Places: The Halo Ring
One has to dig back several years in time to recall when Halo wasn’t a word inextricably tied to video games. The last decade has seen numerous games in the series rise to the top of the sales charts, but for many, the first glimpse they had of Halo was popping the highly anticipated game into their brand spanking new Xboxes, and turning on the power. A short time later, we got our first glimpse of the strange ring world called Halo, and our expectations about sci-fi shooter settings began to change.
Halo: Combat Evolved wastes no time giving players a glimpse of the strange stellar object that will become the centerpiece of the game series to come. As the campaign begins, the Pillar of Autumn completes its faster-than-light jump into a portion of space next to the structure called Installation 04 by its creators, the Forerunner race. However, that distinction is one I’ll only learn about in the hours and games ahead; in the beginning, it’s just a strange circle hovering in the dark.
After a tutorial-filled fight across the decks of the Pillar of Autumn against the fierce Covenant aliens, I am flung towards the Halo ring in a tumultuous crash sequence. As the only survivor, I step out of the shattered ship, and take a look around. I’ve been taught by the sci-fi games I’ve played until now to expect a scene of devastated ruins, stark metallic buildings, or tightly closed corridors through which to roam. Instead, emerging into the light, I see pine trees and scattered green grass. A nearby cliff offers a stunning vista of a sprawling blue ocean. Towering mountains of rock rise up to the sides, and a distant waterfall tumbles from the heights.
Above it all, I rotate my viewpoint higher and higher, observing the curve of the Halo ring. In juxtaposition to the beautiful nature environment all around me, the ring is a potent reminder of the otherworldly nature of the game’s setting. This is no planet, but rather a vast rotating circle in space. If I look straight up, I can see the opposite side of the installation. Everything feels simultaneously familiar and alien.
Halo: Combat Evolved delivered plenty of major innovations into the gaming world, including a new control scheme paradigm that would become the standard for console shooters. However, one of its biggest contributions was its sense of place. Eschewing the dictate that every sci-fi game needed to be defined by metal and technology, Halo placed natural beauty and wonder front and center. As the game progresses, and we begin to encounter unimaginable technology and devastating futuristic weapons, those sci-fi standby features are only accentuated because of the natural environments they sit beside.
Do you remember your first time exploring the Halo ring? Was it exciting, or did it feel like every other sci-fi game you’d played before? Do you think it shaped the way sci-fi games were made in the following years? Share your thoughts in the comments below.