"Are you ready?" my brother asks. I switch out to my sniper rifle, hitting the reload button just in case. Not that I have to. Each time I slay an enemy I reflexively reload, as if it were some part of a ritual for the dead.
"Yeah," I respond, zooming in towards the door. "I'll take the one on the right, you take the left." The first time we tried this I made the mistake of saying I'd take the blue one. Turned out both Elites were blue that time.
My brother slowly steps forward, stopping immediately as the door begins to open. We have a couple of seconds to line up our shots before one of the Elites or Grunts spots us, so the first shot has to be quick. We each fire one off, wiping our targets' shields out. We fire a second time, but I am pulled out of zoom at the last minute as a clever little Grunt strikes me with a couple burning pitches of plasma. I panick, rushing to zoom in again, trying to shoot the now-running Elite in the back, but it's too late. He boards the Banshee and takes flight.
"Crap," I admit. He sighs. "Alright, reload."
We hit the final stretch of the fifth level of Assault on the Control Room, the halfway point of Halo: Combat Evolved. Typically there is maybe half an hour left of gameplay, but on Legendary you're more looking at an hour, possibly more. Everything takes longer on Legendary. You have to be more careful, more resourceful, and a lot more aware of your surroundings.
My brother and I concoct a plan, though. Before we hit that final stretch, making our way down the Forerunner structure so that we can step back out to the ground level and climb the pyramid embedded in the rock face, there is a bridge. It is a natural looking, rocky formation that arches from one cliff-face of the canyon to the other. It is here that two Banshees await two Elites.
There is no way to sneak through this section. There are too many Grunts and Jackals, and most of the time they are all looking at that door. Once spotted, the Elites are scripted to jump right for those Banshees and take flight.
We have realized that if we killed those Elites, we'd be able to just fly right down to the top of the pyramid, open it up, and rain unholy death upon the final wave of foes with ease.
It wouldn't be the first time we approached the game in an unconventional manner. It was clear most of the time that Bungie had a specific intent in mind for the player's experience. For example, before this plan we realized there's a thin part of the pyramid's formation that juts out front-and-center, following it upwards towards the top. A player can hop right on easily enough, and as a result we would have one player snipe from above while the other would take a Ghost to the top, making short work of all foes. Plus, even if the player on the Ghost died, he would respawn in the high, elevated safety of the sniper's nest. We took advantage of a piece of structure outside the obvious intent of the design, and we felt rewarded by making short work of our foes.
In the level before, The Silent Cartographer, the players are intended to enter the final facility alone. Any surviving human marines will not follow the player down. Players then have to fight the deadly Golden Elite, a swordsman capable of killing the player in a single blow, followed by several camouflaged Elites . My brother and I, however, managed to keep a human marine alive and had the A.I. hop into the back of our warthog to man the turret. It was difficult, but we squeezed the Warthog inside the facility, slowly forcing it down narrow hallways until we camped it right where the Golden Swordsman would spawn. Sure, it didn't make the facility any easier itself, but on the way out, we were able to easily kill a distracted Golden Swordsman who was desperate to kill the marine protected in the Warthog, and we got to keep the Warthog's turret handy for the camouflaged Elites that followed.
You can play the game on Normal or even Heroic with almost any two combinations of weapons without being forced to cycle out to something different. On Legendary, you have to become a master of all weapons in the game and learn the advantages and disadvantages of them.
My brother and I looked forward to subverting level design in future Halo games. We didn't view it as "breaking" the game, but taking advantage of certain situations and scenarios. We were being resourceful under pressure. Were it not for the sheer difficulty of Legendary mode, we likely would never have even discovered some of these tricks. Yet it capitalized on what we also loved about Legendary difficulty; that thrill of knowing we won because of our minds. We outsmarted the game.
Unfortunately, these moments diminished in the future Halo games. Or perhaps I simply didn't replay them enough. The only moment of subversion I experienced in Halo 2 was in the second level, when they drop the human tank at the bridge. Player two has no real choice but to sit on the tank and twiddle their thumbs, so I concocted a plan. As my brother piloted the tank, I hijacked an enemy Ghost and sped across the bridge for the enemy Wraith, the covenant equivalent of the tank. It took a couple of tries, but I managed to hijack the Wraith, allowing the two of us to participate in mass destruction together.
Other than that, the Halo games have become much more rigorously QA'ed and focus tested. The developers were fully aware of this sort of behavior, and as a result sprinkled a variety of Easter Eggs across the games in hard-to-reach places, some requiring the players to take advantage of grenade jumping, another unintended trick players discovered and turned into a mechanic.
It's nice for the developers to place some small rewards or secrets for players like that, but it's not the same. It no longer feels clever, it merely feels like you solved another one of the developer's puzzles, one that must have been tested to make sure it could be completed. It doesn't have that fist-pumping, high-fiving moment of exhilaration when you accomplish a difficult task that may have taken ten minutes, but allows you to skip on through sixty while taking out a troublesome foe with ease. It's much more rewarding to feel you've outsmarted the developer than it is to solve their clever little puzzle.
So while I still enjoy most of the remaining Halo games, none of them will ever live up to the memories I keep of Combat Evolved. My brother and I still discuss it and reminisce in diners and pubs with our friends. We don't brag about beating the game on Legendary, as the developers designed the game and difficulty with that purpose in mind. No, we talk about how we figured out you can grab those Banshees and fly right to the control room, but only if you were quick and precise enough.
The Halo games benefited in many ways from increased polish over the course of the series, but they may have lost something in the process. Oversights on the developer's part helped make Halo: Combat Evolved a more interesting, more rewarding game, and I wish the sequels, and other games, had more of that.