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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

 


 

 

      

 



 

Under intense scrutiny and nearly deafening hype, Bungieís Halo has arrived on the Microsoft Xbox. Since itís been in development for some time, first on the PC, then migrating to Xbox to coincide with the consoleís launch, expectations have become truly stratospheric. Promising truly revolutionary play mechanics, incredible visuals, unmatched AI, immersive plotlines and intense action, the title has been one of the most eagerly awaited titles of the year on any platform. With so many questions on whether Bungie would be able to deliver a "killer app", the much-anticipated game has finally arrived to eager playersí hands and for the most part, Halo is nothing short of amazing.

Itís hard not to be let down by a game such as Halo, for it does nothing wrong in its own right, itís just that the expectations for the title are so impossibly high that anything less than miraculous achievements will be seen as a disappointment. That said, this is a spectacular achievement on many fronts and one that pushes the boundaries of console gaming forward several notches. There are several elements in the game which are breakthroughs that shatter genre conventions and should change the perceptions and expectations of both console and PC players. While indeed it is a standard first person shooter, Halo is much, much more than that. This isnít apparent on the first level, which takes place on a starship overrun by aliens. Initially Halo seems to be a graphically impressive title which hews closely to the standard first-person shooter corridor conventions that have come into play. This is a mistaken perception, since once you blast off the main ship and land on the mysterious ringed planet Halo the whole world literally opens up before your eyes. This is easily the most spectacular level-transition ever seen in a console game.

Haloís brilliance comes into full view at this point, as the shooting environment moves from a constrained field of vision to a fully realized alien world with open spaces and realistic terrain. Even more impressive at this point is the AI which comes more fully into bloom. On the first level, players could gain some assistance from other Marines, but once on the surface of the planet, things really begin to come to full intensity as the Marines attack with the player in formation and can surprisingly, put up a great fight on their own without the playerís assistance. Haloís outstanding level designs are innovative and remove the shackles that limited technology has placed on the genre to date. The areas where the battles take place seem much more organic and natural than any other first-person shooter to date. You can strafe and use the various terrain to your advantage, climbing behind rocks or shooting from afar without being detected is a crucial element to successfully completing each mission. This lends Halo a gritty realism and urgency that has been rarely seen in a console title and is a welcome change of pace. Of course, the strategy is important but more important than in other games are the weapons.

Unlike other shooters where the player has an unlimited amount of space, Halo cuts this down to a more realistic approach by limiting the player to two types of weapons. When you run over a new weapon, instead of automatically picking it up as in other games, you switch to a new weapon and the one youíre currently holding is dropped. This means that you donít take weapons mindlessly and must instead choose the best types of weapon for the task at hand, which adds a completely different layer of strategy to the game. Of course, it also can be a bit frustrating at times when you need a certain type of weapon and thereís none of that kind around. Haloís weapons are cool and offer players everything from standard firepower to incredibly devastating missile launchers, different types of grenades. Thereís also a good range of defensive items you can use including health power-ups, speed enhancements and even a wickedly cool invisibility cloak. Another interesting aspect of the gameplay is that you can pick up the enemiesí weapons and use them against them. This pretty much covers the basics of Halo, but there is much more involved.

In a brilliant move that further immerses the player into the environments, Halo also allows players to jump into vehicles. These are marine craft and are known as Warthogs. Once inside of these, players can drive around and run over enemies. Whatís even more impressive is that when there are marines nearby, theyíre smart enough to jump in and act as gunners, which is probably the coolest part of the game. This is quite effective and the transitions between Haloís walking around and driving modes are a lot smoother than youíd expect. The interface and control scheme isnít like traditional driving games; instead you move the vehicles around using the camera. This is awkward at first but it quickly becomes intuitive and fits in nicely because it closely resembles the controls used during the first-person mode.

While the Xbox controllers have been subject to much controversy and some derision, extended play with Halo proves that the design of the handles is perfectly suited to this type of game. The layout of the button commands is excellent and intuitive, with more commonly used tasks assigned to the face buttons, while the less frequent acts like throwing grenades are consigned to the shift buttons. Moving, strafing and looking around are far from awkward and are, in fact expertly handled. The controls overall, were tight, responsive and quite flexible, allowing you to concentrate on the action instead of the controller. This is critically important with a game as intense as Halo and as such the ease at which this has been pulled-off is reassuring and inspiring for the consoleís future. During play, youíll find that Halo has a virtually transparent interface that most players should be able to master in little time. This is great news for those worried how a complicated moves list would translate to a standard D-pad. The controller is quite comfortable and responsive and Halo uses it perfectly to make an excellent interface. Those more comfortable using a PCís mouse and keyboard will find it awkward, but for console fans, the Xbox controller plays with a smooth, silkiness that is superb.

Haloís visual look is unmatched on any other console to date with production values that are simply incredible to behold. Few games on any platform have come close to achieving what Bungie has with this title. Of all the graphical elements in Halo, by far the most impressive are the gameís environments which unfold in luscious detail and are enhanced by incredible textures. These are no mere corridors, but complete seamless worlds that seem fully realized. Whatís so impressive about Halo is that these developers have made quick work what others have struggled with, to make it all look so easy. Thereís almost no pop-in, consistent frame rates, little jaggies and precision rendering that come together to form one of the most believable gaming environments ever seen. Haloís levels verge on the photo-realistic with objects such as trees and formations enhanced by realistic water and lighting effects that demonstrate the power of the Xbox hardware to a degree that is almost overwhelming. Animating humans is hard enough but making convincing alien creatures is even harder. Halo does both with style to spare, making the look of the game something that needs to be seen to be believed. Weapons special effects are incredible with light-sourcing and particle effects used to increase Haloís dramatic tension. The sleek production values donít stop there with extensive voice-acting used to fully flesh out the marines and aliens. Haloís overall approach proves that contrary to commonly held wisdom, graphics do indeed matter to a large extent. In Halo, they serve to make the experience much more intense and exciting than it would have been otherwise.

Whatís most impressive about Halo isnít its graphics or production polish, however. Itís in the effortlessly fluid gameplay which throws literally dozens of enemies at the player at once seemingly with little effort. This is guaranteed to make your heart beat faster and this tension creates a constant impetus to keep playing. The action unfolds seamlessly thanks to the use of Auto-saves at checkpoints, which keep the flow of the action going. Halo also gains points for unfolding at a seamless pace that gives the entire game a good flow, missions merge together and seem to move naturally from event to event. Haloís biggest appeal is its storyline. Most first-person shooters have a throwaway plot but in this title, the game is largely dependant on it. During the game, youíll hear the screams and shouts of marines and can also communicate with them and hear their reactions and celebrations when a successful battle is carried out. This is truly immersive and sucks the player right into their role Ė making them feel and sense not just their own feelings, but those of the fellow combatants around them. Haloís musical score is also quite good, with the epic cinematic score underlining the already expansive, breathtaking world and the intensity of the gameís heroic last-stand battle for survival. Few titles have attempted this and fewer still have succeeded at it. This is where Halo joins the elite since there have been only a handful of games that have integrated action and story so successfully. Metal Gear Solid comes to mind but while Halo isnít nearly as cinematic or visionary as MGS, for such an action oriented title, the attempt and subsequent success in this are is quite impressive.

Is Halo perfect? Unfortunately it isnít, but there are a few minor problems that detract from the experience. While the levels are richly detailed, extremely realistic and beautiful, some of the non-outdoors levels do tend to become a bit dark and claustrophobic in comparison, especially below ground or on ships. There are also some points in the game where itís not exactly clear what your next task is, which can lead to wandering around aimlessly for a frustratingly long amount of time. Another problem is the weapons system Ė while itís cool that you can only carry around 2 weapons at once. This gets frustrating when the right weapon isnít around. However, the biggest problem lies in the gameís opponents. While there are a lot of these beasts afoot, there arenít enough different kinds in the game, which can make the battles monotonous after awhile and also makes their actions become predictable as well. Still, these are all minor gripes when you look at the big picture and judge these flaws appropriately within the context of all that went right with the game.

As you may have noticed, this review has focused on the single-player game with little mention made of the multi-player cooperative and competitive modes. Thereís a good reason for this and that is that the single player mode is so exciting and fresh, most players wonít want to bother with these multi-player modes until theyíve completed Haloís long and engrossing storyline first. That said, these are awesome extras and there are the usual capture the flag and death-matching modes included which will extend the gameís longevity even further. In the end however, the extra play modes are just that Ė extras. The real excitement comes in the main game which is as revolutionary as advertised and in some aspects better than anyone could have imagined. Haloís incredible visuals, innovative interface and play mechanics, unbelievable environments and intense storyline are unmatched in gaming. As a launch title, this shines at showcasing the processing power of the Xbox in unmistakable fashion. Haloís slogan is "Combat Evolved", but thatís misleading since what it actually represents is electronic gaming itself evolved. Halo is an incredible experience that redefines the expectations of what a game should be. It lives up to and in some aspects exceeds the hype that preceded it. There can be little doubt that Halo succeeds brilliantly at realizing its expansive goals and vision.