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.