Several years ago, I found myself unexpectedly sitting at the bottom of small, icy ravine.  I was unsure of my next move despite being tremendously focused on the task at hand.  Normally, a climb like that wouldn't have bothered me.  In truth, the climb itself really didn't.  I've always been in great shape, never one to panic and I'd made sure to prepare the appropriate gear and equipment ahead of time.  As I'd learned too often in life, all the preparation in the world couldn't have prepared us for what lay ahead.  The descent was more taxing than I anticipated and supplies for the excursion were running dangerously low.  Despite the great care I had taken in preparing for the climb and the natural talents and years of experience I possessed, the rest of the team was not prepared.  I knew that I was going to be fine, but as I looked at the men around me, their cold, resolute eyes looking to me for direction, the cold, unfeeling reality weighed in my stomach.  I could not keep all these men alive.  The Covenant waiting at the top of the ravine would undo it all.

My first experience with Halo was... atypical from most. Halo: Combat Evolved released November 15th, 2001 during my Junior year in high school, yet it wasn't until my Sophomore year in college that I first stepped into the boots of Master Chief.  Sure, I heard stories of epic sixteen-player LAN parties, but I had no time for simple minded shooter games- I was a JRPG gamer.  That mindset has thankfully changed over the years, largely in part due to Bungie Studio's Sci-fi epic. 

In September of 2004, I purchased my first copy of Halo: CE for a run-of-the-mill Gateway laptop.  I was bored and looking to find a common interest with my Art Major roommate.  Before jumping straight into a multiplayer setting, my very first actually, I decided to familiarize myself with the controls- a struggle on a laptop with no mouse and no prior experience with PC gaming.  It was 10 PM; the lights were off, headphones on and a graphics card not quite up to snuff.  The Master Chief was grey, the graphics blocky and textures the consistency of cotton balls.  I could not get enough.

I played straight through the campaign that night and into the early morning hours, enthralled with the game's immersive environments, O'Donnell and Salvatori's primal soundtrack juxtaposed to the science fiction conceit of a ring world and intrigued by the tenuous relationship between the Chief and Cortana.  No JRPG had filled this unknown craving for complete game emersion as the original Halo did that cold September night.  There was no choice, I had to save for an XBOX and play Halo as it was meant to be played.  It was a unique amalgamation of environment, encounters, enemy design, musical scoring and story that has yet to be recreated for me in any ensuing Halo title. 

I was disappointed in Halo 2, and probably not for the reasons most would expect.  Halo was an emersion into the solitary world of Master Chief, fighting through a primal, alien world separated from humanity- both in presence and, in a sense, from equals.  Sure, from time to time you would fight alongside marines, but it was clear none of them would last long without the Chief's intervention.  Most of your time was spent trekking through secluded environments fighting through the Covenant horde alone, unable to distinguish their guttural acclamations of rage and terror.   Isolation was the name of the game and Marty O'Donnell's and Michael Salvatori's score did nothing if not perfect that feeling of separation, in both open and confined spaces.  While the series' musical direction ultimately moved towards a more "rock-and-roll" approach to storytelling, it's scores like "Covenant Dance," "The Gun Pointed At The Head Of The Universe," and the infamous "Opening Suite" that set the original Halo apart from other First Person Shooters, subsequent titles and spinoffs in the series.  It's that juxtaposition between science fiction and gothic suspense that I've come to miss so much these last 7 years.

Of course, we can't mention Halo without mentioning multiplayer.  While saving up for the XBOX, I had my roommate teach me how to navigate the PC matchmaking system.  I can remember my first CTF match on Blood Gulch.  Thanks to the underperforming graphics card on the laptop, any and all Spartans were a dull gray.  Without knowing ally from foe, I set out in an accident prone, yet indestructible, Warthog for the enemy base.  Another Warthog, apparently driven by friendlies, was causing havoc at the enemy base.  Grenades were flying freely, Spartan bodies littered the grounds and stray fire pinged off the angled window of the Warthog.  Whether it was a well-placed grenade or my confusion in the chaos, the warthog flipped violently.  My body was rocketed through the door of the enemy base.  Without knowing any better, I haphazardly grabbed the flag and meandered out the door.  Thankfully the ally warthog was still mobile and picked me up.  I wish I could say the drive back was as harrowing, but the driver was a pro and the enemy team had most likely quit by then.  My first online game, my first flag score, my first gaming addiction.

About two months later the XBOX arrived.  For some reason, it was 9AM when I checked at the student desk and was surprised to see it waiting in a non-descript cardboard box.  Classes be damned, we hooked that sucker up and played through the campaign again.  Later that night, we plugged into the resident hall network. Lucky for us, three other XBOX's were setting up for a game.  Thanks to my roommate, we found the adjoining rooms, introduced ourselves as noob Halo player and proceeded to kick some ass. 

Floor Halo will always remain the height of social gaming for me.  Intense matches with friends, anguished yells echoing down the hallway and smack talk in each other's rooms remains some of my fondest memories of dorm life.  You simply can't replace the running tally of epic matches, alliances and betrayals with an anonymous online system.  We've all experienced the worst online matchmaking can offer: racism, obscenities, blaring music... and that's just the children demographic.  The viral nature of Halo's LAN parties were significant, if not the single most important factor, for the series' success.  It will be sorely missed.

We were all looking forward to online play in Halo 2- testing our combined floor skills against our imagined counterparts around the world.  At first, we'd party up, but invariably, someone was left out due to party restrictions in matchmaking.  We learned to play Halo online by ourselves.  Schedules changed, frustrations grew and floor Halo quietly shriveled away in a forgotten corner.  From time to time, we'd get invites for custom infected games, but the potential for what we once had was gone. 

Halo 2 moved the series from its humble roots in the basements and dorm rooms of its fans to the untamed Wild West of XBOX Live.  While the multiplayer was treading new ground through online capabilities, the single player campaign shifted its narrative to a more humanized story of Master Chief, taking away the strangeness and primal soundscapes of the Covenant and replacing them with a more relatable enemy, both in language and narrative; where once Master Chief was a warrior without equal, he now had an equivalent counterpart in the Covenant's Arbiter.    You can't fault Bungie Studios for taking their beloved series online.  It would have been foolish not to do so and we've seen amazing improvements to the cooperative campaign through online deployment. 

While the core elements of what made the original Halo great have been washed down over the years, the memories of that initial insular journey through the alien ring world still resonate strongly today.  Eight years ago, I could not imagine playing a mindless shooter.  Halo changed my perspective of what video games could offer, no matter what the genre.  Environments, sounds, narrative and gameplay all coalesce into what makes video games great and unique compared to other media.  I was fascinated by "playing a book" with JRPG's, but missing the uniqueness of the industry.  I still enjoy narrative focused games, but I've been able to experience a more diverse collection of stories and experiences thanks to this seemingly simple revelation.  Now that 343 Industries is taking over the franchise, I hope they take the opportunity to return to the series' original themes and design elements.  Master Chief may have disappeared into the vastness of space for a time, but with his impending return in the upcoming Forerunner trilogy and the love for which 343 has for the franchise, a triumphant return of our man of steel is looking ever more likely.