Aug 09 2009
Ah, Halo. The champion of the X-Box. The current King of First Person Shooters. This game has done more to endear the X-Box to gamers than any other game released so far. So how did it come about?
Bungie are the developers of Myth and Myth 2, also the Mac-made-famous Marathon series of games. Originally a Mac codeshop, Bungie released the Marathon series on PC to lukewarm reviews in 95, although it won many awards on its native format. This was primarily due to the competition at the time from the likes of Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. Although the action was far more cerebral than either of these titles, it was lost among a plethora of me-too first person shooters on the PC.
Looking back at Marathon’s game design it easy to see where many of Halo’s combat mechanics and player immersion came from and in many ways it was a game ahead of its time. It’s tight plotting but low on scripting felt a lot like the original System Shock and multi-player co-operative existed far beyond what Doom‘s dual-single-player mode could offer.
Halo was in development for some time as a Mac-developed PC game (as were the Myth series) and the Mac community regarded Bungie as a torch-carrier for the games-hamstrung machine.
Then came a surprise acquisition. Microsoft bought Bungie. From under the noses of the Mac and PC games communities, Halo became an X-Box exclusive. The feelings of horror were almost palpable. Internet boards around the world came alive with speculation about the future of the game and the company. “Software giant subsumes niche developer” and fears that Halo would become dumbed down for its conversion to console were typical of the postings.
But as it all turned out, Bungie seem to have come through the acquisition unscathed and Halo ended up being perfect for Microsoft’s new console.
To the game itself.
Rather than discuss the game in its entirety, I’ll try and identify what makes Halo so good in comparison to its peers.
In a world where cool equals techno, Halo’s classically themed music was a breath of fresh air, the Gregorian chants overlay the initial menu and at key points during the game, the drums begin to pound and the tempo quickens. But it’s not just in the musical score that Halo succeeds, the plasma charges, the shattering needles, the crack of the sniper rifle and the whisper of the Banshee are all instantly identifiable. Add to this hundreds of voices for the various marines, whether they be fighting alongside you or crackling over the radio they are distinctive and relevant to the situation at hand. Marines empty their clip into a prone enemy and shout “Get up so that I can school you again”. Friendly fire brings shouts of “Clean your visor!” and kill-stealing is frowned upon by your fellow soldiers. Throughout the game the voice-acting is superb and the range of accents is inspired. Guided to safety by an Aussie, helped out by a gruff cockney or briefed by the calm and measured tones of Captain Keyes, they all assist in immersing the player in the gameworld.
Pacing is superb, a tutorial is seamlessly integrated into the plot and the whole game builds to a dramatic finale, which feels as though you’ve got there under your own steam.
It took me a while to realise it but your ‘radar’ is actually a movement sensor and enemies sometimes know this, taking cover and waiting in ambush.
The weapons in Halo, were obviously play-tested thoroughly. Every weapon has its uses and in fact the starting pistol is probably the most effective weapon in the game. Each weapon feels satisfyingly heavy in your hands and each has its own specialties, requiring frequent swapping during the game. The two-weapon limit adds a level of strategy missing from many FPS’ and no weapon is totally dominant (although the sniper-rifle comes close Your enemies suffer differing levels of damage depending on your weapon, so a suitability decision must be made depending on the size of the level (range), number of enemies (reload times and clip size), stealth (gun butt is silent but quicker with the smaller weapons) and opposing armour.
Despite being ported first from Mac to PC and then to X-Box, the graphics are breathtaking. Outdoor environments are organically lush, waves lap along the shore and strange, alien structures tower above and below you. View distance is impressive and at some points in the game you are half a mile above a battlefield and can still pick off opponents with the frighteningly accurate sniper-rifle.
Another much-lauded aspect of Halo is its AI. Your own marines display a level of cooperation and teamwork which reminds one of the enemy soldiers in Half-Life. They can accurately throw grenades, outflank enemies and take cover almost as well as you can. They’ll also tell you about it Your enemies meanwhile have a complete command structure which dictates some of their actions. Take out a Covenant Elite and watch the supporting Grunts run for cover, complete with amusing screams of “He’s everywhere!” and “Run away!”.
One of the obvious points of difference between Halo and its peers is its vehicles. Human vehicles include the M41 LAAG Jeep (Warthog) and the M8O8B Scorpion MGT (Tank). Covenant vehicles can also be hijacked and this allows the use of the Ghost (a one man hovercraft) and the Banshee (a one man fighter plane). Although all vehicles are well balanced, the Warthog scores top points for its three man carrying capacity. With a good driver, a well-trained machine gunner and a sniper rifle toting passenger, you become one of the most effective weapons in the game.
The gun-butt has already been mentioned above, but its effectiveness highlights the superiority of the play mechanics. Many games have attempted unarmed combat with very little success.
Doom‘s punch was only useful with a berserk pack and Duke Nukem 3D‘s kick was frankly pathetic. Other games gave the player a knife but wielding it was pretty much hit and miss and usually the experiment ended up with the player lying in a pool of blood with the words “Game Over” above their corpse. Bungie seem to have solved this problem by widening the field of effect to about three feet, thereby negating the need for disorientating closure with enemies. A satisfying whack to an enemy can knock them back off a ledge, stop them firing or drop a shield. In fact for a decent Halo player, the gun butt is an integral part of their armaments. It is also silent encouraging stealth sections where you take out as many Grunts as possible before they someone spots you and they all wake up! In fact the only game I can think of with an effective close combat method like it was Flashback‘s pistol-whip.
Halo Multi-Player has done an enormous amount of damage to the LAN party scene. All you need are four TV’s and four X-Boxes and you have a sixteen player set up. Sure, PC purists complain about the lack of a dedicated screen, but Halo’s multiplayer has so many more modes than straight deathmatch that complaining about screens completely misses the point. Team play is the name of the game Halo and its design reflects and rewards this.
Here’s how it breaks down:
Single Player – Awesome, atmospheric and addictive.
Two Player – Cooperative is the best way to experience this. Running through the missions with a friend’s assistance is even better. One on one is fun, but most of the levels are a little large for this.
Three Player – Frankly, crap. Can’t play cooperative and most of the game-modes just don’t suit three players.
Four Player – Fantastic, especially with two screens and two X-Boxes.
Five (+) Player – The more X-Boxes and screens you have the better, but it’s great no matter what the configuration.
Do whatever you can to get invited to a 16 player Halo party.
I’ve only played sixteen player Halo once and it was like a war-zone! Grenades flying overhead, rockets whistling by, snipers hiding in the rocks and fully laden jeeps and tanks storming enemy bases. Eight vs Eight with four players per screen means that teams tend to divide into squads, some on defence / offence, some on stealth / sniper recce and others on vehicle recovery, each team using the fact that they can see their fellow players movements to be a more effective unit.
In summary then. Halo has set the bar on X-Box and raised it across all formats. It delivers action, strategy and cooperation as a seamless whole. It is the current pinnacle for First Person Shooter game design and I suspect that Halo 2 will only add to, rather than top it.