Having finished Halo 4 I decided to go back and play through the original to see if it is as good as I remember. Unsurprisingly it isn’t… but it is still very, very good.
More important though is the influence it has had on games. It has changed the way we view FPS games and has given developers a whole new set of tools to play with. That is why I am going back to it after over a decade.
On the whole games don’t tend to innovate in many areas simultaneously. Often they don’t innovate at all. Instead they combine a lot of tried and tested techniques in a new combination to make an interesting game. They also don’t tend to innovate much in the fundamentals. Halo was such a revelation because it innovated in so many ways. It changed the way we approach things. It fixed things that we didn’t even realise were broken.
Here are my favourite five innovations from Halo. In most cases I doubt whether Halo was the first game to actually use these ideas but it was the first time I (and I suspect many others) encountered them. I’m crediting Bungie.
Of the many things Halo introduced us to perhaps my favourite is a restriction. The idea is simple; you are only allowed to carry two weapons.
After you run out or get rid of your initial loadout you are at the mercy of the environment. You can’t carry 10 weapons around and just wait to pick up ammo. You can only use what has been dropped. This forces you to simultaneously value your weapons and treat them as utterly disposable. You love your pistol up until the point that it runs out of ammo. Then you cast it aside without a second thought.
This creates a story around each weapon. A weapon is intrinsically tied to someone who has dropped it. A needler is dropped by the alien you’ve just killed. A shotgun is dropped by a soldier whose Hornet has been shot down.
The availability of weapons adds to the rhythm of the level. You step off a ship, armed with an assault rifle, pistol and human grenades. As you descend further into the alien base this changes to a carbine, needler and plasma grenades.
Making every weapon a real entity also effectively removed an issue that many FPSs suffered from – ammo balancing. Instead of placing ammo Halo’s battlefield is littered with weapons. Collecting weapons becomes something for the player to do. It’s the part of the game.
You are no longer a mobile arsenal restocking whenever you kill a monster ( a monster that bizarrely explodes in a hammersmash of ammo).You are Jason Bourne using whatever you come across to bring down the alien horde.
Admittedly you mainly come across guns – but still.
It’s sometimes hard to remember a time before the shield recharge. It is de-rigeur for all 1st and 3rd person action games – whether it makes sense or not. Since pretty much every game now uses the idea it’s easy to forget what it adds.
The rechargeable shield allows the user to deal with the game encounter by encounter. It minimises the hangover from the last. In doing so it removes a massive balancing issue. FPSs of old had two major balancing issues: ammo and health. Halo deals with the ammo with disposable weapons. With recharging health, the health balancing problem goes away too. The designers can be sure that when a player enters an encounter they have a full shield. Every player enters every encounter in the same state of health. You don’t need to balance for a player who is at full health and one just holding on. It means the designers can make a consistent experience for everyone.
I am ignoring the health that sits behind the shield as I feel it has a fairly negligible effect.
The shield recharge also helps the next innovation.
Typically checkpointing in games is done geographically; the player passes through an invisible trigger box and the game is saved. To ensure the player doesn’t immediately die following a save designers are often forced to put these checkpoints quite far apart in only the safest of places. This can lead to large, frustrating gaps between saves.
Halo’s simple solution to this was to save often but only when it is safe to do so. If the player is somewhere safe and it’s a sensible time to save, Halo saves.
To be honest I am not sure exactly how it works but it works really well. I don’t really understand why this innovation isn’t in everything.
Halo does many things to make aiming easier for the player. It was the first FPS to really nail console aiming. Various improvements have been made since but both the amount of assistance that Halo introduced and the subtlety with which it was done has never been equalled.
The controller input is non-linear and is treated differently for each axis, the reticule slows down as it goes over an enemy, it is slightly sticky once the enemy is in your sights. All of this was done so that it feels completely natural. It is hardly noticeable unless you are looking for it.
Halo felt like the first FPS designed for a console.
Going back to Halo it’s clear how far look-steering has come since it’s introduction but Halo introduced it to mainstream gaming and it was such a non-obvious choice. In Halo when you step into a vehicle the perspective shifts to 3rd-person. To steer you point the camera where you want to go and then the vehicle works out how to point in that direction.
When you first play it it seems like a very odd choice. There are plenty of much more accessible vehicle control systems so why create this strange new one. And why go into 3rd-person?
The choice of 3rd-person is an easy one. The 3rd-person view gives the player a much better view of the action, particularly the friendly AI which was a large part of the game.
But the look-steering is still pretty strange. Why not control the vehicle directly like in pretty much all other vehicle games? The answer to this is context. Look-steering would be strange for a driving game but Halo isn’t a driving game.
When you consider it in the context of a first-person shooter it makes perfect sense. How do you steer on-foot in an FPS? You steer by looking. So it makes perfect sense to steer in-vehicle by looking too. And it’s this consistency that makes look-steering so successful. Look-steering gives the player a way to control vehicles (both ground and aerial) consistent with their on-foot controls.
When changing between modes of control as much is kept consistent as possible. This provides a seamless transition between the different forms of transport. If you are going to have a 3rd-person vehicle control system look-steering is the best choice.
And that’s why I love Halo. It was revolutionary in so many ways but it was also really good in others. Most things about the game that are not mentioned were really solid. I could talk about arenas and the tight, simple story. I could talk about how the interactions between the enemy worked so well and were so brilliantly telegraphed. Playing the other Halos is still a great experience but the original was immense. It is a landmark in gaming.
I am playing a modern FPS at the moment and despite its brilliance I can’t help thinking it could benefit from taking a look at an XBox launch title.