When I was young, I used to play Halo: Combat Evolved‘s demo on my mom’s iMac for hours. I didn’t have an Xbox and I didn’t have any spending money, so this demo was really my only avenue for experiencing Halo beyond watching Forge Machinimas on YouTube and playing with my Halo Reach action figures. As such, I played The Silent Cartographer mission probably a dozen times, and put easily a dozen hours into multiplayer matches on Blood Gulch, as this was all that the demo offered. And, considering that this was post-Reach and no one had any business playing the Mac demo for Combat Evolved, those multiplayer matches were broken as all hell, with rampant cheating and mods.
Still, I didn’t care as a child, as I wasn’t necessarily drawn to Halo because of its gameplay. I played that demo incessantly and watched Machinimas constantly because I just loved the universe. However, being a kid who didn’t think critically about the things I enjoyed or why, this never quite dawned on me until much later, when I finally played through each core Halo title front-to-back. Now, as a card-carrying, Xbox-owning Halo fan, I can confidently articulate not only that underlying reason for why I adore the series, but also why this world draws me in so completely. It all comes back to that universe.
arena shooter excellence
But also, I love the gameplay. Yes, before I delve into the narrative, I have to wax about the elegance of Halo’s gameplay – particularly in the Bungie titles. While I do still enjoy 343’s contributions to the series (and Infinite looks downright amazing), it’s really the core trilogy and Reach which won my heart. I’m not much of a multiplayer guy with key exceptions, so my love for this gameplay loop is predicated upon Halo’s campaigns.
In them, there is a clear mastery over level design and combat mechanics. The interplay between enemy types, environmental geography, and weapon selection results in such a dynamic and engaging experience. Whether you’re strafing around the battle in a vehicle or juggling two weapons and a dual-wield on foot, Halo’s combat is really thoughtful at its best. The combat is just empowering too, as you hop around as Master Chief, hitting headshots with a Battle Rifle and bashing a Grunt’s skull in with a well-timed melee blow. Add in an emphasis on movement, enabled by a focus on projectile-based enemy weapons and active AI, and you have a brilliantly fun FPS experience.
This should be why I love Halo, and it is in large part. After all, I’m absolutely a gameplay-first type. I really appreciate when a developer can execute on tight gameplay in the context of simple mechanics. Halo does this really well. But, my love for the series runs so much deeper than that. Or, paradoxically, it exists largely on the surface. If you kept Halo’s great mechanics and structure and slapped a different story and skin over them, I’d still really enjoy the resulting game. Yet, would it resonate with me the way Halo does now? I think that the answer is probably not.
sir, permission to discuss the story
To put it in perspective, as I started writing this, Warthog Run began playing subconsciously in my head. I’m in awe of this world, these characters, that art direction and the incredible score. I recognized this when finally playing the saga as an adult, but that wasn’t crystalized until I played Halo 2 specifically. After all, while I really enjoy the story of Combat Evolved, it’s more subdued. That narrative is told through contextual moments and environmental detail – the surface-level plot is fairly simple. It sets up sweeping lore elements and iconic characters, but it lacks the cinematic focus and complexity of later stories.
Halo 2, by contrast, really foregrounds its narrative in a way that sucked me in completely. From the condemnation of the Arbiter and the opening Covenant attack on the UNSC station to the Gravemind and the Brute betrayal, this is such a rich sci-fi story. By complicating Combat Evolved’s narrative setup with themes of religious fanaticism within the Covenant and larger political elements, on top of fascinating sci-fi landscapes and ideas, Halo 2 gave this world so much weight.
Still, Halo 2’s narrative matured while having plenty of fun. Halo 2 is where the series became as campy as can be. And, I love the game for it. The vibe of Halo is one that manages to bounce between the absurd, the absurdly badass, and the super-serious at the drop of a hat. You’ve got corny, memorable Sergeant Johnson hoo-rahing and delivering quippy military one-liners. You’ve got Master Chief doing the same, only in his stoic and pointed manner. That moment when Chief gives the Covenant back their bomb always gives me chills because it’s just so damn cool. Then, who could forget the huge, off-putting Gravemind speaking in rhyme? Hokey and bombastic dialog mingles with serious thematic and narrative beats in a truly compelling way. Halo 2 plays its humorous and eclectic moments straight, which makes them feel so much cooler than they would be otherwise.
Then, there are all the component elements which build out the world. I love getting to see different Covenant factions interact, each with their own personality and striking design. The latter is a compliment that I could provide to just about every facet of the experience. Halo 2’s art direction is absolutely stunning. From the streets of New Mombassa to the heights of High Charity, there is so much to drink in. And, there are great gameplay set pieces afforded by these environments too, like leaping off a New Mombassa building onto a Scarab tank to destroy it from the inside. That remains one of the coolest sequences I’ve played in any video game.
I have to mention that soundtrack again too, as it totally elevates every aspect that I’ve previously discussed. I’m probably more indifferent to game soundtracks than most, so this usually doesn’t matter to me. I typically view scores as additive, but in Halo, I view it as an essential part of the experience. Whether we’re discussing the more ambient tracks or those that get your pulse racing in the midst of combat, the music is vital. This extends to the entire series. I view Halo’s OST (not ODST) and Donkey Kong Country’s OST as my personal favorites across the medium.
Perhaps my only issue with Halo 2’s narrative is its cliffhanger ending. Or, well, I probably would’ve had this issue if I could’ve played Halo 2 back at release. By the time I finally had access to it, I was playing through this adventure of the Master Chief in his eponymous collection. So, I was able to immediately hop into Halo 3. I can only imagine the frustration intrinsic to that final beat back in 2004 though, especially considering the gap in time before the third installment hit Xbox 360. That said, removed from that assumedly-excruciating wait, I really love how 2 segues into 3. All of the elements it sets up, from the Brute’s control to the quest for the Index, place a sense of urgency and scale on that successive title.
I’ve been a huge Star Wars nerd since I was probably four years old. So, I measure any other sci-fi series against that. The unfolding narrative of Halo 2 is the most engrossed I’ve been in a non-Star Wars story, period. I’m endlessly fascinated by Halo‘s lore. If only I could go back in time and give my younger self an Xbox. Getting to grow up alongside Bungie’s Halo in its prime would’ve really cemented it as arguably my favorite gaming series. Instead, I’ve been playing catch-up now that I can afford access to the Halo titles, and I’m so glad to be doing so. If Halo Infinite’s grand campaign can recapture this Halo 2 magic, then it’ll easily join the ranks of the first four Halo titles among my favorite games of all time.