by Luv Mehta
(Author's Note: I've written about three of these games a few months ago in my last article, but I never got around to giving my thoughts on the rest. This will have some repeated paragraphs from the last article, but if you haven't read those, you can safely go ahead and read the rest of this one)
Back in 2004, my family used to go to this club in Kolkata called Dalhousie Institute, and there was a little place inside named Diagon, a small space with a library and a cyber cafe. Being a young voracious reader and gamer (back when the word "g*mer" didn't immediately put an image of shrieking unwashed manchildren in your head immediately), I used to frequent that place a lot, and on one of the PCs, I discovered and played this little-known blockbuster game called Halo: Combat Evolved.
The Halo series has been around for over twenty years now, with a massive franchise spanning multiple games and books, having a direct influence in the explosion of mainstream popularity in the once-major internet phenomenon of machinima, and generally being a massive influence on the FPS genre through its mechanics. Did I know all that would happen in 2003? Not at all. But I could feel that I was playing something new, exciting and important, and the future of video games felt infinite.
Now I'm a jaded cynic living in 2021, which means it's the perfect time to actually play the rest of the games on the PC - now that they're out, anyway.
A little bit of history, first - the Halo series is an Xbox franchise, with the first Halo being credited as the reason the first Xbox started selling so much, and the second heralding the Xbox consoles as the best way to play multiplayer games. Because of this, for a very long time, only the first two games were available for the PC, with the rest being Xbox console exclusives - the first one had a PC port released two years after its original release, the second one got a PC port three years after its own release, and PC owners never got a chance to play the rest. It was only at the end of 2019 that people were able to play the other games, when The Master Chief Collection started to be ported over, one game at a time (with remastered versions of the first two Halos), until the end of 2020. It doesn't have all the games, though - Halo 5: Guardians, the latest entry in the franchise so far, doesn't seem to have any plans for porting, and it's most likely that PC players will never get to play it at all.
Either way, at least I had the rest to play through, and the experience was pretty interesting, sometimes surprising, something frustrating, but I'm ultimately glad to have played through the whole thing.
Halo: Combat Evolved
The first two Halo games have been released as Anniversary editions, with overhauled graphics and a remixed soundtrack coupled with the ability to seamlessly switch between the old 2000s experience and the new one. As remeastered re-releases go, this is a pretty interesting feature, so I decided to play both of them with the new graphics turned on.
The first Halo game was a childhood favourite of mine, and I've played it countless times. With fantastic gunplay, the regenerating shield system that felt so fresh at the time (a feature that became incredibly commonplace as a result of its influence), and great atmosphere and environment design, it stuck with me for a very long while. I have to give special mention to that last bit, actually - Halo: Combat Evolved does a great job evoking a sense of awe and wonder in the player, with beautiful architecture and environments that are just alien enough that they feel both advanced and ancient, and the game wisely gives you enough moments of calm so you can absorb the atmosphere even more. The effect is distinctive enough that its absence in Halo 2 frustrated me to no end - but more on that later.
Halo: Combat Evolved is an incredibly popular game and is already considered a classic, but if you've managed to avoid it so far, here's the premise - it's the far-off future, and humanity's embroiled in a war with an alien force called the Covenant. During a battle, some of their capital ships stumble upon a strange artificial ring-world, which the Covenant immediately seem to recognize as some sort of holy weapon, and both sides battle it out in an attempt to seize control of the ring - but all is not what it seems to be. You play the Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced supersoldier, trying to gain control of the ring as you get to learn about its true nature.
It feels a bit weird to leave this space spoiler-free, what with it being a twenty year old game by now, but that's alright.
As I said earlier, I played it throughout with the new graphics turned on, and while I still had fun, the visual overhaul seems to have missed the point of a lot of the game. Dark, foreboding corridors are now brightly lit; rooms bathed in ominous purple lighting now have the entire colour scheme changed to bright blues and greens, and a lot of the alien structures seem to be overdesigned, adding stereotypical sci-fi tubelights to blank walls and bottomless pits. The effect isn't great, honestly, and I'd rather just use the classic graphics next time.
This is the second time I've played this game, and it's been an extremely surprising experience.
Halo 2 was a highly anticipated sequel when it came out in 2004, and it eventually became the highest selling game on the platform. It was also a game marred by clear production issues, with narrative risks that threw people off for quite a while, and a sudden cliffhanger ending that people widely hated. Personally, I'd only beaten Halo 2 once, and the weird shift in the focus of the game from excitement and wonder to pure pulse-pounding action disappointed me.
I've just beaten it for the second time, and my opinion on it has done a complete 180.
The premise, for those who don't know - after the destruction of the Halo ringworld in the first game, the Covenant travel to Earth, whose location had been carefully kept secret to protect humanity's homeworld, and immediately get to invading a city in Africa, to the confusion of everyone involved - it seems that the Covenant didn't expect humanity's presence at all. As humanity and the alien forces battle it out again, we keep shifting to a different perspective - the leader of the Covenant forces in the first game becomes a playable character called the Arbiter, as we see that the Covenant is literally a covenant of different alien species held together by religious fundamentalism and a belief in the ringworlds leading them to salvation.
There's MUCH more worldbuilding this time when it comes to the Covenant, and the human protagonist's brightly lit swashbuckling adventure levels contrast with the alien protagonist's moodier levels with their strange vistas. When I played the game for the first time, the focus shift alienated me, because I wanted something that felt like the first game. As I've grown older (and hopefully a little wiser), I've changed my stance on sequels enough to realize that the game I should have played, if I wanted something that felt like Halo: Combat Evolved, was Halo: Combat Evolved. Halo 2 is trying to show a very different experience, and honestly? I now think it's incredibly successful, and even the rushed ending doesn't bother me much.
The gameplay has also aged extremely well - Halo 2 introduces a whole bunch of weapons and dual wielding, and all of it feels fantastic to play with. In the first game, I generally stuck to a few weapons for dispatching different types of enemies, while in this one, I keep switching weapons to try new things and play differently, and nearly all of them are fun to use.
Halo 2 has also received the same Anniversary treatment, and the new designs are substantially more well conceived than the first game. The art style and colour schemes are all respected well, with modern textures spicing up a lot of areas and characters that were previously very low-quality, and massively improved lighting and models that make a lot of levels feel even more atmospheric. This also improved level design for me - levels that were formerly visually repetitive now feel much better to play through, and the music levels are much more audible and add a lot to the experience for me.
Before this, if anyone said Halo 2 was one of their favourite games of all time, I used to be quietly dismissive. Now, I'm finding myself agreeing with them, and wondering if I actually like this better than the first game, which was already one of my favourite games ever.
I remember when the Xbox 360 came out and I wanted it so badly, and a huge part of that was Halo 3. I went to Gamefaqs and read the whole script, I read a million online reviews that were near-unanimous with their praise, and I kept hoping to play it someday. And finally, after thirteen years, I've finally gotten to play it for the first time, and I can finally experience what all those other people had played all those years ago, and I finally get to say...
Yeah, it's pretty good. Bit short though.
Halo 3's premise is this - the Covenant and humanity are engaged in war over Earth, and the alien protagonist's species has allied with humans. Barring a few extra complications towards the end... Yeah, that's pretty much it. Most of the game focuses on finishing the fight (which was literally an advertising tagline for this game), and the focus is spent on giving the player a bunch of large levels with a lot of strong enemies, a bunch of tools you can use to fight them, and giving you the freedom to do whatever you want to do.
While I was a bit disappointed coming in from Halo 2, I did admire the sheer focus of the game's design, which easily lends itself to the presence of some of the best gameplay sections in the series so far. In fact, while the level quality has been a bit hit-or-miss in previous games, nearly all the levels here (with the exception of the second last level) range from good to brilliant.
I am at a bit of a loss for words, though - all these years since I've wanted to play it, and I've just had an immense reversal of my opinion on its predecessor, and in the end, Halo 3 just ends up feeling like a very good game. Like, I'd be open to replaying some of the levels sometime, but there's no radically new addition to the series that makes me interested enough to write about - in the single-player campaign, at least, since Halo 2 and 3 are some of the most popular multiplayer games of all time, and while I'm not really interested in these games beyond their single-player story campaigns, it would be unfair if I didn't mention that Halo 3's popular innovations were all entirely on the multiplayer side, with map creators people could design on their console and play through.
Anyway, yeah, it's pretty good. Bit short though.
Continuing on, I decided to play Halo 3's spinoff entry set on Earth, Halo 3: ODST. Set within the original trilogy and starting sometime towards the middle of Halo 2, it tracks a group of human soldiers as they go through an abandoned African metropolis and try to survive.
This is a somewhat interesting entry in the franchise. As a spinoff, ODST is afforded some leeway to change some parts of the core Halo experience, and it does that by putting you in the shoes of a regular soldier for a change, making you feel weak and mortal in comparison to the Master Chief from the main entries. There's a sense of danger and loneliness that's unique to this entry, and the music and sense of atmosphere are also all excellent, and even though it's got the same graphics as Halo 3, the lighting system seems to have been improved by leaps and bounds.
For much of the game, while you keep shifting perspectives between different soldiers of a squad, your main protagonist is a mute soldier who spends a night roaming through the ruins of a recently destroyed city. The perspective shifts are an interesting change of pace, showing off different characters, but here's where my major complaint lies - I really, really wish I cared about any of those characters at all. Most of them are completely forgettable, and the most memorable character is basically Nathan Fillion playing a wisecracking Captain Mal-type and delivering lines that make him look like an annoying jilted ex. There's a nice side-story you can optionally find through the game by unlocking audio files through terminals, and I was honestly much more invested in that part of the game.
That being said, it's Halo. The level designs are great, and none of the games from this point onwards really have a bad level as such. The gameplay is great, and the differences highlighting the vulnerability (no shields) and reduced strength of the player characters (no dual wielding) forces you to play smart. It's a small campaign, too, smaller than Halo 3 (which was already pretty short), and it's worth checking out.
Halo: Reach, along with ODST, were the last games created by Bungie, the original game developers for Halo, after which they handed over the series to Microsoft and went off to make their own games independently. While ODST was a spinoff with the same engine, though, Halo: Reach was designed to be Bungie's last moment of triumph, with a new engine and visual style, new weapons, and lots of interesting missions.
Reach is located at the very beginning of the game list in the Master Chief Collection, which makes a lot of sense if you think in terms of chronology, and zero sense when you think about how the gameplay has evolved through the series. The game is basically a prequel to the first Halo game, functioning like Rogue One did for the original trilogy of Star Wars. Thankfully, I like it substantially more than Rogue One.
The setting might be one of the most interesting so far - the first Halo was set in the aftermath of a fierce battle that ended in the destruction of a planet, and Reach tasks you with fending off that destruction, playing a character whose doom you can already infer. The sombre nature of the story does a lot of heavy lifting, and while the writing of the characters isn't great (with a few exceptions that all die relatively early), the game does succeed in conveying a sense of tragedy and futility.
The game engine has been overhauled, with new graphics complementing a new art style that will only be seen for this single game. There are also a bunch of new weapons, and some of them become immediate favourites, like the Designated Marksman Rifle. The gameplay changes here feel like the next big step after Halo 2, with the open level design inherited from Halo 3, all coming together to form an excellent game that feels great to play. The campaign still doesn't reach the heights of Halo 2 for me, but that's fine.
Halo 4 is the first game made by a completely different studio - after Bungie left Microsoft handed development to a new studio tasked exclusively with the responsibility to continue the Halo series. It massively reinvents the gamefeel after Reach, bringing a lot of modern FPS elements to the franchise. It's an interesting experience - this was the most frustrated I felt at a Halo story so far, but it's also got some of the most gripping story beats in the whole franchise.
We get back to Master Chief's perspective after all these years, after the ending of Halo 3, and it's kind of weird how there's a lot from the previous games that gets thrown out, like dual wielding and the truce with the Covenant Elites - that last part especially irked me, because there's no in-game explanation given for why they're back to being villains beyond a single "yeah it's been four years, anything could have happened" (although I did find later that there were some logs you could find in a level that would show them to be some sort of splinter group, though the main story isn't concerned with telling that directly). A lot of the modern elements added feel irritating as well - Halo 3 and all subsequent games generally kept combat setpieces out of cutscenes and gave you control of the situation, and there are a few cutscene setpieces with quick-time events in Halo 4 that feel extremely out-of-place whenever they occur.
There are some good additions though, like how the game has an added sprint function that's separate from the armour abilities, which makes the game feel much better when you have to traverse certain large areas without a vehicle. There are a few new vehicles you get to pilot, which all feel good to control and use. A huge addition to the Halo franchise is the setting - for the first time since the first Halo, the environments felt new and alien to me, and the level design is clean and clear enough that none of it felt overly visually busy (unlike the new enemy models for both new foes and old).
The biggest change, though, is the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana, which influences basically everything in the game. For the first time, the Chief speaks regularly during gameplay, which serves the dual purpose of both humanizing him and making him feel like even more of a badass during the times where he spontaneously makes decisions on his own. For the first time, we see Cortana's face on screen when she speaks to the Chief, and what previously felt like dry mission info now feels like a conversation between two friends who've been through hell together. This is easily my favourite part of the game, and it's a pity that some of the other parts don't quite live up to it - the central mysteries of the game are revealed with a single cutscene stuffed with heavy-handed exposition, the antagonist isn't very compelling or interesting, and one particular human character feels like he's inconsistently written to advance the plot.
The level design is nice, though - it doesn't really hit the highs of Halo 3 or Reach, but while there are some mediocre levels, there are enough interesting levels that I wanted to keep playing. The new enemies are fine, and while I was frustrated with them towards the beginning, I eventually got how to efficiently and quickly beat them using strategies that are very different from equivalent types of Covenant enemies - though I wish their visual design highlighted their ranks clearly enough. The new weapons don't feel different or special enough for me to have new favourites, but they're good enough that I had fun playing with them.
In the end, I did really like the game, even with its shortcomings. Halo has never really boasted exemplary writing or deep characterization, and while there are a lot of risks the narrative takes that don't always work, the ones that do pay off in spades.
Masterchef Haloman and the Arbiter have unresolved sexual tension and they need to hook up.
All jokes aside, this has been an interesting experience - the Halo series is one I was always aware of since my childhood, but it was always out of reach (pun intended) for me, and being able to play past the first two entries in the series has been a fantastic experience. A new entry is on the horizon as well - Halo Infinite - and while I'm not on tenterhooks waiting for it, I will try it out nevertheless.
Anyway, as Masterchef Haloman once said:-