Friday, April 1, 2016

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition review

    I have a confession to make: I have never played Halo until recently. Being as I review video games for a living (okay, for fun), this is a bit like being a fantasy magazine publisher who has never read Tolkien. Purchasing a copy of The Master Chief Collection, I decided to correct that oversight.

    Still, Halo is one of the most successful video games of all time and I was eager to see what it had going for it. I tried to keep my expectations reasonable, though, due to the fact it was a game originally published in 2001. Even if the graphics were updated in 2011, there were probably a lot of anachronisms.

    So, what did I think?

I love the design of the Halos. They're elegant in their simplicity.
     In probably what is the most unsurprising review of all time, Halo is a lot of fun. Seriously, that's the core part of what makes Halo great and why so many other video games fail. It's entertaining as hell to play and would be enjoyable even if you ignore the story. Which, as I understand, 90% of the players do and only 1% out of the remaining 10% actually give a crap about. Which makes it surprising that it's as entertaining and well-written as it is.

    The premise of the game, if it needs explanation, is the human race is under assault by the Covenant. The Covenant is a Taliban-esque theocracy which only barely comprehends the technology it has recovered from the mysterious Forerunner race. For reasons which are only alluded at in the game but followed up in the Expanded Universe, they are engaged in a genocidal war against humanity and have destroyed their colony world of Reach.

    Chasing their sole-surviving spaceship down, the Covenant forces and human survivors accidentally stumble upon a massive Forerunner super-structure in the shape of a ring. Awakening the Master Chief, a super-soldier in power armor, they send him out to hold off the Covenant long enough to crash land on the 'Halo' space station and discover its secrets.

The interior of the ring is gorgeous to look at and a triumph of Microsoft design.
    What's interesting is this is a fairly complicated plot for a shooter. It's also one effortlessly told through showing rather than telling. We can infer most of what's going on and, for once, those guesses are usually on the money with no attempt to obfuscate the truth. When we discover Halo's purpose, also, it seems like an extreme but understandable reaction to the danger the (revealed mid-game) Flood pose.

    The books of Eric Nylund eventually filled in a great deal of the backstory for the series with things like the Spartan program, Doctor Halsey, and Reach all being detailed at length in his trilogy about the events of the game but none of is this is necessary. It's stuff which I heartily recommend and will be reviewing but the story stands perfectly fine on his own.  Just enough information is given to let the player fill in all of the blanks themselves without feeling lost or confused by events. This is a shooter which manages to balance world-building, story, and gameplay like an expert juggler without diminishing any of the three.

Cortana is one of my favorite characters in video games. Probably 7 or 8 on the list.
    The primary appeal of the game, though, is the third-dimensional nature and free-form nature of the battlefields. Halo is composed of vast amounts of space with huge maps full of buildings, rocks, trees, and objects you can use to fight in. While the term Combat Evolved is a terrible subtitle for a video game, it really is a near-unique experience. There's very few corridor shootings and lots of room to maneuver. While plenty of games have imitated it since, it's still rare enough to be innovative today.

    Now even the updated graphics for the Anniversary Edition are a little long in the tooth when viewed up-close but there's some truly breathtaking vistas spread throughout this game. The choice to make the surface of the space station lush, green, and beautiful rather than an empty barren technopolis. Every design choice is entertaining with Cortana, in particular, being an iconic girl of gaming now. The music for the game is great, too, with the mixture of rock, heavy metal, and orchestra blending together surprisingly well.

The Flood are terrifying as well as cartoony. Not an easy balance to strike.
    I love the characters in the game with Cortana and Master Chief being especially likable. Cortana has a great deal more personality but just because it's "stoic" doesn't mean it doesn't exist for Master Chief. I even like Captain Keyes who has only a small role as the noble Naval officer dealing with an impossible situation. When characters die or sacrifice themselves, those events have a bit of weight to them. Albeit, the fact two characters who I thought died in this game show up in Halo 2 does undermine the drama a bit.

    Guilty Spark is an amazingly entertaining character and a source of great comic relief. Even the Covenant mooks have plenty of personality with the Grunts cowardice, the Jackals' sneakiness, and the Elite's proud warrior race attitudes all coming from their actions in-game. I approve of the fact the mooks aren't just generic warriors in this game and that adds to the feeling the game is serious but not too serious if that makes sense.

I will say everyone hates the Warthog, though.
    Vehicular combat in the game sucks even if the maps are large enough that driving around and shooting things is actually fun despite the incredibly problematic control system. The game was designed for multiple players to enjoy together with the A.I. for driving absolutely atrocious. The fact you can sit on the back and let it turn into a rail-shooter is a point in its favor, though. I now know where the awful controls of Mass Effect's Mako come from, though.

    The level design for Halo cannot be understated in terms of its artistry. You fight in jungles, swamps, alien temples, and more. While the original game's graphics had to be necessarily dark for graphics limitations, the Anniversary Edition brightens them up to something glorious. You can also see what the original Halo looked like just by tapping the start key. While not an open-world game, per se, it's still very open with almost everything you see able to be interacted with. Quite the accomplishment in 2001 and still impressive today.

This game definitely sold itself to me as a series. Kudos, Microsoft.
     As for multi-player, well, I'm probably the worst person in the world to review that sort of thing since the only time I've ever played it is for Mass Effect 3 and I didn't much care for it. I also suspect the vast majority of multiplayer fans have since moved on to better servers and graphics with the sequels. As such, my reviews of this game as well as future installments will be primarily about the single-player campaigns.

    Since I had such a great time playing it, I'm going to be doing Halo month for the month of April and analyzing all of the games in the series as well as some of the choicer bits of Expanded Universe fiction. I hope people enjoy it as much as I have.


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