Halo Combat Evolved: the birth of Master Chief, My Generation Episode 4

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When humanity risks its existence in a war against a ferocious alien alliance, salvation is represented by the most powerful soldier ever seen: Master Chief . Today we talk about Halo, and welcome to My Generation the column in which to remember the great video games that made history. Combat Evolved is still considered the first real killer application for Xbox, the new console launched by Microsoft just around the corner. The IP created by Bungie marked an enormous evolution in its genre, with a series of features that set new standards in the videogame landscape. A veritable watershed of the modern console shooter. That title gave birth to an immortal franchise made up of books, feature films and e-sports tournaments, which made Master Chief the face of Microsoft in world gaming. And to think that, initially, Halo was designed for the Macintosh. To recover the previous episodes click on My Generation and … good trip!

The origins of the myth

To understand the circumstances behind the complicated development of Halo we have to go back to 1997 period in which the Bungie studio was growing within the industry, and was preparing for the qualitative leap. After the success of Marathon on Mac, a second studio was opened in California to work on the new IP Oni, while the Chicago headquarters developed the strategic Myth: The Fallen Lords . At that time, Halo was under the care of a tiny team led by Bungie co-founder Jason Jones. The code name of the project was Blam and was initially thought of as a test case for a new RTS along the lines of Myth. Two years had to pass in order to increase the working pace, and in the middle of the '99 Bungie was ready to show Blam, something that happened in some meetings behind closed doors with the specialized press. Despite the secrecy, some leaks leaked on the new production, and the official name of the game was released through a website dedicated to Myth II: Halo.

The actual presentation arrived on July 21st at MacWorld in New York where an attentive Steve Jobs called Jason Jones on stage to show Halo to the world. The specialized press was thrilled by the game, accompanied by the notes of the musical theme that would soon enter the hearts of the fans, but it is right to make some clarifications: in the demo shown it was possible to see characters, human and alien vehicles, and technically impressive settings for the period .

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However, the film was intended more as a cinematic, and the American journalists themselves, not being able to test the gameplay, defined Halo as an action adventure in third person. In a nutshell, we were still a long way from the Microsoft exclusive that we all know today, without forgetting that in that period it was still a title that would have seen the light on Apple computers.

The partnership with Microsoft

At the gates of the new millennium Bungie was in the works Oni and Halo and while the first was in an advanced state of the works, the press and fans only asked for information on the title shown at MacWorld. The game, however, was still in an embryonic stage, and the demo shown on stage with Steve Jobs the year before was all that Jones had in his hands. Meanwhile, at the March GDC Microsoft officially announced Xbox and Bungie was greatly interested in the new platform.

It was discovered in fact that there had been some contacts around January, and a German newspaper reported the indiscretion that saw Halo arrive on the console of the house in Redmond. While waiting to see if the rumors were true, updates arrived in May, during the E3 of 2000.

With a nine-minute trailer, the technical detail seen at MacWorld it was even surpassed and, for the first time, the world saw the character made history with the name of Master Chief . Even in this case, however, the movie did not show any type of gameplay. Jones and associates had not formally decided what type of camera to use, and only later would they turn to a first-person view.

On June 19, the rumors were confirmed: Microsoft acquired Bungie for 30 million dollars , and Halo actually became the flagship exclusive of the future Xbox. Mac owners protested a lot, but the biggest complaints came from Steve Jobs himself, who still managed to get an agreement to bring Halo and other titles to his platform. Bungie, on the other hand, needed economic stability, since Myth II had not brought the expected income. The problems for Jones and his associates were not over: Halo Combat Evolved was not yet a complete title, and the passage on Xbox dangerously extended the development time.

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To ease the tension, it came created an ad hoc advertisement with light-hearted tones, which featured a very famous spot in the Budweiser beer at that time. The protagonists in this case were marines created with the game engine, dubbed with the phone call already heard in the commercial of the drink. Tone-off was a Bungie strategy to dispel the rumors that they wanted development to drift, between the change of platform and the bureaucracy behind the acquisition.

The months passed and Gamestock 2001 arrived, Halo had not shown up since E3 of the previous year, and had missed other events related to Microsoft. At the event, finally, real gameplay was shown, and the focus focused on the camera in first person for the shooting sessions, with a change of perspective during the phases on board the vehicles. The public reacted well, so also at the following E3, in which other gameplay sessions were shown, simultaneously with the announcement of the Xbox price. The following months were the so-called " crunch " period, in which Bungie had to grit his teeth to complete the development of Halo: between optimization problems, balance of weapons and multiplayer compartment, which until last risk of not being entered. Finally, on 24 October 2001, the game was completed and went into production.

The debut

When it arrived, Halo: Combat Evolved was received with great praise from the specialized and public press , numerous perfect scores were recorded, and Xbox entered the market with a strong and charismatic killer application.

Bungie had managed to collect the baton from Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, bringing the FPS genre to consoles a new level. The innovations brought by the adventure of Master Chie f were innumerable: first of all the care given to the weapons, which presented an unprecedented balance for the time.
In the tradition of the genre the sense of progression also passed from the inventory, with the weakest instruments positioned at the beginning of the campaign, to then progressively increase in number and inflict damage along the adventure. In Halo it was the exact opposite: each weapon had a specific role, and was suitable for certain types of enemies. For example, the first rifle supplied proved to be an excellent companion even in advanced stages. Furthermore, the inventory limited to just two weapons led to rapid and strategic choices in the field.

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Another innovative element was artificial intelligence, allied soldiers had logical and disciplined behavior: for example, they supported the protagonist, took a position in battle to have a clean shooting line and they mounted on a means of locomotion if the player threw himself to the guide. The jewel in the crown was represented by the enemies, equipped with diversified wheels according to the type.

The Grunt minutes are the perfect emblem, fleeing in panic if deprived of the most powerful companions. To this attention to detail must be added an inspired and innovative design, the result of Bungie's previous ideas during development. Here is therefore an alternation of more open areas, to smaller ones, in which massacre waves of aliens with all possible means. But Halo was a beacon for the video game world, with a whole series of small precautions that were inherited from modern gaming: from the number of bullets in the magazine shown directly on the weapon, to dedicated keys for melee attack and grenades. Finally, the Spartan self-healing shield gave the input for the automatic recharge of the vital energy, which would have characterized the future FPS.

Furthermore, like its predecessor Perfect Dark Halo allowed to be able to play the campaign in co-op with a human friend. No wonder then that Combat Evolved was welcomed with a very wide range of praises, and a huge amount of sales that gave way to the era of Microsoft in the gaming world. Without forgetting that the figure of Master Chief was enlarged, thanks to a novel prequel to the events of the game. The sense of immersion was emphasized by precise design choices: for example the hero's face was never shown, in order to make the player feel the real hero, called to save humanity from the threat of the Covenants.
Later, the title of Bungie became one of most valuable brands of Microsoft and still is still loved by fans. But quoting our colleagues at the time, Halo was not only one of the best games at the Xbox launch, but one of the greatest shooters ever made, able to transcend their genre. The legend of Master Chief had officially begun.