Wednesday, 14 March 2012

March 14th 2002

It’s been ten long years. The world has changed a lot, we've had wars (several of them), countries have risen & fallen, the world’s population has grown by almost a billion people, the economy has stalled, boomed and then completely collapsed. But there is one event that stands head and shoulders above all others these last last ten years...

I still remember the first time I held The Duke, my first tentative steps out of that escape pod onto the rolling grassy plains of Halo. I floundered with the twin stick controls and ended up looking at the floor – and what a floor! “Look at that grass!” I yelled, getting some strange looks from passers by. It was the week before the launch of the original Xbox, I was using the demo pod in GAME.

I strolled around Halo for the first time, gazing out over the gracefully arcing horizon in wonder, jogging over to the waterfall and standing beneath it, listening as it sploshed against my armour. This really was something special. 

Of course I didn't know then how much this would come to define who I am, what impact Halo would have on my life. But all stories have a beginning and for me and Halo, this was ours. A week later I stood outside GAME in the brisk March chill as the clock ticked passed 12, people gave me funny looks as they strolled past going about their day. It was 12 noon and I was first in line for the launch of Xbox that would be kicking off in 12 hours time. I arrived home at about 00:10 clutching a bulging sack of futuristic delights, but there was one little green box that would truly become the star of the show. I was not alone, Danny, who would become my long-time co-op buddy sat beside me as I booted up the Xbox and began playing, thinking we'd perhaps do half an hour on each of the games I’d bought before bed. Twelve hours later we were in a Warthog hurtling through the bowels of the Pillar of Autumn screaming instructions at one another. This was a bit special.

A few months passed before my first Halo LAN party, but after that first wondrous night, beers, pizza and Halo became a weekly event amongst me and my friends right up until November 9th 2004 and the launch of Halo 2, but that’s a story for another time.

As I play through Halo Anniversary today, with its generous layer of graphical lustre, the thing that truly strikes me is how much it hasn't influenced other games. For all we hear about Halo’s achievements - and we’ll come on to those in good time - it’s the areas where Halo is still best in class that truly strike me. 

Weapon balance, sandbox, enemy AI, the mix of vehicle & on-foot combat, the freedom to express yourself through play, in all of these regards Halo is peerless. It is that last point that truly defines Halo for me, the breadth of play styles that emerged from that game is truly remarkable - snipers, drivers, sneaks, gung-ho cowboys, methodical marksmen, sticky slingers, and tons more, each with their own unique way of playing. The only game I can think of that comes close is Deus Ex and that has several game systems that actively change your character’s abilities in order to facilitate it.

If you didn’t play Halo in 2002, if you perhaps first played a console FPS with Killzone or Call of Duty, you could be forgiven for misunderstanding its importance. The core mechanics that defined Halo have become the base pillars on which all FPSs are built, the sort of things that are now so commonplace that you almost forget they’re there. Recharging health completely changed the tactics and strategy available to both players and game designers. The two weapon limit constantly forced the player to be make choices - shotgun or sniper? Pistol or rockets? These were not inconsequential decisions, they could completely change the way a level would play out, different players would see and experience different things based on the weapon choices they made.

I’ve already mentioned co-op, but again, this was something that Halo introduced to us, that now seems so commonplace we take it for granted.  

It doesn’t end there. Prior to Halo, melee and grenades would be separate weapons selectable in place of a gun. By giving both grenades and melee their own buttons Halo invented the “Golden Tripod” referencing the three tenets of Halo combat: Guns, grenades and melee. Assigning each of these their own button added a speed and fluidity to combat that had never been seen before. Prior to Halo, FPS combat was simple; take aim, circle strafe and the person who shot first or had the biggest gun would get the kill. In Halo you could shoot, throw a grenade to remove shields then pop them off with a headshot. Or maybe use a grenade to flush them from cover and run in for the melee kill. Or how about run them down peppering with assault rifle fire and then deliver a swift melee to finish them off.. It truly was Combat Evolved.

Halo is my favourite game, and I believe, as a package, it is the best game ever. But I’ll go further than that to say that Halo is also the most important game ever, important in ways that we aren't even seeing yet – there are things Halo was getting right in 2002 that other games are still failing to do today.

So to Halo I offer a toast, a toast to the best game ever.
Happy Birthday, old friend.

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