A pre-review of Halo.
The most recent shooter to come forth from the depths of the vaunted Bungie Studios
, Halo has kept gamers on the edge of their seats for close to four years. Bungie Studios is the decade-old group of developers that brought such pseudo-sleeper legends to the Mac and PC as Myth and Marathon. I say "pseudo-sleeper" because technically, a "sleeper" is a game that goes unnoticed and unappreciated until its release, at which time it becomes the gaming community's favorite pastime since Battlechess went the way of the dinosaur.
On the other hand, Bungie's games, for the most part, tend to be completely unnoticed and unappreciated, until their release, at which point they remain unnoticed and unappreciated, save for their die-hard fan base, which tends to be so loyal they get Bungie tattoos and dance little devotions daily. In recent times, however, this trend is being broken, with such games as Oni (released last year), and the soon-to-be-released Halo.
Now, let me start by saying this: Halo has a level of hype surrounding it that you'd have to go back to Daikatana to match. The main worry of most fans (and, presumably, of Bungie itself) is that the hype will surpass the game, as has happened in the past, and no matter how good the game ends up, people will be left disappointed.
Halo starts out aboard a ship, the Pillar of Autumn, and soon descends down to the Halo itself, where most of the action takes place. The game is set several hundred years in the future, with the human race expanded to include dozens of inhabited planets. However, just when they're flourishing, the humans are ambushed by an enigmatic alien race known as the Covenant. They devastate world after world of the humans, who are outmatched by the superior Covenant technology and tenacity. The most recent world to be destroyed, Reach, has one survivor: the Pillar of Autumn, which instead of returning to Earth (thus leading the aliens home), plots a random course to an unexplored part of the galaxy, launching and drawing off the Covenant fleet. Upon arriving, they find a strange ring-shaped artifact floating in space—the Halo. The Pillar of Autumn is shot down, and you, a cybernetically-enhanced warrior known only as the Master Chief, is left to fight the hoards of Covenant alongside your Marine comrades.
Sound like standard sci-fi fare? Not quite. As a matter of fact, Bungie's games have a reputation for complex, in-depth, and generally fascinating storylines. An example is the Marathon series, which despite being half a decade old, nonetheless still has gamers pondering the nuances of its plot. Halo promises to be little different, and long-time fans are salivating.
But what about the graphics? Even the best game can be difficult to enjoy if it has animation and 3d art that looks like Picasso. Fortunately, graphics aficionados can take pride; although not the most visually astonishing game currently in the works, Halo comes close, and has plenty of eye-candy to please even the most critical viewer. Explosions flash with unheard-of color depth and thickness; trees, grass, and characters are constructed to exquisite detail. Even mundanes such as the walls and sky are beautifully rendered to a level which takes full advantage of the Xbox's powerfully revamped GeForce 3 graphics chip.
This is all complemented by the revolutionary physics engine. Although not as unusual as Red Faction's Geo-Mod, not as otherworldly as Tribes 2 (which, depending on the player, can essentially be a flight simulator), the rules for the Halo world contains impressive features like inverse kinematics, which helps prevent problems like clipping. It's difficult to appreciate fully until you see a car flipped ten feet into the air with a grenade explosion, or a weapon laying on the ground get shot and knocked askew, but the complex, interwoven physics engine allows a level of immersion that's truly rare.
Controls are simple and elegant, following the lead of previous popular games like Timesplitters. Two analog sticks are used for movement—one advances, retreats, and strafes, while the other handles turning and aiming. The trigger buttons fire and throw grenades, an arrangement that encourages you to pitch the things every chance you get. The six face buttons control tasks like jumping, changing weapons, and the melee attack, an amusing feature every weapon in the game can do. The controls take some time to get used to, and can never be as quick to learn or obvious as a mouse and keyboard, but within an hour or two they'll feel like butter in your hands.
Remarkably, two of the most striking features of Halo are two that rarely get as much attention as they should: the AI and the sound. The AI has been often compared to that of Half-Life, but it's an unflattering comparison. Your fellow Marines can not only perform simple tasks that are usually a pain—navigating the terrain, moving tactically, staying out of your line of fire and keeping you out of theirs—but also have an intelligent military mind that rivals that of the bots of Unreal Tournament. They move to flank enemies, cover each other's positions, and use cover better than many human players I've seen. Also, they're familiar with the numerous vehicles in the game, including the four-wheel-drive Warthog, the Covenant fighter and hoverbike, and the massive Scorpion tank. You haven't lived until you've driven through a pack of aliens with the Warthog, wheeling in circles to crush them under your fender, while the Marine behind you mans the mounted chain-gun and bellows at you when you go too fast.
The music and audio effects of the game are also especially impressive. Bungie's Marty O'Donnell has received numerous acclaims for his work in the past, and he surpasses it all. The weapons clatter and whir realistically. Melee attacks make appropriate crunching sounds. The Marines have thousands of lines of combat dialogue, and you're treated to a great deal of talented voice actors (which also unfortunately contributes to the game's Mature rating, due to their tendency to shamelessly swear when under fire). The music combines skillful electronic manipulation with large-scale, real-world strings and percussion (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was enlisted to help with the recording) to produce epic scores that go perfectly with the gameplay.
In the end, though, what's most impressive is not graphics, sound, control, or even the gameplay. What truly strikes you is the incredible amount of thought and effort that's gone into the game. Halo has been in development since 1997, and though the engine has gone through an overhaul several times, the man-hours and talent from a team that's been around through a long time have only multiplied. Incredible amounts of detail have been lavished in the making of it. Levels are tested and reworked exhaustively to ensure that they cater to nearly any style of play. The modeling, bitmapping, and texturing isn't held back by the designers and artists—it's restricted by the polygon-pumping Xbox itself. And you can be sure that the storyline is going to be worth many a headache and bandied word in chat room to unravel.
When it unfolds on November 15, there is little doubt that Halo is going to set a new standard for first-person console shooters. And in my opinion, no computer FPS is going to be safe, either. I'm saving up my money.