Halo 1, 2, 3, and Reach (2001-2007, 2010) review

Introduction (skip this)

For a long while, I’ve been wondering if I outgrew first person shooters. In all fairness, there’s been a large gap between the games I played from my childhood, the last recent modern shooter, and today’s shooters. Regarding most recent memory, the last ones I recall playing were Bioshock, Bioshock 3, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Resident Evil 7, Half-Life, Black Mesa, Duke Nukem Forever, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Doom 2016, Quake, System Shock, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and Wing Commander 1-4. Any other I played has slipped my mind (which makes it forgettable), or was played so long ago that rose-tinted nostalgia goggles are guaranteed to cloud accurate judgement of my enjoyment.

Out of all those games, I didn’t care that much for Bioshock 3, Wolfenstein, RE7, Half-Life (it hasn’t aged that well, it’s buggy on modern systems, and Black Mesa replaced it for me), Duke Nukem Forever (it’s really not that bad, but it isn’t great either), Doom 2016, and Wing Commander 3-4. The most recent game I enjoyed was Black Mesa, which was a fan-made FPS that’s basically built upon the design of a game from the late 90s. The other most recent one was Deus Ex: Human Revolution from 2011. Just about everything else between then and now either didn’t interest me, or I found it mediocre at best. So I began to wonder, “Are today’s shooters just to blech and mediocre or terrible? Or have I just become too old and jaded to enjoy them anymore?” But it can’t just be that I simply don’t enjoy shooters anymore, as there are some I go back to and still enjoy (see above). Have the old games done something better than the new games? Well, I sort of answered that question with my Thief review (the 2nd game is pretty good too, probably even better), but that’s a stealth game. Then I got around to playing Quake, and realized what has been missing from most modern FPS games.

1.) Lack of good level design. Most modern FPS’s, online multiplayer arena shooters excluded (which tend to get broken after a few character updates anyway, like Overwatch), focus more on theme than on design. The fact that they’re more open and less corridor-shooter styled half the time ends up being a hindrance. The more open a level is, the less restriction there are on your movement, where you can throw grenades, how you can snipe, etc. The levels just aren’t as interesting or tactical. Corridor shooters had an art to level design, because they had to be designed to perfection in order to stay interesting, keep you on your toes, and use the environment to your advantage. Points where enemies appear and control is all part of level design too. And most importantly, the pacing of the level. How often and frequent enemies appear is just one part of this.

2.) Lack of health packs. In other words, over-reliance on health regeneration. Fuck health regeneration. This cocksucking piece of shit of a game mechanism is the other major problem with games today. It turns you and the enemies into moles in a glorified whack-a-mole game. It makes things too easy on players, who just have to go into cover, wait for health to recover, then go back out and repeat. Fuck that. What happened to strategizing your plan of defense and attack, being able to cut your way through to the next health pack, have a health pack to fall back on, or just getting good enough to take minimal damage due to your quick reaction time and thinking? Have actual consequences for playing like shit, that way when you’re hanging on by a thread of HP, you are forced to play carefully the way you should’ve been doing in the first place.

3.) Existing more for the gameplay than for the cinema. Games have become glorified interactive movies. This isn’t so bad if a game can perfectly balance gameplay with story and character, never forgetting that it’s a game (Half-Life is arguably the definitive game to set this standard, even if it hasn’t aged all that well). But far too often today do the cutscenes (or glorified walking simulator areas that just act as cutscenes that you can’t fucking skip) overtake the gameplay. Today’s games are more like, “Fuck the gameplay. The gameplay is secondary to the story we wish to tell.” Your stories suck ass most of the time! The only thing I look forward to when it comes to your characters and stories nowadays is the porno versions that will show up online before you release the next DLC pack.

4.) Monotony. It’s very difficult to make a first person shooter that is distinct from much of what has come before, let alone not making the gameplay monotonous. It requires a delicate balance of enemy types, weapon variety (and the use of which weapons against which enemies, trying to make some weapons work more effectively than others against certain enemy types, while still allowing the ineffective weapons to have some amount of effectiveness; let alone making all of them useful and necessary). It requires having a distinct setting, or using a familiar setting in a distinct way. Or just having characters talk amidst the action in colorful ways that make up for any monotony. Most first person shooters are incapable of managing this, and many don’t even try.

5.) DLC packs. Suck a bag of dicks.


So at this point I’ve decided that, with very few exceptions (more exceptions on the indie scene I’m sure), FPS games just aren’t as good as they used to be. And they’ve been going downhill since around 2011 or so (give or take a couple years). So I’m more interested in going through games from pre-2012 and experiencing what I’ve missed. Then I hear about the Halo: Master Chief Collection being released on PC, so I don’t need to shell out money for an X-Box One console (thank Christ). So I can experience the Halo franchise for the first time.

Well ok, not the first time. I’ve played the first game in the past (on the PC and the original X-Box, the latter which had a co-operative campaign mode that never made it to the original PC release; neither did a cinematic tutorial). But I never played any beyond the first game. So I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered. And I started not with the first game, but with Halo: Reach, which acts as a prequel to the first game.


Halo: Reach (2010)

Rated: 2 / 5

Boring. That’s what I thought when the experience was over. Boring because the pacing is completely fucked. This game did practically nothing to make the levels stand out.

To be fair, it did have a few nice challenging moments (I played on Heroic, which was probably a mistake, but I did it anyway). And I’m not going to lie, there were some moments on some levels where it seemed like the level design really did make an effort to make this a true challenging gamer’s game. But there wasn’t much buildup to those moments when they did happen, and it was more of a frustrating challenge than a fun challenge at other times (like that one level when you’re in a spaceship and flying around fighting in space, that level can choke on a rooster; the methods I had to resort to to get past that level without dropping the difficulty setting).

And most importantly, I just couldn’t stay invested in this game. A game needs to be more than just a few outstanding setpieces of good gaming. Those good setpieces need to be fleshed together around an overall satisfying experience. The problem is what the game tried to prioritized, and how the quality of what it prioritized absolutely sucked.

It tried to evoke this feeling of desperation and insurmountable odds, and only successfully managed that for a few fleeting seconds at best. It tried to make the deaths of certain characters feel like a gut punch, but it never gave me a chance to give a shit about any of them.

Worst of all, the whole game seemed to exist for the purpose of showing the origin and delivery of the AI Cortana. It just didn’t work, because it’s at odds with how the first game begins. At the beginning of Halo: Combat Evolved (Halo: CE), it came off as the captain of the ship, and Master Chief, being very familiar with Cortana, that they had a history with each other, and had been through some tough situations together. WHERE THE FUCK WAS ANY OF THAT IN THIS GAME!?!?!? The only thing that pisses me off more than that is that there isn’t any decent Halo porn gifs I can put on this page to make up for my frustrations with this. That’s the problem with games where all the interesting characters are digital AIs, and everyone else is behind a mask and suit. Give me a spartan with a pair of tits spray painted onto her armor!

Next best thing.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

Rated: 5 / 5

First of all, there are some problems with each and every PC release of this game. The main one I’ll mention is that the Halo: Master Chief Collection version, which has the anniversary edition of this game, which does allow you to play with the original graphics (which is the only way I’ll play, I hate the fucking changes they made to the color of the elites [sangheili], plus the armor is a bit too bulky, and a couple other tidbits that irritated me). And it also allows you to play with the original music (thank fucking God, because the new music is inferior). This version though, when playing with the original graphics, is not entirely smooth. This fucking game will stutter. Why the fuck it won’t play smoothly with the older graphics, I don’t know, and I don’t care what excuse some master computer graphical techno wizard says about it, it’s fucking irritating, and made the original physical disc PC version a preferable experience by comparison. Even then, there are issues with the graphics that were permanently done to the PC version, which others more capable of explaining it than I can have gone into.

So, with all that aside, I can say without doubt that this is my favorite 3D first person shooter game of all time. Everything about this game is done as close to perfection as it could get. Gameplay, phenomenal. Pacing, perfection. Graphics, still good. Soundtrack, legendary. Story, solid. Characters, the ones who aren’t cannon fodder are good enough.

What makes the gameplay and pacing (the primary features that should be the main focus of any and every game) so good that it makes me want to play it over and over again? The level design is great in each of the levels, making all of them stand out, of course.

And then there’s you. This is one of the first games that did the regenerative health concept in a way that was perfection out of the gate. Your health isn’t entirely regenerative, you have a shield which can get drained very quickly (especially on the harder difficulties; you haven’t truly played this game unless you’ve at least done it on Heroic difficulty), and then you have health which gets drained when your shield drops. And your health does not regenerate. You need to get health packs, otherwise, even with the shield, it’s going to be a struggle getting through the levels. A perfect mismash of regenerative and non-regenerative health.

And the weapons. All of them are great. Everyone loves the legendary Pistol (do to the fact it can zoom-in, has sniper range, and does a fair amount of damage). Sniper rifle is great and powerful. The shotgun, everyone loves the shotgun (except the enemy). Rocket launchers pack a punch. The assault rifle… ok, that weapon isn’t as good as it should be, but it does work well against a certain enemy type called the Flood. There’s these little spores that you can shrug off without much worry (you may even decide not to even bother shooting them). But once you lose your shields through other enemy melee/fire attack, then those spores aren’t something you can ignore.

But then there’s the alien weapons. The plasma pistol is basically a shield drainer. One shot from that when it’s fully charged, and your shield goes from 100% to 0% in an instant, leaving you completely susceptible to all other forms of attack. But you can also acquire it and do the same thing to the enemy. The plasma rifle, quite good, it can also do some solid damage to shielded elites, and works great against everything else; but it can overheat (so can the green gun, but it’s more of an issue with the plasma pistol). The Needler, that’s a bit tricky to use effectively, but it really sucks when you’re getting shot by it.

And then the plasma grenades. Those things are legendary in of themselves. You throw them, they stick to what they’re thrown on, and then kaboom. If you get stuck with those, you’re dead, and there’s nothing you can do about it (should’ve dodged it). But that also goes for the enemy, and the reactions they make when they get stuck with it are great. Not to mention that, if an enemy drops some plasma grenades when they die, and if a plasma grenade goes off near those plasma grenades, that sets off a chain reaction of explosions. It’s the weapon that causes the most havoc and fun in the entire game.

And the vehicles. The warthog ends up being the most memorable, despite the fact that it’s not as massive as a tank, despite the fact that it isn’t as quick and maneuverable as the ghost, despite the fact that it can’t fly like the banshee. Nothing beats a jeep with a gatling gun. Nothing.

And those vehicles are partly what make this game feel special. Because they give the feel of a sandbox shooter, where you can drive/fly anywhere. Granted, you don’t have as much freedom as you think, but it evokes enough freedom to feel satisfying, while remaining focused. Plus it also gets interesting how you can use those vehicles against enemies at various stages, even when you try to force them into corridors they’re not meant to go through. It’s not just that this game has those vehicles, it’s also how it allows you to use those vehicles with the level design. There was a care, yet also an, “Ah fuck it,” attitude with how much use and freedom they would allow the player to have with them, and it all feels so right.

As for the enemies, I won’t mention them all. The main ones you’ll be facing for most of the game are the shielded elites, and the pussy grunts. It’s amazing how much fun the game is when you’re mostly going up against 2 types of enemies most of the time (but a third enemy that carries literal energy shields also become frequent). Don’t get me wrong, they throw in some new types here and there to mix things up and keep it exciting, the the types of enemies do get more diverse as you go. But this is an instance where a game does so much with so little. The mannerisms and character they all have. Who can forget how the grunts speak, whine, pretend to be brave, and run around like sissies? Or how challenging the elites are when in the right environment. It’s a testament to the amount of effort put into the AI, and into the level design to keep them threatening. Plus they also get put into vehicles and turrets to use against you. So it’s not just that you go up against similar enemies, but how the enemies are utilized.

Even the AI marine allies aren’t half bad, so long as you play on a difficulty below Legendary (good luck keeping them alive on that one). It adds another layer of immersion into the game, when you have allies fighting at your side, and that you want to keep them alive so they can keep on fighting with you. Plus I always get a kick out of seeing them shooting a dead enemy and shouting, “Get up so I can kill you again!”

And lastly, the pacing of the story. Just enough build-up and explanation as to why you’re going where you’re going, doing what you’re doing. You get more immersed into the desperation of your plight far more than the Reach game could ever hope to achieve. Especially the build-up to when the Flood shows up. Not many games manage to pull off that sense of dread.

But I cannot say there aren’t any chinks in the armor of this game. For instance, there are times where you have a long range shooting distance, where you can pick off enemies who won’t shoot back at you (at best they’ll try to dodge your attacks). Wish the tank was less slow and more accurate. Wish the marines were a bit more intelligent and more resilient to enemy attacks. Thankfully, there’s a mod that addressing much of these little nitpicks.

Ruby’s Rebalanced Halo:CE Campaign

This mod seeks to make some tweaks to the game to make it “balanced.” It makes the Flood tougher (those little popsickles do more damage to your shields, forcing you to take them more seriously, and some Flood units have shields), the assault rifle more accurate and strong, the needler and plasma rifle more deadly, the marines more tough and numerous, and weapons have a longer range (including enemies, who you can no longer take cheap long range shots at without receiving counterfire from them). Some pros and cons to this mod:

Cons

* Flood are a bit too tough with the shields, even for Heroic. Get rid of the shields for anything below Legendary, and I’d say it’s all good.
* Game can crash when there’s too much Flood activity.
* The marines being able to see and shoot farther ends up being detrimental in one level. After you crash land on Halo, and get the Warthog and have to rescue the marines who crashed from the 3 escape pods. They’re capable of gunning down Covenant before the covenant can get off their ships (especially if you position the Warthog in the right areas with a gunner on it).
* The Warthog accelerates a tad too fast.
* The few moments when this game lags (especially when heavily engaged with the Flood) gets very annoying. This only got to be an issue at 2-3 points in the entire game, but it’s still an annoyance.
* I don’t think I’d ever try this mod out on Legendary.

Pros

* How the finale warthog ride is more intense.
* The enemies and marines can see and shoot farther, making for more tense and realistic engagements.
* Marines finally fight like marines and aren’t a bunch of wimps.
* Aside from a couple areas where the difficulty gets too easy (rescuing the marines in the canyons) or too hard (when you engage the Flood, especially at the Library), the level of difficulty feels more smooth than the regular game.
* The little Flood spores received a much needed boost in damage they can do.
* The tank handles much better with this mod, including its accuracy.
* The increased firing rate and overall strength of those gun turrets the covenant use actually seems perfect, to my amazement.
* The Needler weapon ends up being an improvement. Gotta be more wary of that weapon from now on when it’s used against you.
* Love the accuracy boost for the assault rifle, and the damage boost for the plasma rifle.

The mod isn’t perfect (plus I crashed to desktop 2-3 times during the Library level), but if you’re willing to put up with some lag and insane difficulty during the Library level, the mod is a general improvement on the game itself. If the cons get addressed, and if there’s a way to make the game with classic graphics run more smoothly (not a problem on the mod’s part in some cases), then this would end up being the ultimate definitive Halo: CE experience.


Halo 2 (2004)

Rated: 2.5 / 5

Such a downgrade from the first game, and only a bit better than Reach, if only because it’s paced a bit better. It implements dual wielding, allowing you to hold and shoot two guns at once. This can be fun at times, but overall I thought it was too clunky and fiddly. But that’s just me, I’m sure this mechanism was made for others who would enjoy this aspect far more than I did.

The storyline to this is, uh, ok. It expands on the first game in interesting ways, allowing you to see more into what the Covenant is all about, and more into the history of the Halo ring (and learning that several of these exist as contingencies against the Flood, which can also be used for other devious reasons). But just knowing where this all ends up by the time we get to the third game, it’s just not as fresh or interesting compared to the ground covered in the first game. Plus the gameplay and level design didn’t seem as interesting, even though it went bigger. Bigger isn’t always better.

Honestly, I can’t think of much to say about this one. It did have some interesting and tense setpieces (like the bridge), and bringing the fight to Earth raised the stakes. There just wasn’t enough weight to those stakes compared to the first. And I’m not entirely sure why that is, at least for me. It’s not just because of the increased level of difficulty (seriously, this game is harder than the first, hard enough to where you don’t want your first time to be on Heroic). It’s an acceptable shooter, but it’s not one I’m all that interested in revisiting. And then there’s that infamous cliffhanger…


Halo 3 (2007)

Rated: 3.5 / 5

It may not be as great as Halo: CE, but it is an improvement over the 2nd game, in that it felt fun enough to revisit. Kind of interesting that the amount of ground covered story-wise is less significant compared to the 2nd game, making the cliffhanger ending even more hilarious. On the other hand, this allowed the game to put more weight and buildup into levels and events than the 2nd game did, allowed for more interesting level design (hopping into those giant mobile spider tanks and blowing them up is always fun; plus the warthog finale, while similar to the first game, is still a fun ride in its own right).

But the most memorable thing about this game is seeing the Flood again. They have never been more terrifying than in this game. The spores are a shitload more creepy, and seeing them begin to spread on Earth really got me amped up, wanting to do something to stop it. Plus the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” moment near the end of the game was one of the most interesting twists I’ve seen in the franchise up to this point.

It’s a solid enough end point for the series. And from what I understand, ODST aside (which is more of a spin-off that’s optional to play rather than something trying to expand upon Master Chief’s storyline), this is where the series probably should’ve ended. I don’t have much desire to play beyond this entry, which was meant to be an ending anyway (not entirely definitive, as not all loose ends are tied up, but it’s an acceptable way to end a franchise, as the loose ends could be meant to remain loose).

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