If the Xbox had failed to launch with Halo, I often wonder how the videogame landscape would now appear. Not just for Microsoft’s debut console, which owes its very survival to Bungie’s launch-title, but the industry itself. Halo helped usher in a new era of first-person shooters on home consoles, an impact unseen since Goldeneye. It established a rabid fan base, who would eventually contribute to the sequel’s media-shattering launch, where videogames finally enjoyed the same critical and commercial reception as film.
But why was Halo so popular? What was it about Bungie’s design that resulted in such a defining title? And was the game’s success beneficial for the industry, or not?
The Holy Ring
Whereas now, Halo has broadened into comics, novels and – almost – film, fans had no knowledge of the story or the canon before the Pillar of Autumn’s random slip-space jump found the Halo ring. Immediately, we’re thrust into combat, as the fearsome Covenant board the ailing ship, and the Master Chief is woken from cryosleep.
The Chief is an intriguing character, so silent and disciplined he seems as robotic as his appearance suggests. Thankfully, the AI character of Cortana lends some much-needed personality to affairs. Upon escaping from the bombarded Pillar of Autumn, the Chief must gather together the splinters of UNSC military and stage an assault on the Covenant, who seek to claim the Halo ring and its almost godlike power.
The very DNA of Halo is inspired by various iconic films and novels. Larry Niven’s Ringworld books may have inspired the Halo structures, and the character dynamics between the Marines in James Cameron’s Aliens were probably the basis for Halo’s infantry. Sergeant Johnson himself is an analogue of the Sergeant from the same film.
The Master Chief, however, is an entirely different prospect. He’s a character designed entirely for videogames, a man defined by his actions, not his words. His sparse dialogue is representative of Bungie’s acute understanding of how to position a protagonist, especially in a first-person perspective.
When a game reaches a level of success akin to Halo’s, it’s only natural a contingent of industry followers will eagerly attempt to dispel any notion of its quality. Whether Halo deserves such success is debatable, but you cannot deny it has set the foundation for an entire generation of first-person shooters.
For instance, Bungie eschewed the traditional model of characters carrying an entire arsenal of weapons, instead opting for a two-gun approach. The Chief can carry any combination of weaponry he likes, but only in pairs. It helps to focus the player on rationalising encounters, and is bolstered by the series’ patented health-system.
Thanks to his cybernetic suit, the Master Chief can absorb a number of hits before his health is depleted. This ‘shield’ replenishes itself, unlike his health, which can be boosted with medical supplies. It meant players needn’t constantly worry about their health.
All this, along with a veritable ecosystem of AI behaviours for both allies and enemies and an enjoyable dose of vehicular combat, resulted in a streamlined, rewarding experience. Pitch-perfect controls and expertly staged encounters polished the experience to a nigh perfect sheen.
While the campaign was obviously a step-up for the genre, it was the multiplayer Bungie crafted that truly elevated Halo to classic status. Sadly, the game was released before Xbox Live was born, so the options were limited to split-screen or system-link.
Regardless, the multiplayer was fun, rewarding and intense. Maps were varied, from the sprawling, twisted tundra of Sidewinder to the complex layout of Prisoner, with its latticework of bridges and layers. The weapon-set was generally quite balanced, with the Assault Rifle the basic weapon of choice. You could choose from either UNSC or Covenant weaponry, with the latter capable of draining shields faster, and the former better at harming unshielded enemies.
It wasn’t entirely perfect. The infamous Pistol fans both loved and hated could pop skulls in less than three shots. The Scorpion tank, though slow and lumbering, was sturdy and powerful and, in the wrong hands, immensely annoying.
But the key to Halo’s multiplayer appeal is Bungie’s focus on distilling it to its core components. No Spartan was stronger than another, the so-called ‘power weapons’ were sparse and low on ammunition, and it wasn’t crammed with radical new game types. Again, like the campaign, it was focused and sleek, with very little baggage or extraneous features. It paved the way for Halo 2’s success and Xbox Live establishing itself as the premier online service for home consoles.
Standing The Test Of Time
It’s been eight years since Halo was released, and its influence is obvious. First-person shooters are now one of the most popular genres on home consoles, and the conventions Halo set - two-weapon limit, recharging shields etc – permeate the design of almost every offering in the genre since.
Halo’s critical success is matched only by its commercial impact. Halo 2 generated $125 million in twenty-four hours, a record only broken by the follow-up, Halo 3, which earned $170 million in the same amount of time. The multiplayer has since ascended to Xbox Live, and remains a constant figure on the Top 10 polls.
But what of the original Halo we’ve been discussing; how does it stand the test of time? I believe of the three games, it has the strongest campaign offering. The reveal of the Halo ring is an indelible moment, and Assault on the Control Room and The Silent Cartographer are standout set-pieces, too. It laid the groundwork for first-person shooters on home consoles, and no matter what the sequels achieve in gross and recognition, they cannot equal such a feat.