When Microsoft announced Game Pass Ultimate during their E3 conference, I knew it was a deal I couldn’t pass up. After scanning the catalog of games I could download on my Xbox, I made my first choice – Halo: The Master Chief Collection. In an effort to play them all in order, I booted up Halo: Combat Evolved. Halo CE was released by Bungie, following its acquisition by Microsoft, in 2001 as a launch title for the brand new Microsoft console – the Xbox.
Halo CE was a masterpiece for its time and an incredibly influential first-person shooter that has spawned a crazy popular series as well as countless imitations. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, since Halo is one of the all-time most popular video game franchises, and you’re on a gaming website, but I just want to set the stage with exactly how great this game was when it came out. In 2001 Halo: Combat Evolved was a first-class masterpiece that skyrocketed Xbox to stardom. That was almost 18 years ago.
There are very few games I can play these days, with the type of graphics and smooth controls I’ve become accustomed to, that are more than 10 years old without getting frustrated for one reason or another. I was on the fence about how enjoyable this experience would actually be for me. Even though The Master Chief Collection includes the Anniversary Edition of the game (the version I played way back when), remastered for the 360 in 2011 for the 10th anniversary of the game’s release, I planned on playing the classic version to get the original Halo experience.
I assumed I would get tired of the less than stellar graphics and clunky controls, and move on to the newer games after a few hours. Boy was I wrong. Firstly, the graphics really aren’t that bad. I’ve played recent games that made me cringe in the first couple minutes more than I did through my entire CE playthrough. The scenery is relatively detailed, with ranging environments that broke up the sections of spaceship battles. Considering that they had to reuse a bunch of environments to be able to ship on time with the Xbox launch, the uniqueness of the setting throughout the game is pretty impressive.
Other than the generic soldiers, characters had unique looks that made them recognizable, the various Covenant races have unique designs from one another, and the cutscene animations were within the realm of low budget CGI that I would still find palatable. Then there is Master Chief himself, who had an amazing design right from the get-go, despite just being a soldier in armor and a helmet. A relatively basic concept managed to become iconic. This made me realize that as much of a graphics snob as I can be these days, some of the greatest characters in gaming stole our collective hearts despite graphics we would find laughable now.
It takes more than a realistic face (or helmet) to make a good character. The gameplay itself is top-notch. My standards for game controls are high, but unless you’re doing something extremely weird it’s difficult to screw up controls for first-person shooters. Considering this game is a genre-defining standard for our time, it really isn’t surprising that it feels the way a good FPS should. It is the benchmark that “a good FPS” was based on. You point a gun at the baddies and you shoot. At some point, you probably have to reload.
When the game was being made, these standards for console gaming weren’t there, and it says a lot about Halo that they managed to make something that works so well in the short timeframe they had before launch. The only aspects of playing the game I really don’t like are trying to navigate, and driving/ flying any of the vehicles. It took me an upsettingly long time to complete the end of the game where you have to drive away before everything explodes. There was a lot of crashing and a lot of yelling. To be fair, I had an equally difficult time trying to control the vehicles in Rage 2. I also got stuck in a field in Forza so I’m starting to think this is less of a problem with their vehicle mechanics and more a problem with my own abilities.
I’ll mark that down as a strike against me and not against Halo. Halo: Combat Evolved holds up. It has definitely aged and has its issues, but they don’t stop it from being a classic that is still playable. The story has its problems, and some things are only briefly explained as a way to patch over holes created when scenes were cut during development, but that doesn’t stop players from feeling a connection to Master Chief, understanding the importance of fighting the Covenant, or being in awe of Halo the first time you see it. The game just has something epic about it, a quality that draws you to it. That’s why, so many years later, just a teaser of Master Chief’s helmet at E3 causes a crowd to go bananas. It’s still a good game to play, and it’s still a world we want to explore.