I complained that it was repetitive at the time, and was surprised people were so positive about - in particular all the stuff with the Flood was absolutely dreadful. I remember typing stuff like “literally worse than Wolf3D” re: the level called “The Library” or something.
However, it did have three things going for it that games at the time just didn’t do properly (though they soon did thereafter):
The enemy AI was ridiculous more effective-feeling (not actually smart, but it felt good) than the AI in other games of that era. Not than, say, smarter than Quake with a bot mod (but those always felt very artificial/cheesy), but than just shooters in general, and felt naturalistic. Like the way enemies moved, the way they used certain tactics.
The physics-y open-ness of the levels and the way the vehicles worked with that felt pretty amazing at the time, and again, wasn’t something you found in other games. Sure they’re “wonky” as you say, but that that they were there at all was amazing.
Actually good controller controls. This I think was a huge part of it’s success. Whilst, technically, the approach to how the controller should control a shooter had been done before, Halo was the first one that got it right for most people, and it got it really, really right. I’m pretty convinced this was actually one of the main things that caused the “Halo cult” effect, because loads of people loved Halo who were fucking terrible at mouse and keyboard shooters, but they weren’t anywhere near as terrible at Halo. So imagine this - tons and tons of gamers, who’d played PC shooters maybe, but been put off due to getting “PWNED!!!” by people on them, and felt really bad at them, or just hadn’t enjoyed playing with an M&KB at all, were suddenly on an equal footing with a huge number of other players, and suddenly their bad mouse aim and so on were no longer issue. I think this by itself did a ton to popularize the game.
I mean, I sort of agree overall, and I certainly said so online, but I’m not sure it’s as true as I thought. Halo came out November 2001. So let’s look at 2001 and 2000 PC shooters:
NOLF1 - Good but not as good.
Soldier of Fortune 1 - nope.
Daikatana - LOL!
Project IGI - I had huge hopes for this one, but not even close.
Delta Force: Land Warrior - Okay we definitely enjoyed this one more than Halo in my household, but it was amazing weird game than a straight amazing game.
Quake III - No, that’s a different kind of game entirely.
Counter-Strike - See Quake 3.
Clive Barker’s Undying - Cool game, not as cool as Halo.
Tribes 2 - Different kind of game again, though yeah I do think it might be “better”.
Operation Flashpoint - Hilarious, amazing, totally unplayable buggy mess.
AvP2 - I actually didn’t think it was as good as AvP1 myself.
Red Faction - Cool concept, not a great game.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein - Honestly to me it felt like a bad Quake mod, I know others loved it.
So that’s the time period you’re cover - 2000, 2001, I’ve probably missed/skipped some stuff, say if you think it was stuff that mattered. I’m not seeing anything solidly better than Halo in that period, particularly for single-player.
If we keep going into 2002, we see:
Jedi Knight 2 - I think this is kinda better than Halo, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as Halo
Soldier of Fortune 2 - No.
NOLF2 - Way better than Halo imho, but obviously niche appeal, and still not as impressive-seeming.
(And tons of bad games and dubious sequels I’m ignoring)
I could go on, but I don’t think it’s really until 2004’s FarCry that I saw a game which was solidly “better than Halo”, like overall.
So I think your criticisms of Halo itself are all legit, but I don’t think there were clearly superior PC shooters at the same time. The most overrated Halo game of all time is actually Halo 3, I’d argue. Halo 3 is just a refinement of Halo 1, essentially, and came out in 2007, by which time it did feel pretty outdated, but had huge armies of absolutely devoted Halo fans basically chanting Halo’s name, and reviews of it were insanely overgenerous. If it had been a PC game, it’d have got like a solid 80-89% or 8/10, as like “A good update of the 2001 game that feels a little dated”, but as an early 360 title, it got completely demented 10/10 and 97%-type reviews from most major publications. Like we’re talking insane people shit here. 1UP claimed it was “life-changing”. Videogamer compares it favourably to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (and, confusingly, brings in the even-then reviled Spider-Man 3 as another good trilogy end). NZGamer claims failing to have it on your Xbox 360 is like trying to live without a heart. No seriously. Other reviews admit it brings literally nothing new, and still give it 10/10 and call it “the future” (for no apparent reason other than it had pretty graphics and polished - but tired - gameplay). Re-reading some of the reviews, it’s actually surprising how many are honest that it adds nothing to FPSes, but they give it 10/10 anyway. If you read a lot of the descriptions, though, you’re reading the review of like, an 80-89% game for that era.
I think this was one of the games that contributed to the “score inflation” of that period, because if it was a 10/10 game, then a whole lot of “only okay” games were surely 9/10 or 8/10. It’s also funny to see some of the things people are identifying as justifying their ridiculous scores and claiming will “go down in history” (literally), because they’re entirely forgotten - Halo 3’s “Saved Films”, for example, was not something console games attempted to replicate, nor much remembered. Equally the “Forge” was something other games had done extensively, because it was basically just Unreal Tournament’s mutators, but was treated as if it was shocking and new, by people who had to know better. This was also an era, when, if a publication FAILED to give Halo 3 a 95%+ review, it was basically condemned by a screeching online army of Doritos™-covered, Mountain Dew©-soaked fratbro-type gamers.
I could go on. Point is, as overrated as Halo: Combat Evolved was, it wasn’t anywhere near as overrated as Halo 3.