The year is 2552, and humanity struggles to survive. A terrifying race, calling themselves the Covenant, has swept out of the stars and threatens to purge humanity from the galaxy. Armed with fantastic technology, and an almost religious fervor to destroy humanity, they are the worst threat that human beings have ever encountered. With faster ships and more devastating weapons, the Covenant seem an unbeatable opponent, until the Spartan-II soldiers present Earth with the opportunity to retaliate in kind. The humans, led by the United Nations Space Command, muster their forces to repulse the alien threat and prepare for a special mission to capture a Covenant vessel. The mission will field the Spartan-II soldiers, amazing cyborg soldiers that stand eight feet tall and have been trained since childhood to be the greatest weapons that humanity has ever fielded. Launching from the planet Reach, Earth's effective backdoor and the greatest shipyard in all of Human space, this mission was to turn the tide of the battle against the Covenant and save the entire human race. That was, until the Covenant arrived in a mass of ships, destroying Reach and nearly everything in it.
You are the Master Chief, the last of your kind. Cyborg, warrior, and the last, best hope for humanity -- you were the only Spartan-II to escape the destruction of Reach. Fleeing on the UNSC vessel Pillar of Autumn, you jumped to a random star system, away from Covenant forces. In a stunning and mysterious move, the entire Covenant fleet pursues the Pillar of Autumn as it escapes. The Pillar of Autumn is commanded by Captain Jacob Keyes and armed with some of the best technology in the human fleet. Onboard is an Artificial Intelligence, indispensable to any capital ship in the UNSC navy, and in this case an amazing battlefield tool, able to handle massive amounts of data. Arriving in an unknown star system, you find a strange artifact orbiting a small planet. The object, called Halo, is a massive ring structure, lined with a breathable atmosphere and alien ecosystem. Attacked by the pursuing Covenant forces, the Pillar of Autumn is disabled, forcing you to escape to Halo. Perhaps this alien artifact contains some answers to the mystery of the Covenant and a way to defeat them.
Armed only with your wits, backed by the survivors of the Pillar of Autumn, and assisted by the Pillar of Autumn's AI, Cortana, you are the greatest weapon that humanity has to offer, and the only human that the Covenant truly fears. As a cyborg, you're incredibly strong, possess impeccable reflexes, and are trained in a wide variety of weapons with which to defeat the enemy. You're armed with the Mjolnir armor, a powered armor suit that protects you from all manners of weaponry, enhances your strength and reflexes, and has an energy shield system reverse engineered from the technology used by the Covenant. With it, you are nearly invincible.
Still, the Covenant are not to be taken lightly. Their Grunts are small, numerous creatures that, while weak individually, can pose a threat in great numbers. Elites stand nearly eight feet tall, and use an energy shield system to protect them from attacks while they command the battle. Jackals are shield troopers, using a strong shield to protect themselves and their allies from your attacks. Rounding out their number are Hunters, massive war machines that mount a gigantic hand explosive fuel rod gun and have a massive shield of impenetrable material. Together, these forces seek to destroy you and every other human that still breathes.
Halo is the amazing new title for the Xbox, a First Person Shooter (FPS) that has been anticipated for quite some time. Halo has a deep, driving storyline and many innovative elements that make it a contender for one of the best games that the FPS genre has ever seen. Immersed in a rich, sci-fi backstory, Halo provides plenty of material for single player and multiplayer fans alike.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Halo is, at its heart, a strongly story driven First Person Shooter. Normally, FPS games aren't really suited for a console like the Xbox, but the design of the Xbox controller, and the way Bungie (Halo's developer) laid out the controls, makes Halo an excellent console title. The analog sticks control your movement and aiming. Shoulder buttons let you fire and toss grenades, and their analog quality in controlling the rate of fire on a full auto weapon makes them perfect for the task. You can jump, crouch, and even perform attacks with any of the game's weaponry. Unlike other FPS titles, you can only carry two weapons at any given time, although you're free to scavenge the battlefield for any weapons you can find. This is slightly more realistic than the normal "carry everything" style of gameplay, and requires you to rely on quick wits rather than an endless supply of weapons and ammunition.
The controls can be set up in a variety of ways, including the sensitivity of the analog sticks you use to move and aim. Being able to switch between a normal control set and a legacy southpaw, which completely alters the way you're shooting and moving, is something I consider important. Given the wide diversity of play styles, a good selection of control schemes is important for any multiplayer or single-player game. One of my other peeves in a game like this is the power-up syndrome, where you'll find little power-ups over the course of the game that give you temporary invulnerability or quicker ammo. No such thing in Halo, as these items only come in three flavors: Health to replenish your health stats, Overcharge to boost your shielding, and Active Camouflage, which turns you invisible. Plus, all of these items are explained in game, as the health units are actually medkits, and the other two items are shield enhancements that the Elites use, making them perfect for your energy shield, given that it was reverse engineered from Covenant technology.
One of the first things you'll notice is just how deadly this game is. Gone are the days of a poor man's blaster, weak and ineffectual against your opponents. Halo gives you real guns that can actually defeat your enemies. That means they'll need to use tactics against you. And use tactics they will. As you notch up the difficulty settings, from Easy to Normal, Heroic, and finally Legendary, you won't notice your enemies becoming incredibly damage resistant. The difficulty settings generally increase the number of opponents, give them a little bit more armor, tougher energy shields, and significantly increase their tactical abilities. You'll see the enemies make better use of their weaponry, talk to one another, flank you, and eventually kick your ass. It's intriguing to see a game make such use of tactics, as I've never seen a FPS approach this level of thought. The enemies can talk to one another, make battle plans, and while they are a little predictable, they'll actually outthink you if you give them the chance.
The first weapon you'll get is the Pistol and, for my money, it's one of the best weapons in the game. An Assault Rifle, Sniper Rifle, Shotgun, and Rocket Launcher round out the human weaponry. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but all of them are effective against the enemy. Use a rocket launcher if you're attacking a fortified structure, a gun emplacement, or a vehicle. The Shotgun is a good close up weapon and, unlike other games, maintains the lethality of a real shotgun out to good distances. You shouldn't need to ask what the Sniper Rifle does and the Assault Rifle has a great high rate of fire attack against unshielded opponents. The Pistol has a zoom feature and is one of the largest caliber shots the Marines have, making it perfect for one-shot kills with a headshot. Although they're all good weapons, most of these aren't good at dropping the energy shields packed by an Elite or a Jackal. They can finish off an unshielded opponent like no one's business, but against shields, you'll see lots of ricochets. Marines also get Fragmentation grenades, which are timed high explosives that can be bounced around corners for a nice surprise.
Covenant weapons are another matter. The Plasma Pistol fires a steady stream of plasma shots and the trigger can be held down to generate an overcharge. An overcharge shot, aside from being more powerful, can drop enemy shields in one hit, making it extremely useful for taking on Elites and Jackals. Plasma Rifles are slightly better than the pistol, losing the ability to overcharge for a higher damage and overall rate of fire. Needlers fire shards of charged glass, which not only seek the opponent, but also explode shortly after contact, for extra damage. Enough of those in an opponent and he'll disappear in a pillar of purple plasma, but you'll want to be careful, as not only will the explosion damage you, but the needles bounce off of certain surfaces, rendering them inert. The Covenant also use Plasma Grenades, which are slightly more powerful than their frag counterparts, but they don't bounce, have a longer fuse, and tend to stick to things. It's pretty funny when you manage to score a plasma grenade hit on someone's head, as you can then point and laugh as they run around screaming until detonation.
Last, you've got a series of vehicles you can use in the game. The Warthog, the first vehicle you'll use, might end up being your favorite. It's certainly mine. An all purpose jeep, the Warthog has room for a driver, a gunner, and a passenger. The weapon on the Warthog is a large anti-aircraft gun with unlimited ammunition. This one is fast and easy to use, so it'll be good to rely on. After that comes the Scorpion, a giant tank packing a mortar launcher and a coaxial machine gun. Heavy and slow, it's great for taking out big targets, but suffers from its lack of speed and still leaves the driver partially exposed to enemy fire. Four of your allies can also climb onto the exterior of the tank to provide you with fire support. Next is the Ghost, a small Covenant speeder. It's fast, maneuverable, and packs a pair of plasma guns. Since it hovers, it has a tendency to bounce around at higher speeds, but still has the ability to kill an opponent by running over him. Finally, later in the game, you'll use a Banshee, the Covenant flying vehicle named for the screaming sound it makes during turns. It doesn't obey the laws of physics like other vehicles, thanks to the Covenant technology, and while easily destroyed with a Rocket Launcher, packs a mean punch with its plasma guns.
Halo's single player campaign is laid out over a series of ten chapters, all of which are pretty large. I found, when all was said and done, that I'd spent about ten hours or so running through the game on Normal mode. Inside each chapter are a series of small missions that are assigned to you as you're running through the game. Thanks to the Xbox internal hard drive, the large chapters are the only thing that slows down the loading process. It takes a few seconds, up to a minute to load a chapter and then, inside that chapter, switching between missions and the automatic checkpoint save occur on the fly, and they're so close to seamless that you'll think they're framerate skips at first. The storyline is integrated with each mission and, while it isn't as detailed as I'd hoped, it gives you the impression that you're doing something other than running between areas, hunting for bad guys.
Once again, Bungie proves that it's got the right stuff. Taking advantage of the Xbox's multiplayer features, you can play a versus game with up to four players on the same TV, sixteen players through a System Link game, using four TV's and Xbox units, and even a cooperative mode, that lets you play through the single player storyline with your good friend. The only multiplayer mode that suffers from framerate loss is the System Link mode, as with sixteen players, the performance can sometimes jitter. On top of this, playing against other people means that you get to use Bungie's many different multiplayer modes. They've got five different modes: deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill, oddball, and rally. Each mode has different settings you can adjust for a different performance. My favorite so far is Rally, where you race one of your friends in the Warthog. With so many options, it's easy to enjoy a multiplayer game.
Halo is the Xbox's killer app for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are the graphics. Every texture in the game is amazingly beautiful and has so much detail that your eyes may just pop out of your head. Look down at the grass and you'll see the individual blades. Approach a rock and you'll see rock striations. The Marines even have scuffs in their armor. These overly detailed textures are really satisfying when you get to see the alien artifacts inside Halo, and you find control panels with these strange rune-like symbols and panels. They haven't skimped on the background either, as you can look into the distance and see the curve of Halo, as well as the weather effects in the distance and the ripple of water in the river as it curves up towards the horizon. There's one mission where you jump onto a troop transport and as it takes off out of the area, you're treated to an in-game picture that looks like you could frame it and put it on your wall.
Halo is absolutely beautiful.
Much like its visuals, Halo's soundtrack is like aural candy. An awesome and inspiring score, designed by Total Audio (run by Marty O'Donnell and Mike Salvatori), the music behind Halo is perhaps as amazing as any other part of the game itself. Epic and very dramatic, it picks up action perfectly during battle, and when the storyline takes a slightly sickening twist later in the game, it ramps up the creepiness with music I can only describe as 'ooky.' My favorite part of the score is a sad, haunting theme that comes up if you let the game sit on a menu long enough. It perfectly accents the tragic fate of Humanity, and is a perfect frame to the important role that your character plays in the events of the game.
While I've never been able to say much about sound effects for any game, I still know when I'm hearing good ones. Everything that you listen to in this game sounds good. You'll hear the difference between marble and dirt underfoot as you run, and the satisfying rat-tat-tat of the Assault Rifle is something I can still hear if I think about it. The sound work for Halo is simple amazing.
Although you can rave about Halo's amazing visuals, its rapacious enemies, or the realistic physics modeling, kudos must be given to Bungie for the work they did on the AI in this game. Starting on Easy means that you'll face opponents who can be broken in combat, don't communicate well, and don't always take advantage of their terrain or weaponry. You'll rarely see a grunt toss a grenade in this mode, and you're more than a match for any Covenant troops. Notch the difficulty setting up to Legendary and the Covenant become crack troops, breaking only under the most unnerving circumstances. The Elites form the backbone of their forces and can direct the Grunts and Jackals to perform flanking maneuvers, or even just deliver more force at a given location. You'll need to be aware of the weaponry they're packing as well, as Grunts are grenade tossing freaks in this difficulty and the Jackals like to use their Plasma Pistol overcharge to drop your shields in one hit. This AI isn't exclusive to the Covenant however, as your allies, the Marines, can also deliver indispensable assistance in a pinch. While they're only lightly armored, and carry an Assault Rifle, they're good at covering an area for you and picking up the slack in a battle you can't win by yourself. All together, these elements make your enemies and allies respond more realistically than I've ever seen elsewhere.
Hmm... there seems to be a lot of this. It might take a minute for me to explain it all. First off, Halo was originally intended as a PC and Mac title, something that I think would've made it much better. Playing through the single player campaign, I got the distinct impression that a lot of things had been left out for sake of making the game work well on the Xbox or to save some extras for a PC and Mac release. The storyline, anticipated to be a detailed sci-fi plot, is dumbed down to the point where you don't get much exposition, and are left in the role of grunt following Cortana's orders. The physics engine and inverse kinematics are everything they were promised to be, realistically handling shadow, fog, falling, and the Warthog suspension. I only saw it break down a couple of times, and I think that's just because I put it into a strange situation (like laying down three active plasma grenades at my feet. Wee!).
If you haven't heard about it before, Halo has a global physics model. Instead of animating each different thing in the game with its own physics, there's a single model that affects everything in the game equally, which can be altered based on what kind of technology you're using. The Warthog, being a UNSC jeep, has suspension that responds completely realistically, hugging the terrain and bouncing appropriately. Fly one of the Covenant Banshee aircraft and you'll feel how different the physics are, as the Banshee uses special technology to break the laws of physics to perform slick maneuvers. Inverse kinematics is a catch-phrase Bungie has been throwing around since they announced Halo. It allows a model to perform several animations at once, letting you perform a backflip, fire your rifle, and toss a grenade all at the same time. While you can't actually do that in the game, it gives it a greater sense of realism, allowing for proper animation of characters, and helps them look so realistic while gripping their weapons or sitting in the Warthog.
Given how Bungie originally marketed Halo to the gaming industry, it appeared that you'd have a lot more freedom in playing the game, with a much more non-linear storyline and mission format. In one of the larger trailers, we even got to see a Covenant equivalent of the Warthog, as well as two different types of animals apparently native to the Halo. Sadly, these things have been left out. As I was playing, although there were scenes that gave the artificial impression of depth to the world, with wonderful background images, I was struck by how much some of the levels appeared to have a normal A->B->C format, without much give and take for your approach. In particular was the chapter Truth and Reconciliation, where you're funneled through a series of enemy strongpoints, each of which you'll need to defeat before moving onto the next. Just take a look at some of the early impressions of Halo on one of the fansites and you'll see how it has changed, a bit for the worse.
I'm biased. Very biased. As someone who has been looking forward to the game for quite some time, I must say that I'm a big fan of Halo and probably would've been even if it hadn't been the game that it is. Still, even with my bias aside, Halo stands tall on its many strengths. It is far and away the greatest title of its kind ever to grace a console system and stands par, if not better, with any PC-based First Person Shooter. It's innovation and high quality design show that a lot of care went into its creation.
A few poor elements hold it back from being the best it could be, like the overall lack of many story elements that were hyped during its creation. Also, it does seem as if a few elements have been purposefully left out, either from lack of development time, or holding them back for a PC and Mac release. Still, these items are more annoyances than anything and most certainly don't keep it from being an amazing title. In the end, there's really only one sentence of this review that you need to read to understand my point.
If you have an Xbox, purchase Halo.