Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo is the most iconic game of the Xbox. Originally starting off as a real-time strategy game on the Mac, the game gradually shifted into a first-person shooter. Its developer, Bungie, was purchased by Microsoft around this time and Halo shifted from a Mac game to a flagship Xbox series. In an ironic footnote, the marketing department at Microsoft didn't this "Halo" was a clear enough title for the game and insisted on the "Combat Evolved" tagline. What exactly "Combat Evolved" even means is itself kind of unclear. And it turns out it was an unnecessary addition anyway, so every Halo game since hasn't bothered.
The game itself is a science-fiction first-person shooter. You take on the role of the Master Chief, a super-powered soldier (known as a Spartan) in the human ranks, helping to fight against the Covenant, an alliance of several advanced alien species. The crux of the game is that humanity is actually losing the war against the covenant, and you are one of the last of the super-soldier-esque Spartans. The game revolves around the discovery a ring-world called Halo, which is actually an ancient alien space station that was constructed well before both humanity and the Covenant ever existed. Fighting your way through hordes of aliens while uncovering the secrets of Halo forms the core narrative structure of the game.
Now, in terms of story, Halo is great, and its universe is rich and full character and detail that put it right up there with other space operas like Star Wars. However, the thing that really made Halo so damned impressive is its gameplay. Halo was a very unique game in that introduced or included a number of great conventions to the first-person shooter genre. First, you could only hold 2 guns, meaning that you had to make a strategic choice about which guns you would carry into any given situation. In other games it was not uncommon to literally carry around every gun you'd ever found. However, because of the 2 gun innovation, every gun in the game was designed to be useful. Rather than a hierarchy of good to bad weapons as was found in games like Doom, Halo had a rock-paper-scissors-esque system, where different guns were good in different scenarios but weak in others. As well, you could use almost any weapon in the game. If you killed an alien and wanted to see what their gun was like, you could literally just pick it up. Most games don't allow this, creating clear segregation between player weapons and enemy weapons, not so in Halo.
On top of the unique weapon system, Halo included regenerating health, allowing players to take a bit of damage but then take cover to recover. This is a gaming convention that countless shooters have copied since. Rather than having a separate melee weapon every weapon in Halo had a melee attack, allowing you to essentially "quick shot" a melee, something that more traditional shooters (again, like Doom) didn't allow. Grenades were also allowed to be thrown at any point. The ability to melee or throw a grenade instantly (rather than switching over to them first) made the firefights feel far more complex and sophisticated than in previous games. The worst part about games with too many weapons is when you have to retreat from combat to scroll through weapons to get to the right one. Not so in Halo... everything is right at your finger tips.
And then there's the AI. The AI in Halo blew me away when I first played the game. Enemies will actually take cover rather than just stand out in the open shooting at you. They will dodge your grenades and flee from you if you take out their commander. The bigger aliens will order the little ones around, and they will even shout taunts at you or berate one another for not doing better. Unlike other games of the era, the enemies don't feel like a bunch of mindless bullet sponges. Instead, they feel a little more real. Mind you, they're still just AI opponents, and so they're not *that* smart... but still. It really does add to the game.
I could go on, but suffice to say, Halo is a brilliant game that did so much for the FPS genre that its influence cannot be understated. The Halo series would only get better from here, and though Halo: Combat Evolved wasn't my own personal favourite entry in the series, I think it's definitely a game that you should play before you die!