Halo: Combat Evolved

Tagged: Game

Videogame (2001). Bungie Studios (BS). Designed by John Howard. Platforms: XBox (2001); Mac, Win (2003); rev vt Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary XB360 (2011).

Halo: Combat Evolved is a First Person Shooter, with a linear plot (see Interactive Narrative) which owes much to such sf action films as Aliens (1986). The player takes the role of the "Master Chief", a biologically enhanced chief petty officer wearing Powered Armour. In the future of the Halo series, humanity is fighting a losing war against the Covenant, a technologically superior collective of alien species who want to exterminate mankind for religious reasons. After a successful Covenant attack on the human world of Reach, the starship Pillar of Autumn escapes, making a Faster Than Light jump to a random location. Upon arrival, it discovers the titular Halo, a Macrostructure resembling a smaller version of the eponymous construct described in Larry Niven's novel Ringworld (1970). As the game begins, Covenant forces have followed the Pillar of Autumn, and the player is forced to escape from the damaged ship and land on Halo with Cortana, the ship's AI. The subsequent story is extremely fast-paced, featuring constant plot twists and well-designed battle sequences. Eventually it is revealed that the Macrostructure was built by an apparently extinct Forerunner race to contain the Flood, a parasitic form of alien life which mutates its hosts. The Covenant accidentally release the Flood, and Halo's AI decides to trigger a superweapon which will wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy to contain it. The player must fight the Covenant, the Flood and Halo's robotic drones to prevent the weapon from firing. In the end, Halo itself is destroyed.

The gameplay of Halo: Combat Evolved is fairly conventional for an FPS; innovative elements include the use of regenerating energy shields by many of the combatants and a well-designed third-person view which is used to pilot a variety of vehicles. Its detailed Hard SF background and involving plot, combined with the appeal of player identification with the superhuman Master Chief, resulted in considerable commercial success. Halo 2 (2004 BS, XBox; 2007 Win) designed by Paul Bertone, Jaime Griesemer, Joseph Staten is a direct sequel, with separate sections played from the viewpoints of the Master Chief and a disgraced Covenant commander who eventually becomes a human ally. Unlike Halo: Combat Evolved, it includes an online multiplayer mode; players can either cooperate to complete the storyline together or compete in player versus player combat games. The game's plot begins with a Covenant invasion of Earth in search of the "Ark", a Forerunner device which can be used to trigger the superweapons on several new Halo artefacts resembling the one destroyed in the first game. (The Covenant believe, wrongly, that firing the weapon will leave them alive to inherit the galaxy.) After this attack is repulsed, the story continues on the "Delta Halo" object, where a civil war breaks out between different Covenant factions as humans, Covenant and a super-intelligent form of Flood fight over whether to activate the ring's weapon. Halo 2 ends on a cliffhanger; the storyline is completed in the final part of the trilogy, the similarly structured Halo 3 (2007 BS, XB360) designed by Jaime Griesemer, Paul Bertone, Rob Stokes, Tyson Green, Joseph Staten. As the game begins, Earth is under siege by the Covenant. Humanity continues to resist, however, along with a species known as the Elite who have defected from the alien collective after discovering that firing the Halo weapons will render them extinct. Events culminate on the true Ark, an extragalactic Space Habitat which is constructing a new Halo, where both the Flood and the Covenant can eventually be defeated.

Several related games were created after the release of Halo 3 completed the original trilogy. Halo Wars (2009 Ensemble Studios, XB360) designed by Dave Pottinger is a Real Time Strategy game set twenty years earlier than Halo: Combat Evolved, in which the player controls human troops who must fight both the Covenant and the Flood for possession of ancient alien artefacts; its linear narrative ends with the destruction of a fleet of Forerunner starships in order to deny them to the enemy. (The logic of the series' Future History – in which humanity is ignorant of the existence of the Flood until the events of Combat Evolved – demands that the players' characters must never go home; in the end the survivors are left in Suspended Animation, adrift without a Faster Than Light drive.) Reviews were generally positive. Halo 3: ODST (2009 BS, XB360) designed by Joseph Staten, Paul Bertone returns to the form of the First Person Shooter, while abandoning the Master Chief as protagonist in favour of its titular "Orbital Drop Shock Troopers". As the game begins a squad of these future paratroopers have jumped into a city occupied by the Covenant during the invasion of Earth which occurs at the start of Halo 2, where they must recover vital information before it is captured by the aliens. While its design is similar to that of previous entries in the main series, ODST is less directed than its predecessors, with more scope for exploration and elements of embedded as well as linear storytelling (see Interactive Narrative). Similarly, Halo: Reach (2010 BS, XB360) designed by Marcus Lehto, Christian Allen is another First Person Shooter which serves as a prequel for Halo: Combat Evolved. Finely crafted though this game's combat sequences are, all of its players know that in the end the titular planet must fall despite everything they do to defend it, setting the stage for the events of the original trilogy. Interestingly, this does not seem to have had any adverse effect on the game's popularity.

With the release of Halo: Reach responsibility for the development of further games in the franchise was transferred from Bungie Studios, its creators, to a wholly owned subsidiary of its publishers, Microsoft's 343 Industries (named after 343 Guilty Spark, a Forerunner AI which appears in Combat Evolved). Their first contribution to the series was Halo 4 (2012 343 Industries [343], XB360) designed by Scott Warner, Josh Holmes, an interesting work (and the start of a new trilogy) which serves both as a homage to its predecessors and as an extension of their themes. At the end of Halo 3, Cortana and the Master Chief were left drifting in space in a disabled starship. In Halo 4, set five years later, this vessel crashes on Requiem, a Forerunner world still inhabited by the remnants of this supposedly vanished species. Much combat follows, against both Forerunner servant races and rogue Covenant forces who have refused to obey the ceasefire established between their civilization and humanity after the end of Halo 3; the gameplay resembles that of earlier First Person Shooters in the series, with minor improvements. These battle sequences are interspersed with revelations about the nature of humanity and a surprisingly intimate portrayal of the repressed romantic relationship between the emotionally damaged supersoldier, brainwashed and experimented on in childhood to make him a better warrior, and the artificial intelligence, who has reached the limit of her achievable lifespan. (In a nod to Bungie Studios' earlier Marathon Trilogy [from 1994], Cortana is said to be suffering from "rampancy" – a form of information overload which is the equivalent of senescence for software intelligences.) Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that the Forerunner troops who the player is fighting are an altered form of humanity.

As in earlier works ranging from Edmond Hamilton's Captain Future story "The Lost World of Time" (Fall 1941 Captain Future) through Ben Bova's As on a Darkling Plain (1972) to the television series Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), humans in the Halo universe developed a starfaring civilization in the distant past, a culture which was destroyed and forgotten long before their eventual redevelopment as a technological species. Here, humanity lost a war with the Forerunners before they used a version of the Halo doomsday weapon to defeat the Flood, apparently eradicating all sentient life then existing in the galaxy. However, two Forerunner factions survive on Requiem: one which believes humanity should inherit their position as the guardians of all intelligent life – and who, as in E E Smith's Lensman novels, have manipulated their evolution to shape them into suitably formidable custodians – and one which still blames mankind for the long-ago war, and intends to eliminate Earth's population by subjecting it to a kind of forcible Upload. At the end of the game's linear storyline, this latter group can be defeated, but Cortana is apparently lost.

The Halo series has always been associated with unusual forms of marketing. The first announcement of Halo: Combat Evolved, in 1999, took the form of a series of cryptic emails sent to a fan website for Bungie's earlier Marathon Trilogy, supposedly by the Cortana AI. The letters mingle references to the poetry of William Blake and T S Eliot with allusions to the Future History of the Halo universe in a deliberately obscure style. Bungie's denial of responsibility for the Cortana Letters, and the way in which fan analysis of the first emails was referenced in later examples, make them a precursor of later Alternate Reality Games. Halo 2's promotion took the form of a full-blown Alternate Reality Game, I Love Bees (2004 42 Entertainment, Web; vt The Haunted Apiary) designed by Sean Stewart, Elan Lee, Jordan Weisman. The game was begun by briefly displaying a website link in trailers for Halo 2 while simultaneously delivering cryptic clues to previous players of the game; both entry points led to the ilovebees.com website, a site apparently devoted to beekeeping which had developed inexplicable problems. The somewhat complex plot, as revealed by an online community of ARG players, revolved around an AI from the Halo Future History which had become trapped in the site, and needed help to repair itself and fight off a Covenant virus. I Love Bees is considered an excellent example of an Alternate Reality Game, involving both internet-based puzzles and clues delivered through calls to specially chosen payphones. Visiting the website could provide a vivid sense of roaming through the shattered pieces of an artificial mind, many of which had their own engagingly individual personalities; an archived version of the game's content is still available at the site. Another, less successful, Alternate Reality Game called Iris (2007 AKQA) was used to promote Halo 3; it involved a group known as the "Society of the Ancients" who were investigating Forerunner artefacts discovered on Earth. For Halo 4, however, Microsoft apparently decided to eschew the use of such experimental methods to promote the game, and instead released a cinematic prequel as a series of episodes on the web: Forward Unto Dawn (2012).

Halo: Combat Evolved was also important in the development of Machinima. The entertaining Red vs Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles (2003-2007) from Rooster Teeth Productions was perhaps the first mainstream example of the form, eventually running to a hundred episodes available for free download and on DVD. The series uses the game's software to tell the story of two teams of superhuman soldiers fighting a pointless civil war in a desolate box canyon. Red vs Blue is essentially a situation comedy, focusing on character interaction between largely deranged individuals, featuring amusing parodies of the worst Clichés found in First Person Shooters and bad sf films; its overall tone somewhat resembles that of Kevin Smith's film Clerks (1994).

Related works: Halo: Custom Edition (2004 Gearbox Software, Win) is a free expansion for the Windows version of Halo: Combat Evolved which was converted from the XBox by Gearbox. It adds online multiplayer support, with the ability to design custom locations for online games. The Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack (2005 BS, XBox) is an expansion containing additional missions suitable for use in competitive online games of Halo 2. Similarly, the Halo 3 Heroic Map Pack (2007 BS, XB360), Halo 3 Legendary Map Pack (2008 BS, XB360), Halo 3 Mythic Map Pack (2009 BS, XB360) and Halo 3 Mythic II Map Pack (2010 BS, XB360) add new locations for competitive online play to Halo 3. Equivalent expansions for Halo Wars are Halo Wars: Strategic Options (2009 Robot Entertainment [RE], XB360) and Halo Wars: Historic Battles (2009 RE, XB360), while Halo: Reach was similarly extended by Halo: Reach – Noble Map Pack (2010 BS, XB360) and Halo: Reach – Defiant Map Pack (2011 BS, XB360). Halo: Spartan Assault (2013 343 / Vanguard Entertainment, Win) is a two-dimensional action game, set between Halo 3 and Halo 4, in which two player-controlled supersoldiers fight a group of Covenant who have refused to make peace with humanity. Halo 4 itself has been extended by three expansions which contain additional locations for multiplayer battles: the Crimson Map Pack (2012 343, XB360), the Majestic Map Pack (2013 343, XB360) and the Castle Map Pack (2013 343, XB360). In addition, a sequel to the main game's narrative is available as a series of downloadable episodes known as Spartan Ops, intended for cooperative play over the internet.

Halo ActionClix (2007 WizKids) designed by Michael Mulvihill, Mike Elliott is a Collectible Miniatures Game based on the franchise, similar to Heroclix (2007). The Halo Interactive Strategy Game (2008 B1 Games / Genius Products) is a Board Game which attempts, with limited success, to translate First Person Shooter gameplay into a turn-based game played with miniature figures. Risk: Halo Wars (2009 Hasbro) designed by Rob Daviau is a variant of Risk (see Risk 2210 AD) licensed from Halo Wars.

Various spinoff novels have been written. The Fall of Reach (2001) by Eric Nylund is a prequel to the first game, of which The Flood (2003) by William C Dietz is a novelization. First Strike (2003) by Eric Nylund is primarily set between the events of Halo: Combat Evolved and those of Halo 2, while Ghosts of Onyx (2006), also by Nylund, ties up various plot threads from the games and continues the story after Halo 2. The book follows the discovery of a world whose core contains a gateway to a miniature Dyson Sphere in an alternate space, which may have been created by the Forerunners as a refuge from the Flood. The next novel, Contact Harvest (2007) by Joseph Staten, is another prequel which describes humanity's First Contact with the Covenant, explicating much of the series' background. This work was followed by Tobias Buckell's The Cole Protocol (2008), which also focuses on the early days of the war. Halo: Evolutions: Essential Tales of the Halo Universe (anth 2009) collects short stories by a variety of authors, including Nylund, Tobias Buckell, Jeff VanderMeer, Karen Traviss and Brian Evenson. A new trilogy by Greg Bear, concentrating on the history of Halo's Forerunner species, began with Cryptum (2011) and continued with Primordium (2012) and Silentium (2013). A separate series is set after the end of Halo 3 and written by Karen Traviss; to date this sequence comprises Glasslands (2011) and The Thursday War (2012). Tobias Buckell's Halo Encyclopedia (2011), meanwhile, is a "nonfiction" description of the milieu.

The Halo Graphic Novel (2006) includes four short stories set in the Halo universe, one of them drawn by Jean Giraud. Halo: Uprising (2007-2009) is a four-issue Comic series, written by Brian Michael Bendis, which serves to bridge the gap between the events of Halo 2 and those of Halo 3. More recent associated Comics include Halo: Helljumper (2009), a five issue sequence written by Peter David which focuses on a group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, and Halo: Blood Line (2009-2010), a limited series written by Fred van Lente which deals with a covert group of biologically enhanced supersoldiers similar to the protagonist of the original game. Halo: Fall of Reach (2010-2012) is an adaptation to graphical form of Nylund's novel of the same name, while Halo: Initiation (2013) is a three-issue Comics series Tied to Spartan Assault. Halo: Legends (2010) is a collection of Anime inspired by the franchise, including a piece directed by Shinji Aramaki (see Appleseed). [NT]

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