Sure, Halo has one of the most iconic soundtracks you’ll ever find, video games or otherwise. Longtime Bungie composer Marty O’Donnell established a percussion-centric aural landscape that soon came to define the series and, for some, first-person space shooters. They were undulating, driving beats that were layered on top of ethereal orchestral tracks, morphing seamlessly into choral breaks when the situation called for it. Regardless of your feelings on the game, you can’t deny that O’Donnell set the score for a generation of console gamers.
Neil Davidge, the composer for Halo 4 since Bungie left the franchise to the newly formed, doughy hands of 343 Industries, managed to do just as well. Halo 4 may have the best (or rather, most Halo-ish) soundtrack since Combat Evolved. The sounds pumped directly into your sound holes are just as thumping and bumping as they’ve ever been, pushing you to feel like the seven-foot cybernetic soldier you are.
However, that’s not the rhythm I’m talking about. Halo as a series has been peddling a much more seductive beat all these years and you’ve probably never noticed. The cadence of combat contained within is so specifically Halo that it’s easy to gloss over as trivial. But it’s vital. It is the essence of Halo more than Master Chief or the Covenant or even Marty O’Donnell.
The rhythm of combat builds the foundation of Halo. Hell, it is is the foundation of Halo. Everything else you love or hate sprouts from this singular fount of fighting meter, which itself is built on three pillars: shooting, meleeing, and grenading. These three things not only work in concert but also inform how you flow into the next, and you will go to the next one. They are essential to one another because that is how the game is designed.
By and large, any of the three have the possibility of killing something in one hit. A headshot, a stuck sticky grenade, or a melee attack to the back of the head will all usually result in a dead enemy. But the effectiveness of any singular attack differs with each situation, and the situation constantly changes in Halo more so than most other shooters. As is probably well known by now, Halo AI operates with a behavior tree, an advanced and novel concept in the world of video games (at least at the time of the first Halo). Enemies will at varying times find themselves in your face, moving out in the open, or taking cover. Unlike most other shooters, given the variety of enemies, you are likely to find some in each category at any one moment. It’s why some people prefer to think of Halo as a puzzle-shooter.
But for each situation, you have a proper response. In your face is a melee attack. Moving enemies are peppered with bullets and entrenched foes are met with grenades. It’s basic shooter strategy. However, you, being a resilient and powerful fellow, have the mobility and opportunity to turn these scenes into functional dance sequences. A charging enemy may be stopped short with your assault rifle, but if they push past your firepower, you have a rifle butt lying in wait. Or you can switch to a shotgun and blast him away. If he retreats, far beyond the range of your buckshot, a grenade should do the trick. It’s a hypnotic rhythm laid out before you, the push and pull of two dueling banjos.
The key, however, might be that melee and grenades are preferable to shooting but not always as effective. While it’s true that all three pillars have the potential for similar reaping, the probabilities of said efficacy are different. Grenades at range do more reliable damage to a greater number and melee attacks are pretty much a guaranteed dollop of sour cream and pain if you’re in range, but you can’t switch them around and still be effective. Use them properly, and they’re guaranteed.
But guns miss. They’re as unreliable as you are. If you’re terrible, then they are also terrible. Grenades and melee attacks just generally depend on you recognizing the proper situation for you to utilize them. Guns, however, are also the only weapon you can use in any situation. Near or far (whereeeevvvvveerrrr you arrreeeee), your rifle can be used to dig you out of whatever mess you’ve found yourself in. Just, you know, not as well. And if you can. Maybe not at all, actually.
It’s that trade-off of reliability and preference that makes the player response less proper and more necessary. You’ll go from shooting to throwing to punching and back again every few seconds and it’ll feel right. It’ll feel like you’re drumming along to those tribal beats, developing a macabre cadence that forms a percussive cacophony of bullets and explosions and butts, one noticeably missing from modern military shooters that work under the premise of cover and headshots.
If you don’t believe me, just look at Halo 2, widely considered the worst of the series. Aside from the sprawling storyline, it was viewed as the worst playing entry. Why? Because of the dual wielding. It destroyed the rhythm. It suddenly became all about hoarding an energy weapon and a human weapon to shred shield and then flesh. And that would be fine…if it wasn’t Halo. The way enemies behave and the expectation of level flow necessitate the combat rhythm that was established in Combat Evolved.
And when ODST and Reach returned to those three core tenants, they were lauded. Because Halo needs that cadence. It needs the beat of shooting and meleeing and grenading. It’s why Halo 4, a return to form in every sense, has been called the most Halo-ass Halo since Halo (okay, maybe it’s just been me saying that, but the sentiment is there). It’s such a unique part of the game and video game culture that you would recognize this wolf even in sheep’s clothing. That pop-boom-thwack might as well be an anthem at this point. When you hear it—when you play it—you know you’re coming home.