A new iteration of one of the top co-op franchises on any system was released this week. We're talking, of course, of Halo 3 ODST. The game that started it all was Halo: Combat Evolved for the original Xbox. Previous-gen consoles are fair game for this column, so let's take a look at the game that spawned what many consider to be the defining FPS series.
Throughout gaming history, certain game characters have become iconic. Nintendo has Mario and Link, Sega has Sonic. But as far as the last decade goes, there's one new character that stands out from the rest: Master Chief. Heavily armored from head to toe, highly trained in the use of any weapon, and gifted with an incredible lucky streak, Master Chief is a compelling protagonist. The armored Spartan hero has become the face of the Xbox. In contrast to Mario and Sonic, Master Chief is more appealing to the adult gamer, which is appropriate given the shifting role of gaming today. Video games are no longer just kids' toys, but are a focal point of home entertainment, and Master Chief is representative of this change.
But what is so special about Master Chief? What did Halo: Combat Evolved do that other games didn't? Why has the series become so popular, rising to the top of sales charts and earning critical acclaim? It's difficult to find one particular reason; it's not just one thing that makes Halo great, but the combination of many separate elements. Though Halo: Combat Evolved was the first game in the series, the magic Halo formula is there, and was very satisfying, even from the beginning.
Probably the biggest innovation Halo: Combat Evolved brought to the table was the storyline. The setting isn't particularly new, but it is nicely detailed and full of lore. The player is dropped quickly into the heat of the action, and the war against the Covenant is quite epic. The Covenant make excellent antagonists, with uniquely styled weapons, vehicles, and ships. The Flood are perhaps less impressive, but the memorable AI, 343 Guilty Spark, more than makes up for it. Adding to the epic feel, the stakes are extremely high in Halo: Combat Evolved. You are fighting not only to save a world, but all sentient life in the universe. Such in-depth, compelling stories were unusual for FPS games of the time, and the series has a strong storyline to this today.
Finely tuned gameplay elements in Halo: Combat Evolved added to its popularity. Players have access to a great selection of well balanced weapons. The shield mechanic takes away many of the frustrations of FPS play and flattens out the learning curve. Enjoyable third person vehicle segments spice up the action quite nicely, keeping the game from becoming stale. The game was impressive graphically, as well. Character and vehicle designs in particular were excellent. Additionally, the music of Halo was quite different from most other games, and the soundtrack is often mentioned as one of the best in video games.
Though this is a site primarily concerned with co-op, we have to mention Halo's non-co-op multiplayer components. As a launch title for the Xbox, Halo didn't support online play (there was no Xbox Live yet). But it did support system link, and the limit for players was a whopping sixteen! This was a revolution as far as consoles were concerned. Sure, it was a hassle to get all those TVs and Xboxes hooked up, but certainly it was far easier and probably cheaper than a PC LAN party. Gaming stores everywhere had Xbox systems linked up and ready to go for patrons to come in and play some Halo. Even in the small rural town of about 10,000 that I live in, there was just such a place, where you could rent some time and frag your friends. Halo: Combat Evolved was quite simply the gold standard for console multiplayer.
Of primary interest to Co-Optimus readers, of course, was Halo's support of co-op play. Two partners could team up and play through the entire campaign together, requiring only one copy of the game. Being able to play with a friend makes any experience both easier, and more enjoyable. When the experience is as fine as that of Halo, co-op just cannot be beat. Halo: Combat Evolved is an important game in co-op history. If the game had not included co-op, we might not have seen the recent resurgence of co-op in video games today. Later games in the series continue to support co-op.
The legacy of Halo: Combat Evolved is far reaching. Halo 2 was arguably better than the original, adding in online multiplayer over Xbox Live. On the current gen Xbox 360, Halo 3 and Halo 3 ODST are both available, and maintain the high standard of gameplay of previous titles. Halo Wars, an RTS offshoot, took the franchise in a new direction but still maintained the same quality we've come to expect from the series. User content features in Halo were also instrumental in the rise to prominence of machinima, most notably the series Red vs. Blue.
If you looked back at the past decade in gaming, it would be difficult to find a more important game than Halo: Combat Evolved. It was instrumental in the success of the Xbox, leading to further success with the Xbox 360. All modern FPS games are inevitably compared to the Halo series. A live action Halo movie has long been rumored, and soon, an animated film will join countless other Halo tie-ins in books and comics. Just over the horizon lies Halo: Reach, set before the events of the first game. The Halo franchise has become a true juggernaut. By anyone's definition, then, Halo: Combat Evolved is a true classic.