Monday, November 08, 2004

Review: Halo (XBox)
Posted by Ariel :: 8:38 PM

A Retrospective Reflective

A few games in every generation sometimes become the standard by which other games in that genre are judged. Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, Doom. These are just a few of the titles that have forever altered the perception of what games can and should be and how they are created afterwards. Most of these divisions are made, initially, along console lines (Arcade games are usually immune to this), especially before the true impact of the game can be noted. One of the last monoliths to have been released is Halo: Combat Evolved.

Dan and I knew only three things about the game when we initially picked it up. The first was that it was the "killer app" for the X-Box (or so EGM said). The second was that it was a first person shooter. The third was that it had a co-op mode. With this information available to us we were braced for the worst. The last experience we had playing an FPS on a console was Quake 3 Arena for the Dreamcast. Let us just say that it SUCKED and leave it at that. With great trepidation and some would say morbid curiosity, we started up the system and the game. Little did we know that we were going to end up doing nothing else for the next 2 days.

Before embarking on this article I did some research and found the most common complaints that are had in this game, as well as the aspects of it which are unanimously praised. The most immediate detraction of the game, particularly from our current X-Box Live perspective, is that it doesn't have any Netplay. Bungie has said that it was not included because they couldn't get the system to work properly, or it didn't meet their standards, or something like that. I say more power to 'em for refusing to include an aspect in the game because they knew they couldn't get it to work. There has been some half-made crap released with things that could have been fixed if more time had been allowed for quality control or somebody bit the bullet and said, let's axe that and come up with something we can make that'll replace it.

The other design flaw I've noticed is the design of the game's sound seems designed to truly work only with a Surround Sound system. Every cutscene in the game I needed to turn up the volume on the TV because I lacked a center channel. I'm hoping I don't encounter something similiar in the next game. Beyond that I have heard this: The single-player mode of the game is weak considering it is the main method of playing the game. There are several lulls in action while playing the game. You repeat several areas instead of exploring new ones. The weapons are not balanced. The Allied A.I. is extremely stupid.

This first one, I've noticed, comes from several people whose intitial experience of playing the game was the Co-Op mode. Although you miss many of the graphic subtleties of the game when playing in Co-Op (you only use half the screen at the time) the gaming experience itself takes on a whole new level. While the single-player mode can be said to be good, maybe even great, although it is not the revolutionary achievement Half-Life was, being able to tackle all of the objectives in the game with the help of a partner added an entirely new dynamic into the mix that would probably not have been possible in other FPSs. This is something that I had been lamenting in video games in quite some time. The loss of the the 2 player game. Most games that had been created since the N64 era had been single-player only, unless they had a versus mode in them of some kind, where the players fought against each other. Gone were the days of Mario, Raiden, Final Fight, and Double Dragon, where two or more players could combine their abilities in order to complete the game and share their victory. Video games are always more fun with others (If not, then why on Earth would multiplayer games be so popular?) Halo brought that experience along with a great single player story that played out fantastically when you and your best friend teamed up and tackled the game's challanges. Which me and Dan proceeded to do for two days straight.

The lulls in action in the game are necessary, especially when playing on the Legendary dificulty (By the way, renaming the difficulty scale from Easy, Normal, Hard, Very Hard to Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary was a stroke of genius. There's nothing better than to turn to someone and go "We just accomplished something legendary"). Otherwise you would simply be overwhlemed, and you would seek to create your own lulls in the action. I can't even recall how many times, after staving off an attack, while we were still being bombarded by energy mortars and the marines accompanying us where screaming their heads off, me and Dan kept watch on screen while we talked over our strategy for defeating this next group of foes.

The most fun part about that was that the AI in the game was intelligent enough to be predictable. Sounds like a contradiction in terms right? Well, the thing is, if you're playing against another player and you notice that they run for cover when you chuck a grenade at them (a smart thing to do) then you can use that to your advantage (chuck two and hope you predict where they will dodge to correctly). The Covenant would try to retake strategic positions (higher ground, weapon stands, vehicles) and attack you in a co-ordinated and intelligent manner. A smart opponent is easier to outsmart than a dumb one.

Case in point: In Quake 2 there is a corridor patrolled by some huge brute. You lob a grenade over the side of the window to distract him. It blows up, makes lots of noise, but the brute just keeps on walking. You shoot him in the back to get him to come to you so you can kill him from a safe perch. He gets shot, stops for a moment, looks around (but never turns around) then keeps on going. If you step into the corridor he immediately turns and fires on you. If you step back out AFTER he's fired on you, he resumes his patrol. Stupid. Very stupid. A smart foe (Let's say an Elite) will detect the initial grenade explosions and careful saunter over to see what caused it. You shoot him in the back, he turns and if he sees you will first alert the troops under his command and then come after you. If you step into a corridor behind him he will not turn unless you make enough noise to be heard. Intelligent. Easier to manipulate than the dumbass hulk from Quake, but still intelligent (you alert him, he alerts others and this usually results in all hell breaking loose, which often results in your death).

You want an example of where a lull in action is a good thing? In the level where you make an assault on the Halo control room, right before you get to it, is a gaint door. Upon opening it you reveal a covenant ambush waiting for you. On Legendary there is a cloaked, plasma sword wielding Elite who charges you, plus a mass of Grunts, one or two with the huge Hunter guns, Vipers (I THINK that's what the guys with shields are called. Dan and I usually called them shield guys) and a couple of Elites in the back. Upon killing the charging Sword Elite (no easy task in and of itself) You can hide behind some of those purple containers that are found here and there and the wreck of the Banshee you rode in on (at least for us we where able to get it here). All the while the grunts are bombarding you with cover fire and the Vipers are moving into flanking position. Taking out the flankers allows you to sit back, fire a couple of shots to keep most of the grunts back, and talk strategy with your friend (if you're alone, get to thinking). There are several times where no one is attacking you and you can sit back and relax and believe you me, you'll be grateful for the break.

I spoke about the Marines screaming their heads off earlier. I know a couple of marines and soldiers. I know a lot more than I probably should about battlefield tactics and conduct and the training the Space Marines would have to go through in order to become what the game says they are. Granted the player plays the role of Master Chief, a genetically engineered soldier designed to be the best of the best of the best of the best of the best, BUT that still doesn't excuse the other marines from being nothing more than fodder. Especially considering the intelligence programmed into the enemy. If you have a Marine watching your back, shoot him. He'll do you no good except maybe alert you with his death gurgle, or the weapons fire that kills him. They won't try to dodge grenades, they know nothing of cover fire, they can't drive, or shoot well. They are fun to have around for conversation but they couldn't fight their way out of a garage if their life depended on it. Which is very damn funny considering that's almost an exact situation you run into in the game. After the experience of running through the game in co-op mode (something that more games should exploit) trying to use a group of marines to help me out 1/100th as much as having Dan at my back was an excercise in futility. I really was a one man army, which kind of sucked after being part of a tag team of ultimate destruction. If you get Halo, get your best Video Game playing friend (or just your plain best friend if they play video games) and run through the game, on normal if you've never played and then on Legendary. Trust me, the experience is worth it.

One complaint I read was that the game was not open ended enough, you kept running through the same areas and it was all very linear. I agree, somewhat, on the linear part. There was really only one path to go through when completing the game. The real fun part was what you did along the way. Occasionally the game allowed for some short-cutting or alternative route selection. But most of the time it said, go this way, and off you went. As far the repeating areas: I found it alot of fun to go back through an area I had already shot, fought, killed, and butchered my way through only to encounter the scars of my previous battle and heavier resistance. It added to the great atmosphere of the game, that you really were stuck on this ring world and that you where fighting for your life against what seemed like impossible odds. I would have liked the option of going a different route and having the chance to ambush an enemy or two, but I only started noticing this after playing through the game completely on every difficulty mode, alone and with a friend. Years later I still love playing the hell out of this game.

That was the point when I discovered multiplayer. I made some new friends and me and Dan finally got to experience the multiplayer mode that everyone was always screaming about. It was fantastic. The level design was spectacular (as the single player levels where), using vehicles and playing team games was great. Rally Racing was fun, especially when you had a gunner backing you up. Ambushing a Scorpion tank never gets old, and sniping another player, in the dark, at 500 paces is still absolutely priceless. I can see now why so many people went through hell and high water to get their X-Boxes online and play with others. Here is where the only true complaint many people have about the game comes in. The weapons are unbalanced. A head shot or two with a pistol will take down anything and the needler is ineffective as a combat weapon (if you've got the patience, space, and time to hit, run, and hide then you can MAYBE use it. But why bother when you call pull up a plasma pistol and take care of business right then and there). Most people (me included) love the Assault Rifle, (although the Shotgun is my personal favorite, especially considering my penchant for close quarter combat) and so I never really noticed the imbalance inherent in the weapon list until playing the game for a very long time. This is something that is going to be addressed in the next game, but it is also something I can't really dock the game for, as it never reared its unbalanced head until much, much later in my gaming experience, far past the time that the average replay value of a good game would have completely worn off.

This game had very little flaws. All of them can be easily fixed. Halo 2 shall prove whether or not Bungie listened and worked on the aspects of the game that will move it even closer to perfection as we now see it. At the time, Halo was absolutely fantastic: an incredible experience that could be shared with others and will soon be shared across the globe. This weekend, Dan will come over to my house and we will start the sequel the same way we started the original. Not really knowing what to expect, except now we'll have snacks and drinks at hand and a goal to work through the game on Legendary our first time out. I'll wait until he gets here to fire up the game, and we shall continue a story that we began years ago. Together.

Go out and buy this game right now. Get Halo 2 as well. Play through the first (even on Easy its a challange) and then play through the sequel. You won't be dissapointed. Wog wog wog!

Excellent, excellent review. I especially enjoyed the analysis of the AI (Smart AI vs. Dumb AI). That was sort of the way it worked in Half-Life as well. I'd rather have AI that I could outwit than AI that I simply outclass.

Personally, I was thoroughly disappointed with the single player mode after having played through all of the co-op, so I didn't really feel the same way about the strength of it. The lulls in combat, I think, were generally regarded as times when you were just running from one place to another, not so much when there seemed to be just a break long enough to catch your breath and recharge your shields, though I could be wrong. I never really felt much of the former, so it doesn't matter to me (I was absolutely thankful for the latter).

Anyway, great, great job. I'm skipping my second class on Friday for Halo 2 Day. Till then, I will have to use Otogi 2 and Dead or Alive: Ultimate to tide me over.

Oh poor me.

- Dan
Great review and some excellent points made. The first time I ever played Halo my future roommate came stumbling into my dorm room asking if I wanted to play a game. I said sure and I was introduced to the multiplayer aspect of Halo, also everyone on the floor got in on playing the game which oddly, made everyone more friendly which made for a more enjoyable first semester of college. Then I started playing co-op with my roommate and it completely blowed me away. We were determined to finish levels, so some classes got skipped. To this day it still doesn't feel right to me to play Halo while having the whole screen to myself. Thanks Halo, you helped me meet my roommate :)

- Omar
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