Version tested: PC
Before the flame wars kick off again, I thought Halo was a great game, a true classic that deserves its lofty status as the Xbox's killer app. It still stands as the best console FPS and nearly two years on still looks ahead of its time with benchmark AI, great visuals, a credible sci-fi tale, great soundtrack, cracking multiplayer including the superb co-op mode. But it wasn't perfect.
The game starts off like a house on fire, with the Master Chief awoken from a cryogenic sleep to defend the The Pillar Of Autumn warship, which has come under attack from the aggressive Covenant race. Protecting the ship's female AI, Cortana, the Chief escapes with some marines and survives a crash landing alone on the beautiful orbital ring of Halo.
The opening sequences are among the best videogaming has to offer, with wave after wave of organised Covenant troops darting around hungry for your blood, displaying an incredibly convincing AI that underpins the entire game. Even your buddies prove to be useful allies, and it's very clear that Bungie deserves all the plaudits for creating an extremely involving battleground, and colouring it with an effective storyline, which for a sci-fi shooter is fairly rare as experienced FPS fans will wearily testify.
Where its very vocal detractors appear to take issue with Halo is the repetition; after a relatively short while it's easy to see that the game really is "30 seconds of fun, repeated over and over" as Bungie admitted at X03 last month. Essentially the game mechanic is: blow up a wave of enemies, restock ammo and health, move onto the next area and repeat. Whether this bothers you or not is another matter; it certainly didn't bother me, for the simple reason that the firefights are never boring, and thanks to the flexibility of AI they can vary dramatically from one game to the next.
To be fair to Halo, to take issue with its repetition is nitpicking taken to the extreme; most shooters, and most games full stop tend to do employ similar methods to pad out their game, but very few have ever created a game world as believable as Halo's and few have the style, the class, and the AI to carry them through.
Arguably, the least entertaining sections of Halo involve indoor corridor-based missions. Not only do they look extremely samey (and bland compared to other areas), but, for example, the Library level is just plain tedious. At times it appears Bungie simply ran out of good ideas and many people take issue with this failure to keep up a consistent level of quality. Fine though - it's not perfect, but it's still a classic. And now it's on the PC, so a belated hurrah for that.
But PC owners are the most exacting audience around, and may take even greater issue with the fact that Gearbox has been rather too faithful with its conversion. Visually it is barely any different from the Xbox version, resolution aside, and although that means it's lost none of the excellent style of the original, it comes as a slight disappointment that it hasn't really been significantly enhanced in any area. Little areas that could have been touched up, like the grass textures, for example, are still flat, and in fact the extra resolution merely exposes the age of engine rather than improves it.
Keeping the visuals the same would be fine, were it not for the fact that it's a relative system hog, bafflingly. Anyone hoping to run this acceptably on the 'required' specs may as well go out and buy an Xbox. Microsoft is about to bundle Halo free with it any day now in any case. When the action gets hectic, it still managed to chug slightly at 1024x768 with a top-end GF4 and 512MB of RAM, so we can only imagine the fun and games a sub-1GHz PC will have trying to run it.
If you're a non Xbox owning PC gamer who's stubbornly held out for Halo, then by all means buy it. As a single player game it's 12 hours plus of intense action, and any FPS fan who hasn't played it yet is missing out, but make sure you've got the kit to run it. A demo is expected sometime soon, so you shouldn’t have long to wait to find out.
We suspect that most of you, however, are considering buying Halo for the online multiplayer alone. But forget any notion of co-op. Gearbox has alarmingly stripped it out of the game, claiming it would have required a significant rewrite to include it. Why it gives with one hand and takes away with the other is open to question, but you can bet your life that Halo 2 on Xbox will ship with online co-op play, so it's really a major blow that one of the best elements of the Xbox version is absent.
Too many chiefs spoil the broth
If you can overcome that disappointment, then here's another one; the game only supports 16 players simultaneously - apparently thanks to the way the game was originally designed, and surely a huge blow to those hoping for some massive battles. On the plus side, there's an absolute wealth of options that frankly embarrass most other online FPSs. For a start, the four original free-for-all modes make an appearance with team-based equivalents; the standard Slayer (Deathmatch), King (of the hill), Oddball (hold onto the skull for X minutes), and Race/Rally (complete checkpoints over a number of laps), and the original team based mode, CTF.
In addition, Assault makes a welcome appearance, as well as Crazy King (the domination point keeps moving), and Juggernaut (destroy a more powerful player and grab his powers). On top of that, each mode comes in Standard or Classic modes, with the former essentially being a more harder/longer version of the other. If that doesn't keep you happy, you can also create your own unique game mode or edit existing ones to a staggering extent, allowing for all sorts of possibilities, such as one team having specific weapons/vehicles over the other, creating potentially limitless permutations of modes.
Map wise, there are 19 in total; all 13 from the original and six new ones; Danger Canyon, Death Island, Gephyrophobia (meaning 'fear of bridges'), Ice Fields, and Timberland. They're all very much in keeping with the style of the originals, apart from being at the larger end of the scale. Of the original maps, all were designed to be cosy affairs for up to eight players to cater for four-player split screen or System Link, although four of those can accommodate up to 16.
As expected, the new maps now offer gamers the chance to pilot some of the single player vehicles such as the Ghosts and Banshees, making for some interesting play dynamics that are just as much fun in practise as they sound, although I tended to get my arse kicked every time I attempted to actually use one. How useful they are in the long term is open to question at this early stage, with so many empty servers, but it's nice to have them there regardless.
What definitely adds to the package are the two new weapons. The deadly close combat Flamethrower, and the Fuel Rod gun, which is an energy weapon style rocket launcher style, and potentially even more devastating, allowing the player to fire over obstacles.
The bottom line is that for Halo veterans, online multiplayer is a massive draw. If you're already a committed fan then the chance to duke it out with 15 other players night after night is a huge bonus after all the hassle of system linkage or staring at a quarter of your TV in split-screen. For general FPS multiplayer fans, Halo offers nothing massively interesting that you haven't seen elsewhere, although the option to create your own modes could well elevate this into something rather more popular and important than it may have otherwise been. Single player-wise, if you haven't played it before, get it. If you have, then move on, there's really nothing new to see here - and before you ask, no, you can't save anywhere - the checkpoint system remains as in the original. Halo's still a classic, it's aged pretty well, the AI's still impressive, but the absence of co-op is a bitter blow, and the limited 16 player multiplayer support is annoying. A missed opportunity methinks.
8 / 10
Rob's Second Opinion
Before I launch into this, let me be clear about something; I agree completely with what Kristan has said about the single-player aspects of Halo. It's good - right up there with a lot of the best PC first person shooters - but it's not ground-breaking, earth-shaking or indeed any other soil-displacing phrases. There's a great storyline in there, some excellent set pieces and it's an extremely polished example of the genre which every FPS fan really should play - but for the most part, Halo simply borrows the best ideas from other FPS games and implements them extremely well rather than inventing something genuinely new.
As such, there's no doubt in my mind that you ought to play Halo single-player - either on your PC, or, if you don't have a PC capable of dealing with its rather demanding system requirements, on an Xbox. That much is certain, and given that the port of the single-player game to the PC is simply very competent and unembellished, there's little point in reiterating Kristan's thoughts here any further. It's a good port of a very good game. Go play.
Play the World
What we're really interested in, though, is the multiplayer aspect of the PC game. Now here's something new - sixteen player Halo, over the Internet, with a host of new maps, weapons, vehicles and game types. When Halo was first shown to the world - long before Microsoft bought Bungie and made the game into an Xbox exclusive - this is what we all imagined; barrelling along in a Warthog with your team-mates firmly strapped in, while enemy and friendly fire zipped along overhead and the chaingun mounted on the back of the vehicle blared out a hot lead welcome to any aggressor foolish enough to come near. It's finally here; is the reality as good as the vivid imaginings?
Frankly, happily - yes, it is. Gearbox has worked wonders with the multiplayer aspect of Halo PC, taking an Xbox multiplayer model which worked extremely well in split-screen and System Link modes and adding the kind of content and features which are guaranteed to satisfy the more demanding PC multiplayer gamers. They've created a multiplayer game which combines some of the best aspects of other popular games such as Tribes, Battlefield 1942 and Unreal Tournament while retaining the personality and unique feel of Halo - a mouth-watering prospect for online gamers, particularly those growing sick of the endless diet of realism, realism and more realism which has been spawned by the success of Counter-Strike.
Kristan has already explained the basics of how the multiplayer game works, and the new additions which Gearbox has added to the game, so there's no point in re-inventing the wheel by listing all of that again. However, it's worth addressing some of the points raised in his comments - primarily, the sixteen-player limit on multiplayer. I confess that I was disappointed by this limitation at first as well - like many people, I had hoped for epic scale battles spread across kilometres of ground, with tens of players duking it out in style. Playing Halo PC for a while, however, has revealed that this simply isn't what the creators were trying to make - it's not that they've failed in the task of providing this experience; it's that they were never even trying to accomplish that.
The Great Outdoors
What Halo PC provides, instead, is an extremely competent and well-balanced small-scale multiplayer game - and yet at times, it's easy to forget how few other players there are on the map with you. Each map - even huge outdoor ones like Timberland, which has quickly become a personal favourite - is just the right size for the player limit, and even smaller matches, with eight to ten players, see fairly hectic action spread across the map. The inclusion of vehicles means that gameplay moves very fast and spreads across the entire map, so you'll never find yourself walking around aimlessly for minutes looking for someone to shoot at.
In actual combat, the balance of interesting weapons and well-implemented physics which made Halo multiplayer on the Xbox so addictive is still as evident as ever, and the stunts which can be performed (accidentally or on purpose) using a combination of vehicles and explosive weaponry make Halo into one of the single most fun multiplayer games we've ever played. The genius decision to make Warthogs indestructible is a key factor in the gameplay, as it eliminates the traditional queues for vehicles and makes stealing enemy vehicles and effectively controlling all the vehicles on a map into a valid tactic. Similarly the fact that you can only carry two weapons at a time radically differentiates the gameplay from the likes of Unreal Tournament, and effectively provides a built-in but very flexible class system to the game.
It's early days yet for Halo PC online, and it's yet to be seen how well the game will service more serious clan match style play; however, the potential for clan play is certainly there, given the appropriate server settings, and it's not hard to envisage some serious leagues and tournaments being focused around the CTF gametypes. It'll be interesting to see how it's received when it makes its "pro-gaming" (blech) debut at the CPL in Dallas, with 5v5 matches being the order of the day.
Balance in All Things
This isn't to say that Halo PC is a perfect multiplayer game by any means. It's superbly customisable, full of excellently balanced weapons and vehicles (a framework into which Gearbox's new weapons, the flamethrower and the fuel rod gun, fit perfectly, providing an excellent close-range melee weapon and a long-range artillery weapon respectively) and it's one of the most genuinely, honestly fun games we've played in ages. Playing this online with voice activated voice communications is a disaster - you end up with so much spontaneous laughter (and, we're ashamed to say as reserved European types, whooping) from the other players that actual communications hardly get a look-in.
However, the game does suffer from several flaws - the first and most pressing of which is the ludicrous system specs needed to run it correctly. Tweaking the settings appears to be the order of the day, but regardless, it's a bit of a shock to find a game which runs perfectly happily on an Xbox but gives poor frame-rates on a 2.4GHz machine with a top-end NVIDIA or ATI graphics card in it. This is a real shame, because it'll put a lot of people off playing - we can only hope that some of the engine problems can be ironed out in patches down the line.
The game also suffers badly when the action moves indoors. Halo is at its best in open spaces, with dramatic encounters on maps such as Death Island (which single-player veterans will recognise as a multiplayer version of The Silent Cartographer), Blood Gulch and Timberland being by far the best moments in the game. Indoor corridor-running maps, on the other hand, are downright poor; we wouldn't be surprised to see them removed from many server rotations altogether. At the end of the day, if you want to run through corridors, you play Quake or Unreal; if you want to fly off bumps in a speeding jeep and skid sideways through a couple of enemies, you play Halo.
We're also a little bit concerned that the lack of a Linux dedicated server for the game - a decision apparently taken because Microsoft published the game, and Microsoft likes to bury its head in the sand and pretend that Linux game servers don't exist - might reduce the level of support available for the game from big ISP game servers. Only time will tell, however, and if the game proves popular enough then it's likely that it'll get the support it deserves.
Ultimately, Halo is a very very difficult game to give a score to - so I'm going to cheat, and simply provide a score for the multiplayer element of the game, since that's what I've focused on, and because I believe that Kristan has already discussed the single-player element as much as is needed. Taking that into account - and bearing in mind that this game probably won't run shockingly well without major tweaking, because it's one of the most demanding games in terms of system specs that we've ever seen - the score below should tell you everything you need to know. With Doom III and Half-Life 2 now delayed to 2004, there's only one other real contender for the crown of being the top multiplayer FPS this Christmas; and unless Unreal Tournament 2004 can pull something fairly amazing out of the hat, we're pretty confident that Halo PC is that game.
9 / 10