Halo is a futuristic first-person shooter that casts you in the role of a genetically enhanced super-soldier known only by his rank, Master Chief. The game includes a ten-level campaign playable on four difficulty settings and three multiplayer options: two-player cooperative, four-player competitive via split-screen display, and four-player competitive via System Link. Notable features include rechargeable energy shields, allowing soldiers to quickly recover from enemy damage, and the ability to drive or pilot four types of vehicles. Master Chief will also be able to use ten types of weapons on the battlefield, from assault rifles and rocket launchers to plasma grenades and shotguns.
In the most obvious sense, the "Halo" is a space station built in the shape of an enormous rotating wheel. As the wheel spins, it creates centrifugal force that mimics gravity on its inner rim. An entire world exists inside this wheel, with huge developed structures and vast, open landscapes. But something else exists in the Halo as well - something mysterious and powerful. All that is really known is that a force of alien invaders is desperate to find it and they are leaving death and destruction in the wake of their search. This mystery of Halo must be solved and the aliens must be vanquished, before they find what they are looking for and destroy us all.
Some of the basic themes and plot points in Halo may be familiar to gamers who have played Marathon, Bungie's successful first-person shooter which was released in 1992 for the Macintosh platform. Among other elements, Marathon is known for intelligent level design and a deep, intriguing story. Though Halo should not be considered a sequel to Marathon, the two share common plot elements and have related back-stories. Initial development of Halo was done simultaneously for the Macintosh, the PC, and the Xbox.
Many players cite Halo as their introduction to the FPS genre - a concept which makes plenty of PC die hards gnash their teeth in frustration. But to be fair, it's really not a bad entry. While the Xbox version (along with GoldenEye on the N64) proved the ability to do an FPS on a console, the game itself also made notable contributions to the genre - and no, not just with the overused recharging health system and two gun limit seen in every modern shooter. Let's also be honest, launching alongside the Xbox gave it notoriety it otherwise would have missed. If Halo had stayed on the Mac, it would be a cult favorite, but otherwise obscure.
This first title, before prequels and sequels really fleshed out its universe, is cliched sci-fi. Humanity is at war with a technologically-superior alien empire known as The Covenant. After a crippling defeat, the human frigate Pillar of Autumn makes a blind hyperspace jump and ends up around a mysterious mechanical ring with an Earth-like atmosphere. The decision is made to thaw you out - the helmeted, jade-armored super soldier known only as the Master Chief - and try to race the pursuing Covenant forces to discovering the purpose of Halo. There's not much depth here (yet), and it does awkwardly try to mimic moments from Aliens and Starship Troopers, but the plot generally keeps you interested. There's also a pretty decent twist that's surprising and executed well. The plot's not as clever or cerebral as Bungie's previous work, but it's certainly more accessible.
Hands down, it's the depth of the combat that makes this game. It's as accessible as any other FPS (aim, shoot), but supported with many small nuances that, at higher difficulty levels, force players to think about each engagement. First and foremost is your own energy shield. It will absorb a few hits, but then recharge if you stay behind cover. When your shield is down, your precious health starts taking the hits - and that can only be replenished through limited medic kits found in the levels. Right away, you're encouraged to be cautious in your approach, but also aren't left completely without options if things go poorly.
From there, you have various enemy types to consider, each with different advantages and disadvantages. The impish Grunts offer comic relief and cannon fodder, but can still be dangerous in groups or at the end of tight hallways. Jackals carry energy shields, but can handily be sniped from afar, or overwhelmed with a combo of sustained fire and a melee strike. Elites have heavy weapons and the same energy shields as you, forcing you to think about how to approach them. If they get to cover, their shields will regenerate and your attacks up to that point will be for naught. Chase them, though, and they stand a good chance of putting you down as you round the corner.
The AI supports these differences brilliantly, and got much praise for it. It goes beyond tactics and teamwork (a la Half-Life) and into really making each alien type its own character. The AI knows its own role and that alien's limitations - it knows when to retreat and when to press an attack. Many a time the AI knew I was weakened and correctly rushed my cover to knock me out before my shields recharged. The AI can be caught unaware and hit with a surprise attack (such as a sticky plasma grenade), but also responds to gunfire and the shouts of other aliens. They have great situational awareness without psychically knowing where you are - they'll shoot through windows to hit you, or wait at the corner you disappeared around, rather than blindly following you. They're a tough, maddeningly patient, and worthy opponent - and extremely hard to trick or exploit (which, admittedly, is half of beating any FPS at the highest difficulty).
The nuances don't end there. Human weapons can be reloaded, but Covenant weapons (in the plot, still a mystery to scientists) can only be dropped or replaced when their charge runs out. Low level grunts shout their states ("Coming!" "He's here!") and panic easily when their leaders are killed. Elites, however, are quiet, stealthy and communicate in alien gibberish so you don't know their next move. Covenant weapons are great at dropping shields, while human guns nicely shred armor or alien hides. An advanced tactic involves nuking shields with a Covenant gun and finishing them off with a bullet weapon. This is also the game where the toughest brutes can be killed in one shot with a pistol, simply by knowing where and when to hit them. There really is a lot of depth to the mechanics, and a lot to discover.
Which brings us to the complaints you've surely heard before - level design and the Flood. Saying that sections of Halo are some of the worst-designed levels in modern FPS history is not hyperbole. "Assault on the Control Room" and the infamous "Library" feature levels literally made up of copy/pasted rooms. These levels are terrible, monotonous, and tedious to the extreme. They are only made manageable through the thoughtful combat. Each level becomes something like a challenge room, with a different twist through enemy makeup, pillar placement, or available weapons. Even that stretches out far past its welcome, and navigating these rooms is both confusing and dreary. It's like Bungie learned nothing about level design and decoration since Marathon.
As for the Flood, they are a parasitic race introduced about halfway into the story. They take all of the amazing advancements to AI and combat and pitch them right into in the bin. The Flood reanimates dead soldiers and sends them sprinting right at you, flailing appendages or spastically firing weapons. It brings all the joy of running backward whilst firing your gun back into an FPS that didn't remotely need it. Perhaps the intent was to bring in some "classic" gameplay as a break from all the tactics, but these engagements sit somewhere between "a waste of time" and "a pain in the ass." The Flood is crucial to the story, so Bungie painted themselves a bit into a corner, but it's telling that they appear less frequently in the sequels.
While every level is padded out by some bland corridors and blatantly repeated rooms, only a few use these as the majority of the map. Most levels have unique rooms or centerpieces (like the hangar bay on the alien cruiser), or gorgeous outdoor areas and structures between more generic hallways. There's no slouching here, and the outdoor areas are all lovingly crafted highlights. There are installations built up in icy cliffs, sunny beaches to storm, hills with defensive emplacements, foggy jungles, and a mountain path to assault at night. Levels are all fairly linear, but these outdoor sections are wide and expansive, with plenty of opportunities to hop into a nimble Warthog four-wheeler, or tear apart enemy positions in the beastly tank. All vehicles are satisfying to drive, and integrated into the game well (that ending!).
Which brings us specifically to the PC port. Gameplay between the two versions is identical (including checkpoints, but no quicksaves and no sprint option), with a possible edge given to mouse and keyboard controls. Graphics, unfortunately, are pretty identical as well. The console's lower resolution textures don't look too impressive blown up to 1280×1024, and no attempt seems to have been made to tweak them for the PC release. Flat textures, very limited bump mapping, and a ridiculous amount of jaggies (with no AA option !?) seem to suggest that Bungie made their assets to the limitations of the Xbox, with no consideration of future ports. Fair enough, I suppose, but the bane of a good PC port. At least the audio and orchestral soundtrack still sounds excellent, and all weapons are particularly punchy.
The other PC feature is online multiplayer. Halo became pretty much the console multiplayer experience, both in campaign co-op and LAN-based deathmatch/flag capture arenas. However, it was all local - good for university dorms, bad for everyone else. The PC port brought the action online, and in line with other options on the platform. However, Half-Life was just too well-established for this to make much of a difference, and that's before we consider dismissive PC snobbery. This is mostly a historical point though, as I have no expectations anyone will be playing this online today.
If you're a fan of first person shooters, Halo is certainly worth a play. If you have no other options, the PC version of Halo is tolerably worth a play. Keep in mind that this port is essentially just emulating the console experience (perhaps on purpose?), and certainly won't hold up to PC FPS stalwarts. Don't expect it to have the visual quality, or even the standard features (again, quicksaves) of its PC competition. Still, that AI is sharp, combat requires some real thought, and you're in for a satisfying challenge at harder difficulty levels.
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