I love The Library. There, I said it. Every time I play through Halo: Combat Evolved it dawns on me that it is once Master Chief makes the acquaintance of 343 Guilty Spark that the game really picks up, and becomes justifiably one of the historical cornerstones of the medium. Being trapped in the tight corridors with the deadly Flood and its infected prey may not be the pinnacle of the tactical combat that to that point Halo had been the purveyor of, but it is during this intensely compressed period of fast-paced and twitch-based combat that Halo really comes into its own. You may not be flanking Covenant grunts or taking down energy shields, but the change of pace that The Library brings with it is for mine, the pinnacle of first person shooting.
Anyone who has played Halo – and I’m sure that’s close to everyone both living and deceased by now – knows that in a lot of ways The Library is trial by fire. The Flood has barely been introduced to the player before you’re forced into close quarters combat with a foreign enemy, an enemy that attacks en masse, and an enemy that challenges you to change your approach to combat. I could write ad nauseam about how the Halo series made weapon design and balance into an art form – and it did – but it is during The Library that it becomes incredibly obvious just how integral the weapons are to the whole experience. What may have been your go-to weapon combination fighting the covenant may not suit your battle against the rushing kamikaze infected – 343 Guilty Spark even passes comment on it, “Puzzling. You brought such ineffective weapons to combat the Flood, despite the containment protocols””, and it is the Library’s school of hard knocks that very quickly forces you to find your feet, and discover what weapon combination works the best for you. Or die trying.
But it is also the textbook level design that helps make the great halls of The Library not only a brilliant lesson in first person shooter weapon design and selection, but the perfect training grounds for fighting the flood . Isolating the Flood the first time you experience them in their full force is one of the smartest design decisions of the modern era, taking the player out of the fight with the Covenant temporarily, and focusing the player on learning how to approach this entirely new enemy. Halo is as much about knowing the opposition as it is knowing your surroundings, and it only takes a moment to recognise that intelligent and battle-hardened the Flood are not. But The Library – complete with the scripted progressively narrowing kill rooms – is the perfect exam to test your mettle and teach you the skills you’ll need to make it through the rest of the game. Because the moment you step out of the Library, you’ll be caught in the crossfire between two vastly different enemies, who are both hellbent on killing you. Whether it was intentional or not the aptly named Library is the place almost singularly designed to teach you how to succeed for the rest of the game, and it is this cleverly-disguised tutorial right at the peak of the game’s storyline, that is the moment the game went from a cracking good time to a masterstroke of game design.
As someone who has never played a Halo game online, rather opting to enjoy the cracking single-player yarn Bungie and its kin have continued to wind throughout the series, it is easy to perhaps take some of the nuance of the game’s design for granted. But time and time again every time I play the game – and Microsoft has given me ample opportunity to do just that – it all falls into place the moment the Flood comes onto the scene. From level design that is purpose-built, to the way it changes player expectations and behaviour, and finally the way it represents a significant tonal shift in the game’s narrative, the Library is one of the best hours of gameplay in video game history. And it’s an hour worth studying to understand what makes it so.