It was at E3 2000 that Bungie Software, a small developer previously known for the popular Marathon and Myth franchises, stepped out of the shadows and turned the industry on its ear. Opening to the deep, melodic chant that would become synonymous with the game, Halo was revealed to the public. The demonstration featured spectacular graphics, unprecedented online first-person shooter (FPS) multiplayer modes featuring team-based gameplay as well as the incorporation of vehicles intrinsic to multiplayer combat for the first time. Once it was all over, cheers rang up and in that instance, everyone in attendance believed that gaming would be changed forever. Bungie only added fuel to the fire by making the unnecessary promise of a solid story to help drive the action on screen. The PC market, slowly succumbing to the popularity of vice game consoles, had its killer app and PC gamers were convinced that this game would turn the tide.
However, what no one saw were the others in attendance—people with dark and sinister intentions. Those people were none other than Bill Gates and his cohorts, secretly surveying the software for that killer app that would help them propel themselves into the console market. Much to the dismay of PC gamers everywhere, Microsoft bought Bungie Software and made Halo its showcase release. That meant all sorts of innovations that were so lauded at its debut would fall to the wayside. It's onscreen resolution would be reduced to 640 by 480, the fabled keyboard/mouse control setup would no longer be an option and the much-anticipated online multiplayer modes would be limited drastically to the four player split-screen variety console users were used to. This left many to remark that the final product would be but a shadow of its former self. Needless to say, Halo would be subject to much pressure and scrutiny upon its launch with the XBox.
For Microsoft's sake, it doesn't take very long for Halo to prove its metal on the Xbox, though it does stumble out of the gate. The opening sequence was average and appeared to show Halo's roots as a PC game that began its development three years ago. Rendered in real-time, the character models are a little simplistic, depicting stiff animation and awkward movements. The graphics were serviceable for story-telling purposes but left me anything but impressed. Thankfully, you're soon thrown off the doomed warship, The Pillar of Autumn, and set down on the ring known as Halo. It's here that you bear witness to what Halo really has to offer and why Bungie was so eager to be working on the Xbox platform. Looking in any direction, the lush environments are simply massive stretching far off into the distant. Organic objects like grass, rocks and trees benefit from heavy bump-mapping of already detailed textures. But its the full visual package that sells Halo.
Whenever a light source hits an object in the environment, it will illuminate it realistically. The flashlight on your weapons, for example, will cast a realistic beacon of light on far away surfaces, and when up held up close to a metallic object you will see a realistic metallic sheen reflected back. Other lighting effects such as lens flare and the highly touted umbra effect get heavy use in the game for that added bit of realism. Such careful attention to small details is a rather common thing in the game. The master Chief's battle suit, for example, is laden with dents and gouges, (no doubt from previous battles) while possessing its own reflective properties.
Graphical tricks and special effects such as these are sure to tax even a technically advanced video game unit like the Xbox. This lead Bungie to limit the frames per second to 30—a common number for console FPS, but hardly state of the art. However, during the course of the game, I think it is safe to say that few will notice or care when they do. Even in wide-open areas, populated by eight to ten enemies, your allies, large alien structures and flying craft, the game rarely dips below that the 30 frames per second cut-off point. Equally impressive is how seamlessly the transition is made from indoor to outdoor areas and vice versa. Keep in mind that many of these indoor environments are often huge multilevel interiors with ceilings so high that you can't always see them. With only the briefest of pauses to save checkpoints to the hard drive, you enter and leave these structures without a hitch.
Bungie gets a gold star for eliminating one of the biggest sore points that has accompanied FPS ever since they first appeared on console systems. On the PC platform, with over 104 keys at a player's disposal, shifting between weapons was as easy as hitting a number key, however this was never an option for console gamers. Finding the weapon of choice was a matter of cycling through almost every weapon you possessed, a definite inconvenience in the heat of the battle. Bungie's solution is to limit the number of weapons a player can carry, be they of human or alien origin, to only two at a time. Though an ingenious solution, it was also quite a gamble. After all, the FPS genre is steeped in a tradition of "big guns and plenty of them." But Bungie pulled it off and the choice of weapons is as well balanced as you will see in a FPS. The human weapons are of the standard military variety ranging from the standard assault rifle to a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. The option to pick up alien weapons makes things a bit more interesting as these weapons are energy-based and not projectile-based. If at any time you need to change to a weapon not already in your possession or replace one that is depleted, you can grab any number of those dropped by fallen enemies or allies.
Another gold star should be awarded to Bungie for its approach to health and health replenishment. Instead of energy meters that can only be replenished by health power-ups scattered about the level, Bungie incorporates a body shield that actually rejuvenates itself after a period of inactivity. That means that you can take hits throughout a level and still have protection for later. If used corrected this greatly diminishes the need for searching for health and shield power-ups and gives players a much greater sense of control.
Other parts of Halo show we have come a long way since the days of Doom and Wolfenstein. The secondary characters, the enemies and allies, possess a level of artificial intelligence (AI) that is rare in games these days. Enemy soldiers now attack in groups, separating to get an advantage and will hide behind stationery shields and large objects or retreat when they are overmatched. They even yell out to alert others of your presence; some of these aliens seem to possess to the power of human speech and will actually threaten and taunt you—or beg for mercy when the tide has turned. Making things even more interesting is their ability to make use of whatever alien vehicles or weaponry happen to be in the vicinity. With that kind of sophisticated behavior at their disposal, it is a good that your allies are more than just moving targets in the game. Showing their skill in squad-based tactics, your allies can be quite helpful during a fight. They lay down cover fire, take cover when possible and are quick to lend a hand when you take control of one of the military vehicles in the game. Such complex AI changes the dynamic of showdowns with enemies. Charging into a situation is not the best policy and some thought must actually be put into almost every confrontation.
If there was one thing that had Halo fans chomping at the bit to get their hands on this game it was the opportunity to take control of vehicles in a video game. After an almost two year wait, Bungie delivers. Four different vehicles are available for as many as five players to take advantage of at once. The humans possess land vehicles in the forms of a tank and a nimble, all-terrain vehicle called a Warthog. The Warthog allows up to three players can enjoy the ride—one is the driver, another takes control of the gun in the back and another rides shotgun with the ability to pick off enemy targets. The tank is slow, but practically indestructible and can fit a driver/shooter and four marines riding sidesaddle above its treads. Not surprisingly, given its power, it is a rare find in the game.
The alien vehicles are arguably more interesting as they take the action off the ground. The hover vehicle called a Ghost comes with decent weapons and maneuverability while the flying vehicle, fittingly dubbed the Banshee, takes the action into the skies allowing for dog-fighting with other Banshees and opens things up for carpet bombing tactics on unsuspecting enemies. All the vehicles in the game demonstrate realistic physics to make for a more authentic experience. The Warthog, certainly the most agile of the land vehicles, is the best example. It skids on slick terrain and bounces up and down on its independent suspension as a real world version might. Outside forces affect the vehicles as well. The Warthog's own inertia can cause it to continue moving even after you have gotten off. A well-placed grenade can cause the Warthog to flip onto its side or—as happened quite often—flip in the air and land on all four tires. It should go without saying that this is one of the game's more fun vehicles. What was unexpected was that I found the enemy ships to be the least appealing of the bunch. These vehicles exploit the same realistic physics but it seems to get in the way. The Ghost was imprecise and difficult to handle over anything but the smoothest of surfaces—keep in mind that it hovers over the ground. Once in the air, the Banshee is always in a state of forward motion so great care must be taken when fire upon enemies in the sky or on the ground. Handled realistically, turning, acceleration and braking can become quite the headache in this fast-paced action-oriented video game. All things considered though, the fact that four vehicles so different from one another can be so relatively easy to control using the same gamepad is a true credit to the developer.
The other high point is the overall plot and story. Halo is an unusual spin on the alien invasion theme that is used so frequently in video games. Thankfully, Bungie treats the story with seriousness and great care right from the get go. For the uninitiated, Halo is the story of the human race's last fight for survival. An alliance of two alien races collectively known as the Covenant, has declared humanity an affront to the gods and Covenant warriors castes have waged a holy war upon humanity. (Given the times we live in, this apsect of the story really grabbed my attention.) With its advanced technology, overwhelming numbers and motivated by such fanatical beliefs, the Covenant has backed humanity into a corner. The last chance for the human race comes when human forces try to divert the Convenant attack force away from Earth and into an uncharted sector of space. Here they come upon the mysterious ringed world known as Halo. The rest of the game unravels the mysteries of the ring while combating the Covenant that also has an interest in the artifact for itself.
Bungie does an excellent job of making this story believable and it gets a hand from the great audio. There is constant chatter in the game whether it is from your enemies, your allies or Cortana, the sexy, all too human AI construct that guides players through the game. This constant communication can add life to portions of the game that would otherwise be meaningless and tedious. It certainly helps that the voice-acting in the game is above average given Bungie's frequent use of voice-overs and cut-scenes. Perhaps more than anything, I would say the adrenaline pumping music—especially that evangelic, spiritual mantra—gives the entire game an epic feel. Like any great movie soundtrack, it gives weight to what you are seeing and what you will be doing throughout. Recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1, this is a definite showcase of the Xbox's audio capabilities for the audiophiles out there.
With so much to like, what could I possibly find wrong? Quite a bit actually. Halo's levels, the same that I praised so heavily earlier, become a point of contention as the game progresses. Due to their immense size, large areas are broken down into several smaller areas either separated by checkpoints or environmental restrictions. But what began as a deceptively opened-ended environment is revealed to be rather linear and restrictive later on. The large buildings you explore, have repeating architecture that is not only boring to look at after repeated appearances, but feature redundant gameplay. At one point in the game, you must explore a series of indistinguishable rooms and areas. After the first couple of rooms, it's easy to predict where enemies will pop out, where they will be located and repeat the process until all the rooms have been wiped clean of bad guys. There are some bright spots, and not surprisingly they do involve the vehicles. In one level, you use the Warthog to explore an alien building. It's really a thrill to go tearing through an alien building on a Warthog. In a later level, a Banshee is used to fight off attacking Banshees while attempting to scale a mountain and reach the entrance to another level. Such interesting objectives and deviations from the norm are high points in the game that are not equaled again. It makes Bungie's formula for progressing through the game all the more transparent: clear a room or area of bad guys, wait for the AI construct to drop a hint or reveal more of the story and proceed to the next level to repeat the process.
I have seen numerous comparisons of Halo to GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark and I can only assume that is due to the extensive multiplayer modes available in all three games. But in a game-by-game comparison, Halo comes up short. Its multiplayer stages are more extensive than GoldenEye 007's, but unlike GoldenEye 007, Halo's stages seem better suited for sessions with more than the default four players. In fact, many of Halo's stages are built specifically to accommodate as many as 16 players (four Xbox units connected to four television sets). The miniscule percentage of Xbox owners who can take advantage of that kind of setup are sure to be thrilled, but that leaves the rest of us in the lurch. Perfect Dark is rivaled by Halo's ungodly roster of every conceivable multiplayer FPS mode in existence (and a few that Bungie invented specifically for the game). But Bungie makes the mistake of omitting computer-controlled opponents and allies (known in the business as "bots") from the action and pays the price for it. These stages can be quite large and without bots, game sessions with two and even four players can be quite dull. It's no more evident that when you play levels with vehicles. Gaming sessions would be far more interesting if more players were thrown into the mix.
Halo does manage to surpass GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark in one multiplayer area and that is its two-player cooperative mode. The already quick-paced action is even more intense and enjoyable with a friend at your side providing cover fire or taking the point. The story progresses as it would in the single-player mode, but the bonus is that everything that would have done by yourself can be done with a friend. Two players can take to the Warthog for some vehicle-based mayhem or each can pilot their own Banshee and soar through the air at a crisp 30-fps. This really was a very welcome feature that helped make the more monotonous portions of the game tolerable while making the already enjoyable combination of complex environments, enemy AI, and use of vehicles an utterly engaging experience. However, when it is all said and done, a FPS's longevity is in its multiplayer features and as a whole, Halo comes up lacking.
My final gripes are not major but they did effect the playing experience. As a plot twist halfway through the game, Bungie introduces a new character that is so annoying that had I not been playing with a friend, I would not have continued playing. It was like Bungie's own take on the weird, smart Alec, artificial intelligence—a sort of C3-PO to the umpteenth degree. Clearly meant as comic relief, it was anything but and it pained me to have to follow it through the game. It's also worth noting that important hints and story elements are sometimes revealed in the middle of a heated engagement with the enemy. This is great way of keeping the story moving, but it can also lead to missing out on what was said.
In the end, Halo delivers as Bungie's and Microsoft's showcase release for the Xbox. It is technically sound and manages to incorporate most of the innovative ideas that drew praise from audiences at its debut. The vehicle-based combat, huge outdoor environments and complexity of the AI—though old hat for PC gamers—are quite groundbreaking in a console video game. We can only hope other developers will try to incorporate them into future FPSs. Halo does suffer from repetitive gameplay, a lack of full exploitation of the ideas and gameplay introduced at the beginning of the game and a disappointing multiplayer mode. But all in all, it is a worthy release for gamer's willing to bet on Microsoft next-generation console.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Violence
First-Person shooter fans will find a lot to like here. Halo's story is unique enough to be worthy of a look all by itself. Bungie's wonderful handling of the story only makes it that much better. The number of weapons in your immediate arsenal has been reduced so as to change the emphasis from charging into confrontations to a more deliberate and strategic weapon management unlike anything seen outside of FPS military simulations. Enemy AI and in-game physic is some of the most realistic you'll find in a video game today.
For multiplayer fans, Halo will offer a decent time as long as you have the players to make for a heated playing session. Though many levels are suited for two players, four, six and perhaps eight players will make for a better time. Halo's two-player cooperative mode is one of the best out there and well worth a look.
Xbox fans already own this game so there is no need to tell them to purchase it.
Parents should also take note that this title is rated Mature. The game is quite gory featuring body deformities, heavy blood spilling and other imagery that may be too much for younger audiences.