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History Lesson: How Halo started an FPS revolution

By Matthew Pellett on Sunday 13th Jul 2014 at 8:00 AM UTC

Combat Evolved. Just think about that for a moment. It's a bit of a brazen statement to make, wouldn't you say? Especially in a post-Doom, post-GoldenEye, post-Half-Life world.

In case you were wondering, it wasn't Bungie who made this claim way back in 2001, but Microsoft. Microsoft's marketing men and women, in fact, who were concerned the name 'Halo' was rather soft and didn't think consumers would associate the title with a first-person shooter.

So the term 'Combat Evolved' was coined to emphasise this was indeed a shooter and the tagline was duly slapped into the name and onto the box. And somehow, through some stroke of luck or divine intervention from the gaming gods, a miracle happened: in doing so Microsoft's money-spinning marketeers had stumbled on a profound truth. 'Combat Evolved' wasn't just marketing spiel. Halo really was the dawn of a new shooter age, and went on to be one of the most influential games of all time.

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But never mind that the two-weapon system, the grenade button, the use of vehicles, the use of checkpoints, the powerful melee strikes, the regenerating shields, the storytelling tricks, and a few dozen other features were all stolen and replicated by other studios in the years after Halo launched. We're not concerned with Halo's lasting legacy right now, just the game that had us all cooing in awe when we first whirred up Microsoft's Tankbox over a decade ago.

Gaming was different back then, and despite a few high profile exceptions (mostly on the N64) the FPS was neither a console shifter nor the overwhelmingly dominant genre it is today. When it came to shooters PC-elitism was very much at work, with most gamers resigned to the fact that a control pad could never provide the same level of response or precision as a mouse and keyboard combo.

The Xbox's original oversized controller didn't do much to change that truth, not least because even Mr Tickle would have struggled to wrap him arms around the thing. But it didn't need to, for rather than the Xbox changing how we would play the FPS, in Halo the Xbox fundamentally changed the way the FPS would be designed in the first place.

Take the weapons. Traditionally PC gamers were at an advantage when it came to gun selections because they could simply tap the numbers 1-to-0 to pick their death-dealer of choice. Console folk, on the other hand, had to cycle through them with all the pace of a geriatric granny.

Halo's carrying capacity restriction put an end to that. Bungie thought about the controller and Halo's combat tactics and came up with a two weapon system that worked brilliantly on a pad and just as well when it came to gameplay. Progression was no longer simply a case of vacuuming up every gun and ammo pack, but thinking deeply about the challenges ahead and planning correctly.

Halo also dismantled the notion of twitch shooting. Games such as Unreal taught us important lessons about whose mouse moved fastest lived to fight another day, but in Halo the cumbersome controller - long heralded as the reason why FPS games couldn't function to the intended degrees on consoles - was no longer a hindrance. And it didn't need to resort to GoldenEye levels of snap-to auto aiming to do it, either.

Halo's regenerating shield was the answer. It meant players could step out of protection and either sprint to a better vantage point or fire off a few well-placed shots before hiding once more, and the net result after a couple of seconds of calm behind cover was to be zero negative effect to health bars. Compare that to previous titles where any wrong step resulted in a permanent health subtraction until the next medikit pick-up and the familiar balance of a firefight was completely tipped on its head.

Halo tested its players on a battle-by-battle scale rather than on the ability to maintain a pulse over a long stretch of multiple encounters, and with every scrap successfully negotiated Halo restored everyone to an even playing field before the next test. Why? Because Halo's battles were and indeed still are special.

Forget about enemies negotiating their terrain in a scripted fashion, popping their heads up on cue as if they were the cast of a light gun game: Halo's Covenant were smart, and that was a real game-changer in 2001. Bungie wase able to code AI like we hadn't seen before, and then all that was left to do was the relatively easy task of dropping us and our foes into an area and letting all the brains on the battlefield do the rest.

Throw a frag grenade and enemies would clock the threat and dive out of the way. Start wearing down shields and foes would find cover. Get knocked for six by a charged shot and you can bet your green ass the Covenant would charge you down and take advantage.

Individually your opponents acted smartly, but they also talked to one another. You could even hear them talking to each other, and the result was FPS gunplay that was more tactical than anyone had seen. Thanks to plenty of non-linear levels and vehicles, they were more open and varied than we were familiar with, also.

Halo had corridors too, of course, and not all of them were great. The Library's gone down in legend as an example of terrible cut-and-paste level design and understandably so. But while it was far from Halo's high point, it both ensured Halo's more creative levels stood out for the trailblazing creations they were, and it gave us a relentless Left 4 Dead-style battle against the odds long before Valve brought its zombies along to play. Not a bad haul for a mission many consider to be a write-off.

Then there's the Halo itself: a game world like nothing seen before. After an ordinary opening level on the Pillar of Autumn, the sight of the megastructure looping overhead gave Halo's outdoor arenas a sense of place and beauty in ways usually only captured in National Geographic. Never mind the wonderful game mechanics, the Halo's mysteries alone were reason enough to keep playing. And in Master Chief and Cortana we were treated to avatars interesting enough to keep us invested in the human-Covenant war.

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Of course, Halo's successes weren't all built on the many grand design innovations. Plenty of our fondest memories are linked to little things: things such as the tiny gap in the Jackal's shields that were just right for long-range kills with the magnum, or the way the Grunts would throw their arms up in terror and run around scared when we tagged them with a sticky grenade.

And who would ever forget the joys of effortlessly flipping the Warthog the right way up after a careless, Titanic-esque charge at a rocky outcrop resulted in a marine-flinging bouncing barrel roll or three?

All of these factors contributed to the undisputed Xbox game of forever, but there was one more trick Halo had up its sleeve and it came in the shape of its multiplayer. Even in the days before Xbox LIVE brought online gaming to permanent roost on consoles, Halo delivered a masterpiece of a multiplayer mode, and to neglect its importance would be an offence worthy of a lifelong writing ban for us all.

Whether it was charging around Blood Gulch and Sidewinder in Warthogs and Scorpion tanks or simply roaming the hallways of Rat Race with the needler, Halo's multiplayer matches gave us experiences we'd never sampled before. The mechanics that made the single-player campaign sing worked doubly well in a competitive environment, and saw console LAN parties spring up all over the globe.

Halo 2 might have taken those joys online, but for many the original experience is still the best. No one single game has managed to slingshot a developer to AAA studio status quite like Halo did for Bungie, which deserves credit not just for making a great game to begin with but for tying it into a richly woven universe.

Even after multiple sequels, books, comics, films and more, the Haloverse feels like it's just warming up. Some 13 years later and for some, the original is still running rings around the competition.