Halo: Combat Evolved Review

Okay, I played Halo when it originally came out. I was honestly a fan at the time. Over time I developed the opinion that it was good, but overrated. Despite playing it way back when, I never finished the campaign. I kind of missed out on the whole halo experience because I never got an xbox and never played halo 2, which was where the multiplayer was at. I was sent a video series on halo recently, and decided to give it a play, because it’s a classic. Overall, I think it’s pretty good. You have enemy variety, weapon variety, environment variety. It’s a very different type of shooter from what came before it, and what’s come since. It’s not a tight map with very controlled encounters like Doom or Quake, it’s not a linear corridor shooter like more modern console FPS. It’s content in many levels to open the space up, hand the player a vehicle or two, drop some weapons here and there, and let the player roam. This reminds me most of Giants Citizen Kabuto, a game from my childhood that I did complete, multiple times even (and probably need to replay some day), which had a very similar open sandboxy structure, similar weapon and enemy variety, similarly designed space suits, and even a similar goofy feeling to the cutscenes (it came out like, a year earlier, was it an inspiration?).

Halo has surprisingly neat enemy designs. The covenant have elites, grunts, jackals, and hunters (not that you see those much). The Flood have tiny flood, big flood, and brood flood (wiki says, infection, combat, carrier). Then the weapons on each of these can vary. I think the needler and the turrets are designed to be fun for the player to dodge and avoid, but not good weapons to actually wield, because they’re so slow to hit their target, and need to be lead so far ahead of their target to actually work. Interestingly, enemies are programmed to rotate slowly as they fire, about the rate you can circle strafe around them (with a delay in when they begin to follow you). This is a regenerating health shooter that actually expects you to dodge enemy fire, and many sections are tailored around this.

Speaking of the regenerating health, I find it a lot less offensive than most implementations of the mechanic. You have more actual health (both in shield health and the health underneath the shield), and it takes a lot longer before it starts filling up again than in other games (apparently halo 2 started the faster regen trend, as well as reducing the total amount of health). This means that during a single encounter, you have a lot more context between exchanges of fire, and that allows a lot more interesting stuff to happen. context meaning, you take damage, and that damage stays. Everything that happens is contextualized together for that period before you regenerate. It’s like a punish in smash bros you get hit once, and things don’t just reset back to neutral; you’ve been pushed somewhere else, you’re in a new situation now, on different ground. Your past mistakes stay with you in Halo until your health regenerates. Halo 1 has a better health system with 1 pip of health underneath the shields than the average modern shooter does at all. If you have, say, only 1 unit of health, like in super meat boy, then you can’t have a context between encounters. Everything is its own thing. Your mistakes don’t pile up. You either live or die. In say, Dark Souls or a metroid game, you’re walking around, you take damage and you get low on health some enemy attacks do big damage, some do small, and you need to live with those mistakes and aspire to not make more. And you can undo some of that in Dark Souls or other games, by drinking estus or collecting pickups but the estus too is this limited resource that stays with you, pickups are a limited resource that there is only so much of in the level. This means there is this shared context between encounters, you are where you are now because of your prior successes or failures. Regenerating health games don’t like that context. They don’t allow that context. They’re constantly resetting that context over and over again and they give you so little health that everything puts you close to death, and you constantly need to reset the context, and they make it quick. It kills the pace, discourages aggressive play.

A lot of people tend to say that the health underneath the shields is what differentiates halo 1’s regen health systems from other games, but really I think it’s that the shields take so long to regenerate and there is such a long delay before they start regenerating. They give you a health bar that you can take varying amounts of damage on that you need to live with for extended periods of time, then push you into situations with little cover and aggressive enemies to force you to actually dodge and avoid damage, minimizing it by taking out enemies rather than use your regen health to tank damage and kill enemies whose health won’t regenerate. You aren’t poking your head out, sustaining damage, and trying to deal more damage than you take. Not only that, but (most) Elites also have regenerating shields like you. You can’t tank their damage, deal your own intermittently and expect to win. One minor change I’d make to this life system if any is capping damage from most damage sources at the point where the shields run out, so you can’t run out of shields, then health on top of it in the same hit. I don’t think I’d do this for all damage sources though, leaving in instant kills for grenades, and allowing more powerful weapons to break this rule if you’re at a quarter shield already. Actually, I think the correct solution is having shield health hidden underneath the visible amount, so that you can damage into the invisible health amount, and only depleting past that invisible amount of health in a single hit will reach the actual health underneath the shields.

Plus, enemies have a bunch of interesting behaviors. Elites and Jackals will roll out of the way of gunshots, and when you try to run them over. Interestingly, they’ll only roll after you’ve shot them once, so you don’t have them randomly dodging damage, you can shoot, then react to the way they roll to follow up. Grunts will run away when you kill an elite accompanying them, or if you sticky them, or just plant a grenade in general (covenant generally try to get off of grenades). This can even lead to them carrying a sticky back into their group. Grenades left on the ground will explode if hit by an explosion, so you can have chain explosions from one grenade, and lure enemies into places where their comrades died, then set off a ton of grenades at once. Jackals will shield your attacks, but can be shot carefully around the shield, stunning them. For that matter, all of these enemy types will take hitstun when you avoid hitting their shields, so you can shoot around a jackal’s shield to stun it, then go for a headshot, or stunlock a grunt or shieldless elite to death. Stunning an enemy with a charge shot can also help hold it in place to be killed by a grenade. Kind of a point of oddity is that enemy spawns are randomized when entering areas. Sometimes there can be more or less enemies, or the same number in different places. In assault on the control room, I even noticed a rock would randomly change size when entering the area, and it correlated with some jackals not spawning.

People generally don’t like the flood as much, but I think they’re interesting in their own way. The infection flood actually make the assault rifle, otherwise a garbage weapon, actually useful. A lot of sections with the flood are about dodging really well versus overwhelming numbers. You need to keep moving, frequently through swarms of the infection flood, which you can get through undamaged if you’re careful. What’s killer about the flood is, you need to keep moving, keep circle strafing, keep eliminating the combat type whenever you see them, and keep picking up new weapons because you’re constantly losing ammo, which means going back to where you killed them frequently, straight into the horde of flood on your tail. The carrier type are really cool too, they’re like an explosive barrel in the form of an enemy, so if you watch out for when they’re near other enemies, you can kill a bunch at once, but they unleash more infection flood in the process, so it’s not without downsides. Combat and Infection forms will occasionally do a jumping lunge at you, so you gotta aim high when this happens. Reminds me of headcrabs really. Also some flood will revive, which means you have enemies both in front of you and behind you. You can identify these flood in advance because they have a unique model.

I feel like this is the only game where I’ve had a legitimate reason to pick and choose between weapons when there’s a two weapon limit and have willingly shied away from always picking the best all-around weapons. Ammo scarcity does a decent job of forcing regular weapon switching, and certain weapons are clearly more effective on some enemy types, like shotguns on the flood, and plasma pistols on jackals and elites.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the copypaste rooms. They’re kind of unfortunate, but not as bad as people have made them out to be. It helps that most of them are well designed, with interconnection, loops, and cover built in. What’s really unfortunate about them is their lack of direction. They should have considered inserting more unique art assets to give the rooms more direction in where to go. Some of them have glowing arrows on the ground, which helps, but frequently I ended up getting turned around in unmarked areas that were symmetrical or not very visually distinct. I have a good sense of dead reckoning, so this usually doesn’t happen to me, but if enough looks similar then it’s easy to get turned around when sent back to a checkpoint, or when hunting for the way forward and going down a hallway that is repeated a lot. Obvious offender is the library.

Interestingly, many levels feature faction combat, similar to infighting from Doom, except the enemies don’t need to be provoked to fight. Sometimes there are enemies allied with you, sometimes they’re all hostile. And you can strategically try to weaken the sides without provoking fire on yourself. They get some variety in there. Marines that are allied with you, will climb into your vehicle, sentinels that are allied with you and need to be protected from the flood, flood and covenant fighting each other, sentinels and flood fighting each other, sentinels and covenant fighting each other. It’s neat.

I still don’t like how slow it is, or how floaty the jumps are, and how you have barely any air control during a jump. The low gravity coupled with the weak air control lead to a few moments where I misjumped and really couldn’t correct myself and fell to my death in slow motion. Speaking of that, when enemies get run over or blown up. the animation they do in the air is really neat. I don’t think this game had real ragdoll physics, or if it did, only a very limited implementation, but I can’t really be sure. Enemies being sent flailing through the air looks pretty neat though, like more modern animation blending techniques. Pretty impressive use of the tech from back then. Speaking of animations, the game definitely runs at 60FPS on my computer, but all the characters look like they’re moving at 15 FPS. Not 30, 15. I mean, I know it’s supposed to be 30 , but wow. That’s weird as hell, rather jarring. Dunno if that’s a glitch with my copy, or if they just animated it all at 15 FPS and didn’t have tweening for the motions. Honestly it’s probably mostly jarring because it’s right next to 60fps camera and projectile movement. The tech existed at the time to smoothly interpolate animations, there isn’t really an excuse for this.

The guns thankfully are pretty interesting. Many of them use actual projectiles. Most of them have differing functions, only the needler and assault rifle are basically useless, but even they have some small utility. Needler is one of the strongest regular guns, but it’s impossible to actually stick enemies with the needles most of the time. If stuck with even 8 or so, it’ll kill most of the stronger enemies, like Zealots. So the needler is hot garbage, even for speedrunners, but it can be used in a desperate situation. The Assault rifle is hot garbage, but it’s useful versus infection flood since it has a lot of ammo and a wide firing cone. Human weapons can be reloaded and tend to have a lot of ammo, so they last you for a long number of encounters, but are available much less frequently, so you need to be careful to make them last. Covenant weapons like the plasma pistol and plasma rifle have a small capacity, but almost every enemy drops them. In this way, Halo has an ammo “economy” similar to Doom or Quake, where a lot of other modern shooters just drop practically random guns all the time until they have a section where they specifically want you to use a sniper rifle. The human power weapons, rocket launcher and sniper, are extremely rare, but basically can beat anything in a few shots. Human bullet weapons also all pierce through enemies, hitting more enemies beyond them. So frequently with the shotgun and sniper I was able to line up multi-enemy kills. Since covenant weapons have such a small stock of ammo, and don’t reload, you need to constantly be picking them up off enemies. Overheating kind of takes the role of reloading for them instead, forcing you through a recovery animation every once and a while unless you choose to wait for a bit.

Ammo Scarcity is a big big deal in Halo. It’s like the primary dynamic, it’s probably one of the biggest reasons that only having two weapons works so well here, because you’re constantly getting pushed to switch weapons, pick up new ones, and try to optimize your damage. Ammo Scarcity means you need to make every shot against the enemy count, because that’s how you get more ammo. You need to continually and successfully kill enemies and pick up their weapons to persist, because human weapons with large magazines won’t last forever, and covenant weapons run out quickly. This mandates continual efficient play as well as aggression on your part.

I feel like the game is very much designed around the Plasma Pistol more than any other weapon. Jackals and Elites both have shields that are instantly incapacitated by a charged shot of it, which otherwise takes a great many shots from a normal weapon. I think it takes something like 16 headshots to kill an Elite on Legendary with the Pistol, which is otherwise a very powerful weapon for its ability to kill any enemy instantly with a headshot. The Plasma Pistol/Pistol set is called the noob combo, but it really feels like it’s the standard the game is built on, which you deviate from as ammo runs out and better weapon choices come up. It’s a sensible dynamic. It’s cool to fire off a charged plasma pistol shot, then switch to pistol to headshot the guy while he’s stunned inbetween.

Grenades are a big deal for crowd control, especially on higher difficulties. Enemies will run away from them and dodge to avoid them, but you can throw multiple to catch them inbetween them. Plasma grenades take a long time to blow up, so they’re easily avoided if you don’t stick enemies, but you can use setups to trap enemies near plasma grenades. At one point I threw out a plasma grenade, then threw another one directly on top of it, the first one blew up, propelling the second one into the air, and it got stuck onto a grunt further off. That was awesome. Grenades don’t actually start their timer until the first bounce, so this can be taken advantage of in order to fuck up enemies, by throwing it lower to the ground so they have less time to run away; or in general to time grenades better by throwing them in different arcs. Frag grenades explode really quickly and bounce better, so can be used as a straight offensive tool for taking out tougher enemies. Grenades let you fight enemies on multiple fronts, which isn’t really possible with standard weapons. Right before the control room, I jacked a banshee by throwing grenades to the right and left, and unleashing a charge shot on the elite ahead, then rushing the second elite who was about to enter the banshee, stunning him with a charge shot, and taking off. That was cool as hell. Halo basically has a ton of avenues for attacking enemies and expects you to switch between them rapidly, which is totally cool.

And it’s worth mentioning explosion jumps. You can grenade jump and rocket jump in this game with good timing. You can even use those to launch your vehicles, provided you don’t destroy them in the process (assuming they’re a ghost or banshee). Because vehicles are rigged to usually land rightside up, explosions are a good way to turn them over or around in a hurry. And you’re made temporarily invincible when exiting a vehicle to prevent it from accidentally crushing you if it’s still in motion, which can be abused in launches to survive huge numbers of grenades. A similar type of temporarily invincibility is present on the overshields, for when they are charging up. Many areas of the game have higher levels connected through open areas from lower levels, so grenade jumps are useful in many places, and the splash damage is weak enough on a grenade jump to only hurt your shield (though if you mistime it, you’re going back to a checkpoint). The amount of Z-action across the game, even in smaller copy-pasted rooms is really impressive. The fact that a regenerating health shooter has grenade jumping is itself impressive.

Surprisingly, it was possible to stealth through many sections, every enemy except like, hunters die in one hit if thwacked in the back, and many rooms don’t start off with enemies naturally aware of you. Grunts are sleeping in many places, jackals and elites are patrolling, so you can sneak up behind them and kill them with melee hits that don’t trigger an alert. Once you shoot a gun though everyone will be after you. Even during combat, enemies stay focused on your last spotted position, opening them up to ambushes from behind. When alerted, all the enemies in the area become aware of you simultaneously and will never return to patrol formations.

Alright, Ghosts, Warthogs, Banshees, a Scorpion. They’re all pretty cool as vehicles. Unfortunately the vehicle controls are total garbage. On most vehicles, left and right don’t do anything. Movement is totally controlled by pressing forward and back, and pointing with the mouse, which locks on obnoxiously close to the direction you’re moving, which is especially annoying with all the ground vehicles that you’d probably like to look upwards with as you move, or aim and shoot at the same time. Plus you have very indirect control with only the mouse, so you need to trust that turning the mouse a certain way will be interpretted as turning around the right way, which can suck. It’s hard to get a banshee to float, and oddly it doesn’t seem you can run over enemies with ghosts, which is kind of lame. The scorpion’s reticule is garbage, makes it a total pain to tell where the next shot will go. Plus the vehicles handle with very low friction while turning. Product of its time I suppose. My first time playing the Silent Cartographer level, I drove a warthog straight into the door that locks on you before it could close. The door closed through the middle of the warthog, but I was on the other side, so I basically skipped the island half of the level. That was cool. Couldn’t replicate it after that, except once when I did it, got out, and died instantly. The physics on the vehicles are a bit rigged in your favor also, which is nice. So you can do things like throw a grenade or fire a rocket under a vehicle to flip it over as you’re running up to it, then get in quickly.

I think one of halo’s best assets are its larger outdoors levels, but the majority of the game is spent indoors in relatively similar hallways. Most of the smaller hallway rooms have fairly good design though, especially the ones in Assault on Control Room, and Silent Cartographer. There’s a lot of cover interspersing wider more open areas, so you always have something to fall back on, but sometimes you gotta make a push. Speaking of reusing assets, most of the game’s levels get repeated with you going backwards, like Assault on Control Room/Two Betrayals; Truth and Reconciliation/Keys; Pillar of Autumn/The Maw. I think this is supposed to be a thematic thing. I don’t see it as being strongly to the game’s favor or against it, because the encounters are fairly different going both ways, with you mostly fighting covenant the first time, and fighting flood and setinels in addition to the covenant the second time. In many of the larger outdoors areas, you get this sandboxy combination of vehicles, marines, turrets, and a more exploratory style of play that isn’t seen in many other games. The firefights in more limited spaces are nice, but it feels like the outdoors sections could have been leveraged better. Having a mixture of really open and more tightly controlled firefights in the outdoors areas (like those in Truth and Reconciliation’s intro) would be nicer, it seems to have levels stick to one or the other most of the time. The level Halo strikes a very nice balance there frequently, and even has 3 nonlinear mission objectives, but no other level seems to really copy its template, which is regrettable given the things the other levels introduce.

I think my least favorite level was 343 guilty spark, because the jungle section is short and not very intense, and the sections indoors feature wide open rooms with little cover, a higher ground that is inaccessible most of the time, and it’s difficult to navigate through without getting turned around. Plus it has kind of a weird anti-climactic ending, triggered by the two sentinels that accompany 343 guilty spark dying instead of anything more tangible or clear. In contrast to many other people, I actually liked The Library, except for how easy it was to get turned around, but it’s a bit more linear than 343 guilty spark, treads over the same rooms less, so it’s harder to lose progress. The Library was a very intense combat challenge that required a lot of efficiency, eliminating threats as or before they appear, and sustained periods of dodging enemy fire in low cover. I think I’d pick Assault on Control room for a favorite level because there’s a lot going on with it, a lot of variety in the environments, showing off the best of both close quarters and wide open encounters, with multiple vehicles, many of which you can control, and most of the game’s weapons. There was one cool sequence where I had to fight on a bridge with hunters pelting me with plasma on the other side that I couldn’t realistically beat with my then current assortment of gear, so I had to stealth kill a ton of grunts and jackals, then rush the rest of the bridge which had multiple elites and grunts left over before I got destroyed. I think many of the hallways in the ship part of Truth and Reconciliation (and keys) are rather weak, having alcoves at junctions in the path, but still generally just being hallways, but the opening of the level is great, having the right blend of open space and cover with interesting terrain to boot. I don’t think the outdoors segment in Keys was as good, because it’s essentially just a hallway section but themed like it’s outdoors. Silent Cartographer was a mix of good unique indoor environments that had nicely designed fights with reasonable outdoor environments. I particularly like the hunter encounter at the top of the island. Pillar of Autumn was an introductory level, lacked enemy and weapon types, so I can’t totally fault it for being tame. The Maw was just rather lackluster as an ending if you ask me. The hallways aren’t great levels to fight in, lacking connectivity, loops, and cover generally. The final escape sequence was unique, but driving the warthog is kind of a pain. Also the boss encounter in the engine room was kind of confusing in terms of where to go, and how to actually destroy the engine, just because you don’t throw the grenades into the part that just receded with the open port you can see from the point where you pressed the panel that opened it, you need to instead get across from them and shoot into the vent it detached from. Also you can run out of nades and need to backtrack to grab rockets from an armory, and getting up to the top of the room doesn’t involve much fighting and takes a fair amount of time.

My tier list for halo levels would be:
High Tier: Halo, Assault on Control Room, Two Betrayals
Mid Tier: Silent Cartographer, The Library, Truth and Reconciliation, Keys
Low Tier: The Maw, 343 guilty spark, Pillar of Autumn

Something that mildly sucked though was that older corpses and weapons would despawn. Probably because of the limitations of consoles of the time. Wish the weapons were at least left over. I’d frequently clear out areas ahead, want to double back to grab a weapon I saw earlier, and it’s just gone. Would have probably been smart to store weapon locations in memory and despawn them until you’re within a certain radius, and looking at them. A good point of comparison would be Mario 64 objects. Given the focus on efficiency this makes a degree of sense though, and it avoids incentivizing backtracking long distances to pick up weapons, which would suck given the slow movement speed. So yeah, you don’t get rewarded for remembering where old weapons dropped, which means you need to use your current crop of weapons, but if you totally run out of ammo, there’s also no reserve to fall back on.

My first playthrough was on heroic. I have a rule of thumb about western games to always go with the second highest difficulty if there’s multiple “hard” modes. Also heard Legendary was kind of unfair and a friend warned me not to play it before starting. Heroic was a nice challenge. Killed me a fair amount during the harder parts, like the first on-board room of truth and reconciliation, some parts of the library, etc.

Not sure initially what’s actually different about this difficulty, but it does seem harder. I clearly die faster on legendary, but I’m not sure enemies have more health. They seem to take the same number of hits to die (though I just moved up from heroic, so I’m probably already used to higher health). Maybe they’re more accurate on legendary? More enemies in general? I checked the Halo Wiki for the actual differences. http://halo.wikia.com/wiki/Legendary#Halo:_Combat_Evolved Seems like there’s a lot of them, including higher rate of fire, more health on enemies, dodging as soon as they’re shot. More and harder enemies. And a few level specific differences. Grenades are thrown more, and detonate faster. Cool. For a hardest difficulty, I think Legendary is fairly well balanced honestly. I’m dying a fair amount at each checkpoint, like 2-3 times maybe, more on harder ones. Minor downside is that because enemies are more accurate, there’s less of an emphasis on dodging like on Heroic, which is kind of unfortunate. Though of course, I am playing on PC with a mouse and keyboard, so this is a lot easier than the console experience. Overall I’ve had a lot of fun on this difficulty and have as of writing this review made it up to the beginning of 343 guilty spark.

The checkpointing system is nice with a couple small downsides. It simply has certain points set to save your game when you pass over them at regularly spaced intervals. It’s a pure save state instead of a sort of reset checkpoint, so you load in exactly the condition you were when the checkpoint activated. This is kind of inbetween what checkpoints are for PC shooters and console shooters, and it makes sense given the way the game is so heavily focused on resource conservation. It keeps all your resources persistent as you progress. Otherwise you could use checkpoints as places to get more ammo if you were running low, preventing ammo panics (times when you’re low on ammo) from being as intense. The downside of course is that you might run out of ammo completely, and get checkpointed with no ammo, and need to fight to get ammo back, which would suck. The checkpoints also have a basic safety check for whether enemies are near you and engaged before they activate, so you don’t end up getting saved into a situation where you die over and over again. The checkpoint will activate after all enemies are dead, provided you’re close enough to it. This can mean that you miss checkpoints if you’re not diligent about clearing out enemies, but I didn’t have this happen. Another downside of the checkpointing system is that it saves if you have a shot of the plasma pistol charged when you enter it, so if you die, you can respawn and instantly shoot a fully charged shot of the plasma pistol, which is wasteful. Deaths instantly load you to the checkpoint with no fanfare whatsoever, like it’s a super meatboy level or something. It’s really easy to be holding the fire button and waste a few shots when you load. Not the best presentation there and of course it pays to give people a second to acclimate to a new environment. Though honestly it’s probably because my load times are insane compared to the original game. Still, might have paid to put in like a 1 second death animation, and to reset the player state on checkpoint load, so they can’t be in the process of charging.

Overall, I think it’s a good game. Despite all the praise I heaped on it, it’s still a bit simple, especially in the movement department. A lot of the projectiles enemies shoot at you are rather samey, being essentially straight lines that you circle strafe around, and the differences between enemies are primarily the amount of health they have, the presence of shields, and their weak points. Halo’s strength is in maximizing the amount of tactical play afforded by the limitations it sets upon itself. It asks you to use different weapons, to switch frequently, conserve certain ammo types, to use them in tandem with grenades, it has opportunities for melee attacking, stealth, ambushing enemies from the side, manipulating the enemy AI a little, make efficient use of cover, live with the consequences of battle for relatively long periods of time, dodge enemy shots, fire accurately, prioritize targets. It falls a bit short on many guns functioning similarly, requiring you to aim in similar ways, and enemies having few means of attacking you besides straightforward shots. Also damage not being completely avoidable, but rather something that is expected to be tanked through with regenerating health, even if it is a less offensive implementation of regenerating health than most. It didn’t always play to its strengths and dragged out a few indoor shooting sections longer than they probably should have. It doesn’t have as much enemy variety as say Quake or Doom, or as much crazy movement or weapon diversity as say Half Life. Still, it’s like an 8/10 and clearly has a lot going for it that other good games in the genre don’t.

If you enjoyed this review, you may enjoy my Halo 2 review.

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