In this continuation of the Halo single player retrospective I will look at…
Again, the most enjoyable Halo in regards to story and presentation is Halo: Combat Evolved. In 2001, we didn’t know what a “Halo” was or meant. With the first game, we were introduced to the Forerunners, the Covenant, and the Flood for the very first time, and it feverishly sparked our imaginations, with the player trying to figure out what kind of universe Master Chief was living in. This happens a lot with games in general. The first game is far more potent in terms of story than the sequels, as you’ve already experienced the same style of storytelling in the first game. From our perspective, the most innovative is the first one. All the rest are just walking down the road that the first one paved.
Of course, the general story isn’t something you’ll find in a Shakespearean play or anything. Watching a human warrior dressed up in mechanical armor that takes on an entire army of alien marauders by himself is pretty much a cliché in cinema and video games at this point.
But what Halo does really well is give the player’s actions context. It isn’t just walking straight to find the next scripted sequence or cinematic. Your teammates are updating you on what’s happening, Cortana is guiding your path, and each level scenario seems like the most logical in terms of both progression and storytelling. Even though some of the levels dragged on for too long, you constantly know what is going on.
What I always thought was interesting in Halo: Combat Evolved was how, after you figured out what Halo was used for, that you needed to find someway to stop Halo from launching, as well as finding a way to get the hell off that ringed rock. The game became claustrophobic. Most of your teammates were dead at that point and the Flood was continually breathing down your neck. It was like you needed to get on the last train home. If you didn’t you’d be stuck eating Ramen noodles by yourself while your family had a great Thanksgiving dinner. Could Master Chief stop the launch of Halo, and still find a way to catch the last train home? For most of the second half of Halo: Combat Evolved, you continually asked that question.
And we have to remember, we didn’t know that there would be two more games after Halo: Combat Evolved. For all we knew, Master Chief could have died at the end. Of course we now know he goes on to appear in not one, but TWO more Halo games, but we weren’t sure of that when traversing the first Halo.
Oh, and don’t even remind me of how awesome the last sequence is, where Master Chief drives through the Pillar of Autumn to catch the last ship in the docking bay. That sequence is the poster child for epic gaming. Surprisingly, Bungie re-envisioned that final run in Halo 3, but with the added impact of having the Arbiter along with you the entire way.
Which leads me to the sole reason of why I semi-enjoyed Halo 2: the Arbiter. Bungie pulled the same trick as Metal Gear Solid 2 by changing the character the player controls, but pulled it off way more successfully. The Arbiter, for lack of a better word, is one bad ass mother fucker. We know Master Chief is a skilled warrior himself, but he rarely says anything. The man under the mask could be anything our hearts imagined, but with the Arbiter, a warrior that has been shunned and had his former command stripped from his hands after failing to stop the “Demon” from destroying the first Halo, we’re stepping into the shoes of someone that doesn’t care that he’s ultimately leading himself into death in the (hopeless) search for redemption. In my eyes, the Arbiter is the more interesting character. Master Chief is just a vague avatar used to immerse the player more easily and completely into Halo’s universe, while the Arbiter’s saga is far deeper and more intelligent, and ultimately, more entertaining.
You also get a great sense of what it feels like to be on the other side of the war. The Covenant are wholly based on religious ideals, citing the “Great Journey” as their main role in dictating where life in the universe will ultimately end up. It creates an interesting scenario when you’re made to follow orders for a group that doesn’t even know they’re going to destroy the entire galaxy. Your sole objective in Halo: Combat Evolved was to kill this group, and it completely changes everything you thought of the Covenant when you step into the shoes of the Arbiter.
The experience benefits from voice acting talents of veteran actor Keith David. I can’t imagine another soul doing the Arbiter’s voice after hearing David’s stellar performance. Trust me when I say the Arbiter makes Halo 2. Had he not been in the game, I would have completely hated Halo 2.
The Ship Master, the scarred Elite commander that directs the Arbiter in the right direction, also deserves mentioning, as he is wonderfully portrayed as a stark but sympathetic warrior that slowly starts to see how ignorant the Hierarchs have become. Seriously, Bungie did a great job when they decided to add in the Arbiter saga.
But again, people bitched and complained that they weren’t Master Chief enough, with Bungie relegating the Arbiter to side-kick status in Halo 3. It’s like they had this awesome plan for the Arbiter, but gave up after hearing too many complaints. He is shown prominently enough, but after experiencing him in Halo 2, Halo 3 just does not satisfy my Arbiter needs.
It is here is this rather lengthy article that I want to express my hunger for an Arbiter spin-off game. Bungie, if you can hear me, make it happen. Show me what happens to the Arbiter after he leaves for his home planet. If you do that one simple thing for me, I’ll forget the travesty that is the rest of Halo 2 ever happened. I think that’s fair.
As I said in the intro, Halo: Combat Evolved is the better game by far. Halo 2 did almost everything wrong (except the Arbiter), and Halo 3 was Bungie trying to replicate what they did in Halo: Combat Evolved, albeit semi-successfully.
But this is what happens when they put the real focus into online multiplayer. Halo: Combat Evolved had the benefit of not balancing the gun selection for online multiplayer, and therefore had the more compelling gunplay. It’s simplified, Hollywood-esque gameplay, but that’s Halo’s charm, and I firmly believe Bungie peaked with Halo: Combat Evolved, and has yet to return to form.