Stephen ‘Stev3L’ Lister reminisces about Halo: Combat Evolved and how, through co-op silliness with his best friend at the time, it came to represent his coming of age – while bringing fresh ideas and innovations to the FPS genre which can still be seen in titles today.
Halo was probably the most important game of my early teenage years. It’s because of Halo that I went through all the chapters of young male friendship, from the initial light-hearted bonding of comedy, to hurtful betrayal and the pain of breaking apart. All the while, this game had been there as a gentle, comforting hand when I needed it the most.
Not only this, but Bungie’s iconic FPS title was a great iteration of principles learned from the preceding years of shooter game design – one that made for a true success which brought innovations that still resonate throughout the industry in subtle ways today – as well as a game that was important to me in both personal and critical senses.
I was first introduced to Halo: Combat Evolved by a former best friend, back in the early noughties. In my early years of high school, I didn’t have many friends to share gaming experiences with, so when I met my Halo buddy (let’s call him S), I was quickly spellbound by his game collection.
Here, for the first time in my life, was a guy just as nerdy as I was… and just as into games. Halo: Combat Evolved was probably the one game where we shared the most fun memories together.
It may seem odd that I hadn’t bothered with it previously, but I’d initially dismissed Halo as a run-of-the-mill action game. When S and I booted it up together and I could experience it for the first time, I quickly realised that ignoring Halo had been a great mistake.
I fell in love with this game because of the famous second level: where you stepped out of the tight spaceship corridors and, for the first time, saw a wide-open, lush alien landscape. S and I loved this level for many reasons; there were so many options on how to proceed, including avoiding combat with the first big group of enemies.
Halo was a game that allowed you to play with the levels as if they were sandboxes. You could approach action set pieces from many directions and with a variety of weapon combinations, resulting in outcomes that seemed to flow naturally with the game. Vehicles you hadn’t destroyed earlier in the level could come back later to shoot at you, and the Marines you’d earlier saved from certain death could later function as important cannon fodder as they rode along in your Warthog.
Naturally, though, we were two rowdy young boys, so we didn’t pay attention to such design nuance, instead being content with shooting everything and anything that didn’t resemble a human being. This first ‘real’ level of Halo proved to be a joy to play, as we young men rolled around a green, mountainous landscape, whooping and laughing as we acted stupidly and experimented with whatever kind of crazy tactics we could dream up.
The rest of the campaign of Halo was a coming-of-age experience for the both of us as the summer school holidays came around. I spent a lot of time at S’s house, fighting through our campaign against the Covenant. Whole days were lost to fantastical alien locales and shootouts with plasma guns. One of my fondest moments was when we came upon the strategy of sticking a plasma grenade to each other’s faces and running at the enemies in a kamikaze attack.
Once the campaign was finished, our teenage lust for violence was not sated, so we quickly jumped into the multiplayer mode, wreaking all kinds of mayhem on each other by playing around in Blood Gulch – perhaps the most famous multiplayer Halo map. Only, we didn’t just slay by the rules; instead the two of us came up with new, sillier ways to play.
A favourite game of ours had one player camped with the sniper rifle, while the other hid behind the battlements atop one of the bases. The non-sniping player would dance and jump between the battlements in as silly a fashion as possible while the sniper tried to shoot him down. That Halo’s multiplayer allowed us to mess around like this was a work of design genius, and has undoubtedly contributed to the culture of Forge in modern entries in the franchise.
Combat Evolved was arguably the start of all that good clean fun of messing around with multiplayer game settings, and while not as evolved as those options available today – with their moon gravity settings and Spartan running speed – the customisations offered in Halo are still visible forerunners to later titles.
Coming of age… with guns
As S and I matured, we kept giving each other challenges and stories of our experiences with the game. For example, S teased me with the idea that if you did it right, you could kill an Elite in two shots with only a pistol. Of course, to my great frustration and effort I found this wasn’t the case as I wasted hundreds of bullets into the heads of Elites only for their infernal shields to take much more than that.
S taunted me that I had to aim it ‘perfectly’. A few weeks later I had given up, only for S to show me that he used the term ‘pistol’ loosely, showing me that such a feat was indeed possible – if you used a charged plasma pistol shot to wipe out the Elite’s shield and then quickly switched to the human pistol to deliver the final blow. It was a cheap stretch of the rule, but it was a fun and interesting riddle nonetheless.
Even the poorer aspects of Halo still fed into its fun; the over-powered magnum, which could take down Hunters in one shot, is still something I greatly enjoy doing to this day. The graphics may have aged, but importantly they were colourful and had a great sense of atmosphere. About the only thing that I totally disliked about Halo was when it fell into the trap of becoming a dark, grey FPS corridor midway through, as the Flood became its main enemy. The one thing that Halo did better than other shooters was always its wide-open spaces and sandbox-style levels, so being stuck in tight corridors emphasised the wrong areas of its design.
By the time Halo 3 came out and S and I were allowed regular Xbox Live time, both of us had matured with the series. Through its epic-in-scope story campaigns (something that has sadly fallen by the wayside in modern FPS games) and multiplayer silliness, two teenage boys finally took their first steps in gaming manhood. Thanks to a shared story and the many laughs and arguments along the way, I realise now that Halo was important to my growth as a gamer.
Just after completing Halo 3, however, was when my Xbox 360 suffered the red ring of death, the occurrence that doomed many such consoles to an early demise. Sadly, yet fittingly, it was also around this time that S and I’s friendship started to turn sour.
Having moved on from co-op antics, we found ourselves with little in common otherwise. S became fascinated with the mainstream popularity of rock music culture and skateboarding, while I remained as a wildcard and an outcast from any social group. The growing popularity of rock music gave S a way into such groups that were previously inaccessible to him, but with this sudden acceptance came a dark streak in S that I hadn’t noticed.
On the other hand, I was never to be accepted in any social group at school, ever. While S was initially unpopular for reasons simply of being unknown and a little too geeky, I had a long history of being verbally and physically bullied by any group, leaving me a total outcast. Thanks to this, my friend was left with a choice: stay loyal to his co-op partner, or join the group that offered social status and acceptance for the first time in his life.
It’s probably obvious from the nature of this story that the latter option was what my friend chose. Even worse, his acceptance into mainstream social popularity meant he had turned into not just a former friend, but one of the very bullies that regularly tortured me at school.
It was with this that I was left alone and friendless on the playground and desperate for the soothing escapism of a good videogame. But, as I had previously mentioned, my 360 had red-ringed, and wouldn’t arrive back for a few weeks as repairs were taking place. It is in this most desperate hour that Halo: Combat Evolved came riding in to the rescue.
I decided to get my fix of Halo by plugging in my old, original Xbox, dusting it off from its resting place in the attic. Shaking off its brief period in storage, I was greeted by the start-up screen of the original Halo like an old friend, and as a man changed by harsh lessons learned, but one in need of remembering the good old days.
…And the horse you rode in on
Halo: Combat Evolved opened its arms to me in welcome, and I embraced it as a more serious gamer, and it was this experience that showed me the true critical depth for which I now celebrate the title for. As a single-player shooter, it impressed me that the storyline was just as engaging, and my deeper concentration – no longer just playing for laughs with a friend – further enhanced the immersive feeling of cinematic sci-fi, despite the previous-gen graphics.
Playing this game was the first true time that I, as a gamer, fully experienced the power of nostalgia. I happily reminisced in the game’s artful, quieter moments and enjoyed the big set pieces while feeling like a big damn hero when needed – and as I needed to – at the time. It’s fitting that Halo was the game that helped me to heal from the mental wounds of the teenage battlefield; the imagery was much like that in war films when the grizzled veteran returns to the site of a major battle, breaking down in tears as the power of memory overwhelms him.
I think that the original Halo’s resurgence into my life at the time was a fitting rite of passage – a final gate into the realm of manhood. I was now realising that I had to stand on my own two feet and forge my own journey, as a gamer and as a man. While my loyal friendship had been and gone, Halo was still there as a constant, warm reminder when every other memory from that sad time of my life was negative. It’s for that reason that today I can still boot up the game and feel the cocktail of powerful emotion, made more poignant by the haunting, yet warm tones of singers chanting Halo’s iconic theme music.
Through Halo, I learned more than just gun-based antics and alien violence; instead I had a friendship forged through the shared, vivid experience of simulated chaos. Though my relationship with S soured as the pressures of girls, rock bands and finding my identity pushed me into a bad emotional place that left me alone and friendless after a few traumatic high school experiences, Halo was still there, alongside all that it represented to me.
Of course, I started to look at Halo more insightfully once I booted it up again during college; I noticed, for example, the poorly-aged graphics that made Halo 2 look like a next-gen title by comparison. The plodding, combat-heavy crawl through bland brown corridors in the mid-section of the game really dragged on and on, and oftentimes there were buggy in-game physics that frustrated me greatly.
But even despite these flaws, I love the game, and it was greatly improved upon by its sequels – though Halo 3 was certainly close to falling into the ‘bland corridor’ trap set by the original. While it has aged, the storyline is still fantastical and surprisingly deep sci-fi fare, which was especially enhanced by the companion novels that achieved cult status. Furthermore, the pacing can leave the player on the edge of their seat; the last few minutes of the game, for example, proved to be a pulse-pounding rollercoaster ride.
Halo kickstarted my early fascination with Xbox Live, multiplayer and first-person shooters. If it wasn’t for Halo, I wouldn’t have played my Xbox half as much. I wouldn’t have begged for a 360 from my dad so I could finish the fight in Halo 3, and then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play many other games that shaped my gaming self: BioShock, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto IV, Assassin’s Creed, and even Skyrim and Dark Souls.
I would have been your daddy…
Just as Obi-Wan told Luke when he experienced the Force for the first time, I have Halo to thank for helping me take my first step into a larger (gaming) world. The main difference was that my mentor was not a wizened, sage old man but an equally-rowdy teenager that was just as lost as I was.
Although there have been better first-person shooter games both before and after the like of Halo: Combat Evolved, the original title in the series remains as a strong contender in its genre. That it iterated on design to allow a more open-air sandbox style of FPS gameplay was no small feat, and gamers today should consider Halo’s importance in modern design. While not the best, Halo stood as a pioneer in unknown, alien lands that made discoveries to inform so many aspects of modern gameplay, including, for better or for worse, recharging shields.
As to whether the title is worth picking up today, it’s important to note that the modern remaster of the game is probably the best way to play; Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was made so that it played exactly like its predecessor, even to the level that the player can simply push a button that reverts all the modern sheen seamlessly to the original Xbox game assets. This allows for nostalgia in revisiting an earlier game, and an appreciation of what it did, while at the same time allowing gamers to enjoy modern graphical enhancements.
I came of age playing Halo, and so the nostalgia of its wide-open levels, cool weapons and gruffly-speaking, colourful aliens will always hold a special place in my heart. My friendship with S may not have lasted, but Halo has stood the test of time. It is a game that offers a window to the past as I reminisce on those long summer days without a care in the world – except for blowing up those hapless Grunts!
As an FPS for other gamers, Halo stands also as a title that deserves props for all the innovations it made to modern design. It also offered an involved, substantial campaign mode, which is rare to see in the genre today – the cherry on top of a surprisingly deep treat for new and old gamers alike.
- A substantial story campaign
- Sandbox level design allows for open-ended combat
- Multiplayer mode is exceptionally fun
- Graphics, while colourful, don’t quite hold up now
- Often buggy and unbalanced in places
- Drawn-out and repetitive areas in midgame
Its iconic design meant that it provided a warm welcome to me, no matter how many times I replayed it. Halo is joyful and heroic whether played alone or with a friend, and experiencing it in both forms only deepened my appreciation of what it did both for me and the entire games industry.