Influential FPS Games #15: Halo: Combat Evolved

Updated: Feb 24

In the last article, we saw the future of PC competitive multiplayer gaming and e-sports. Thus far, of the nine most influential FPS games, all but one of them - Golden Eye 007 - have also been on PC. The other eight either remained PC exclusives or were designed for and released on the PC, with ports coming later. Many of these ports were less than ideal. The consoles of the era often lacked the graphical horsepower to recreate the games faithfully.

What’s more, their controls and in-game User Interfaces (UIs) were designed around a keyboard and mouse. Attempting to use these with a joypad was often slow, awkward and frustrating. Many console gamers were wondering when they would get an FPS made for them.

In episodes ten and eleven we saw how Half-Life influenced most story-based FPS games for years. There were evolutionary improvements of course, especially when graphics were concerned, but many of us yearned for something new, the next giant step if you will.

We were left waiting impatiently for the 'next big thing'. Many gamers wondered what it would be called, when it would happen, and what form it would take.

On November 15th 2001 we received the answers to all those questions, as this was when Halo: Combat Evolved (henceforth referred to simply as Halo) hit the shelves. This is its story.

The OG Xbox

X box

But before we can investigate the game, we need to look at the hardware that made it possible. This was Microsoft’s debut games console, the Xbox. (Now reverentially referred to by some as the OG Xbox, partly to help distinguish it from the Xbox One.)

The OG Xbox was in many ways a PC in disguise. Indeed, its working title was ‘DirectX Box’ due to it using the Direct X API used on PCs. Its internal hardware was far more powerful than the other consoles of the era, and way in advance of the consoles of the previous generation such as the N64. This enabled it to generate 3D graphics to a similar standard as the PCs of the day. Its inability to do so at HD resolutions was moot as most TVs were still Standard Definition CRT sets at the time.

The console also featured an internal HDD which made saving games easy and an Ethernet port which enabled it to easily connect to the internet. Both were firsts for the console scene.

The Xbox controller was also revolutionary, featuring triggers and a widely spaced asymmetrical dual thumbstick layout. Many found this more comfortable than the closely set symmetrical thumbsticks of Sony’s DualShock 2 controller for the PlayStation 2 - the OG Xbox’s main rival.

All the above combined to make the OG Xbox the console best suited to challenge the PC’s dominance of the FPS scene.

Development of Halo: Combat Evolved

Although Halo: Combat Evolved was both an FPS and a launch title for the OG Xbox, it started development as neither. It started life as a Real-Time-Strategy Game for the PC, then morphed into a Third Person Shooter (TPS) before eventually turning into the FPS we see today.

Microsoft acquired Halo’s developer - Bungie - during Halo’s development and turned it into a launch title for their new console. Considering the staggering success of the Bungie-era Halo games, this was a wise move. Incidentally, Halo would return to its RTS roots in the form of Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2.


XBox Duke Controller
First iteration of the original XBox controller. It was nicknamed 'The Duke' due to its size

One of Halo’s key innovations was introducing a control scheme for a joypad that actually worked well. One stick was used for movement – forwards, back and strafing left and right, whilst the other was used for looking and aiming. This mimicked the movement keys and mouselook controls of PC FPS. This felt intuitive and ‘natural’, unlike some of the control schemes used in previous console FPS games such as GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark. To be fair, these earlier titles were hampered by the N64’s controller possessing only one thumbstick.

Shooting was achieved via the triggers. This felt intuitive and natural since the controller’s trigger was mimicking the trigger of the Master Chief’s weapon.

Even the best thumbsticks do not afford the same level of precision as a mouse. To compensate for this Halo utilised a generous - but not excessive - degree of aim-assist.

Jumping was achieved with a single button press, typically the A button which was closest to the right thumbstick. This allowed jumping with a split-second flick of the thumb. Crouching was often achieved by ‘clicking down’ on one of the thumbsticks.

This was the control set up consoles had desperately needed for years. This set up has now been standard for almost all console FPS games - with the obvious exception of those on the Nintendo Wii due to its motion-sensitive Wii motes.

Halo: Combat Evolved - Pillar of Autumn level – Legendary Difficulty

He can flip a tank, but it takes him three pistol whips to the head to take out a grunt? Video by CaptainLecram

Melee Combat and Tossing Grenades

Halo’s gameplay revolved around the triumvirate of shooting, melee and grenades, and their seamless interplay.

Granted, FPS games as far back as Doom' 93 included melee combat with fists and chainsaws, and grenades played a major part in Half-Life. However, in both cases using either attack required swapping weapons first. In the middle of intense close-range combat, this was awkward at best, and could easily get your in-game character killed. Hotkeys helped of course, but console gamers couldn’t do this.

Bungie thought this through, and instead included dedicated melee and grenade buttons, utilizing the controller’s ABXY buttons. This gave Halo players easy and immediate access to these attacks. This simplified controls greatly and allowed skilled players to use all three in quick succession.

For example, flushing an enemy out of hiding with a grenade, shooting them with your rifle then finishing them off with a melee attack could all be achieved in a smooth progression. There would be no need for pauses or swapping weapons mid-sequence, and you would still have your rifle in your hands at the end of it ready for the next opponent.

To do the same sequence in Half-Life and most other pre-Halo FPS would involve the following;

1: Selecting grenade

2: Throwing grenade

3: Selecting rifle

4: Shooting rifle

5: Selecting crowbar

6: Using crowbar

7: Selecting rifle…

Now imagine having to do this in the middle of a fight without hotkeys, forcing you to do all weapon selections via on-screen menus. Speaking from personal experience with the OG Xbox versions of Half-Life

2 and Unreal Championship I can confirm that this is difficult, frustrating and usually results in getting fragged.

It didn’t take long for Halo’s dedicated melee and grenade buttons to catch on and become common practice in modern FPS and TPS games. Some franchises that initially lacked these added it to later titles, Mass Effect 3 is a good example. Some games have had these mechanics ‘retrofitted’ to them via mods.

Halo: Combat Evolved ‘Halo’ Level

Warthog arrives at about 7:20

Video by The Game Archive