The Game Design Forum

Enduring Impressions: Halo

Halo: Combat Evolved. Bungie / Microsoft, November 15, 2001

Halo 2. Bungie / Microsoft, November 2, 2004.

Halo 3. Bungie / Microsoft, September 25, 2007.

For the development of Halo, the design strategy of Bungie could probably be summed up, "Yes, they meant to do that."  Halo has always been a strange case in the FPS genre.  It is a series that largely did away with traditional boss fights.  It is a series in which two games had their climaxes executed as vehicle sections.  It is a series that never adopted the genre-engulfing chest-high walls for cover.  The series didn't want to be merely an improvement upon its predecessors in Counter Strike and Unreal Tournament; it wanted to be different, and it is.

Until the arrival of Modern Warfare, the Halo games were the dominant console multiplayer shooters.  It could be said that Halo delivered the experience of LAN (and now online server) multiplayer to the console market first and most effectively.  All developments in console multiplayer games and gametypes owe something to Halo, even if everything else in the game is different.

ESSENTIAL GAME CONCEPT: Tactical Weapon Selection

Those players who enjoyed the FPS genre before Halo will recall the confusion that they first felt when they realized that they could only carry two weapons at a time.  Like everything else that seemed arbitrary and annoying about Halo, this was actually a deliberate and reasoned innovation by the designers.  The two-weapon limit forces player to make a series of tactical decisions.  

(Note that I am using a definition of "tactical"; standard to this website, and particular to video games.  Tactical, in this case means the player has to pick the right weapons and strategies for the particular situations that occur in the course of the game.  The point is that there is not one strategy that fits all)

Based on what level and gametype have been selected, the weapons your'd want to have with you are different.  You definitely want to have a long range weapon with you in capture the flag, as you might have to down the enemy flag-carrier.  But you're also going to need a mid-range weapon in case of skirmishes or closer pursuit.  It would be nice to have a shotgun, but it's not going to help very often, on the most popular CTF maps.

Similarly in juggernaut, you have a bit of a dilemma about what weapons to use.  Rocket launchers and shotguns are nice, but they won't always stop the juggernaut.  Ranged weapons are less powerful, and the juggernaut might close the distance.  You can't have them all, either, so you have to pick carefully based on the level.

King of the hill adds interesting complications in terms of the regular pile-up melees that occur.  The energy sword is great for those crowded battles, but which weapon are you going to close with?  And what if they have shotguns, or rockets, or there's a roaming sniper?

And so on for every game type, and every meta-game of a group of players, the 2-weapon limit not only changes tactics, but it also tends to delineate specific styles for specific players.  The two weapons they pick out of proficiency-based preference then augment every tactical situation.  The weapon limit provides a subtle but rich element to the combat of Halo, one that has become a signature move.


There are a number of Halo maps that, especially when the series began, were remarkable for just how wide open they were.  There was Blood Gulch, the long battlefield with two bases on either end.  Even in a vehicle, getting from base to base could take 60 seconds.  Moreover, the map was almost a straight shot with few terrain obstacles in the center.  A sniper with enough ammo, perched on one of the bases could inflict as much as 30 seconds of uninterrupted fire on incoming enemies.  Even without a long range weapon, the map's oblong structure made scouting the terrain the key to coordination of team attacks, especially in capture the flag.

Sidewinder, the other giant of the first installment, was even bigger.  Compared to other genres, the size-to-player ratio  (16 players max) of this map seems almost absurd.  Certainly games in the Battlefield series have maps that are bigger, but in most cases they’ve got more than double the players.  And yet Sidewinder is far from being a failure: it was built with deliberate purpose.  First of all, the hugeness of the map means that different weapons and tactics are necessary to win.  Halo's variety  of long range/sighted weapons across the original trilogy (pistol, sniper rifle, battle rifle, rocket launcher) are well-executed and a lot of fun to use.  Sidewinder and its Halo 3 reincarnation Avalanche take advantage of this by providing wide open spaces where long distance combat is viable.

(This is to say nothing of Ascension, Sandtrap, Valhalla, and The Narrows, each of which could endure their own individual criticism on how they use the "wide open" idea.)

The real advantage of a huge map with relatively few players, as mentioned earlier, is in capture the flag.  As a bit of evidence from personal experience, I can say that some of the best multiplayer experiences I have ever had, in any genre of game, happened in 8 vs. 8 capture the flag on maps like Sidewinder.  Most online matches in the FPS genre are short and chaotic; CTF in a huge battlefield is different.  The difficulty and resultant drama of carrying the enemy flag across such an extended distance as enemies come at you from every direction; the incredible team coordination involved in obtaining and protecting the flag; the failed attempts that come so close only to end in a desperate firefight; these things create a unique, intense, and supremely fun multiplayer experience.


Halo was not the first game to offer gametypes other than deathmatch.  Counter Strike can probably be considered the game that precipitated the gametype boom.  (Just so we're all on the same page, a game type preserves all the fundamental mechanics of a game, but changes the victory conditions; a game mode changes the fundamental mechanics.  Most mini-games are game modes.  Capture the flag is a gametype; only the goal has changed.)    

The remarkable thing about Halo's gametypes is that they use the most fundamental elements of the game mechanics in clever ways.  Juggernaut; and Infection change player health, damage, and speed, but every skill they need to win those gametypes has been taught in the campaign and in the basic slayer (deathmatch) mode.  This is also true in popular player-created modes like Shotty Snipes;, that changes the basic weapon loadout for two very popular weapons.  Rockets, Swords, and (earlier in the series) Grenades gametypes do something similar; they change one fundamental element, they require the same essential gameplay skills, but they result in very different matches.

Because the game types are so easily learned, and yet provide a moderate amount of variety, they continue to be played for a long time.  Players can swing from one game type to another without much difficulty; that traffic lengthens the life of game types.  The game types trade variety for durability, but that can hardly be held against the game.

The Bottom Line

Design-wise, Halo is doing its own thing; this is especially good in the field of shooters where imitation and competition along similar lines of design can get monotonous.  The durability of Halo (this review doesn't even include the most recent two games) is a hopeful note, showing that even in the crowded and highly imitative genre of the FPS we can have several styles of game.  It’s also nice to see that as time has gone on, games like Halo have made the console a legitimate venue for the FPS; those who are too young to remember will know that it was most certainly not always that way.

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