Thursday, October 2, 2003
Main test PC: 2.4 GHZ P4, 512MB ram, ATI Radeon 9800, 533mhz bus, SIS648 chipset
Almost two years have passed since the release of Halo for Xbox. The popularity has only gained momentum, producing books, action figures and international tournaments for six-figure cash prizes. Halo cast a shadow upon many other solid titles for the Xbox that may have seen stronger sales if Xbox owners could've just shut up about Halo.
But they haven't. And PC gamers now get to dive in to the phenomenon we now know as Halo: Combat Evolved.
Halo is a complex and involving story about aliens, truth and reconciliation. You play as a cyborg known only by his ranking Master Chief. Not Master Chief Smith. Not Master Chief Jones. After an attack on the Pillar of Autumn, a ship transporting your frozen likeness and hundreds of your marine cronies, you are thawed out by command of your superior Captain Jacob Keyes to save the advanced AI construct named Cortana from being stolen by the Covenant, the attacking alien race.
MC barely finds an escape pod before the Pillar of Autumn crashes, but the pod still manages to crash-land on the ring-shaped planet Halo. This is where the story really begins, wiping out the covenant and figuring out what Halo really is.
You and you alone
Let's get this out of the way -- Halo's single player mode is exactly the same. Nothing has changed. All the scripted events, AI and weapon placement remains intact. And why would it change? If I was Gearbox (the company that did the port), I would be scared straight to go near tweaking the brilliant single player campaign. Although, I must say, Gearbox did a phenomenal job on the new multiplayer maps. More on that later.
What is missing, however, is the highly-enjoyable cooperative mode. In Xbox Halo you could team up with a buddy and tear through the game as a team. This was definitely most enjoyable on a Warthog, a Hummer-like ATV, when your buddy drives the vehicle while you man the chain gun in the back. Sadly, PC-only fans won't get this experience.
You start off in the Cryo Chamber, being unfrozen. A couple guys take you through some basic diagnostics and explain your shield/health system. When you are shot, your shield reduces before your health. However, your shield will always recharge to its full extent, regardless of how much health was taken away. This system has been copied so much since Halo's first release. This shield system is a much more believable way of designing a health system versus other games where you find a chicken leg to restore bullet wounds.
(In easier difficulties, it takes just a second for the shield to start recharging, but it charges slowly. In the harder difficulties, it seems like forever before the recharging starts, but when it starts it charges very quickly.)
Before you can "finish" your diagnostics, the Covenant break through to the bridge and Captain Keyes wants you there immediately. The tutorial continues, teaching you to melee and use your flashlight along the way to meeting the Captain to get your first weapon, the pistol.
Best weapons in any shooter, bar none
If you're looking for 958 weapons that vary in shape and color but lack personality, you have many shooters to choose from. If it is well-balanced, amazingly crafted weapons you want, then Halo is your diamond in the rough.
Pistol: It has tremendous power and a 2x scope to pick of anyone quickly with head shots. Holding down the fire button will auto repeat, but be much less accurate.
Assault rifle: Sprays tons of bullets in a short amount of time. Good for close range killing and especially in conjunction with its quick melee attack.
Sniper Rifle: Deadly from long range at 4x or 8x. Awkward at close range.
Shotgun: Brutal from close range. The only weapon where you can disrupt the reloading sequence and not start over.
Rocket Launcher: The key is splash damage. Aim at the enemies' feet or nearby wall at medium-long range.
Fragment grenade: Powerful charge that blows up once it finds a resting place.
Chain gun (in Warthog): Unlimited ammo powerful only at close range but still useful in medium-long range.
Flamethrower (multiplayer): A short range but very powerful spray of fire. Not as balanced as the original weapons.
Plasma pistol: Stuns enemies and very useful if you can click fast for rapid fire. It shoots perfectly straight. Hold the fire button down for a charged heat-seeking shot that's useful for long range.
Plamsa rifle: Hold down for rapid fire likened to the plasma pistol, but more inaccurate.
Needler: Pink needles shoot out in bunches seeking the nearest being, inserting into the body, then blowing up. Useful if you can get several stuck in an enemy at a time.
Plasma grenade: Sticks to enemies. Detonates 3 seconds after applied. Doesn't pack the splash damage that the frag grenade does.
Shade: The Covenant's stand alone artillery plasma gunner. Slow shooting, medium power but unlimited.
Fuel Rod Gun (multiplayer): The ever popular Hunter (and sometimes Grunt) weapon makes its way to multiplayer. Runs on battery and is almost as powerful as a rocket.
The higher difficulty you ascend to, the more you have to vary your weapons for certain situation. There is no hierarchy of power. Covenant weapons work the best when turned on them and human weapons work better on another race of aliens that exist in the game.
Each Covenant enemy has a distinct personality with hours of in game speech and grunts (pun intended). The small Grunts are pretty much the cute, frightened pawns that are easy to pick off and hilarious to listen to. Jackals are skinny soldiers with shields who are extremely accurate with their pistols. Elites seem to run the show when banded together with other Covenant, driving their vehicles, some having swords or invisibility or being incredibly accurate with grenades. There are several types of Elites you may encounter who all vary in intelligence. Finally there are Hunters, huge, slow and brutal. They fire fuel rod guns, likened to a plasma rocket, and bull-rush you if you are too close. They are heavily armored but the open sections of the body tend to be extremely sensitive.
Your marines are a brash breed of government products from all over the Earth. Some boast Australian accents, some English and some Hispanic. They are always more confident when the Master Chief is near and they will let you know.
There are many scripted events and tons of speech to be heard in-game by your marines and Grunts. Even after two years of playing Halo, you will most likely still be hearing new things. What makes that even more possible is the inclusion of different speech on each difficulty level. Death noises and gurgles never get old like most shooters. Bungie went out of their way to make sure the audio never got old.
The music is symphonically pleasing and intense. The soundtrack sold over one million copies and won many awards. Swelling orchestra over solo rock guitar or sometimes a jungle rhythm or even Gregorian chant will always perfectly complement your playing.
Difficulty levels are never cheap
Most shooters take the easy way out and make the higher difficulties harder by making your health more vulnerable and that's it. Halo bucks the trend by adding new speech and better AI to the enemies. You become less of a run-and-gunner and more of a strategizer the higher you go in difficulty. And yes, it's completely worth making it through the Legendary setting.
One problem is that your marines don't get smarter with you. It becomes more of a challenge for them to stay alive. So you have the added task of protecting them. At least Bungie could've made them a little smarter each time. Maybe not necessarily parallel to the difficulty jump...but something.
The story is the best science fiction story in any video game and ranks among the best stories of all time. Truly creative with the twisting of plots and making four parties intertwine. Yes, four.
On one hand, I want to see a movie of Halo. On the other, Hollywood's evidence of video game movies are so poor I don't want the Halo image tarnished.
Physics and reactions
One thing I hate about many shooters is that when you shoot an enemy repeatedly, they don't flinch and there are no visible reactions. Halo puts so many shooters to shame in this arena. Enemies stumble, twist and die with the animations they should. Explosions create great ragdoll effects and if an enemy lands on the edge of a cliff, the body parts that are over the cliff don't remain suspended. Those parts form to the side of the cliff as they would in real life.
This is one of the few shooters that make you actually feel like you have weight and are walking/running. Most shooters have you moving at such an unrealistic pace that all physics models are completely marred.
When you throw a grenade at a warthog, it will throw the warthog with precise geometry, flipping as it should and landing with all the reactions of a true heavy vehicle. This is the kind of polish that makes Halo exceptional.
Cut, paste, repeat
Without giving too much away I will say that later levels suffer from cut and paste on the interior areas. One level in particular is almost not even fun and could be downright confusing. This was due to the initial rush to get this out for Xbox launch. But this wasn't fixed. On one hand I understand, but on the other it is still a glaring problem.
Luckily the draw distances are huge on the outdoor levels. The graphics are wide in scope and full of texture up close. Bungie made great use of color in all facets of the design. The overall look is still beautiful, especially in high resolution, although somewhat dated.
Play on a LAN, specific IP or join a server with the barebones Gamespy software that was included. Choose from Slayer, the classic Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Oddball among others. You may create your own version of each with the medium customizable options. All maps are currently limited to 16 players maximum.
The new multiplayer maps are truly phenomenal. Sidewinder is an original Xbox map and was the largest available map. All six new maps dwarf Sidewinder. The layouts all have Capture the Flag in mind. But of course you can choose from the original maps which most are great for 4-8 players. All maps have little nooks and crannies to snipe from while maintaining a battlefield sense of open air. Brilliant designs for sure.
My first experience with high-ping servers was marginal. Lots of lag and too much time trying to find respawn points. With low-ping servers it was much better although jittery at times.
My second experience, however, was absolutely inexcusable. With a strong broadband upstream signal, I experienced lag and placing problems to the extreme. I would be standing one second, not touching the keyboard, and then I was falling the next. It rendered a few of my games unplayable.
Then I hosted my own game and experienced no lag whatsoever with 7 other people from across the nation. But those people were reporting lag still. Gearbox: GET ON IT NOW.
My third experience was phenomenal. I opened "The Goat House" server and had many people join. No one seemed to suffer from lag and I was hooked until three in the morning. I woke up tired, but powered my machine for one round before work. I am already addicted.
Clipping not related to football
Using a Radeon 9800 on a 2.4 Ghz machine is enough muscle to run most current games at high resolution with everything turned high for sure. Halo is the first game I've played that made me have to lower my 1280x1024 resolution to 1024x768. And even then when there are tons of characters on screen, especially in the single player campaign, there are bad frame rate issues. This means for those with a lesser set-up, you will most likely be dancing in the range of 800x600, toying with texture settings.
Here are the settings to achieve stability on three test machines-
P4 2.4Ghz, 512MB ram, Radeon 9800 (128), 533 FSB --
1024X768 all textures high
P4 2.6Ghz, 512MB ram, Radeon 9600 Pro (128), 800 FSB --
800X600 all textures high
P4 2.6Ghz, 512MB ram, GeForce FX 5200 Ultra (128), 533 FSB --
640x480 all textures low
This is truly disconcerting to NVIDIA owners. We hope our tests weren't conclusive. This is a surefire, unnecessary disappointment.
At first, Halo may look like a general shooter. The proof to the contrary is in the polish in all the right nooks and crannies that makes this the best first-person experience you will have. Of course, this is assuming you have a powerful PC to compensate for the high amount of resources this port requires, which is a disappointment. Nonetheless, even at 800x600 with the bells and whistles turned lower, it's still the Halo everyone knows and loves. And the new multiplayer maps are guaranteed to please. Once Gearbox releases stability and lag patches, everyone will be addicted to multiplayer. I can't see how we won't.
*disclaimer - As a critic, it is my job to try not to spout idiotic generalities ( example). Short reviews are fine, but you gotta give some detail. As a critic, it is my duty to review any port of a game like it was brand new today. Some sites have given Halo lower scores because the single player mode is exactly the same as the Xbox version. It amazes me that they review Halo PC as if it were released on the Xbox. Then, sure, it wouldn't warrant high scores...but it's now for a different system. The only real question is if Halo for PC measures up to today's PC shooters. The answer is a resounding "yes."
Overall: 90% A-
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The gamer's user name is Mothergoat