Halo Combat Evolved Review: Endless Ambition

Halo. One of the most well known, recognised and popular videogame franchises; A franchise that started in 2001 with Combat Evolved, a game that was originally a real time strategy game, then a third person shooter, and finally (upon release) a first person shooter. With such a history of transformation throughout the game’s development cycle, one might think that it was because that the developers, Bungie, didn’t have a clear vision, but upon playing the game you see that this simply isn’t the case. The vision was there. What instead becomes apparent is that all these changes may have happened due to one thing: Ambition.

Halo Combat Evolved is a game that tried to achieve so much… Tried. Some of these things it does inspiringly well, and others it simply fails at.

First it establishes it’s story as something you should probably pay attention to, and not skip past in favour of shooting purple aliens. You are the Master Chief. You are aboard the Pillar of Autumn, a ship that is fleeing a fleet of alien Covenant ships that accidently discovers a massive ring, with it’s own self-contained eco system, in the middle of space. After getting boarded, you evacuate onto the ring and everybody crashes. You spend some time gathering up your forces, rescuing captured soldiers and eventually uncover that the ring is a big super weapon designed to nuke all sentient life in the galaxy. Why? Because once upon a time a bunch of fungal zombies called the Flood ate everyone and an ancient race built the Halo ring to essentially restart the galaxy. Unfortunately there are still Flood on this ring and you must fight them as well as the Covenant. Eventually you meet a robot, Guilty Spark, who operates the ring and promises to help you out but secretly is trying to trick you into activating the ring again, thus wiping out the galaxy because, you know, the Flood are infesting his home. You say screw it and decide to blow up the ring instead, but only after you do battle with a bunch of flying robots. You fly into space, the only survivor along with your AI friend, Cortana, and the game ends.

It’s an extremely simple story, but one that is equally as effective due to how it is told. For example, the Covenant being bad is conveyed through you not having a weapon for the opening of the game, which forces you to walk through battle arenas of enemies mowing down your friends. It really sets up the Covenant to be a threat quite convincingly. That is until you get a gun, at which point most of this is undone because of how easy most of them are to kill unless you’re playing on a high difficulty.

What works a little more effectively is the introduction to the flood through an atmospheric horror section and the fact that your first battle against them is an ambush, forcing you to quickly adapt your playstyle to counter these new enemy types. Though a little harder to fight against than the Covenant, the Flood are quite repetitive to do battle with. Pretty much every variant shares the same weak spot and, generally, most combat scenarios against them come down to using crowd control weapons.

Then there are the Sentinels, those flying robots I mentioned, who are introduced as friends that battle the Flood alongside you, but who then go on to betray you when you refuse to activate their Halo ring. They’re… boring. They fly, are easy to hit and only really prove to be difficult if you’re playing on Legendary because they can very easily spawn kill you at the beginning of the mission they betray you on.

The enemies in this game are a mixed bag. The largest variety of enemies are within the Covenant faction, which is good because they are who you’ll be doing battle with most frequently. In fact number of different enemies there works well alongside the slow pace of the game effectively enough to create a logical and calculating combat experience, within which you’ll remain focussed by constantly searching for weak points on your enemies and prioritising taking down dangerous enemies first. Well, at least when the game is at it’s best. When the game is at it’s worst you’ll be hiding miles away with a pistol, the only midrange weapon in the game, spamming out headshots while also trying to convince yourself there was no more interesting way you could have handled the scenario. Oddly specific as that sounds, playing the game on anything above normal essentially demands you use the pistol due to how versatile it is, which is a shame because you can only carry two weapons and some of the other guns are, while not quite as effective, much more fun and satisfying. Skilled players can probably cope without the pistol on heroic, but putting that thing down for even a second on Legendary will eventually lead to your death.

I think in a shorter game none of this would have been a problem, and none of it would have overstayed it’s welcome. But, as I said, this is quite an ambitious game. Don’t be fooled by the number of levels, because most of the mid and endgame levels are overly long. For most of the game you’ll be fighting in grey corridors, before going into two or three copy and pasted rooms to fight more enemies, and then finally depart down another set grey corridors. That is except for the second mission, where you traverse halo and fight in numerous diverse locations, and in the third mission where you fight in purple corridors instead. Thankfully the game occasionally breaks this grey corridor crap by giving you a vehicle section. Just hope the vehicle isn’t a warthog, because they control awfully with floaty driving. And if you dare sit anywhere other than in the drivers seat – like the much more appealing gunner position – you won’t be able to rely on the AI piloting to get you through the mission. If you get a scorpion or a banshee then you’re set. Kill some aliens have fun. Go bananas. Until the game ends that section and forces you down a grey or purple corridor again.

One level opened in a misty marshland and I thought it was a cool change of pace, and where the environment changed how I fought in a way that the others hadn’t. But not even a quarter of the way through it they sent me into another corridor. It was grey. But at least it had a green hue to it, not that I noticed much once I became focussed on combat again.

But on the bright side, I genuinely don’t think the repetitive environments and scenarios are down to artificial padding on the behalf of Bungie. I think they had a good idea for a first person shooter and wanted everyone to experience their good idea for as long as possible. In doing so, I think they really over estimated how fun copy and pasting confined arenas was. Truth be told, this is a good first person shooter that set the bar for most future shooters to come after it. It just over stays its welcome and, by the end, lost it’s focus a little. Just as I did. I found myself dying a lot towards the end. Not necessarily because the game was difficult, but because the game had lost my focus. Back in the day this game was probably a lot more impressive, but by modern standards it has certainly aged quite a bit with it’s narrow enemy variety, weapon selection and environmental design. I think it’s a combination of those things that made me feel…

Bored.

Because of this I, quite controversially, cannot recommend Halo Combat Evolved… In my opinion, the game should have been much shorter with many of the copy pasted environments cut out to prevent the stagnation of the gameplay in the mid-endgame. Because by the time you’ve reached that point you’ve likely discovered all that the sandbox has to offer, and most of the best things you can accomplish cannot be done from the inside of a big grey building. And as great as the atmosphere is, it can only hold your attention for so long when you’re trudging through bland combat arenas over and over again. Fighting the Covenant, with their wider range of enemy variety, can save the game at certain times, but even that gets boring when most encounters compose of one or two elites leading a bunch of one-shot-kill grunts. You’ll find yourself longing to see a jackal, celebrate at having to shoot at something other than the head to expose its weakness, and then lose yourself again when you kill it in 0.05 seconds flat. If only there were more covenant hunters in this game. If only there were more than three types of flood to kill. If only they had play tested the fight against those spawn killing Sentinels. If only there was just one or two more vehicles in the game. Maybe then I could recommend it. Alas, I cannot for anyone venturing into this game alone.

On multiplayer coop, however, the game was hilarious. Me and my buddy set a bunch of skulls on, which modify the gameplay, so that explosions were larger and physics objects had less weight. The result was nuclear levels of enemies spamming grenades and launching us, themselves and the environment into space. It added a lot of challenge and entertainment to even the most repetitive parts of the game, which I found to be absent when not playing with skulls or simply when playing alone. Halo has a reputation for being a great coop game, and there’s a reason for it: Exploring the possibilities of the in-game sandbox with a buddy leads to much more hilarious results and opportunities than it does alone. Skulls can enhance the gameplay when playing alone too, of course, but it’s when you’re with a buddy that you allow yourself to properly see how far you can push the game.

Therefore, providing you have someone to buddy up with, I would definetly recommend playing this game.

Remaster
99.9% of anyone wanting to buy this game in 2021 is probably going to do so on the Master Chief Collection, which features the remastered version of Combat Evolved. It is a highly pointless remaster that was released for no other reason than because it was the game’s 10th birthday in 2011. Literally nothing about the gameplay has changed or been updated, and all of the graphical changes are… Well, they’re crap. The remastered graphics are over-saturated and drain the game of all its atmosphere. Somehow, modern technology transformed the unique designs of the Halo world into soulless and generic sci-fi environments. That’s right, they managed to make grey corridors even more boring! Whoever the hell remastered this game obviously didn’t play it in order to understand the context of certain missions. For example the horror-ish mission that introduces the flood, once a mix of misty marshland and dark corridors, is now brightly lit and as vibrant as any other mission in the game. They totally missed the point of the original intent of this mission’s presentation, if they even tried to understand what that intent was at all, and just decided to slap new textures and lighting all over the place.

If anything, it feels intrusive. The colourful, modern models for the Covenant don’t make them feel quite as threatening any more, but rather like the type of enemies you’d fight in Time Crisis at an arcade machine. Though they are impacted to a lesser degree, the same can be said for the Flood and Sentinels. Resultingly, the best part of the base game – which is to say the atmosphere – is butchered here. It might play the same, but it feels entirely different, and not in a good way.

Additionally, though I could not prove it if I tried, it seems as though the remastered version lowers the volume of the game’s music. Whenever I fired my gun, I couldn’t hear it all that well. Of course this is a terrible thing since Halo is renowned for it’s amazing soundtrack, and Combat Evolved is no different to any other Halo game in that regard; The music not only empowers you with confidence, but also immerses you in both the world and action.

Luckily the remaster offers you the option to play on either remastered or original graphics. For the love of god, play on the original graphics. That way nothing will look generic and the music will be on point.

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