There was a time, only a few decades ago, when gaming was simple. You stomped around in either a fixed two-dimensional or side-scrolling environment with a clear objective and plan in mind, defeat the bad guys and survive. Now, though, things are very different. We still aspire for the same basic goals in gaming but now, and thanks to Halo, there are other things to consider.
I started gaming way back in 1980, when, at the age of six, I got my hands on my older brother’s Grandstand, which was a simple Pong-derived console. Of the few games available, one stood out, a simple two-player tank game where opponents faced off among a blocky sea of supposed cover and combat came in the form of firing bright red lines of death at each other. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of tactical flexibility, which often resulted in a game of patience. One player would simply wait it out, and then after three or four centuries had passed, the opposing player would impatiently charge forward in an effort to bring about a conclusion, only to succumb to a well-placed shot of red death. The game was indescribably simple, but fun, at the time. After all, there was little else. After that, followed a Spectrum 48K in 1982—an 8 bit home computer with all the processing power of a frozen walnut. But again, it was all that was freely available.
The years passed by, I became older and gaming gradually changed. NOTE: I said gradually and not rapidly. Because though the graphics improved at an alarming rate and the computers and consoles that emerged were faster and more powerful, gaming itself hardly changed at all. The only changes that did emerge were simple gimmicks, designed to try and separate each new release from the one previous. Popular games like Sonic and Mario did this to great effect, but in the end they were still lacking a vital ingredient that would later be added by a small game developer in Seattle, immersion—the ability to pull the player into a gaming environment without the use of Virtual reality or 3D.
I only have to mention the second mission in Halo: Combat Evolved and you’ll immediately know to what I’m referring. That was the moment that Halo did evolve. Within the blink of an eye, it went from an impressive first-person shooter to an amazing one, with a unique change in perspective as well—not in the way that combat is fought but by the scale of things. Halo changed everything.
End bosses, the tiring and despicable inclusion of many preceding titles had vanished. Instead, I was facing individual pockets of enemy troops and fixed defensive emplacements. It was vastly more realistic. Because not only was there an absence of grossly overpowered giant robot aliens, everything that was more powerful than the regular run of Grunts and Jackals was appropriately included. The Wraith tank, for instance, was used as a realistic means of fire-support and suppression on a group of beleaguered marines in a wonderfully set snow scene, all of them waiting for some additional muscle to turn up. And when it did, they helped out, doing what any real combatant would to aid the current battle. I felt involved, revered and valued as the Master Chief but not invincible, all at the same time. How many other games during 2001 could boast those kinds of credentials during gameplay? I can’t think of a single one. Can you?
And then, when I thought I had Halo all figured out, the Flood arrived. “Where the hell did they come from?”
The Flood were, by far, the biggest surprise I’ve ever experienced in any game. I’ve played previous Resident Evil games where surprise is paramount to the genre but they all paled in comparrison to the emergence of the Flood, because it wasn’t something you expected. And this is what I love about Halo, you’re constantly kept on your toes, either by the environment or by the behaviour of the enemy. It’s always an adventure. And in that sense it actually has an unusual sibling.
I suspect that by now many of you will have seen James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s an amazingfilm, but not tremenously original in its concept, but it does feature one monumental aspect that is seriously lacking in every other cinematic experience, immersion. Again, this word pops up because those involved realised the best way to entertain and amaze an audience — or the player when it comes to Halo — is to involve them in the story. With Halo this was a much simpler task as the player can interact with the environment, but with a film there’s no such option.
Previous attepts with filming in 3D had failed to take off, but James Cameron clearly realised why. Everyone else in the film industry had taken their time to poke the audience in the face with a series of spectroscopic red and green fingers, which is sometimes fun at first but interferes with the story and purpose of the film. James Cameron decided to avoid this and instead immersed the audience in the story, making them feel like they were actually on Pandora and a part of the adventure. But Halo and Avatar are not alone.
Modern Warfare is another title of considerable note. Though the storyline isn’t one to amaze or the campaign levels as beautiful as those on Halo they do aid the bulk of the action rather well, by staying out of the way while you are instead immersed in complete and total war. MW will never rival Halo for spectacle or adventure but it does provide a quick and easy fix for those who simply want take on the enemy and fill them with lead. It’s war, plain and simple, in its most brutal and truthful form.
Like Modern Warfare or Gears of War, Halo delivers a great deal to those who play it. But instead of concentrating on one or two avenues of immersion Halo takes several steps ahead of the competition, by delivering on a multitude of fronts. In short, if you want to play a game where death could come at any moment play Modern Warfare, but if you want to feel like the last of your kind, on an alien world where humanity teeters on the brink of annihilation then Halo, in all of its guises, is the choice for you.