Halo: Combat Evolved

November 29, 2020

After school I got a ride to my friend Will’s house. It is cold inside of his family’s single wide trailer. We went into his bedroom, which was near the front door of the home. Inside, Will is sitting with his legs crossed on his bed. He had been waiting on us to arrive.

A few months before this we had started our senior year of high school. It was November 2004.

He inserted the disc for Halo 2 into the Xbox that’s connected to a 19-inch CRT television. The disc tray closes and we arrive at the game’s title screen.

Will doesn’t rush through to the game’s start menu. He instead lets the title screen run for a few uninterrupted minutes. During this, tears begin to fill his eyes. The experience of turning the game on was so visceral for him that it brought him to tears. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I understand that he’s excited about this game, but I could not share in his joy.

The one time that being in the presence of a video game brought me to tears was Christmas Eve 1992. I was at my grandparent’s home and my family was exchanging gifts. I was six. My aunt handed me a Christmas present. I opened the gift and saw a copy of Darkwing Duck for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I lost all control of my emotions. My legs began to buckle and I sobbed as tears of joy flowed down my goofy little boy cheeks.

Halo was a game that I only experienced in group settings when I would visit friends who owned an Xbox. I would play a few rounds of split-screen deathmatch before my attention would wander. It was fine.

Before this, Will had written a story that my friends and I adapted into an artsy short film. I grew apart with Will not long after this. He started calling himself a “history buff,” except he focused on Nazis. He would brag about reading Mein Kampf to anyone who would listen.

Sixteen years later, I purchased my first Xbox. I decided to play the campaign of Halo: Combat Evolved for the first time. This time I wanted to play the campaign without having to also entertain others around me.

I’m glad I did, because this game is good. It is snappy, responsive, and feels as good as a modern shooter. Most of the time I play video games when my wife and kids are asleep, i.e. late at night or early mornings. I have conditioned myself to not value sound design much. I always play on low volume so I didn’t wake anyone up with my games. After purchasing a decent set of headphones, this is now my preferred way to play games.

For a game that is old enough to vote, Halo has excellent sound design and sounds alive in a pair of headphones. The game gives the player a strong sense of spacial awareness. It is pretty fantastic at playing music in the right moments to make you feel like a big deal. The game knows exactly where and when to play an orchestral banger. In turn, you feel like you’re doing the most important thing in the world. The music, in conjunction with the dialogue happening around you, elevates this experience. Everything clicks and feels full of life. It goes beyond telling you what to do and makes you want to do the next thing.

GB Burford’s take on combat in Halo sums it up better than I could:

“Halo has, for lack of a better word, a dance. There’s a specific rhythm, a unique cadence to Halo’s combat encounters missing from a lot of games. The combat arena in Halo is a dance floor, and the short range of your assault rifle is an invitation to get up there and dance your heart out.”

As the multiplayer for Halo 2 grew in popularity, my interest in the series waned further. I began to associate the series with the “bro” crowd. When imagining a 2004 bro a certain image comes to mind. I picture someone with spiked hair, a T-shirt with a tribal symbol on it and a burned CD filled with Seether songs. My emo ass didn’t have time for bros- I was busy writing for my LiveJournal and playing F-Zero GX. During this period I would tag along to Halo 2 LAN parties. Each time I was very much put off by the house full of 16–19 year old dudes that were playing Halo on many televisions. Thinking about it, could you even set up more than one Xbox to play together on the same local network? Should they have even described this event as a “LAN party” at all?

This wasn’t the only Halo 2 event in my life, either. I wrote a blog post on November 17, 2004 titled “Cause feelings mean nothing now.” In the post, I wrote “Tomorrow is our Halo 2 party, as well. That should be…interesting. There will probably be a person or two I really really don’t want to be there that are.” I do not remember who I was referring to in this vague post. Earlier in this entry I wrote about picking up my Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater pre-order. The post dated for the next day, titled “You’re still miles away,” noted that I was unable to attend this Halo 2 party. I skipped this event to play Snake Eater, which in hindsight was the right decision. The next fall I moved away and went to college. There was a guy in my dorms that embodied the definition of a Halo bro (Hay-bro? No? Okay, I’ll stop). We’ll call him Kyle. Kyle seemed like a nice enough guy on the surface, but over time he made me uncomfortable. The first thing about him that you should know is that Kyle was a racist heap of garbage. He was far more comfortable using the N-word out loud than someone in 2005 on a college campus should have been. He was someone that claimed to be interested in Nazis because he was a “World War II buff,” but anytime he would talk about this war he would only reference Nazi Germany and was super into Nazi imagery (What is it with Halo and Nazis in this story?). Kyle had a degree of confidence about him that was never warranted.

Years later I moved to a different town while still pursuing my Bachelor’s degree. I was working in a pizza chain restaurant. Kyle walks in the door to pick up an order and it is the first time we have seen each other in 4 or 5 years. He has an arrogant look on his face as he asked “You’re still not finished with your Bachelor’s degree?” He then informed me that he was in graduate school at the local university. He grinned as he carried his shitty pizza out the door. A few years after this, I saw him post on social media noting that he had been unemployed for over a year. To preface what I’m about to say, understand that I do not take joy in the misfortunes of others. You’d think that someone as smart as Kyle would have known the reality of how useful a Master of Arts in History is.

At his core, though, liking Halo was his personality. It was all he talked about. He would play it every available moment. To this day, he still posts Master Chief fan art to his social media profiles. Of course, those posts are mixed in with shitty right-wing memes challenging you to come and take his guns.

As the fall of 2005 progressed, I continued to distance myself from the series. I no longer feigned interest when the subject of video games came up and people gushed about how sweet Halo 2 is. I still did not own an Xbox at this point. Even as the launch of the Xbox 360 approached I still have no interest in owning an Xbox console. Despite this, on November 22, 2005 I waited in line for 12 hours inside of a Walmart with a friend when he bought one. No one seemed to understand why I did that since I got nothing from my time spent there. When we were finished we went to my friend’s house and had his sister transport his girlfriend home. We did this so that we could play multiplayer Perfect Dark Zero. I have not played that video game since that night. The following fall, I would spend even more time in line at the same Walmart waiting for a Nintendo Wii. While in line, we fantasized about how realistic it will be when I finally get to play Red Steel. I spent that night in 2006 playing Wii Sports until the early hours of the morning. I loved every game within Wii Sports outside of the boxing game.

Some environments in the game are very repetitive. You will see the same gray room that has a circular hallway around it far too many times in the second half of the game. It wouldn’t stand out as much if they put a bit more effort into making the rooms look different.

I love that the game forces you to be mindful of your ammo. It even has plenty of instances where you have to juggle weapons you find laying around to get through an area. It gives you just enough to get through most encounters. The downside to this is that the Covenant’s weapons suck. This has less to do with the weapons themselves and more to do with the fact that I don’t enjoy using “alien” weapons. Real world guns feel far more enjoyable to use over something like a laser assault rifle. My brain writes off “futuristic” guns as children’s toys that you would find in a dollar store. The shotgun in this game owns, though.

The worst part of this game is “The Library.” Research into criticism of Halo indicates that this level is infamous for being way too difficult. The level has Master Chief following a robot guide to your end destination. The problem is that there is a never-ending flow of enemies trying to murder you. The checkpoints in this area are ill-placed and unforgiving. Why do Flood monsters have damned rocket launchers? Can zombie-like creatures even operate a rocket launcher? Every time I saw a rocket launcher I quoted Metal Slug. The game’s difficulty ramps up at a natural pace, but this level sucks. I do think that part of my initial disinterest for the series comes from being familiar with PC shooters. Part of what made this game feel special was that it was a good first person shooter on a console. The touchstone console FPS games of the time were GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. These were good games, but they didn’t have the precision controls of a keyboard and mouse. The visuals were very muddy and had poor frame rates. I had played games like Half-Life, Quake III and Unreal at this point. These were games with precise controls, high frame rates and great graphics. There were solid FPS ports on the Dreamcast at this point, but the controls weren’t quite there yet.

I wasn’t the only one to have these feelings, either. Eurogamer’s review of the game from 2002 comments on some quality of life features as well:

“For starters, those of us weened on PC shooters may find it a little frustrating that you can only carry two guns at a time. As the game uses a checkpoint-based autosave system, if you find you have the wrong weapon for the job your only choices are either to run back to wherever you dropped the gun you really need now, or to muddle through as best you can. This was a specific design choice that would force you to be strategic and mindful in how you use your weapons. It wasn’t due to the lack of keys 1 through 9.”

When I transferred to a different university for my sophomore year, my contact with the Halo series died off. I wasn’t around people who continued to play games in the franchise. Many of the Halo fans that I knew in real life were edgelords, so I wrote off the series as something I would never like.

There are much better first person shooters to play in 2020, but this campaign is still worth your time. I am taking the narrative I had written about this franchise out of the hands of people like Will and Kyle. It is not a game for shitty bros; it is something that my melancholic self can enjoy.