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by Microsoft

halo_03.01.01_print_6.jpg (1974 bytes)Although the game has only been officially released since November 15, HALO is already the most talked about and highest rated Xbox title by over a dozen reviewers. Many of those reviews gave HALO perfect or near-perfect scores, so I’m betting that right now you have some kind of knowledge that the thoroughly above-average score of four stars I’m giving HALO is actually one of the lowest ratings you’ll find. Before you click that email link to shoot me off a mean little note, let me assure you that HALO is a great game. It is a phenomenal technical achievement and incredibly fun to play. There is a lot to love about HALO, and it will, no doubt, establish a successful Xbox exclusive franchise, which Microsoft really wants and needs. However, there are some gratuitous omissions which I find interfering with my complete enjoyment of HALO, and I mean that in an orgasmic, tongue- lolling- out- of- the- mouth kind of way.

halo_03.01.01_print_3.jpg (2006 bytes)Let’s start with the basics. You probably already know that HALO is a first person shooter (FPS) with a robust story mode. The basic premise is this: You play the Master Chief, a cyborg super soldier on board the Pillar of Autumn (which is a great big spaceship). The ship is attacked by the Covenant, a civilization of hostile aliens who speak English like champs, but apparently don’t know about Earth. In order to keep the dirty little secret about our homeworld safe, you must escape the ship with an AI construct, Cortana. You do escape the ship, and find yourself on HALO, a ringworld which you first suspect of being a Covenant superweapon. However, the secrets and mysteries of HALO are much deeper than the planet itself, and you’ll find a few major twists and turns in the plot.

halo_03.01.01_print_7.jpg (3158 bytes)The story itself deserves some attention. It succeeds quite well, except that it is pretty short. The dialogue is well-written, and the voice acting is great. One of the key points to the story is that although you play the Master Chief, you are not alone. You are a part of a larger military force. This is beautifully conveyed through the gameplay. Much of the time you fight within a group of marines, and each soldier has his own AI. They each shout out different comments, criticism, or helpful hints as they storm the enemy. What’s more, the Covenant isn’t just another evil alien threat. They have some personality, exhibited mainly through their own in-battle comments and the different strategies they employ. Occasionally, you’ll catch witty references to movies like Aliens when one of your fellow Marines screams, "It’s all over! We’re all gonna die!" Another striking example of the quality of the AI can be seen if you turn on your fellow soldiers. Sometimes, after running out of rounds for your assault rifle, you may be tempted to shoot one of your buddies in order to take his ammo. However, after doing so in a way that is obviously not an accident, the other soldiers will turn on you, hunting you down.

halo_03.01.01_print_2.jpg (3540 bytes)The action starts from the very beginning and continues throughout. You pick up most ammo and weapons from vanquished foes, although you occasionally come across stashes of useful supplies. In the first level you move from the Pillar of Autumn to HALO. You’ll experience scenes inside the ship, outdoors in mountains and streams, and venture inside Covenant installations. Also on this first level you get to drive one of four vehicles, the Wart Hog.

halo_03.01.01_print_5.jpg (3312 bytes)The Wart Hog carries three passengers – driver, side seat, and gunner. It is outfitted with a rapid-fire cannon that is very useful in taking out aliens. In addition to this vehicle, you’ll drive another Marine transport, the Scorpion tank. The Scorpion carries a driver plus four marines and is outfitted with another cannon, making it a powerhouse of destructive fury. With these vehicles, non-player characters (NPCs) jump on to assist you, and they do a good job. Again, the AI in HALO is uniformly excellent.

halo_03.01.01_print_1.jpg (3982 bytes)If you can shoot them down or steal them, you can commandeer two Covenant vehicles. The Ghost is a hover-bike with a nice pulse cannon that maneuvers extremely well. The Banshee is like an ultra-light jet with a cannon and bombs. You can soar all over the skies in the Banshee and the gun is much more powerful. These vehicles carry only a single person, but add a lot of variety to the gameplay.

Screenshot-06-01.jpg (5267 bytes)The weapons in HALO are pretty cool, but there aren’t a whole lot of them. Mostly you’ll be shooting your assault rifle, sniper rifle, plasma rifle or needler. Occasionally you’ll get knocked down to a pistol or the Covenant equivalent, a plasma pistol. And sometimes you get to carry around a big old rocket launcher, which is great fun, but not very practical. The lack of variety in weapons is sad, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had with these.

Screenshot-09-01.jpg (5681 bytes)HALO is an FPS, so the camera movement isn’t a big issue. Controls are standard for FPS games – one joystick moves your head, the other your legs, and the buttons are assigned various tasks. These controls are very customizable, so anyone already familiar with FPS gameplay on a console controller should be able to find the perfect setup. The Xbox controller is actually a dream for this kind of movement and gameplay, and works beautifully. The only awkward control moments happen when you’re driving a vehicle. The Ghost is the only vehicle that really moves like your character. Otherwise, the right stick moves the camera, which switches to a third person viewpoint, and the left stick takes care of accelerate and reverse. The driving is strange at first, but after awhile becomes pretty easy. It’s never quite as good as standard driving controls for other games, but isn’t terrible.

Screenshot-05-01.jpg (5936 bytes)The graphics in HALO are phenomenal. Everything is just beautiful. You can see for miles when you’re outdoors. The textures are amazing. Metal looks scuffed and paint looks chipped; rocks and other natural surfaces are detailed. Lighting is another area where the game shines. Some levels have dark areas, but you are equipped with a flashlight that you can use. The flashlight is extremely helpful, but also looks like a real flashlight. The spot of light is textured itself, and the reflections are just perfect. In addition, all characters are fully animated, all the time, so you’ll see Marines moving their mouths as they talk to you. All the movement in the game is incredible. When a character is blown up with a rocket launcher or grenade, he soars across the battlefield, arms and legs akimbo, and lands in a limp pile.

Screenshot-12-01.jpg (6725 bytes)While the graphics remain at an amazing framerate and clarity, the Xbox still has the muscle to push more data. Occasionally you’ll see a little icon that says "loading" appear in the corner of the screen, right as you’re fighting off a hoarde of aliens with a platoon of Marines at your back. The only noticeable loading happens between story chapters, and doesn’t take too much time. Overall, the game runs at a perfect speed, even when the screen is flooded with baddies.

Screenshot-15-01.jpg (6739 bytes)HALO offers a single player campaign mode as well as two types of Multiplayer. You can play the story mode cooperatively, which is amazing. It is much more fun to play with a friend than alone, and offers a wider variety of planning and strategy. Cooperative mode is, without a doubt, my favorite. The Splitscreen mode allows you to play a variety of multiplayer games, including death match, capture the flag, and king of the hill. All of these can be played as free-for-alls or team efforts. You can hook up to four Xboxes together and play with fifteen friends on four televisions. These huge battles will be amazing if Xbox LANbashes become popular.

Screenshot-10-01.jpg (7092 bytes)However, the multiplayer modes bring me to my first major criticism – you cannot add bots to your multiplayer games. This is a big problem. Most of the time, gamers are not going to have fifteen buddies around, along with four Xboxes, four copies of HALO, and four televisions. Most of my multiplayer gaming is done with one or two friends, and we want play against a slew of CPU-controlled bots as a team. Anyone who has played any of the recent FPS games on a console has learned to love bots. The multiplayer would be fine if you could at least connect to a game via the Internet, but that is not possible. Still, the lack of bots in HALO is a crippling blow to the multiplayer mode, which is, in turn, a major blow to the longevity of the game as a whole. While the story mode, especially playing cooperatively, is amazing, it can only be run through so many times.

Screenshot-01-01.jpg (7093 bytes)It’s unimaginable to me that Bungie didn’t include the ability to put bots into your multiplayer game, but that’s indicative of a few of the weird inadequecies of HALO. This is why I can’t give the game a perfect rating. There is no Options screen to center the video on your television or adjust the volume of background music, sound effects, and dialogue. I haven’t seen a game in ages that didn’t include these options, and sometimes it becomes quite difficult to hear the dialogue in the midst of battle and background music. The music is used very effectively in HALO, but sometimes drowns out instructions and pieces of the story.

Screenshot-13-01.jpg (7577 bytes)HALO is also not terribly innovative as far as gameplay is concerned. It basically does what has already been done in typical story-based FPS games very, very well. It brings a much higher level of quality to the story and presentation of the game, but beyond that isn’t innovative in the way that a game like Perfect Dark or Deus Ex is. Many levels inside installations actually have you following markers on the floor to make your way through the maze of hallways. The only doors that are unlocked are doors you need to go through. You are given navigation points to find different locations you need to reach. This makes the game very smooth to play and prevents a lot of frustration, but also limits how much of your own style you can put into your play. There is only one way to solve a problem, and the largest amount of strategy or critical thinking comes into play when you are engaging in full-on battle. And even then, your strategy is limited to questions like, "How do I want to take this shot?" and, "Should I switch for that kind of gun?"

Screenshot-14-01.jpg (7170 bytes)HALO is an excellent benchmark for future Xbox FPS titles, but it is not unbeatable. I can foresee some company taking the lessons learned from not only HALO but Deus Ex and Perfect Dark and combining them into a truly amazing game. Perhaps Bungie will do so in a HALO sequel, which is bound to come along. If you own an Xbox and have the slightest interest in FPS titles, get HALO now. If you don’t, go see it at a friend’s house. Either way, you need to check this one out.

Shawn Rider   (11/18/2001)


Ups: Amazing visuals; great gameplay; excellent story; multi-system link play; cooperative story mode.

Downs: Tricky vehicle controls; no bots in the multiplayer?!?

Microsoft Xbox