Retrospective, my newest contribution to the fine collection of weekly articles found on MoarPowah.com. Each week, I hope you’ll join me as I visit some of the most celebrated classics for the very first time. That’s right, folks, despite the fact that I love video games and have playing them since longer than I can personally remember, there are still numerous series and titles that I have yet to experience. I intend to play these games for a few hours, speak about their historical and cultural significance, and examine their mechanics and form in the context of today, with our more modern sensibilities. I decided to choose games that I never played back when they first released because I don’t want this to be tainted by nostalgia.
Furthermore, The Retrospective should not be taken as a series of reviews, but rather an experiment to see how game design has evolved, and more importantly improved, when viewed objectively. I hope you enjoy!
So yes, despite buying into the Xbox rather early and loving it with all the satisfaction and care my childhood heart could muster, I completely missed Halo, what is perhaps the most defining game series for Microsoft’s two boxes. I suppose that’s rather strange, considering how much I adore good sci-fi narratives, but there was a long period where I actively avoided it merely because I disliked what I envisioned to be the stereotypical Halo player. Looking back, this mindset was ridiculous and elitist of me, and I decided recently to play the very first Halo game to see what I had missed in my years of hubris. But first, let’s talk a bit about what Halo gave us in a historical lens.
While many point towards Goldeneye as the definitive first competent console FPS, that game has seriously not aged well. While it did certainly pave the way for the genre to grow and thrive, Goldeneye is a very different FPS to what our tastes have accustomed to. Halo, as most would say, was the true turning point. It was when the stars aligned and we the video game players worldwide were given an insight into what truly solid and substantive shooting felt like.
Without Halo, our modern day console FPS’s likely wouldn’t be nearly as fluid and tight as they are, and we’re lucky that the game to deliver the following renaissance happened to also have an original, unique setting, engrossing plot, and then stunning visuals. But its unique flavor isn’t truly surprising when we look at what shooters were back in the day. Before to proliferation of modern-day military shooters (which generally bore the hell out of me), shooters took advantage of the graphical limitations of the day by being far more eccentric and interesting. In Painkiller, you shoot demons with zany weaponry. In Half-life, you shoot alien zombies in an incredibly dense storyline and setting. In Serious Sam, you shoot extremely perplexing creatures through the crypts of Egypt. Halo was born of this era of shooter design theory, that the shooting only complimented the strength of the world you explore. And it’s really a shame that fewer and fewer shooters remember this philosophy.
But luckily for those who enjoy it, Halo is still living and going quite strong.
My own playthrough of Halo was quite entertaining. When a good friend learned that I had never experienced the game in any capacity, he promptly sat me down to play through the campaign with him through co-op. This is another thing that I miss in modern game design. No one besides Nintendo thinks to include local multiplayer anymore. Or if they do, they tirelessly work to make it function in the story. In Halo I was shocked at how nonsensically the game just added another Master Chief. He got no backstory, no involvement in cutscenes, and just didn’t have much of a reason to exist. And you know what? I didn’t mind at all. Somehow, the game let my friend and I share the single hero’s tale seamlessly. We didn’t have to fuss over who got the better character, and the game didn’t have to waste expositional time explaining why suddenly in this campaign there are two players instead of the usual one.
From the get go, it was obvious to me that there was more going on in this universe than the small information I was privy to. Whereas some sci-fi universes tumble over themselves to explain their contextual block of text, Halo just plopped me into a world and let me experience it myself, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did miss the richness of some game universes, like Mass Effect’s in particular, but it was nice that I could enjoy the context without having to be formally introduced to it.
I was also stunned at how fluid the controls felt. For a game that’s about twelve years old, I was amazed at how much it felt like a modern day game. Usually when I return to something old, I have that awkward period of readjusting myself to an older and usually inferior method of translating button presses into motion. Not so here. It was starting to get obvious from my first hours that Halo was FAR more influential on modern console-specific game controls (not counting PC, that’s an entirely different lineage) than I had ever given it credit for.
And the atmosphere. Oh lord was I surprised by how engrossed I was in that. I often forget how much the overall tone of games can affect me. I imagine that’s why I fall weak to me knees at the haunting beauty of Journey or prefer the subtle, dark tones fo Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II to the more bombastic feel of its predecessor. The general way in which the game’s color, music, and set direction play towards both my expectations and fears is astounding for a game so old, and by the time the flood showed their grotesque faces I was instantly as engrossed and fearful as I was when I first entered Ravenholm.
My friend and I managed to finish the game in one rather long sitting. In the end, I was convinced to pick up the game myself and add it to my personal collection. So assume that my general thoughts are positive.
As I said, I found Halo to be incredibly engrossing. That statement doesn’t even come with a snarky “for its time” attached, as I actually found it to use its mechanics in engenius and interesting ways. But fans of the series could have told you that, and most of you are probably longtime fans of the series so here’s a few less outright celebratory thoughts.
For one, there were several key pieces missing, that we’ve only gotten through evolution and change. There’s a stunning lack of direction in some parts, and even my friend, who owns every Halo game ever made, couldn’t remember how to proceed in a number of sections. While I’m no advocate for hallway hand-holding, I do think the right balance is somewhere in between Halo’s sometimes unforgiving lack of direction and the more modern mindless linearity. Perhaps later games in the series developed this, but I wouldn’t know.
Halo also shows its age by limiting the number of enemies you face throughout the majority of the journey. Yes, both the covenant and the flood manage to be fairly dynamic, but they each only have three to five enemy types with the occasional color-coded upgrades. I’d be lying if I said that the shooting itself didn’t slowly grow bland and repetitive as time slugged on. Luckily the location changes managed to maintain my interest, but it’s interesting to note that once again the focus was more on the world and atmosphere than it was on the basic mechanics.
So it is with tremendous joy that I can proclaim the original Halo to be worthy of its praise, after all. In the modern context, it may seem slightly old fashioned in its direction and controls (and lack of sound adjustment options), and much of what it engineered has only been built upon with time, but Halo is creative and fresh in a world of bland and forgettable shooting. It reminded me that the console FPS can feel right, after all these years of not believing. And that’s something.
Join me next week as I talk about the original Tomb Raider!