The first-person shooter genre was changed forever when Halo: Combat Evolved released in 2001. There is a stark difference between the games that came before it and the ones that would follow it. No other level sums up this evolution and captures the feel of the series better than the game's second level, inventively named 'Halo.'
Launching alongside the original Xbox as the platform's "killer app", Halo: Combat Evolved would go on to define what a console FPS could be. Designed by John Howard and directed by Jason Jones, the core development team behind it were experienced programmers and designers that had worked on Bungie's previous series, Marathon and Myth.
With both of those encompassing two completely different genres, it's no surprise that Halo had a rather tumultuous development cycle before finally launching as the revolutionary FPS that we know and love today. Beginning as a small project in 1997, it would go from RTS to a third-person shooter before becoming an FPS when Bungie was bought by Microsoft in 2000. In just over a year, Bungie would evolve the FPS genre as we know it, beginning with the titular Halo level. Let's take a look at The Perfect Level:
Out with the Old, In with the New
Before you can even dig into what makes Halo such a perfect level, we must first look at its intentional placement on the campaign spectrum. In Combat Evolved's opening level, The Pillar of Autumn, the player experiences a roughly spot-on representation of what a first-person shooter was like up until then.
Tight corridors, linear pathways, and the anticipation of an enemy around the next corner are what the classics like DOOM and Wolfenstein are known for. It was almost like Bungie was making a direct statement as you jettison from the ship at the end of the first level to a new and unfamiliar land below in the next. "This is what shooters have been; this is what they can become."
Halo eschews everything you thought you knew about an FPS, crash-landing the player on an alien installation with the same awe and wonder as Master Chief is experiencing. Suddenly, it feels like you can go anywhere and do anything in this gorgeous level, and the craziest part is you actually can.
Freedom like Never Before
Halo establishes the freedom of choice in its opening moments that would go on to define the rest of the games in the series. Your initial objective is to simply "evade Covenant patrols," and how you do so is up to you. Instead of the player reacting to what the game is throwing at you like every other game, it truly feels like the game is reacting to the player's decisions.
Should you decide to camp by the escape pod and scope out the enemies ahead, you'll be surprised to find a Covenant ship swoop in to naturally check for survivors. If you set out to explore by crossing the bridge to the other side, you'll be faced with roaming patrols both on-foot and in-the-air. Here, player choice becomes even more profound. Unlike the shooters of yesteryear, your experiences can be completely different to another player's.
For example, some players will take the stealthy approach and avoid the patrols as much as possible by hiding and sprinting from boulder to boulder. Others will be trigger-happy, gunning down every alien in sight. Even still, you will have those players who ponder on if it's possible to take down the Banshee ships flying around.
Surprise: all of these are possible and more. This element of player choice carries through the entire level, creating a sense of freedom unlike any other game before Halo and stronger than any almost any other level found in the rest of the game.
Rev Your Engines
Halo establishes very quickly that you aren't alone in this war against the Covenant. The overall objective of the game's second level isn't to survive or destroy all aliens; it's to become the commander. Upon discovering other soldiers besides yourself, you are tasked with protecting them and finding other survivors scattered throughout the level using your handy dandy Warthog.
This nifty all-terrain jeep-like vehicle changes everything about how the game plays. Halo is designed so that you can go hog-wild around the level, making crazy jumps over hills and committing countless hit-and-runs. What's most surprising is that it all feels great to control. Even going back to it more than a decade and a half later, there's still so much fun to be had getting huge air and hearing your marines yell with either fear or excitement.
Bungie could've just designed a vehicle, but they chose to create it as a centerpiece for Halo instead. The Warthog is so much more than a way to quickly get around the level. Its versatility is totally unmatched. Here in its original incarnation, the player is able to drive while a marine shoots from the passenger seat and a gunner mans the massive cannon in the back. This creates a uniform method of progressing through the level, as you drive (and possibly run over) while your men take out the trash.
Should you get annoyed by the aiming of your soldiers, you can turn the Warthog into essentially a defensive base. At any moment, you can leap out of the driver's seat and hop onto the cannon yourself. This is great for sections of Halo in which you have to defend a group of soldiers. Bungie made the level design and Warthog work hand-in-hand together, each one enhancing the other simultaneously.
The most impressive part about Halo, though, is you can do all of it with another player in splitscreen. Being able to bring someone else into the game with you not only changed everything about the level, but it laid the foundation for what first-person shooters would become.
That freedom of choice we mentioned earlier? Suddenly, a second person creates even more possibilities. You can plan and execute strategies like one person taking out the ground enemies while the other focuses on the Banshees above. More importantly, it extends the amount of time you can spend in the level exponentially. There are very few levels like this one in the history of games where you could literally spend endless hours just messing around in its sandbox with a friend.
At any moment, your player two could turn against you and the campaign level becomes an impromptu multiplayer match in the middle of fighting hostile Covenant. You could even "accidentally" run them over in the Warthog in a subtle betrayal. Speaking of the Warthog, it truly reaches its gameplay potential when you add another person to the mix.
With them, you can rely on more solid controls, whether it's driving or manning the cannon. More often than not, it can also lead to even more fights over who gets to do what. While splitscreen is available in The Pillar of Autumn, it's never fully realized until Halo's second level. Because of the foundation laid out here, multiplayer was able to grow into what we know it as today. It turned what was already an amazing level into The Perfect Level.
Image Credit: JesterTG