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Halo: Combat Evolved

Developer: Gearbox Software | Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Players: 1 to 16 Player Game | Release Date: 09/30/03 | Genre: FPS

When it was released two years ago, Halo: Combat Evolved was the system-seller for the Xbox. The original developer, Bungie, was making the game for the PC when they agreed to turn it into the exclusive launch game for the Xbox. For Microsoft's sake, it's a good thing that happened. Halo was an instant hit, and helped the Xbox get adopted pretty quickly in the US. The First Person Shooter quickly gained popularity thanks to its addictive multiplayer and its sci-fi themed single player campaign. Gearbox Software took on the task of porting Bungie's game to the PC.

You take on the role of an elite soldier in Earth's space-faring military in the distant future. The humans eventually clash with the Covenant, a group of different alien races joined by a religion and hatred of humans. The Covenant does not know where Earth is, and the humans do not where the Covenant homeworld is. After being attack, in an effort to escape and lead the Covenant attackers away from Earth, a human ship blindly jumps through space and arrives near a mysterious ring orbiting a planet. The ring is artificially constructed, but it has an atmosphere and an ecosystem on it. Forced to crash land on the ring, you find that the Covenant has taken a lot of interest in this ring world and now it's up to you to find out why. The plot is told both through dialogue and cutscenes, and it's done very well. They do a good job of keeping the player interested in the story. I like the fact that the cutscenes are produced in real time using the in-game engine rather than relying on FMVs. It makes for some nice transitions between gameplay, cutscenes, and gameplay again. I should also note that unlike the Xbox version, there is practically no load time, though the transition between levels is masked by angled hallways and such. That's much more preferable to a load screen though.

Halo looks good thanks to beautifully designed worlds and characters. Outdoor environments are large and full of plants and other features. Water looks particularly nice. Indoor areas have lots of little alien designs and holographic displays everywhere. There are definitely some nice touches to the visual style of the game. There is however, a lot of repetition, which is an issue I'll discuss more later. Although Halo looks good, I wouldn't say it's amazing compared to other recent PC games. Halo is a two year old game, and the graphics were not really enhanced at all for the PC. If you can manage it, it will look better due to higher resolutions and better textures, but there aren't any fancy graphical effects or higher polygon counts of games more recently released. That wouldn't really be so bad if it weren't for the amount of system resources that Halo needs to look good. There isn't really an excuse for it. Compared to other more recent and more graphically intense games, Halo requires far too much out of a PC to look as good as a less advanced $179 Xbox needs. If you want Halo to look as good as or better than the Xbox version, then you're going to need a decent video card and a processor that's almost 2 GHz.

The game's sound is amazing. You'll come across both human and alien machines, weapons, and environments. The noises that you're more familiar with will sound accurate. Bashing your gun against metal, dirt, rock, bodies, and more all sounds satisfying. Machine guns, pistols, and the engine of a 4-wheeler might be less familiar to you, but they sound the way you think they would. The sounds of alien weapons and machines also sound like you would imagine them to. The voice work is also excellent, generally speaking. Some of it is a bit corny or unconvincing, but the large majority does a great job of conveying the story and feelings of characters. Music reminds me of an epic sci-fi movie, which of course, fits perfectly. You've got you're ominous choirs with their "Aaaah" and the orchestral pieces, and then there's also upbeat tunes perhaps with a bit of electronic sounds. All I can say is that the game has great music to set the right mood, and it is also silent when it needs to be.

All of Halo's smaller elements are well designed. Starting with weapons, you'll see that there's a good variety. On the human side, you've got standard pistols, machine guns, grenades, and other stuff you're familiar with. On the alien side, we're no strangers to charge-up guns, energy weapons or grenades that stick. One unique weapon is the Needler which can rapidly shoot out glass like needles that shatter after a few seconds. If you land a few needles, and the enemy might feel a sting. If you land a dozen or so, they're going down. Aside from the Needler, I didn't find the weapons to be amazingly unique, but I was really happy with them nonetheless. The weapons are fairly balanced, and there is a good variety. You'll have to adapt to several strategies when using different weapons and facing enemies with different weapons. I like the fact that each weapon seems to have a unique purpose and feel. Some FPS games have several pistols or machine guns, but they don't seem to add anything. That's not the case with Halo. Aside from shooting and tossing grenades, you can also smack enemies with your weapon. Unlike some shooters, this is actually quite useful. You can use it to knock guys out without alerting other nearby enemies and it just feels really satisfying to end a close range firefight by cracking your opponent in the head with your rifle. The enemies can do it do though, so you definitely need to watch out, especially when facing the larger aliens.

Another cool element of the game is its selection of vehicles. I'll start with what might be the most fun vehicle in any game, the Warthog. It's basically a 4x4 ATV. It's fun because you can drive it around all kinds of terrain, and you can't destroy it. If you crash, you can flip it over and keep on rolling. Besides being a really fast and fun way to cover lots of ground, you can also run over enemies with it and make yourself a hard target to follow. The enemies aren't stupid though, and they'll try to jump out of the way. The Warthog has a mounted machine gun, and if any friendly soldiers are nearby, they'll hop in and man it. You'll also get to drive a huge tank (it has a lovely cannon), a scooter-like hover craft, and even a sweet alien aircraft fighter throughout the course of the campaign. Even though Halo is primarily an FPS, they did a good job of making the vehicles easy and fun to handle. Another thing that makes the vehicles fun to use is the physics system. The collision detecting for all vehicles works very well. The Warthog bounces, crashes, and rolls like you expect it to, as do all of the other vehicles. In fact, the physics system in general is pretty impressive. It may not be as impressive as the newer PC games with the Havok physics engine, but for all the objects that can move, such as vehicles and bodies, the game does a good job of conveying mass and accurate collisions.

The AI is also something to be admired. You can never really catch it doing something stupid. If an enemy hears a sound, it becomes alert and starts looking around. If it sees a dead comrade, it doesn't just keep walking its normal path. Even if you are invisible (by using a special power-up), making noise or coming too close to an enemy will alert them and they will try to find you. The enemies fight intelligently. The take cover behind objects and try to group together. If you take out one of the stronger enemies of a group, the weaker ones will be come frightened and might run away. Your allies also have pretty good AI. They follow your lead and they will work together to kill enemies while taking cover behind large objects. If you get into a Warthog, soldier allies will get into the gunner and passenger positions and take out enemies as you race along. The AI is far from being as smart as you, but it doesn't fall into any dumb traps like getting stuck on objects or not recognizing that the enemy standing right next to them was just shot down.

Yes, all of the smaller elements of Halo are well designed. So far, you might assume this makes for a great First Person Shooter. There's a good balance of weapons, nice AI, fun vehicles, no major glitches or nothing that feels left unfinished. However, Halo shows that one of the most important and overbearing elements of a game is level design. While many of the individual elements of Halo are really well designed, the level design is uncreative and very repetitive. Basically, each section of the game is dragged out too long, especially the second half. They did a good job with trying to give you different weapons to use, and sequences with vehicles, and at a certain point in the game, you'll even encounter an entirely new enemy. Each time one of these new elements comes into play, I became more interested in the game again only to find that each time they introduce something new, they drag it on and repeat it with little variation for far too long. Many of the levels simply have the identical structures repeated with the same types of enemies doing the same things over and over. For instance, in one level, you must travel to the top of a large building to its fourth floor. Of course, each floor has one elevator that only goes up one floor and is the opposite side of the elevator you arrived on. Each of these floors use the same room designs in almost exactly the same way. If the level had only been one floor, you would have gotten the same experience except that you wouldn't have been bored when you were half way through the second floor. A lot of the game is like this. It seems like alien structures are all about connecting an entrance and an important control room with miles of useless hallways and rooms. In most FPS games, if you have to go through some type of building, the areas you travel through make sense and help create a believable world. Hallways connect bathrooms, meeting rooms, storage closets, basements, etc. In Halo, there are just a lot of hallways, a lot of rooms with nothing in them, and then some type of important control room. Alien buildings would be a lot smaller if they just didn't put miles of hallways between the entrance and the significant part. The repetitive level design really got to me. It made it hard to complete the single player campaign especially my cursor would always drift to?Ķ

?Ķ the 'Multiplayer' button! Right off of the bat I'm going to say that the multiplayer has provided me with some of the most fun I've ever had. The balance of the weapons, the vehicles, and the level designs just really set things up for a fun time. The weapons and vehicles are balanced so that if you know the right tactics, you can always defeat another player that has any vehicle or weapon. The level designs are great too. They're large, and for Capture the Flag games, the bases and flags are intelligently designed to provide certain defensive points, sniper positions and whatnot. It's so much fun to load up a Warthog with a couple allies and ride off to war and to the enemy's flag. All of the vehicles I mentioned above are available in multiplayer. In fact, that's one of the areas that Gearbox made some additions. The Banshee, which is the aircraft that I talked about, was not available in multiplayer on the Xbox. There is also a new version of the Warthog that has a rocket launcher instead of a machine gun. Gearbox also added a couple more weapons and six new maps to play on. The new maps are a lot of fun, and if you only play Capture the Flag games, they're probably the only ones you're going to see (although there are many more maps for other game types). Although most everyone just plays Capture the Flag and Deathmatch, there are several other game types as well that are fun to try out. I might play them more often if there were more people to play them with. It seems that everyone flocks to Capture the Flag games. I can see why though. The levels invite strategy and teamwork, but the games also work fairly well if everyone just kind of does their own thing. However, an organized team will definitely outscore a team whose players just do whatever they want and don't try to take on specific roles.

Unlike the general port of the game from Xbox to PC (PC requirements are too high), the network code impressed me. I've hear some people complain that the game lags, but I think that really has to do with their connection and their machine. Remember, if you're computer doesn't meet Halo's already too high requirements, then it's kind of choppy even in the single player. I have found that a full game of 16 players runs smoothly when there are mostly broadband users and just some 56kers. I have noticed that people with high pings (dial-ups, 56kers) complain of lag even when I notice none. This is because Halo does a good job of giving lag on just the player's side of things rather than the whole game server. So if there are six 56kers and 10 broadband players in a game, the 56kers might experience lag with opponents popping around, and the broadband players still have a pretty smooth experience. Of course, if there are just too many 56kers in a single game (or the server is slow), then everyone still experiences lag. However, in my experience, the game attempts to only cause lag to players that it really needs to, rather than passing the lag around to everybody. Another cool thing is that there are always a lot of official Bungie servers to play on. They are fast and they almost always have lots of people on them.

One thing I want to address is the issue of Team Killers (or TKers). If you're fortunate enough to not know what this term means, you probably haven't played many online multiplayer games. A TKer is a loser that gets there enjoyment simply by ruining the fun time of others. They do this by killing there teammates, which makes it very difficult for the team to combat the other team and have a fun game. Unfortunately, as many expected, Halo is one of those kind of games that attracts these idiots more than others, partly because there is little that has been done to prevent it. In fact, when Halo for the PC was first released, there was nothing done to prevent it. This would sometimes make me very angry and frustrated as it is nearly impossible to enjoy a game with a TKer present. My anger and frustration is only compounded by the fact that the TKer really has no gain in this (it's senseless) and that there's nothing that the other players can do about it but leave. Now, if the administrator is present on a server, he can kick a TKing player from a game, but on the most popular servers, the Bungie servers, there are never admins. Bungie promised a patch to help resolve the issue, and it's already been released. Unfortunately, I think it made things worse. The supposed fix made it so that if a player TKed past a certain limit (I think it is 4 or 5), then they would be banned from the server for a day or so. Unfortunately, there is an extremely easy way to circumvent this. I'm not going to say how, but suffice it to say that the TKers figured out this circumvention very quickly and continue to harass others. The only thing that happens now is those players who accidentally kill teammates (it happens) too many times end up getting banned while the TKers just keep on coming back. Some might say that the risk of TKers can't really be avoided in online games, just as you can't always prevent people from saying some pretty bad things that you wouldn't normally hear in public. However unlike words, the TKing seriously affects the gameplay. Games like Tribes and Jedi Academy have already shown us how TKing can be dealt with. In those games, any player can simply initiate a vote to kick a certain player. Then all players can vote, and if the vote passes, that player is kicked from the game. It's simple and it works. Generally if there's a TKer, everyone else wants him or her gone, so they kick them out. That's why in Tribes or Jedi Academy, you hardly ever see TKers because they know they'll just get kicked out anyways. If a TKer does show up, they usually get booted pretty quickly. In Halo though, they stay and ruin the game for however long they want to, and it just really makes me frustrated that it has been two years since Halo was first released on the Xbox and Gearbox didn't really try to do anything to prevent TKing.

Another glaring omission is a map editor. Halo is a lot of fun, but you start to see the same few maps over and over and over again. Like I said, it has been two years since Halo was released on the Xbox. You would think that Gearbox had enough time to realize that a map editor would be really useful and greatly increase the value of the game. There is still some hope that a map editor will be released in the future, but given that not that much was added to the game, I think two years was enough time to come up with one.

In fact that's my main problem with this port. While I did mention the repetitive level design of the single player, I think that the incredible fun of the multiplayer makes up for it. However, my main problem is that it has been two years since Halo first released on the Xbox, and the PC version really doesn't have anything to show for it. The graphics are identical (and maybe even worse since it takes much more resources to run them at the same level than it does on the Xbox), the single player is identical, and in the multiplayer, they added some things that were already in the single player and created six new maps. I really think that a lot more could have been done. No doubt, Microsoft wanted to keep Halo Xbox exclusive for a while to drive systems sales, but I still think that at least a map editor and some kind of TKing solution could have been implemented, if not new graphics as well.

If you've played the Xbox version, then you won't find anything new in the single player campaign to make you want the PC version. In fact, the Xbox version had a cooperative campaign mode, which the PC version understandably lacks. That probably would have made the repetitive levels a lot more fun actually. However, if the thought of being able to easily connect to an online game with thousands of players to play with and swooping down on them with Banshees or trying out the new maps sounds like fun, you might want to give the PC version a try. I think you'd have to be a hardcore fan though, because there isn't much new compared to the Xbox version. So, I'm giving this game a 'B' grade mostly because it is a two-year old port with nothing to show for the two year wait. However, if you don't own the Xbox version, I can fully recommend a purchase simply because the multiplayer aspect will definitely be worth the money you pay. It's just incredibly balanced. It brings all the right elements together to create a very hectic and fun multiplayer game. It's not incredibly new or amazing, but you'll still have a ton of fun.

By Andrew Thivyanathan - 02/09/04
ESRB Details: Blood and Gore, Violence
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Screenshots for Halo: Combat Evolved

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