What Is Halo: Combat Evolved Really About?
Halo: CE claims to be about Earth’s fledgling interstellar empire and a guerilla war with an alien covenant, but it’s really about something much simpler and much grander.
These days, Halo is a game that needs no introduction. For gamers and non-gamers alike, the word Halo brings to mind Xbox consoles, aliens, Mountain Dew flavors, and the blocky, suspiciously DOOM-like look of the Master Chief.
But now, on the twentieth anniversary of the original Halo, Halo: Combat Evolved, I became curious about how the game has changed, and I wondered if there was any difference between how the game was originally pitched and what the actual game itself is like. So I fired up Halo: The Master Chief Collection on my Series X to start a new Halo: CE campaign, while also going into my attic to pull out my original disc copy of Halo that I, apparently, bought at EB Games for $9.99.
The back of that box features a couple different text boxes that tout the game’s multiplayer, its vehicle and weapon options, and its “seamless, hyper-real indoor and outdoor environments”, but the main text box talks about how “a fellowship of alien races known as the covenant are wiping out earth’s fledgling interstellar empire,” and how “in a desperate attempt to lure the aliens away from earth” you end up “marooned on the ancient ring-world Halo [and] begin a guerrilla war against the Covenant” as you “race to uncover the mysteries of Halo.”
While all of that is technically accurate, none of it really reflects the experience of playing Halo. After completing the campaign again, I can confidently say that this game isn’t really about a guerilla war against the covenant, nor is it about Earth’s fledgling interstellar empire, nor is it about uncovering the mysteries of Halo.
Halo: Combat Evolved is really about epic-ness.
Everything in Halo: Combat Evolved is designed to feel epic — everything has been cranked up to eleven. You get that sense as soon as you pop the disc into your Xbox and hear the sick bungie guitar riff followed by the epic Gregorian chants that accompany the game’s menu. I don’t normally include a game’s menus in a critique, but the distinct first impression that this game made back in the day can’t be overlooked.
That music continues once you’re in the game itself, swelling at emotional gameplay moments to highlight the intensity of a situation. Some songs are more subtle while others are booming and bombastic, but all of them are soaring, cinematic and undeniably epic.
A less obvious element that contributes to Halo’s epic-ness just as much as its music is its environments. After you beat the game’s first mission, which consists mainly of long grey hallways on a spaceship, you are released into an expansive, picturesque forest complete with rolling hills and steep cliffs.
This transition is a little bit like the transition from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz. Although expansive open world maps are commonplace in today’s games, Halo’s vast maps and long draw distances felt revolutionary at a time when most games were forced to have a perpetual fog hanging a hundred feet in front of the player.
But today, even when not taking the technology of the time into account, the vastness of many of Halo’s levels still feels profound and epic. And that sense is only heightened when you begin hopping into and out of vehicles, realizing there’s really no difference between the places you can drive and the places you can walk. Thinking about how long it would take you to get from point-A to point-b without driving a warthog in a section where one is provided makes these levels feel impossibly, epicly huge.
Similarly, Halo’s weapons may not be considered epic at first glance, but take another look and you’ll notice that each one is dialed up to maximum intensity. The assault rifle shoots extremely quickly and features an enormous magazine, the pistol is super accurate and even lets you scope in despite only seeming to have iron sights, the sniper rifle zooms in so far it seems like you could bullseye a quarter at a hundred yards, the rocket launcher is loud and packs an earth shaking punch, the plasma rifle singes your gloved hands if you fire it too much, even the lowly plasma pistol shakes with energy when you charge it up. Each weapon has a unique attribute, but all of those attributes are cranked up to an epic level.
Then there’s the cutscenes, which never hesitate to use every epic cinematic trick in the book. In Halo: Combat Evolved, the cutscene camera is constantly moving, sweeping around characters and vehicles in a way that would make Michael Bay blush. When the camera does stand still, it’s usually because it’s getting an extreme close-up on someone’s face — even if that person’s face doesn’t display any emotion. These camera techniques can sometimes border on comedic, but within the context of the rest of Halo’s epicness, they feel right at home.
The story that these cutscenes flesh out is certainly as epic as they come — by my count you end up saving the world at least twice in this game — but Halo’s story can also, upon closer inspection, often feel flimsy or cheesy. And that’s because in the moments when the game has to decide between telling a coherent story and being epic, it chooses to be epic every time.
For instance, you’d think that a platoon from a partially wiped-out fledgling interstellar empire would be short on soldiers, but, in Halo, there always seems to be another wave of space marines ready to fight an epic beachhead battle alongside you.
You’d also think a group of soldiers fighting a guerilla war would be short on equipment, but these folks have an aircraft that can pick them up, drop them off, and deliver vehicles and ammo wherever they need them.
Maybe that’s plausible, but surely these people that are marooned on an alien planet would be, if not scared, at least a little tense? Nope. Everyone on this planet is apparently chill enough that whenever you jump over a hill in a warthog they’ll hoot and holler and cheer you on.
Why do these marines cheer when you jump a warthog? Because jumping over a hill in a warthog is epic! And it’s made even more epic when an NPC notes it’s epic-ness with an enthusiastic “woo-hoo!”
Jumping a warthog is just as epic as Halo’s music, and maps, and weapons, and cutscenes. Seeing that marine pump his fist when you go over a hill is the perfect encapsulation of this game. Yes, according to the box this game is about the aliens known as the covenant and the mysteries of this mysterious planet you’re on, but really, Halo: Combat Evolved is about epic-ness.