Combat Evolved.

“Don’t get any funny ideas.”

I like Halo: Combat Evolved.

In any list of my personal favourite titles it would be up there with Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom and Thief II: The Metal Age. Each of the Halo sequels have been entertaining but none had the same impact, nor felt as pure in their execution as the original.

I have completed Halo at least five times. Usually I don’t replay games on harder difficult settings as often the more challenging settings in action games are simply exercises in frustration, the core experience unchanged except with enemies becoming bullet sponges. This is not the case with Halo, I completed the game on Normal, and after hearing how the difficult significantly changed the experience I opted to make a second attempt on Heroic. When I did that, everything changed.

On Normal I’d found all the weapons to be useful, but on Heroic the differentiation between each weapon and weapon combination became dramatically more apparent. The Needler went from simply interesting to the ultimate weapon for defeating shielded Elites; the Plasma Pistol from a mild irritant to the first part of a One-Two combo with the Assault Rifle to defeat Jackals. My attitude to the enemies changed too, Grunts went from amusing cannon-fodder to dangerous distractions; easy to kill, but armed with Needlers and Plasma Pistols they could inflict a lot of damage in groups.

Finally moving to Legendary the differences between the weapons and enemies became even more pronounced to the extent that Halo all but stopped being about action and became instead a tactical shooter; very specific weapon and target selection required to succeed. Still it never once felt like it was cheating, there were no precognitive ambushes, nor one-hit kill snipers; something that the sequels would later resorted to.

The changes that occur to the balance of the core gameplay when moving from Normal to Heroic are such that I maintain Bungie made a mistake in selecting Normal as the default difficulty setting. A suspect few people will change the difficult when th y first play the game and therefore never experience the tactical depth Halo has to offer. On Normal your starting weapons are effective in most circumstances so there is rarely a motivation to do anything more than hold down the trigger.

There are other problems with the game, the one most commonly mentioned is that of its repetitive environments. Even though some areas are explicitly duplicated during the course of the game, the enemy type, number and placement is different each time, as are the weapons you are likely to be wielding; the tactical space of the game is always different.

There are no boss battles, no dramatic spikes in difficult, or sections where an entirely new skill set is required. There are vehicle sections but the controls remain essentially the same, the right stick always controls the camera, the left always handles movement, and the right trigger is always fire.

The game introduces you carefully to each enemy, subsequent encounters requiring you to gradually develop your abilities and tactics. You start the game fighting Grunts and Elites in confined areas, then you move to fighting Grunts, Elites and Jackels in open areas, and then fighting with vehicles. It eventually introduces the Flood, and once you know how to deal with them (Involving sadly the worse level in the game, The Library, which combines both aesthetic and functional repetition), it asks you to fight the Flood and the Covenant, and then the Flood, the Covenant and the Sentinels. Each encounter requires that you take the skills developed previously and build on them.

There are only seven main enemy types, and ten weapon types (Including the two different types of grenades), enough to provide variety but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track of specific strengths and weaknesses of each. Again this is somewhere the sequels failed, the introduction of several new weapons, enemies and eventually usable items, meant that it became difficult to keep track of the interactions between each, and often led to some weapons being under utilised.

Halo has a limited number of objects each with very specific interactions through which it’s able to promote meaningful choices and tactical play; while still managing to provide surprises and challenges even on my sixth return visit.

“An entire Covenant armada, obliterated, and the Flood… we had no choice…”

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