Gaming oldies but goldies: The Halo franchise revisited

Seattle, Washington - The Halo franchise kicked off 20 years ago with Halo: Combat Evolved and ahead of the launch of the latest installment, it's time to dive into how the franchise shook the gaming world.

Master Chief (right) in the iconic Spartan armor from Halo: Combat Evolved.
Master Chief (right) in the iconic Spartan armor from Halo: Combat Evolved.  © 343 Industries

The one that started it all – Halo: Combat Evolved – put you in the armored boots of the human supersoldier known as the Master Chief. The groundbreaking game was developed by Bungie Studios and released as the flagship title for the original Xbox at the console's launch on November 15, 2001.

For clarity's sake, we'll focus on the five Halo games made before Bungie left Microsoft in 2012 and the reins of the franchise went to 343 Industries, a division of Xbox Game Studios.

The first Halo story pits you against The Covenant, an empire of technologically advanced alien species, but you quickly run into other threats in the galaxy, all intent on wiping out humanity.

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With this debut, Bungie set the gold standard for how game developers would build FPS games, especially for consoles.

Even though many of the game mechanics that are now commonplace in the shooter genre weren't new inventions, the small team at Bungie managed to launch Halo: CE with a polished collection of different features way ahead of what other games offered at the time. It blew gamers out of the water with regenerating shields, a wide variety of vehicles, and a host of other game mechanics.

The simplicity of Halo: CE's individual parts, like waiting a moment behind cover for your shields to get back to full charge, meshed with other elements to give people a gaming experience that was extremely smooth at the time.

The multiplayer was another highlight of the franchise, and the action was fast enough to be exciting, but not too frenetic and twitchy, which kept it accessible to more players who just wanted something to relax and enjoy with their friends.

What is still good

Halo: Reach had another round of new elements, including jumpjets.
Halo: Reach had another round of new elements, including jumpjets.  © 343 Industries

Sound design can make or break a game, and Halo: CE and Halo 2 are both a treat for the ears. Weapons pack a punch, enemies roar and yell orders in alien languages, and the voice acting in cutscenes still stands up to this day.

The music is another aspect that still sets the original games apart from modern shooter titles. Sweeping orchestral movements or Gregorian chants fit together with the story and the action. Who knew that monk singing and big ensemble sound would go so well with fighting the enemies of humanity on an ancient alien structure?

The voice lines add nice flavor to bigger battles and to smaller moments, like your human allies' whoops and shouts as you drive into battle, or the way weaker enemies will squeak in terror at your arrival.

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The difficulty ramp is still stellar, with four standard levels to choose from.

The Easy difficulty lets you bring destruction to your enemies without needing cover or any tactics whatsoever. If you want to start playing smart, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary are waiting to kick your ass and reward you for understanding what weapon combos and tactics work against which types of enemies.

Customization is key

Halo's Forge mode lets you build maps and modes to your heart's content.
Halo's Forge mode lets you build maps and modes to your heart's content.  © 343 Industries

The best part of the gameplay for Halo was and still is its custom game options (which is a rarity in modern FPS games).

The games' built-in customization options have birthed some of the craziest gametypes around, including community favorites like Infection, where one team plays as human survivors, and the other team hunts them down as zombies.

Thanks to the staggering array of options for tweaking your custom games, as well as a thriving modding community, there is no need to play the game the same way twice, and modders like InfernoPlus have gone to great lengths to see how far the game will bend before it breaks.

The options for fine-tuning your Halo experience extend to the single-player campaign, which has always had Easter Eggs called Skulls, and snagging them in Halo would activate the real Hard mode, turning the game into a challenge for even the most skilled player.

At the time, you had to actually gather the skulls to make this happen, but now, the Halo Master Chief Collection lets you toggle Skulls on and off before you play, and customize your own campaign experience.

The first five Halo games are worth your time if you want a polished set of campaigns, beautiful music, and a genre-defining multiplayer experience. Much of gaming has changed beyond all recognition over the past two decades – even in the 11 years that have passed since Halo: Reach – but one truth remains eternal: games should be fun to play, and these titles definitely still fit the bill.

The Halo: Master Chief Collection is the best way to experience the classic Halo games on Xbox consoles or on PC, and if $40 is too steep for you, the next round of Steam sales are right around the corner.

Cover photo: 343 Industries

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