Halo CE: Revisiting 15 Years Later

Over Christmas I recieved the Master Chief Collection for PC. It's been quite a while since I've played a Halo game having skipped the Xbox One X entirely. Even though I'm not so excited for Halo Infinite at this point something did get me in the mood for Halo. Lucky for me Microsoft ported it to the PC (well except 5, which is the only one I haven't played). It's been interesting revisiting one of my favorite game series after so long, and especially the older ones which I haven't touched in at least a decade.

Halo in 2001

Halo was a launch title for the original Xbox. At this time a lot of people were pretty suspect of Microsoft entering the console space and how long they would last. Halo had been in development for a long time from creator Bungie, who was a Mac-centric game developer. Microsoft trying to gear up some games bought them and they worked to get it out on Xbox. This was a perfect storm of good fotune, Halo was a blockbuster and sold tons of Xboxes. Part of it's sticking power wasn't just the ahead of it's time FPS combat and large open levels but its multiplayer component which was all the rage. Halo was the first (viable) console game that could link up-to 4 Xboxes to have 16 player games, making the LAN party available in a low cost console (if you could setup a few TVs). Having played a few, this was the pinnacle of multiplayer and I'd argue to this day still is. Having a pizza party with 16 other people and playing Halo capture-the-flag was amazing. Unfortunately, most multiplayer since has gone online-only. To those who have only played this way, it's a lot like using Zoom to talk to friends, it works, but it's not the same.

Halo became permenantly associated with Xbox. Master Chief became a sort of mascot, Xbox was a success and the rest is history. The Xbox brand may very well not exist today if it wasn't for Halo.

Halo Anniversary

The anniversary part of the pacakge is pretty interesting. The graphics were enhanced to look a bit more like Halo 3 but what's really cool is the ability to switch back and forth between them in real time. I really appreciate this detail as it doesn't lock you in, sometimes you want to remember what it looked like in the old graphics. There are a few quirks though. The animation is the same so it can look a bit wierd and you can't change graphic style while in the middle of a cutscene. For the most part I kept the new graphics, except where it became a bit of a problem. Since they went ahead and spruced up the geometry it doesn't always align with the old geometry which is what's used to calculate hit detection. So sometimes your hiding place isn't so hidden as enemies will shoot through part of the scenery or your sniper shot impacts invisible walls. It's definitely a problem that sometime you have to think about it but I can understand the trade off. The music is remastered too, but it would have been interesting to get the old stuff too with the switch of a button as well.

The collection also has it's own set of controller configs. I was a bit puzzled that they didn't have a classic Halo CE setup. The difference is that reload/activate is handled by the X button (before the X button was taken over by other functions). I have muscle memory for this so I was really disappointed. It doesn't even make sense to put the flashlight on the primary button either but you aren't allowed to customize beyond what it gives you. Before I got even there I tried to play with mouse and keyboard and it just felt weird. Even if the aiming is better I just can't deal with faster paced games that have a ton of inputs on a keyboard, I need them split between the hands to be more manageable.

The game is also slightly buggier. There's a frequent glitch where weapons get stuck in the scenery and making a really annoying clicking sound. I'm really surprised that wasn't taken care of because you see it every single level.


I've played Halo: Combat Evolved to death and have very fond memories of it, both multiplayer and co-op. I beat the game on legendary a long time ago and so I thought with all that behind me it only made sense to do a legenday run.

The Pillar of Autum

This level was never my favorite. It's an introduction but nothing especially interesting happens. It's made up of mostly linear cooridors and not too many elites; encounters which become the choke points throughout the game. You also start with the pistol which is nice. The pistol for those unfamilar with Halo CE, is perhaps the best weapon in the game, or at least for a starting weapon (subweapon no less!) it's entirely overpowered. Head shots will take down any enemy, it's pretty fast and has 2x zoom. You can pair it with a charged shot from the plasma pistol to 2-shot elites. I plowed though the level pretty quickly and was quite pleased to see I still remember a lot of it.

Halo

Here's where it gets a bit harder and the game really starts to shine with big open areas and vehicle battles. The first encounter is fairly nasty as you need to survive a dropshop, a roaming banshee and a second wave of enemies up in the rocks before the first checkpoint. From there it's not too bad aside from activating the undeground bridge. While the warthog gunner helps a little you just don't have the firepower to take down the 5 or so elites gaurding the switch. It's especially bad as they ambush you right as you try to climb the ramp meaning you really need to be ready for it. This part took me several tries. Afterward is probably one of the more memorable parts of the game, you get a choice of 3 areas to go to and fight a few waves of enemies to save some marines. Of course on legendary marines typically don't last more than a 15 seconds before getting demolished. The game is nice enough to not let you save them, so long as you try. Driving the warthog around is lots of fun but it's really geared toward co-op. For the single player, if you're lucky you can get a marine to stick around and be gunner for you but they don't always target what you want, leaving you to carefully drive donuts around the target and not catch a grenade as enemy shots slowly chip your health away. In this game the AI won't drive but luckily they updated that in the sequel.

Truth and Reconciliation

This level sucks. You start with the sniper which is cool and super useful but the level is ugly and the checkpoints are simply awful. As you approach the ship your routinely need to battle multiple waves between checkpoints and there's not an abundance of cover and it's easy to get surrounded. The gravity lift area is probably the hardest part in the game. You need to fight 6-7 waves of enemies before the checkpoint to use the gravity lift. I took maybe 10 tries to get it and even then I was running low on ammo from being pinned down for so long which never happens elsewhere. You also get introduced to hunters which are played up like a mini-boss but are complete pushovers as you can fight them like a matador. On the ship I got very lucky. You get ambushed by about 5 gold sword elites just as you enter. I was expecting more deaths here but I got a few good grenade tosses. I still have PTSD from doing that part over and over in the past. The rest of the ship is a slog. It's an ugly purple, it's boring, you don't get any good weapons unless you saved your sniper rifle (definitely save it). The end is also huge pain. You rescue Keyes and need to escort him out of the ship. Unfortunately, the level ends if he's killed and he's really good at getting himself killed. On Legendary, much of it is simply luck with the AI that he doesn't eat a grenade or too many needler shots. This took probably another 10 tries. In the end I felt pretty soured because this level is just not fun.

The Silent Cartographer

A great pallet cleanser from the last level. This is perhaps the most well known and well-loved level in the game and it's blissfully short and filled with good action. You start with a group of marines storming a beach. About 30 seconds in you'll be the only one standing and need to slowly fight your way through the rest to get the warthog. Unfortunately, With no more marines, it's not that useful except to move around the map more quickly. You can fight some elites up on a ledge but those that have played the level before know you quickly come to a locked door and are asked to explore more so instead you can skip those fights and go straight through the middle of the island. Battle some hunters (easy) and at the end there's an alcove where you can press a switch to open the door. You get the first rocket launcher immediatly after but it's not too useful here. I took it with me anyway down into the depths of the map room, you can score some easy elite kills with it at least. On your way out you get the rocking Halo battle theme playing which make you feel great. This level still has it. And it's not very repeatitive either which starts becoming a problem....

Assualt on the Control Room

...now. This level starts off with 2 elites in the first 2 seconds. You need to grenade just to give yourself breathing room. Then you make your way through these convex polygonal rooms separated by bridges. I think you need to go through 3 to get to the meaty part of the level and it's pretty fatiguing even if the combat is decent. Outside you get one of my favorite sections where you get to do some vehicle battles in a scorpion tank. This part is a lot of fun using the unlimited ammo cannon to just trash stuff but enemies are smart enough to not make it trivial on legendary. All good things come to and end though and you're forced out of the tank and back into the towers of polygon rooms and bridges. There's a fun gimmick in some where you use stealth to kill all the sleeping grunts and patrolling elites without being seen but it's not enough to save you from the slog of constantly repeating scenery. The end is fun though. If you are quick you can kill an elite on a bridge and skip more boring rooms by taking his banshee and bombing the crap out of stuff all the way to the exit.

I remember this level being one of my favorites but upon replay the repetition is just brutal. This level could have trimmed like 4 or 5 of polygon rooms as they add nothing. Definitely do the end shortcut as by then the level has overstayed its welcome.

343 Guilty Spark

I remember this being one of my less liked levels but it's really not bad overall and also another one on the shorter side. The repetition really starts setting in though. You start in a swamp and make your way indoors which is a bunch of identical looking square rooms separated by corridors. The encounters are pretty easy, and it sets up some tension before you finally release...the Flood! The Flood I think got a bad rap. They aren't nearly as annoying as I remember. They aren't smart but their head-on attacks and squishy bodies make for a nice change in combat pace. You also get the shotgun which is never not fun to use at point-blank. Another fun trick is to shoot their arms off and watch as they powerlessly try to hug you. You fight your way out and end up back in the swamp. The latter part is tough to navigate as you can never tell which direction you are going but eventually you meet the titular, smug, Guilty Spark.

The Library

Perhaps the most infamous level in Halo. It's loooooong, it's super repetitive, it's dark and it's ugly. I braced myself for a grind but you know what? I didn't hate it. The anniversary graphics help quite a bit here as they're a lot more pleasing to look at and don't need the stupid flashlight. You need to get the shotgun as fast as possible because no other weapon will let you stay alive. Not only does it insta-kill most flood at a decent range where most other weapons take half a clip, but it holds a lot of shells compared to most FPS shotguns which is a godsend for when you fast an onslaught of rushing flood. The level has some really annoying parts though. It constantly likes to spawn enemies like the exploding flood behind you, and even if you spot them sometimes they set off a chain reaction of grenades that will kill you. The enemy spawners are also way too long. Given how much repetition is in the level it's unnecessary to have 5-6 spawn waves from a single vent. Some seem to go forever and since they drop them behind you too you need to play fairly conservative by rushing to the spawn trigger and backing out. All the while the little "popcorn" flood are everywhere, always, making it hard to recover your shield if you do get caught by a Flood shotgun blast. For whatever the problems are though, you still can make general forward progress so it's a lot less frustrating than Truth and Reconciliation.

There's one difficult part where you are stuck between two locked doors and the Flood come in giving you no space to recover. This can be cheesed by hiding before the first wave and waiting it out. Pretty much necessary on legendary.

The Two Betrayals

This one starts off pretty rough. You need to fight through a corridor full of covenant with almost no cover and a shotgun. You need some good grenade throws to do it. Afterwards you get outside and can follow the long path up for a sniper rifle! ...with only 8 bullets. This level is basically Assault on the Control Room in reverse. All the good and bad. It is the first and only level where you officially get a Banshee though. The level can be challenging as you are often out-gunned by the vehicles, the Wraith mortar tanks are especially difficult because they can instantly kill you at long range if you aren't careful but require a lot of shots to kill and can dodge long range rockets. The worst part is the end where you face off against a huge battalion of covenant: two Wraiths, two gold Elites, multiple lesser elites, 2 Hunters and the typical riff-raff. There's some Flood to help, but they just get wrecked quickly. This one requires a lot very tedious sessions of strafing the wraiths with a Ghost (or getting a lucky long range rocket) and then slowly picking off the Elites while being careful not to get tripped up on the geometry which will cause the Hunters to kill you.

Keyes

Honestly I didn't remember much about this level (aside from Flood Keyes' pipe) and I can see why. It's basically Truth and Reconciliation but with both Flood and Covenant. It's also introduces a new awful feature, the infinite Flood spawner. Basically until you move past a point, Flood will generate indefinitely and it's not always clear which ones are finite. This means it's usually better to push through than to hide behind a corner as they will keep coming until you have a line-of-sight with the spawn point. The ending is kinda interesting though. There are way too many spec-op Elites to fight so you need to just drop down and grab the banshee.

The Maw

Completing our reverse order play through the campaign we wind up back at the Pillar of Autumn. Thankfully we go out on a good level. Most of the fights are moping up straggler Covenant after a battle or trying to get through the infinite Flood spawner. Then you go to a rather memorable part where you need use explosives to take out some exhaust vents or whatever they were. It all ends with a Warthog driving sequence where you're racing through an exploding ship which is *chef kiss* perfect. Though at least in the Master Chief Collection you don't get to see the special legendary ending. Meh.

Final Thoughts

I have to say the game ages pretty well in terms of combat and engagement. The AI is still good even for today, just goes to show how ahead it was and how we haven't advanced much since. The copy-pasted level design was notable even then as a launch title but it's especially egregious now. Also, the checkpoint logic is incomprehensible, sometimes you get a checkpoint, sometimes not, it feels totally random. I played it on Legendary which just isn't well balanced and was likely added after the fact. Things are little too tanky to feel good, and sometimes you die instantly in a quick burst of plasma shots without any real sense of what happened. If you are new I recommend Heroic for a first challenging playthrough. There's also just lots of things in the game that seem a little more suited toward co-op which really adds to the fun and reduces the monotony.

I didn't even touch on multiplayer. Not sure how well it holds up but I spent many, many hours playing it on Xbox and that alone was a reason to buy the game.

Overall, I'm happy to have gone back to it and really look bad on it from a distance. Incredible game even to this day, warts aside.

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