Halo, I’m sure Bill Gates would be pleased to learn, was the game that almost made me buy an Xbox. He’d probably be even happier to learn that it actually caused me to buy one, but it never went that far, though that’s more a reflection on me than Halo or the Xbox. You see, I justify the money I’ve spent on my computer to myself by thinking that it could be used for something useful, like balancing my checkbook or learning Spanish or finding a cure for cancer. The fact that it isn’t used for any of those things, that 99.4% of the time I’m playing games on it, doesn’t really affect my self-delusion (the other 0.6% of the time I’m trolling Ebay for used cheerleader panties). But if I went out and bought an Xbox (or PS2 or Gamecube) it would be for playing games and playing games alone. I can’t justify it in my mind, that’s all. Laugh at me if you want – everyone else does – at least until the bullets start flying. So my Xbox-owning friends were all telling me how great Halo is, effectively the Second Coming of Christ in the gaming world, the FPS to end all FPS. And when I got a chance to play Halo on an Xbox once, for about 10 minutes, I liked what I saw. The graphics were utterly smooth – a fairly easy accomplishment in my mind because the game designer knew exactly what he was writing for. In contrast, I find it surprising sometimes that programs run on PCs at all, given the hundreds of finely-graded flavors they come in, which is perhaps a topic best left for another time. The flow of the game (again, 10 minutes worth) was exciting. I did find the Xbox game controller more than a little vexing given my background as a mouse-and-keyboard gamer, but you can’t fault the console that. At any rate, it was Halo, and I didn’t buy an Xbox, and when I heard it was coming out for the PC I was interested.
So it was something like 2 years before Halo came out for the PC at long last. What took them so long? Rumors abounded of new graphics and new levels and new this and new that. It was only natural that something had to change, or it wouldn’t have taken 2 years given that Xboxes are more or less mid-range PCs, right? That was my expectation anyway. In reality, the graphics are completely unchanged. Not only that, but they don’t seem to have been optimized for anything, so if I want the same kind of smooth performance on my PC that I saw on the Xbox I’m forced to run at something like 800x600, despite my 2.3GHz processor and 128MB video card. And what do they look like then? Two-year old graphics, that’s what. And I went out and read a walkthrough for Xbox, and it’s the exact same game; every room, every tunnel, every beastie. Sounds, weaponry, dialog, music – it’s well done, but it’s all the same stuff. Where did the two years go?
So what is Halo? Halo is the name given to a ringworld, and you come upon it as the member of a human spacecraft locked in battle with a much larger alien force called the Covenant. Your ship actually crash-lands on Halo, and you have to survive Covenant attacks while you try and unlock its secrets. You’re pretty well equipped for that mission, wearing some kind of battle armor with a self-recharging shield, carrying a heavy automatic weapon, handgun, and grenades. You’re also apparently blessed with some kind of universal knowledge, because any alien weapon system that you come across you are instantly capable of operating, which is good because by and large their guns are cooler than yours are. While not breaking any greatly new ground, the selection (ten guns in all) of plasma guns, heavy rockets, shotguns, sniper rifles, and something useless called the needler, are a good mix, though some of them tend to overhead a little quickly, and you can only carry two weapons at a time. The AI of your enemies is about 75% run straight at you and 25% duck and dodge, and that makes them most of the time pretty easy to hit. The game compensates by dumping them on you in the hundreds from all directions, often leading to an arcade experience more reminiscent of something like Terminator 2 than an FPS.
By far the most amazing thing about Halo is how mind-bendingly, stultifyingly, dull and repetitious it is. Here’s a quick snippet of level 5:
Walk down a hallway. There’s a door at the end of the hallway. Open the door – it’s a big room filled with aliens. Kill the aliens. Open the door at the far end. It’s a bridge with aliens on it. Kill the aliens. Cross the bridge and open a door at the far end. It’s a hallway. Walk down the hallway. There’s a door at the end of the hallway. Open the door – it’s a big room filled with aliens. Kill the aliens. Open the door at the far end. It’s a bridge with aliens on it. Kill the aliens. Cross the bridge and open a door at the far end. It’s a hallway. Walk down the hallway. There’s a door at the end of the hallway. Open the door – it’s a big room filled with aliens. Kill the aliens. Open the door at the far end. It’s a bridge with aliens on it. Kill the aliens. Cross the bridge and open a door at the far end. Open the door. What do you think we find there?
(a) A hallway. (b) Another frigging hallway! (c) A tableau in which Rorschach has blown his brains out all over his computer monitor, unable to believe it is yet another hallway.
OK, trick question. The answer is any or all of the above. In fact, if the game wasn’t kind enough to literally paint arrows on the floor, I would have been certain that I had gotten turned around somewhere and was running back and forth through the same area over and over again. And as if you didn’t get enough of it in level 5, you get to run through it backwards in level 8 (walk against the arrows). And before you ask, yes, level 9 is also level 4 run backwards. The whole single player campaign takes maybe 15 hours, and presents some moments of genuine challenge and some areas of pretty good gameplay, but clogging it all up is hours and hours of redundant crap. I swear it’s the first game that needed an editor, because at 8 or 10 hours they might have really had something. Halo truly does itself a disservice, because the dozen or so enemies in the game should be enough to keep the variety going, but killing a different alien in what is effectively the same room over and over again only increases the unending-game-in-hell feeling.
The one thing that Halo does do, that at least two years ago most FPS games did not, though more and more are now, is that you can drive and fly vehicles, both yours and your enemies. Driving the little jeep-like vehicle (called the Warthog), with a mounted machinegun in the rear, is one of the better parts of the Halo experience, and makes multiplayer games wild. Sure, they kind of violate physics a little, given that I’ve had the whole rear end hanging off a cliff and the vehicle still managed to pull itself onto solid ground, but it’s still just grand. The control scheme for the alien flying machines likewise works very well, and in the single player game I would often fly over boring things at a much greater speed than I could walk (though alas you can’t fly them indoors).
I frankly like Halo more as a multiplayer experience. Allowing for up to 16 players at one time, the games are perhaps a little less sparsely populated than other titles, but the action with the vehicles is a blast. Climbing into a Warthog, a gunner behind you and a passenger blasting away, leads to a team building experience that I have yet to see any other multiplayer game match. Varieties include CTF, assault, deathmatch, king of the hill, in both individual and team flavors, and you can configure the game to include or exclude various weapons and vehicles – there’s a lot of multiplayer action to explore.
Halo is the first game I can ever recall wishing was shorter than it was. The final level is one of the great nail-biters in FPS-dom, but you’ve got to slog through some levels that are nothing short of unbelievable in their repetition to get to it. I think that if they had concentrated more on their strengths, namely the vehicles, and pared down their maps some, the game would have been far better. As it stands, Halo represents a so-so FPS, a better multiplayer game, and it makes me glad that I didn’t buy an Xbox to get it.