Nine years later, still a showstopper.
When Halo originally came out in 2001, I had no intention of buying an Xbox, so I only played bits and pieces at friend’s houses. It seemed like a competant shooter but nothing worth going gah-gah over, especially considering most of the shooters I was playing were still on PC.
A few years later, I finally got around to playing Halo firsthand with Gearbox’s PC release, but in many ways, the moment of excitement had passed. I was merely playing through it as a formality just to see what I had missed, and due to game crashes, I eventually gave up after the first third of the game.
Enter 2010 when I finally picked up an Xbox 360. Now -- nearly nine years after release -- I finally get it. With an Xbox controller and playing from an easy chair, I finally get what made this game such a revelation. Enough has already been said about Halo’s innovative gameplay mechanics that have now been widely copied across the FPS genre, but what really struck me about the game was how natural it feels playing with a controller, which I never appreciated in the PC version or, to be honest, many other console FPS. I’ve struggled with most console shooters, growing tired of the sloppy thumbstick aiming and shlocky controls. In Halo, the controller feels perfectly balanced and integrated with the gameplay. All the basic movements become second nature. Blasting down your reticle with the right trigger while dodging in and out of cover with the left analog stick, lobbing grenades with the left trigger then flipping your weapon with the Y button -- all these actions would be spread out a bit more on a keyboard. On a controller, it’s effortless and compact. Auto-aim assistance helps keep the game enjoyable without making it feel like the game it playing itself. Controlling vehicles is a little wonky but feels more intuitive with a controller than a K/M. Sad to admit, but Halo really is the first console FPS I’ve played where the controller made me appreciate the game way more than a keyboard and mouse.
Huge, open environments are exciting to explore and each pitched battle feels more like a multiplayer pitched fight, playing out differently depending on how you approach it. Pacing is handled incredibly well, taking you between outdoor natural environments and the stark sci-fi of spaceship interiors. The contrast between the two really show off the difference in designing for the once-traditional corridor shooter and the now-commonplace wide open battlefield. Vehicles are also integrated into level design that takes advantage of their capabilities. The overall experience feels authentic and real, rarely breaking immersion with obvious gaming conventions that remind you you’re in a video game, despite the fact you’re still just blasting away aliens in space.
The storyline does a great job building lore without laying it on too thick (*cough* Mass Effect), and the plot arcs halfway through with new characters that make a major impact on how the game actually plays. While the overall storyline is exciting to play through, individual characters are mostly terrible one-dimensional cardboard cutouts of genre stereotypes -- the cigar-chomping sarge, the speechless hero, the amusing sidekick and brainy assistant.
It’s a shame it took me nine years to finally appreciate Halo, but that’s maybe the highest compliment you can pay to the game that this long after release, it’s still a stunner to play through despite the massive advances in hardware, graphics and design since its original release date.