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
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.
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
One of Halo's biggest innovations was the regenerating shield mechanic possessed by the Master Chief. The concept of regenerating shields was nothing new to gaming as a whole of course - most space trading and space combat simulators had implemented this mechanic since Elite in 1984. However, it had rarely been implemented outside of these niche genres, and never in an FPS.
Implementing it in Halo changed the pacing of single-player FPS games. Previously, players would have to be very careful about taking damage during a fight, otherwise, their HP might be too low to survive the next encounter - a Pyrrhic victory in microcosm. This encouraged a cautious gameplay style. More often than not, staying back and gradually wearing down an enemy's HP with potshots from behind cover was the wisest strategy.
Halo challenged this assumption. Since your shields would recover completely by simply taking cover for a few seconds you could be confident that you will have enough shields and HP for the next encounter. This allowed for a more bombastic high-risk / high-reward playstyle.
Indeed, in many situations, this was not only possible, it was necessary. A common enemy type, the ‘Elites’, also possessed regenerating shields just as strong and as quickly recharging as the player’s. Hanging back and taking pot-shots will not be effective since the Elite’s shields will simply regenerate. All you would be doing is wasting precious ammo.
Taking down an Elite required planning and committing to an attack through to the end. This encouraged a more aggressive play-style, as players needed to finish off the Elite during the brief ‘window of vulnerability’ between their shields failing and their shields recharging. This often required the player to be carrying weapons suitable for this. Which leads us to…
Most pre-Halo FPS games allowed your in-game avatar to carry an unrealistically large arsenal of weapons all at once. The image below parodies this nicely.
This was often a fun power fantasy, but it was not great for realism and immersion. It would also make selecting the weapon you wanted difficult without the aid of hotkeys. Halo bucked this trend by allowing the Master Chief to carry two weapons and four grenades at a time. This was far more realistic, although perhaps a little too restrictive considering what real-life non-augmented troops carry into combat these days.
Since Master Chief could only carry two weapons at a time, players could swap between them with a single button press, negating the need for awkward on-screen weapon selection menus.
As a result of this strict two-weapon limit, Halo players had to plan ahead and be extremely choosy about the combination of weapons they carried from moment to moment. This added a layer of tactical complexity.
Before long most FPS and TPS games were implementing variations of this mechanic. Often the limit was raised to three weapons - typically two ‘long’ weapons and a handgun, plus throwable weapons such as grenades and Molotov cocktails. Far-Cry 2 and Gears of War being notable early examples. This trend has continued to this day.
(There are exceptions to this of course - Doom 2016 and now Doom Eternal have stayed true to their roots. Doomguy can rip and tear through the hordes of hell whilst carrying the entire in-game arsenal at once. The same can be said for the modern retro-themed FPS titles such as Dusk, Amid Evil and Ion Fury.)
Semi Open-World maps and Vehicles
Most pre-Halo FPS games were strictly linear affairs which took place within tight corridors and the occasional opened up arena-like area. This was as much due to the hardware limitations of the time as anything else. The OG Xbox’s horsepower changed that. It was now possible for potentially non-linear exterior landscapes. Halo’s eponymous and Silent Cartographer levels took full advantage of this, with wide-open environments to explore and fight through.
To traverse these areas quickly you were granted access to vehicles such as the Warthog which increased both mobility and firepower. Master Chief could also *ahem* ‘appropriate’ Covenant vehicles too, such as the Ghost. For some gamers, these semi-open world levels that allowed them to use these vehicles to the fullest were the best in the game.
These pioneering steps paved the way for later open / semi-open world FPS such as the Crysis, Far Cry and S.T.A.L.K.E.R franchises and the vehicle sections of Half-Life 2 and its episodes. The current zenith of open-world environments and vehicle use is the superb ARMA 3.
Halo: Combat Evolved - The Silent Cartographer
This level would be even more open world if the Warthog was amphibious. It isn’t. I tried 😉
Video by Vezuvius
The positive impact that Halo: Combat Evolved had on the FPS genre cannot be overstated. It was the first single-player FPS since Half-Life that wasn’t trying to mimic Half-Life. Instead, it did something different, and for at least a decade most FPS games have been trying to mimic Halo.
Regenerating health became the standard ‘life’ mechanic for FPS and TPS games, even in those that didn’t have an in-universe explanation for it. The two / three-gun limit also became common practice, as did dedicated melee and grenade toss buttons.
Halo is a perfect example of what can be achieved in gaming when talented people attempt something that is both revolutionary and created from the ground up to meet specific goals on specific hardware.
It was also another proof-of-concept: FPS games can work well on consoles. GoldenEye 007 was the first proof, although hampered by its control set up. Halo: Combat Evolved was the proof of concept that consoles could match PCs at single-player FPS campaigns. But one more proof was needed to truly settle the argument - proof that consoles could match the PC when it came to online multiplayer. That proof was Halo 2, the topic of the next article. See you all then.