Halo Anniversary as a Brief History of the FPS Genre

August 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

The deep irony about Halo: Combat Evolved is that its influence on console gaming was so profound, so complete, and so irreversible, that it has often been underrated as a result. Ten years on it’s hard to remember exactly how half-baked and inferior console shooters were in the days before Master Chief. We take it for granted now, but Halo was nothing short of revolutionary.

We’ve been living with its influence now for just over a decade, but since the release of the seminal Call of Duty 4 the genre has embraced new design ideas. Halo’s DNA is still in every first person shooter, but recent releases have gone in a different direction; prioritising speed and intensity over a more methodical pace. The school of thought is to my mind neither better nor worse. Its uniqueness was indeed worthy of praise – that is until everyone started doing it.

The point I’m trying to make is that my mindset going into Halo: Anniversary was a world apart from what it would have been ten years ago. I had played the genre inspired by the game, but not the game itself. With that in mind I cranked the graphics and sound all the way back to ‘original’, opened my arms, and simply said, “show me.”

I was expecting the game to bore me. I imagined that all it threw at me would be little more than the embryonic ideas of what would be done better by later games, and that any unique features would be so only by virtue of the fact that no others had seen fit to imitate them.

Yet it’s surprising how wrong I was. The game is solid in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. It doesn’t concern itself with a huge number of functionally identical enemies or weapons, instead it has a smaller number which it strives to make completely unique. When you die (in my case often), it’s not because the game in a fit of cheap difficulty decided to throw dozens of enemies at you; it’s because you approached the environment from the wrong direction, you prioritised the wrong enemies, and you used the wrong weapons.

It’s hard to emphasis enough how much Halo forces you to think. Maps are the polar opposite of Call of Duty’s shooting gallery corridors. They are wide open and dotted with sparse cover for you to hide behind or perch on top of (choices! hurruh!) and at times can make you feel exposed in a very uncomfortable way. They don’t try to patronise you, and this can sometimes work against them on the occasions when your destination is made obscure by the sheer scope of the environment. At these moments the pacing falls to pieces, and turns a tense hunt for enemies into an exercise in walking around in circles.

The game also doesn’t quite have enough content to last its total playtime. One section in particular up in the icy mountains sees you traipsing through the same room at least three times. By this I do not mean you backtrack through it, but that the level designers have literally looped the environment in the style of a low budged cartoon. It adds length sure, but it drags and cheapens the experience.

Call me a wimp, but I’m also none too fond of ‘the flood’ as an enemy. Defeating them is less about carefully alternating between standard, melee and grenade attacks, and more about frantically running backwards to avoid their own overpowered claw swipes, not to mention one particular bastard who likes to explode all up in your face and shower you in Halo’s equivalent of facehuggers. Then again, to its credit these frustrating stretches rarely persist for more than half an hour before the game eagerly returns to what it does best.

I played Anniversary in its entirety using the game’s original graphics, and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything as a result. Halo (or at least Combat Evolved), was never about wowing your with extravagant set-pieces or fancy visuals like many do today. It’s more subtle than that, more nuanced. You slip into Halo over a period of hours, slowly coming to terms with how the enemies think, and how each of your weapons is best-suited to take them down. There’s no gimmickry at work here, just rock solid game design.

That’s why it’s sometimes easy to overlook Halo. It’s not bright and fancy, nor is there a single feature you can point to as being its legacy (although regenerating health comes damn close). It’s simply exceedingly well made in a way console shooters simply weren’t at the time, and for that we will always be grateful to it.

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