First-person shooters on video game consoles were a joke when Bungie and Microsoft released the original Halo, awkwardly subtitled “Combat Evolved,” alongside the Xbox in 2001. But that subtitle proved prophetic, as Halo pushed the genre forward in more ways than you may know.
Call of Duty might be more popular now, especially judging by the hubbub surrounding this month’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare release, and it too had enormous influence over the industry. But Halo came first, and it was Bungie’s franchise that paved the way for all that followed.
With Halo: The Master Chief Collection, collecting four Halo games on a single disc (and the source for all of these images), out this week, and the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta scheduled for December, now’s a good time to revisit exactly what modern shooters owe to the series that started it all.
A SIMPLE CHOICE
Before Halo there was Quake, and Doom, and Duke Nukem, and even Bungie’s own Marathon, and countless other shooters on consoles, in arcades and on computers. And all these games let their protagonists, such as they were, carry around entire arsenals without breaking a sweat. As many guns as you had function keys on a keyboard.
Halo changed that, introducing a simple choice that defined every moment of gameplay: what weapons are you going to carry into the next fray, and the next, and the next? By limiting players to two guns at a time, Halo ensured that you spent at least a little time actually thinking in between all that shooting, and luckily subsequent games have yet to forget that lesson.
DUCK AND COVER
Games with actual cover systems, like Epic’s Gears of War, came later, but Halo: Combat Evolved was the first to give you a reason to duck behind a wall or around a corner: recharging shields.
Although they’re familiar to gamers now, when Combat Evolved launched the rhythms of its gameplay were completely unique. To peek out, catch a glimpse, snag a headshot, take some fire, and purposefully retreat — letting your shields come back up so you could do it all over again — was a delicate dance all Bungie’s own.
Beyond recharging shields, Combat Evolved added two other important tools to every shooter’s repertoire: the melee attack and the grenade. That’s not to say pre-Halo shooters didn’t have these things — who can forget “slappers only” mode in Goldeneye 007? — but Halo made them an essential part of every super-soldier, space marine and bounty hunter’s arsenal.
Firefights became a three-fold balancing act, like a malleable game of rock-paper-scissors. Unlike in older games, Halo players could smack a foe with a heavy-armored fist and chuck a sizzling timed grenade without having to put their firearms away. Suddenly the Almighty Gun was no longer the only contender on the battlefield, and that’s been the case ever since.
Take a look at the futuristic grenades in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which let you switch among a half dozen varieties with a button’s tap. Would those have existed without Halo’s influence?
THE POWER OF CONTROL
Halo’s intuitive controls were a big part of its genius, and they’ve been borrowed by countless other games since. Call of Duty may have popularized the “snap-to-sights” mechanic that brings a gun up to your avatar’s face, but it was Combat Evolved that introduced dedicated buttons for grenades and melee attacks and informed the control scheme of every shooter since — yes, including CoD.
There’s a reason why your thumbs and fingers always jump to the same place when you pick up a new shooter these days. Without a tutorial in sight you know how to reload or switch weapons, you’re savvy to how to chuck a grenade, and you can guess which button makes your character jump — and that’s thanks to Halo.
ELEVATING THE SILENT PROTAGONIST
At the time it came out Halo may have been the most cinematic game ever. Its actual cutscenes were few and far between, the game ever reluctant to wrest control from the player, and players equally loathe to relinquish it. But moment-to-moment gameplay was rife with beautiful scenery and narrative exploration — even when the game was just teaching you how to look up and down, it did it within the confines of its world.
And let’s not forget the Master Chief. Shooter protagonists prior to the Violent Green Giant’s introduction were crass, like Duke Nukem, or totally lacking in any semblance of actual personality, like Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman, who never actually says a single word.
The Chief talks; he just doesn’t do it often. When he does, though, you listen — and it’s been that way from the beginning. In Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie had its virtual cake and ate it, creating a protagonist with imposing presence, but who somehow never made the player feel less present. And shooters have been trying to copy it since.
TAKE THE WHEEL
Halo accomplished one other feat so great that literally no other series has been able to match it — certainly including Bungie’s newest and most flawed tour de force, Destiny. That feat is the marriage of first-person gunplay and hyper-physical vehicle gameplay to which a lot of games owe a debt.
It’s the feel of the Warthog’s tires as they fight to gain purchase in a snowy field, or the way the Banshee drifts slowly downward through the sky like a plasma-spewing leaf. All these subtle touches made the simple act of getting behind the wheel in Halo feel like a reward in and of itself. And every time you put pedal to metal in Far Cry or Battlefield or Killzone it’s Halo you have to thank.
PLAY IT STRAIGHT
There was a time, before Achievements with a capital “A,” when great feats in games were rewarded not with imaginary internet points, but with cheat codes. How can you forget rushing through levels in Goldeneye and Perfect Dark so you could later return, now invincible, armed with golden guns and infinite ammo and paintballs and giant Donkey Kong heads?
But that time ended with Halo. Here came a game devoid of modifiers, where you derived pleasure simply from conquering the many intricacies of its design, not from cheating the system. Somehow that was enough, and with few exceptions it’s been enough ever since — can you even imagine anymore what it would be like to blow through a Halo game without having to think about your arsenal, ammo, strategies — all the things that make Halo, Halo? Would you even want to?
Later Halo games kept setting the bar, with map creation, online matchmaking and countless other innovations. But if it hadn’t been for Combat Evolved we might all still be running around endless virtual corridors juggling two dozen weapons at a time, never stopping, never thinking, never feeling — and that would be a shame.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Games Editor, in charge of all things gaming but mostly concerned with maxing his Destiny characters. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.