Halo: Combat Evolved as an FPS is difficult to classify. It's not quite an arena shooter in the same vein as Doom, Quake, or Unreal, and it's not quite the modern military shooter that Battlefield and Call of Duty are. Suffice it to say Halo is its own sub-genre in an FPS (just like Mario and Zelda are practically their own unique genres). It was a game from a liminal era, a bridge between the old-school LAN party-friendly, tournament, and dungeon crawling shooters and the gritty modern battlefields that dominated the market in the late 2000s and up to the present. Call of Duty Vanguard was just released and Battlefield 2042 is days around the corner at the time of writing. Shooters haven't interested me since Halo until the Doom reboot in 2016, and the phenomenal Doom Eternal in 2020. Indeed, the FPS genre has moved on -- but I have not. Halo was great, and Halo: CE was the best of the series.
In modern shooters, particularly Battle Royale, you will be aiming down iron sights or 8x scopes to engage a threat two kilometers away from you and registering as no more than a pixel on your screen (that is, before you've spotted and zeroed in on them with a scope). The hyper-tactical competitive eSports favourites like Siege or CS:GO will have you listening for visual cues or subtle signs of movement to locate the enemy. There's nothing inherently bad about either of these observations of the modern FPS, and the best players are undoubtedly skilled. But there's no escaping the element of luck in these games. The best players will die over and over again, to circumstances that are largely out of their control. In Fromsoft games, death is satisfyingly integrated narratively and mechanically into the experience. Failure is a part of the experience, in Sekiro you resurrect over and over again with the power of the dragon blood, and feel all the more powerful for learning from your mistakes and mastering a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. In the finale, it even feels like Sword Saint Isshin is coaching you. "Hesitation is Defeat". Being dunked on by some caffeinated 14-year-old in Fortnite, who spotted you from across the map, and just happens to have a rare sniper rifle you cannot counter with your normal SMG, has none of this satisfaction or meaning, however.
Halo CE's arsenal and gunplay were simpler and, for me, all the more rewarding for it. Your enemies were clearly defined, in shape and color, and visually distinct from the environment. I can only think of Overwatch as a recent example of a shooter that has taken this fundamental design principle on board. What this meant were sustained shootouts with the enemy, protracted duels that would you have dodging blue and green plasma projectiles, ducking behind cover, and countering with a mixture of familiar human weapons and the versatile covenant arsenal. Elites are - supposed to be - your match as a Spartan and will be difficult to take on in groups on the higher difficulties. Grunts and Jackals are, exactly as their names imply, pawns, and can hold their own in groups but panic and flee when their Elite commanders are taken down -- or resort to suicide bombings by arming two plasma grenades and charging. Hunters are behemoths with tough armor and massive fuel rod canons. You have to bait them into charging you then shoot them in the gaps in their armor when their back is turned. It's not quite as acrobatic and frenetic as Quake or the Doom reboots - it's a bit more methodical than that - but it was still exhilarating. All of this is to say, longer firefights and more varied gameplay made for a better FPS experience. More rewarding than being the hapless American private dropped into war with Russia, China, or both and killed 30 seconds later.
The AI was good, not just for 2001 but for 2021. And not just for shooters but for all genres. And if it sounds like I'm speaking through the perspective of one with rose-tinted nostalgia goggles, don't take my word for it. The streamer CohhCarnage is currently doing a playthrough of the entire Master Chief Collection on Twitch as of November 8th 2021 and had this to say about the Grunts in the second level:
Granted Bungie's games don't have as many moving parts as the modern AAA open world, but the AI was stellar. Enemies know how to flank, dodge threats like human vehicles and grenades, interact with the environment and do things like climb into stationary turrets, banshees (flying combat units), and ghosts (hovercrafts with mounted plasma guns). Your human allies were also fairly autonomous and could use various tools and engage threats with no direction from the player; throwing grenades, dodging them, panicking when they were stuck with plasma grenades, mounting the turret on the warthog, and providing highly competent and accurate fire support while you take the wheel. They also ad-lib when you make a jump with the warthog, or crash the warthog, and their random interjections greatly enhance the experience and make the player's journey feel personal and unique, and deeply memorable. They even respond intelligently if you decide to go down the psychopath route and murder them all (we've all done it) first imploring you to stop executing them, then taking you down as a squad, rolling behind cover, throwing grenades, shouting orders. But more often than this, you'll want to reload the checkpoint every time you lose them.
Bungie made great levels. Halo 2 would be a step back in my opinion, and Halo 3 would surpass both in the spectacle. You would take down scarabs, shoot alien dropships out of the sky, and overall there was greatly improved vehicular and aerial combat. But Combat Evolved compensated for the technical limitations of the OG Xbox and PCs at the time by starting with a highly captivating scenario and context for the gameplay and building environments that were endlessly entertaining to battle through.
Level 1, "Pillar of Autumn": the Covenant follows the human flagship from Reach (a human colony planet, recently destroyed by the Covenant) and engages, using the escape pods to board the Autumn, assassinate the Chief in cryosleep and abduct Cortana. You fight to escape on the last remaining escape pod and are frustrated in your attempt by Covenant along the way. Level 2, "Halo": you've escaped and crashed landed on a ring-like world and the task is to gather surviving UNSC forces and mount a counteroffensive against the Covenant. Level 3, "Truth and Reconciliation": Captain Keyes of the Autumn went down with the ship, manually piloting it and crashing landing on Halo, only to be abducted by Covenant. Armed with a sniper rifle and accompanied by a squad of marines you mount a stealth mission to infiltrate the ship and extract the captain, who has overheard Covenant chatter about what Halo is (a superweapon from an ancient civilization) from the guards while in captivity. A plot synopsis of each of the levels of the game is enough to communicate what is so engrossing about each of them, but Level 5, "Assault on the Control Room" is where the level design really shines. Having located Halo's control center, the Chief is inserted underground by Pelican (Human dropship) and fights across a heavily guarded installation in tight close-quarters combat, across long bridges moving from cover to cover, shooting Banshees out of the sky with rocket launchers, destroying enemy armor with the Scorpion tank, and finally commandeering a Banshee to decimate a garrison and reach the control room -- only to discover Keyes is about to walk into a trap.
It is also worth noting the semi sandbox nature of the levels. The game will often give you choices. Take the Scorpion Tank or the Warthog or the Covenant Ghost. Or go it on foot (it might be easier to take a good sniper or heavy weapon and engage from afar than get overwhelmed in your vehicle). Take the sniper rifle or the rocket launcher. Or both or neither. Or in one of the last levels, "Two Betrayals", engage in the battle between the Covenant and the Flood (a zombie-like parasite), or swipe the Banshee and flee. Or aid the side that's winning and taking on the foes you judge to be weaker. These choices, again, make a playthrough personal for a player with unique experiences that emerge from their choices.
Fans may find this contentious but Halo CE had the best characters and deftly blended the light and the serious. Halo Reach was a great achievement for Bungie, too in terms of its narrative its protagonists. A closely-knit Spartan unit mounting a hopeless defense against an unstoppable Covenant genocide and passing the torch to the Chief was thrilling and tragic. But it was also the culmination of the series becoming more and more hardboiled and like other modern military shooters, both thematically and in terms of gameplay. I am definitely glad it exists: it's the Rogue One -- and predates Rogue One by 6 years -- of the franchise. Halo CE on the other hand is like New Hope. The stakes are high and humanity is technologically outmatched by an intransigeant genocidal foe, but the tone remains faintly optimistic and even fun by virtue of its characters and voice actors.
Cyber Waifu Cortana - faintly resembling Ghost in the Shell's Motoko Kusanagi in character design and somewhat in personality - is the Chief's AI construct, and the dialogue between them, in cutscenes and gameplay is priceless throughout:
Cortana: Hmmm. Interesting, your architecture is not much different from the Autumn's.
Chief: Don't get any funny ideas.
Sergeant Johnson is the generic, half-cracked, African-American high-ranking soldier in any Hollywood movie and is incredibly endearing for it. He is seemingly and inexplicably invincible - surviving the destruction of Halo, a fact that has never been explained to my knowledge - and probably a match for 117. Captain Jacob Keyes is suave and like Johnson, charismatic and of limitless talent in warfare and leadership. He somehow manually lands the Pillar of Autumn onto Halo and manually commandeers a Covenant Dropship to escape Truth and Reconciliation, after using it to squash two hunters that try to halt their escape. He addresses the Master Chief as "Son" (again, probably a match for 117 in a one-to-one fight) and confronts the Flood without armor, in nothing but his white UNSC navy uniform and a pistol (somehow survives to be later captured by the Flood).
343 Guilty Spark is the "monitor" -- guardian, keeper - of the Halo Ring we eventually destroy. And in "The Library" level where we help him retrieve the Index he routinely roasts the Chief for not bringing hardware powerful enough to counter the flood outbreak or being a "Class 2" combat unit ("Consider Upgrading to Class 10") and makes grim predictions ("Your suit will be most useful when the flood change the atmosphere, you are most prepared"). Then when we discover he knows the ring when activated will destroy all sentient life the aloof "I'm-just-following-my-programming-human" act is no longer feasible: "Save his [the Chief's] head" he tells his sentinel droids, "dispose of the rest".
Final Thoughts & The Future of Halo
I genuinely believe 343 Studios care about Halo, but FPS conventions, and indeed videogames as a whole, have changed over 20 years. As they've become more mainstream, they've begun emulating cinema, rather than telling a story through gameplay and unscripted player experience (this was a shortcoming of the otherwise quite competent Halo 4). Halo CE was good not despite technical limitations, but, I feel, because of them. It was built around a tight gameplay loop, with engaging semi-sandbox design, highly intelligent AI (even for today's standards), and mission objectives you would always want to see through to the end. It won't be possible to replicate the magic of Halo CE if it's not understood, or if players cease to value what Halo CE gave us. As children, we went from living room console gaming on Playstation 1 to Xbox Live and magically connecting with gamers all over the world in a time where such digital interactions were still novel and exciting. Perhaps you just had to be there.