Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo. The hype leading into the release of this game was so staggering that there was no possible way it could live up to it…right??? WRONG. Quite simply, Halo ranks as one of the best videogames of all time. I know that is a big claim to make, and many people throw it around half-heartedly these days, but I am dead serious. Halo is one of the best games EVER. Everything about it is absolutely phenomenal. The levels are gorgeous, the enemies are intelligent, the music is of epic motion picture quality and the gameplay is so addicting you will surely find yourself popping Halo into your Xbox even two years from now. I have been gaming for 19 years and have never seen a title with so much polish and attention to detail as Halo. If you are not getting the hint by now then I will make it simple for you: STOP READING THIS REVIEW AND GO BUY THIS GAME! Now I know there are going to be a few people who need a more detailed explanation on why Halo is an absolute masterpiece, so it is for these scrutinizing gamers that I offer the remainder of this review.
Halo is a story-driven first person shooter that takes place in a superbly crafted sci-fi setting. Right from the opening cut scene you are sucked into a believable world where humans are fighting for their lives against a ruthless alien species known as the Covenant. You play the role of the Master Chief, a specially augmented super soldier (code named SPARTAN II) wearing a highly advanced armor named the MJOLNIR Mark V. As the game begins you find yourself coming out of cryo-sleep aboard a spacecraft that is being attacked and boarded by Covenant forces. The whole intro sequence is extremely compelling, as you are sent scrambling through the ship in search of weapons as a full fledged battle wages all around you. Not since Half-Life has the opening sequence of a video game been so gripping, and you’ll find yourself immediately sucked into the world that is Halo.
After making your way through the failing spacecraft, you finally manage to find a working escape pod and eject. Unfortunately, because your pod is not suited for long distance space travel, you are forced to make an emergency crash landing on a mysterious ring world by the name of Halo. As the soul survivor of the crashed escape pod, you set out to locate other crashed pods and rescue any surviving Marines from the Covenant forces who are also landing on the ring world. I won’t discuss too much more about the plot, as not to spoil the wonder and excitement that comes from experiencing Halo’s magnificent story for the first time. I will say that some plot points later on in the game will shock and amaze you, so expect the unexpected.
So now that you are introduced to the incredible story, let us examine some of the gameplay elements that make Halo such an exceptional game. First off, you will find yourself coming back to play the single player story mode multiple times because of the superior intelligence of the AI (both for the enemies and Marines). When replaying past levels you will nearly always have new experiences because the enemies react differently every time you play. The first time you come across a specific group of Covenant grunts (the alien species’ infantry) they might scream, “There he is!” and charge you with plasma pistols blazing. Now replay the same level and the same group of grunts might run fleeing for cover at the first sign of aggression. Combine this randomness with smart reactions such as flanking and tactical retreating and you have quite possibly the smartest enemy AI to ever grace a game. During the times in the game when you find yourself shoulder to shoulder with Marines, you will find that they also act intelligently. Diving away from arrant grenades, climbing into the passenger and gunner seats of the Warthog (ie – Jeep) and using cover to avoid enemy fire are all wonderful AI routines that you’ll have the pleasure of witnessing. The developers at Bungie truly programmed the AI to near flawlessness, and I commend them for their efforts.
The seamless control is another reason why Halo is so insanely addictive. Xbox controllers (both original and S versions) seem to have been made just for Halo, as the game responds incredibly well to your commands. The locations of the dual sticks makes playing a breeze when compared to the awkward stick locations of the PlayStation 2 controller. The Xbox controller’s large triggers almost feel like gun triggers, so you really get sucked into the role of the Master Chief while blasting through the game’s hordes of Covenant soldiers. Lobbing grenades, sniping and hopping in and out of the game’s numerous vehicles is all quite simple, and the only real negative is reaching the black and white buttons to turn on/off your flashlight and switch grenade types.
Bungie went out on a limb when they designed Halo by allowing you to only carry two guns at any one time. This decision could have easily been criticized as overly simplifying the game, but instead it adds an incredible amount of depth to the first person shooter formula. Let’s say you are carrying a sniper rifle with ten rounds left as well as an assault riffle, and you find a rocket launcher lying on the ground. Do you dare give up your assault rifle to pick up the rocket launcher, thus making it almost impossible for you to enter a close-range firefight? Or do you give up your precious sniper rifle, which not only picks off long range targets, but also serves as a handy scouting tool? Decisions like these must be made over and over again throughout the game, often during the middle of incredibly heated battles. I applaud Bungie for taking the risk needed to limit the weapon carrying capacity, because it adds a great deal of strategy to the game.
Ok, so the game plays like a dream, but how are the visuals? Quite simple really: Un-freaking-believable. This is what sets the Xbox above all other consoles. There is zero pop-up or draw-in on any of the levels. The texture quality is the best ever in a console video game. Look down at the grass and it looks EXACTLY like grass. The same goes for tree bark or any of the other textures in the game. The shiny, purple wall texture on the inside of the Covenant ships is so cool looking I would just sit there and marvel at it when I first played the game (hell, I still do). I just knew the Xbox was leaps and bounds ahead of the PlayStation 2 graphically when I saw the game’s fabulous textures.
Besides the impressive texture quality there are other things worth talking about concerning Halo’s graphics. Little details like the blur effect when zooming in with the pistol and spent shell casings realistically bouncing and rolling according to the environment. The first time I threw a grenade and saw the explosion throw up a cloud of sand and debris I almost wept with joy. The most amazing part about Halo’s graphics is that the framerate manages to stay solid for almost the entire game (even during two player split screen co-op and sixteen player LAN games!). I say almost because during the final level it drops a bit, but it is certainly understandable with all that is happening on screen. The folks at Bungie really know how to make a beautiful game and it probably won’t be until Halo 2 that another game dethrones Halo in the graphics department.
The audio in the game is just as polished as the visuals. As mentioned I mentioned earlier, the music is of epic motion picture quality. It really gets the blood pumping during those hectic firefights. The opening Halo theme is quite amazing and is has now become, for me, one of the most recognizable game tunes of all time. The gun blasts and explosions are also spot on. There is nothing quite like the sound of a sniper rifle shot echoing across the level as the bullet hits the target. After a grenade explodes you can actually hear the individual dirt particles patter across the ground! Also worth noting are the superb voices for both the Marines and Covenant. The Marines will utter plenty of memorable lines such as, “Get up so I can shoot you again!” and “Hey! Leave some for me!” There is certainly no craptastic voice acting (like in the original Resident Evil) to be found here. Once again I tip my hat to Bungie for really taking the time and energy to make Halo’s sound and music as amazing as all other aspects of the game. Bravo guys!
Now let us look at what pushes Halo’s replay value from long to insanely long: the multiplayer. Whether you dig playing two players cooperatively in the campaign mode or hooking up multiple Xbox consoles for LAN parties, this game has it all. I’ve personally witnessed four people go out and buy an Xbox and Halo after playing the incredible co-op mode, it’s really that good! Besides the amazing cooperative campaign, playing with sixteen players via system link is the absolute most fun I have ever had with any multiplayer video game. You will be yelling, cursing and causing much ruckus well into the night during these frantic LAN parties. You may think it would be too much trouble to get together fifteen friends, four Xbox systems and four televisions, but you’ll be surprised at what this game will drive you to do. It’s too bad there will not be an add-on that will allow for online play, but hey, that is what Ghost Recon, MechAssault and, most importantly, Halo 2 are for, right?
I know I have beaten this point to death so far, but it is certainly worth stating again: Halo is the best game on the Xbox system and one of the best games ever made. The heck with Munch or Blinx, the Master Chief has proven that he is the true butt-kicking, system-selling mascot for the Xbox. Any gamer worth their salt should have Halo in their collection, and I give it my highest recommendation possible.