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Feature Article

The Most Influential Games Of The 21st Century: Halo: Combat Evolved

A glimpse of the future.

GameSpot may get a commission from retail offers.

Join GameSpot as we celebrate gaming history and give recognition to the most influential games of the 21st century. These aren't the best games, and they aren't necessarily games that you need to rush out and play today, but there's no question that they left an indelible impact on game developers, players, and in some cases, society at large.

It's hard to explain what it was like to be a console first-person shooter fan in 2001. While PC players had been enjoying FPS games for years, the experience was never as strong on consoles. Where PCs had the fluidity of the mouse-and-keyboard setup, controls on console struggled to capture the same feel--to this day, two of the best-regarded FPS games of the era, GoldenEye 64 and its follow-up, Perfect Dark, were played with controllers that didn't even sport dual analog sticks. In the nascent days of console online multiplayer, squaring off against other players, the thing that could really make shooters exciting, was limited to split-screen battles (often on tiny TVs). There were standout titles of the era, of course, but the FPS field was nothing like what we experience today.

Imagine, then, the arrival of Halo: Combat Evolved. For the first time, the discussion around console shooters opens up to a huge number of new possibilities. The Xbox's system link multiplayer, the console market's first experience with LAN, meant you could play with seven other friends--and more than that, you could work together as teams and execute tactics that your opponents couldn't anticipate simply by glancing over at your side of the screen. For those whose gaming consisted purely of console experiences, it was the first time a shooter experience would become something similar to playing paintball or laser tag. It was a glimpse of the possibilities of the shooting genre's future, and it was glorious.

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Halo's arrival on the console FPS scene didn't just herald the shooter future, it manifested it. From the jump, the game was unmatched. In the very first mission, as players took on the role of genetically enhanced supersoldier Master Chief, developer Bungie was throwing together elements that shifted how playing shooters felt on a fundamental level. First and foremost was the enemy design. The alien Covenant were generally not idiots--they fought hard and smart, taking cover when they were hurt, grouping up to channel their fire, throwing grenades to flush you out of your hiding places, and charging up when they knew they had you on the ropes. Every encounter with an Elite enemy in the original Halo was a harrowing one, because the bastards weren't just tough and didn't just absorb a lot of shots. They were also very good at finding ways to kill you (and never missed a chance to laugh about it afterward).

Bungie set a standard with enemy AI design in Halo. But it also did a lot to make its fights feel more like battles, capturing a feeling that many shooters have chased ever since. The mostly-pretty-good AI extended to allies as well, and much of the time in Halo, you're fighting the Covenant with the support of a squad of UNSC Marines. You might be a one-player army in Halo, but you always felt like part of a team, and excited shouts of your squadmates as you take down a big enemy or set off a big explosion (as well as their cries as they got blasted by grenades) created the sense that there was more to Halo than just your role in the game. Few titles captured the feeling of stepping straight into a full, realized world the way Halo did, and a huge part of that was the idea that you were just one (really good) soldier in a much larger, active army.

Halo felt like it was doing something video games had always wanted to do, but had never quite achieved before.

So many of those battles managed to take on an epic scale thanks to Halo's perfect combination of elements. Huge fields often had vehicles crossing them, some of which you had to deal with on foot, others which you could battle in tanks or Warthogs of your own, with marines jumping into the gunner positions to back you up. A phenomenal soundtrack and Bungie's cinematic approach made those moments even more exhilarating, expanding the scope even further. The game's smart level design gave you tons of agency--you could pick your way through engagements, slamming straight into enemies or finding ways to flank them out while your squad distracted them, hunting down vehicles or rocket launchers to turn the tide in your favor, or sneaking past enemies and avoiding fights altogether.

Halo felt expansive in a new way for shooters, setting the tone for massive, cinematic, action movie-like games that would follow. Level after level, Halo felt like it was doing something video games had always wanted to do, but had never quite achieved before. It wasn't necessarily inventing new things, but it took the best ideas of the genre and turned them into a singular experience. When it comes to the AAA shooter experience as we now know it, Bungie cracked the code with Halo.

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Shooters are still feeling the influence of some of the best and freshest ideas of Halo. The ability to carry only two weapons and think strategically about which you pick up? Halo. Recharging shields that force you to find a shady spot and consider your tactical options mid-fight? Halo. Grenades on a trigger button, ready at all times? Halo. The standard in console FPS control schemes? Halo again. The franchise it spawned was such a powerhouse that for years, developers and publishers hoped their games might become the "Halo-killer" to usurp its place at the top of the shooter heap.

Bungie elevated console shooters with Halo, but the even bigger lasting influence of the game might be how it shook the console landscape by legitimizing Microsoft's Xbox. When Microsoft decided to leap into the console market, there was no shortage of skepticism, but Halo was the reason to purchase the new machine. The game proved that Microsoft was not just some late-comer trying to use an abundance of cash to muscle out the dominant PlayStation, and it would be Halo's sequels that helped make Microsoft a bigger force through Xbox Live. Through its role as an Xbox exclusive, Halo helped lay the foundation for the next two decades of what gaming would become.

Halo changed the conception of what games could be for a lot of players. It rocked the shooter world with ideas that have become standards to this day, and its approaches to gameplay and presentation made for that truly "epic" experience that games have continued to try to capitalize on ever since. But more than anything, it altered gaming for console players, elevating the experience with an amazing single-player campaign, a huge and expansive game world, and the first steps into the future of multiplayer. Playing Halo in 2001, it felt like things had changed--almost 20 years later, we're still feeling the shockwaves.

For a look at the rest of our features in this series, head over to our Most Influential Games Of The 21st Century hub.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

philhornshaw

Phil Hornshaw

GameSpot editor in Los Angeles, and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. Hoped the latter would help me get Han Solo hair, but so far, unsuccessful.
Halo: Combat Evolved

Halo: Combat Evolved

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verysalt

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Edited By verysalt

Should add StarCraft 2 in the list. Thanks to SC2, Twich TV (Justin TV) exploded to new kind of global type of entertainment and subsequently E-Sports became global (not just Korean) phenomenon.

Probably no other game was as influential as SC2 in new millennia so far.

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santinegrete

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I played this game in PC in 2006 after other giants like Doom 3 and Half Life 1 & 2. And I was still impressed. That's a lot to say when you're so old and emulated by other games in the genre.

It's simplicity and accesibility mixed with great design choices (some of them left after Halo 3, for the worst) made it a game that could add to the genre.

BTW, TimeSplitters did the dual stick aiming-moving before this game, but no one cares. Halo CE was just very well done for that alone actually count more.

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Guy_Brohski

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Halo CE absolutely redefined what a shooter can be. It was a milestone in the same vein as HL2, Doom and Quake. I'm glad I was there to experience it!

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xbhonner

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@Guy_Brohski: how is it redefining shooter? how? a milestone? care to explain why?

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Newsboy

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If you guys are gonna prop up Halo, which was the first Uber popular console online shooter and that’s IT. Then give love to Goldeneye 007 and Counterstrike, far more influential. Some might go so far as to say Halo stole a lot from those two games.

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Blade_Runner_07

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@Newsboy: Not sure about that. Goldeneye was built on an engine made to emulate live-action bond films like the one it was based on and Counterstrike was built off of source if I'm not mistaken.

Remember, at the time, consoles existed in their own world still. Multiplatform games that also came out on PC had "console versions" that were night vs day inferior to the PC counterparts. Counterstrike was killing it on PC, but Halo was revolutionary in how it brought that idea of a big group of players in the same multiplayer match across multiple displays to a console shooter. Sixteen players on four televisions if I remember right.

Yes, PC was doing this over the internet at this point, but Halo made the idea more living room friendly. I would be getting ahead of myself but I have to mention Halo 2s goal was to translate this concept into an online experience with Xbox Live. Halo introduced large-scale multiplayer to the console audience by making it more accessible at the time.

Credit where it is due. Goldeneye did introduce a very primitive free-aiming system that would inspire the Aim-Down-Sights aiming mechanics we see in all games of the genre today.

That mechanic aided in popularizing (introducing?) localized damage to the genre in Goldeneye 007. Meaning, a headshot did more damage to an enemy that a shot to the leg, which finally lead to an active zoom feature being implemented on weapons that had scopes attached to them. They were emphasized by the outdoor levels being some of the first in the genre that allowed the player to experience the potential of a long-range weapon in the genre.

Imagine Halo if you could only ever play 2-player split screen, all the levels were in hallways, headshots damaged like body shots and there were no scoped weapons to speak of.

In a way, Goldeneye invented Team Snipers on Blood Gulch in it's single-player via the level Surface nearly half a decade before Halo was a thing.

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Newsboy

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@Blade_Runner_07: you wanna know what Halo REALLY did to FPS? For about 10 years after it was hard to find one without the damn rechargeable shield crap.

Tribes had vehicles, most of the weapons were revamps from Unreal Tournament, the mechanics were a rip-off of either UT, Goldeneye or Counter-strike.

It brought PC style gaming to console. It’s huge for doing that but old school PC gamers know what it is.

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Blade_Runner_07

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@Newsboy: I'm with you. Find a Delorian and come see me in 2009. I was burnt out of Halo hard, and the same was happening with Call of Duty on World at War.

Then something happened. Microsoft announced Perfect Dark would be coming to Xbox Live Arcade. This was a big deal given my childhood pals and I hadn't returned to Perfect Dark or anything N64 since 2001 so it was a huge nostalgia trip.

I bring that up because it sparked a similar conversation to the one we are having now. I had never seen so many people who hated what first-person shooters had become in one place. It was kinda awesome.

Regenerating health, Aim-down-Sights, and even Checkpoints were the work of the devil. It took all of the speed and challenge out of the genre and ruined it.

That is what I used to think.

Via Perfect Dark, I made some new friends, had many conversations, and gained some perspective. A great game is great and it's a great game forever. The practice of playing that great game is something that rarely changes though. Recently we've had some acceptions with the likes of Doom, but trying to modernize old gameplay with new graphics and updated button mapping like in a remake, the results are mixed. That's okay.

Halo introduced a control scheme that hijacked many gamers muscle memory on any controller with two control sticks. The controls for Perfect Dark were modernized as much as possible but when the leading franchises in the genre decided to start this pissing contest for a bigger chunk of the fiscal earnings pie, things went wrong.

At this point, I'm giving you a history lesson I'm sure you are familiar with....

Halo was the Xbox controller tech demo for how to map your shooter to this new consoles controller that was big and had "more buttons" than anything the main competition had put out at the time. Adopting a control scheme was innocent. It's when they started putting regenerating health on average joes that it started getting annoying.

Today, every other game gets a kind of Battle Royal. The pissing contest continues. I'm not happy about it, but like ANY form of ART, there are eras. Within eras exist trends. I think we have seen two or three "eras" of home video gaming in the 40+ years the medium has been popular. It's crazy. It's bigger than us. We're just experiencing it.

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xbhonner

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Edited By xbhonner

Is this article a joke?

Only carry 2 weapons? really? is that even amazing? Most FPS games i've played allowed me to carry more than 2 weapons, which is better. So no one is influenced by this shit?

Recharging Shield? NEVER USE OR SEEN THAT IN ANY OF FPS GAMES I'VE PLAYED!! not to mention that it sounds like a feature for casual pussy gamers. A shield that is recharging? wtf?

Grenade on a trigger button? im sure other games has one button grenade as well

Standard in FPS control schemes? The **** are you talking about? Gaylo didnt set any standard for "FPS CHONTYROL SCHEMES". Alien first person shooter on Ps1 did

Halo killer? who needs to kill an overrated shooter where you shoot the same colorful alien again and again and again and again? Add the fact that the console its released on was sold poorly. So many people overhyping this turd.

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pharoe777

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@xbhonner: 12 year olds....geez (>.>)

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santinegrete

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@xbhonner: carrying 2 weapons only is a justified decision choice that has to be built along weapon design and balance, unless you just take it as a checkbox to make people purchase your game. And some titles suffered greatly for it no doubt. Examples? The Suffering 2, Resistance 2, Gears of War Judgment.

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doremonhg9x

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@xbhonner: Never understood all the hype around the franchise, and probably never will. I remember back in the day when I got to borrow an Xbox from my brother for like 3 months. He lent me the console plus some game, one of those was Halo something. I booted it up, shoot some random enemies with bland guns and give it up like half an hour later lol. It was run of the mill at best.

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xbhonner

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@doremonhg9x: ikr, halo is probably the most overrated garbage on gaming history

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Cayde

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@xbhonner: Considering the game 2001, not half bad :D

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xbhonner

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@cayde: not saying its bad (well, actually yes, its kinda boring to shoot the same looney toons alien over and over again for hours)

But questioning those people who love to claim that this game inspired other shooter or giving influence, WHILE ITS ACTUALLY NOT!

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Blade_Runner_07

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@xbhonner: It did inspire many other games to adopt its controls schemes and damage system. Almost nothing on consoles after 2001 played like all the Nintendo 64 shooters that came out after Goldeneye 007. I remember Timesplitters was an exception but for the most part, everyone started limiting the weapon inventory count, dedicating a button to melee, and at least the military shooters started adopting a grenade button.

I'm not saying the first Halo game is particularly fun to play in the modern age I think the sequels have aged far better but for better or worse, Halo sold Xbox consoles and caught the genres attention.

It's "control scheme" was essentially just an FPS control scheme that didn't feel hobbled on a console controller, and Bungie found a way to map player movement and aiming to a dual-stick controller that felt impressively smooth for the time. The entire genre copied it because it was just the right way to making an FPS feel natural on a controller.

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xbhonner

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@Blade_Runner_07: THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? are you an 8 y/o

"mhap mhap shooter to dual-schtick cotroller dat impresivly smooth for the time"

I already said in my previous comment that Alien on Ps1 did it first, not Halo the overatted shooter. The entire genre did not copy it from Gaylo, its from Alien on ps1. Do some research before talking, you 8 y/o.

And what damage system are you talking about here?

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Blade_Runner_07

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@xbhonner: What does I being 8 have to do with anything? If I know what I'm talking about than I do. My age does not matter. I'm actually much much older than that but trust me, buddy, kids and fogies alike will find a way to use your age to invalidate your points. How bout we break that trend right now.

Whether you want to admit it or not, even the late PS1 shooters like Alien or the Medal of Honor games that did their damnedest to utilize the twin sticks on that first DualShock 1, felt clunky by Halo standards, and damn near broken by modern 8 year-old standards.

As far as the damage system goes, I should have said "regenerating health". That confusion is on me. Enemies and players alike started hiding behind rocks or walls in most games to take the downtime required to get back to full health. There is an in-lore reason for this in Halo but in most games, it is just copying Halo because it was successful.

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Cayde

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@xbhonner: And of course not most influential :p

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Guy_Brohski

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@xbhonner: You're special.

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xbhonner

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@Guy_Brohski: You're butthurt

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Cayde

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Considering the game 2001, the game good with story, and graphics, but the gameplay ..um.. what can say just not half bad.

*I still didn't see any reason to remake the first Halo, even now.

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Edited By Rekonym

I was there when it happened, it was amazing. I remember seeing ONE single ad on TV for the game, at the end it said (I believe, maybe not word-for-word) "For XBOX". I ended up going out to buy it the same week (I think it was like 2 days later). The console had been launched just 2 or 3 weeks prior to that and I still to this day cannot believe how easy to was to just walk in my store, ask the clerk if they had one; they did. No preorders needed. I got the console, Halo and an extra controller.

And, indeed, Halo: Combat Evolved did end up being one of my favorite FPS games of all time. It's right up there with the greatest for me, the likes of DOOM, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Turok 2 and some more. It's definitely on my Top 10 list of best FPS games ever made even to this day. I did also eventually buy Halo 2, and while I did actually like it as well it was missing a sense of mystery about it that the original had... and also Legendary mode in Halo 2 didn't 'feel' the same as Halo CE's (and those damn Jackal snipers on Legendary in Halo 2 just ruined the fun with their single hit kills). One of the things I loved about Halo 1 is indeed how you basically don't understand what's going on and realize that the enemies you're fighting there also don't seem to understand what "This Place" is. You enter some infrastructure at times and I remember back then when it was new a feeling of dread almost, like "You don't belong here, you're not meant to be here". In a very alien sense of it. But that also brought the whole "I have to continue explore this place and get more information" desire about it, to keep going on as you fight the Covenant.

And then, one of the best 'twist' / unexpected moment in FPS gaming: The Flood.

Mind Blown, at that point in the game. Oh and... all Halo CE players will remember... The Library. That place was a blast on Co-op especially on Legendary (heck the whole game was a blast on Legendary, with great A.I. as well). I don't care what others might say about the series but, yes, Halo CE was a marvelous game and quite frankly pretty much ahead of its time in the same veins DOOM was or Half-Life 2 was. For different reasons, but still had an impact on the industry for many years that would follow. The newer generation of gamers who just started to appreciate FPS games have genuinely missed a lot of things from back when developers could still and were definitely doing their best to innovate and experiment. Today it feels like "It's all been done before".

I can't honestly think of the last truly impactful FPS game after Halo. Maybe to some extent the first Crysis, when it comes to engine and graphics fidelity it was very much ahead of the curve (a solid zero computers at the time could run it fast and it remained a benchmark for years to follow, it took something like 2 generations of GPUs to finally be able to run the damn thing at 60 FPS). And maybe Borderlands 1, for bringing the 'true' (working, and fun) "Looter-Shooter" FPS-meets-Diablo formula to the gaming table once and for all.

I don't always agree with Gamespot (especially their reviews) but this one about Halo CE I absolute can and do agree with. Especially because I can only objectively confirm everything mentioned in the video since I was there when it was new and almost 20 years later (Jesus Christ man...) I still remember clearly everything about it and then some.

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santinegrete

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@rekonym: it was an honest TV ad that showed gameplay? In those times you could get carried far by that with no youtube around. And it was so special when the game turned out to be not great, but a personal classic. The same experience I had with Super Metroid.

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Blade_Runner_07

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@rekonym: As great as it was, I wonder if the fandom of a particular video game will ever manifest itself the way it did for Halo. Namely, the likes of Halo 2 and Halo 3.

It was a time when you could only get your hands on the game by showing up at a store and buying a physical copy. Release day delivery just wasn't a thing yet. I don't know where or how to get the numbers but I imagine brick and mortar game stores were never so populated at midnight as they were for the first few Halo games.

Probably just nostalgia but I do look back on the launch of the bigger games of the last 20 years with appreciation to the fact that I might not ever see so many human beings in one place to buy a video game ever again. It's been called "the Star Wars of video games", and like Avengers most recently, Halo ruled the entertainment world for a minute.

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This is my personal greatest game of all time. Halo literally had it all if you were into FPSs back in 2001.

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nomadski69

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One of the most underrated moments of gaming is the helmet cam reveal of the flood...right before you encounter them yourself. Anyone who played Halo back in the day will remember this moment very, very well.

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Blade_Runner_07

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@nomadski69: Right on! They took the helmet cams from Aliens and added a found footage element in that scene. The whole game is laced with inspiration from all genres of film.

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Sicarius09

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Can't believe I was there for the birth of this game, way back on the iMac. Incredible fun, especially on LAN.

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HAWK9600

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Love this series!

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octabrain999

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Don't usually comment but very good article. "Halo's arrival on the console FPS scene didn't just herald the shooter future, it manifested it." Glad I was around for that.