• Halo Review - Microsoft Xbox

    If one were to try and describe the beauty that is the Mona Lisa to someone who had never seen it, how would they go about doing it? Would they talk about Da Vinci's brilliant usage of color, his subtle line movements? Would they focus on the female subject at the expense of the background? Or, would they instead just describe her mysterious smile, one that has fascinated mankind since it was first brushed across canvas? That is the trouble with describing a masterpiece. One hardly knows where to begin.

    And that is what is so plaguing about doing a review of Halo. There is so much to talk about, so much to cover, and all of it incredibly fantastic. Now, let it be said that this is in no way literally comparing Halo to the Mona Lisa. That was just an analogy, and loose at that, but one that serves our purposes. The Mona Lisa is a masterwork of historic proportions that will hopefully be preserved throughout the ages. Halo is a video game. But, in the world of electronic entertainment, Halo is indeed a work of art, and it should be remembered as such.

    But let us go ahead and begin with the beginning: the story. It is the far future, and mankind is at war with a group of alien races known as the Covenant, who's fervent desire to destroy us seems religious in nature and in intensity. And, as it always seems to go in stories such as this, we humans are on the losing end of the battle, with the Covenant gaining ground at an alarming rate. Soon they will be at Earth's doorstep, and if that were to happen humanity would not survive. Enter Captain Keys and his ship, the Pillar Of Autumn.

    After losing a battle with the Covenant over the human-held planet Reach, only Autumn is able to get away. Knowing that if they were to return to Earth the Covenant would follow them and thereby learn Earth's location, Capt. Keys decides to instead lead them astray, and in a bold move initiates a blind jump toward a previously unexplored star system. When the ship slips back into normal space they discover an anomalous ring-like structure in orbit around a gas giant planet dubbed Threshold and its moon. The artificial ring planet, which is over 10,000 km in diameter, is also currently surrounded by Covenant forces. And, to make matters worse, the Covenant ships they left behind at Reach have arrived as well. The Autumn is surrounded. Thus begins Halo.

    You are Master Chief, the last of a line of elite SPARTAN-II super soldiers, and the only human the Covenant fears. Enhanced biologically and cybernetically, you also wear a state-of-the-art suit of MJOLNIR armor that is wired directly into your brain, allowing you and the armor to act at the speed of thought. As the game begins you are in cryogenic suspension, but when Capt. Keys sees that his ship is going to be boarded, he orders that you be thawed out and readied for battle. That is where the movie ends and your playing begins.

    You enter the world bleary-eyed and groggy, with a technician telling you to exit your cryo-pod and stand ready. After doing so he brings your systems online, and your HUD springs to life. Your HUD gives you all of the information you'll need. Shield strength, life meter, ammo count, nav-point indicators, etc. After he charges your shield he directs you to a visual coordinator device, which is really just a cleverly disguised way for you to determine how you want your controller to handle.

    Now, this is a good point to stop and discuss one of Halo's most talked about areas: the controller layout and implementation. By default Halo is setup this way: The left analog stick moves you forward, backward, strafe left, and strafe right. If you press this stick down it will cause you to crouch. The right stick controls your view, causing you to look up and down, as well as turning you left and right. You can also zoom in, depending on what weapon you have in your hands, by pressing this stick down. The left shoulder button throws grenades, and the right fires your weapon. The A button is for jumping, and the X reloads your weapon. If you walk across a weapon that you do not currently have in your possession, you can hold down the X button, and it will toss the weapon you have in your hands to the ground and pick up the weapon you are standing on. The Y button switches between your two weapons, and the white button turns your flashlight on and off.

    Does this layout work? You betcha it does. For those who are more familiar with using a keyboard and mouse for FPS games, this will take some getting used to, but after playing for ten minutes or so you should fall right into, circle strafing with the best of them. For those weaned on console FPS games, you shouldn't have a problem with this at all. But, in case you don't like it, Halo does have other configurations you can choose from, and one of them should be useful and effective for you. Time and practice will of course better your performance.

    After you are awakened and your controls are set, Covenant boarders blow their way into a control room above you and cut short your initializing preparations. Before you can acquaint yourself with any weapons you are ordered to make your way to the bridge as quickly as you can. Down corridors you travel, constantly crossing paths with Marines who point the way for you, all the while covering your back when aliens storm through the ship. You make your way through the battle-filled corridors until you reach the bridge and meet up with Capt. Keys. There you also encounter Cortana, the central AI of the Pillar Of Autumn, and soon to be your closest friend.

    Once on the bridge Keys explains briefly what has happened, then goes on to say that everyone on board should evacuate the Autumn and head for the ring structure. As soon as they arrive they should band together and try to destroy the Covenant, as well as learn just what the artificial planet is. The Covenant seem very interested in it, and if that is true, why? Did they make it? If not, then who? If they did, then why? What is its purpose? It is your job to find the answer to these questions, soldier.

    But before you can leave and find a means of exiting the ship, Keys removes a memory unit from the ship's computer and hands it to you. On it is Cortana. After you insert the unit in your helmet, Cortana is uploaded into your armor and acts as a general spirit guide through your trials and tribulation. She keeps you up to date on all that is going on, as well as pointing the way for you, offering insight and speculation when it is appropriate. And, as the game progresses, she gains the ability to interface with Covenant technology, as well as Halo itself during one of the more inspired cut scenes.

    So, with Cortana looking over your shoulder and Keys' pistol in hand, you head off and try to find an escape pod that will take you to Halo. Unfortunately that is easier said than done, and your escape takes you down corridor after corridor, fending off Covenant forces at every turn. Luckily for you your fellow Marines are fighting for their lives right along side you, and you have to work together if you want to live to fight another day.

    This is one of the real gems within the masterpiece that is Halo: the Marines. It is rare in a game for you to have help. In most FPS games it is just you against the world, and occasionally you might stumble across a person or two who can help you along your way, but usually that help is fleeting and scripted. Not Halo's Marines. These guys, and gals, really know how to fight. You feel very confident in their ability to cover you. They talk to each other just as you would imagine they would, ordering each other into smart battle a formation, letting each other know what is going on, and when the occasion merits it, talking serious smack to their alien enemies. "You want some of this? I got plenty for everybody!" being one of the funnier lines, usually said as they pump one last round into an already dead foe on the ground. Luckily there are enough lines for them that you will rarely hear the same one twice. The Marines in Halo are just incredible.

    Once you reach Halo the real game begins. Immediately you are on the run, Covenant drop-ships en-route to swarm you with alien nastiness. Sticking to the tree line you make your way to some hills in the distance, where Cortana detects the nearest Marines to be. You meet resistance along the way, but after you finish them off you continue on and eventually meet up with your fellow humans. Together you fend off several attacks, but then learn that Capt. Keys was abducted by the Covenant and taken aboard one of their ships. Thankfully that ship isn't far, and your first real mission is to board it and get him out. But fear not, soldier. Marines are going with you.

    The story, of course, builds from there, but this is as good as place as any to stop. Going any further would mean divulging spoilers, and that wouldn't be fair to you and to the story. While the basic premise, humans fighting a superior alien force, isn't anything new or groundbreaking, the higher story is. In fact, on some levels I would dare say this is one of the best stories out there as far as video games go. There are plenty of plot twists, intriguing characters, and surprises to satisfy just about anyone. Hats off to Bungie in their ability to not only craft an incredible plot, but to also surround it in fantastic gameplay.

    And the gameplay is where Halo really shines. The game is fast, furious, and terribly addictive. If you are looking for something along the speed lines of Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament, then you need not apply here. But that isn't what Halo is about. It isn't about running and jumping as fast you can while in pursuit of a few individuals. This is a military game. It is about meeting objectives. It is about helping a group to win a war. It is about saving humanity itself. But do not be deceived. Halo is still an incredibly fast game. Enemy units often come at you in hordes, from different angles, and you have to move fast and think even faster if you are to survive. They attack you on foot, from stationary cannons, and from vehicles. Should you be good enough and are able to kill the aliens that man these things, you can take them over and use the Covenant's own weapons against it. It is especially sweet to deliver death to them using their own devices, devices meant to end your life instead. Fitting justice.

    The aliens that you meet on Halo are varied and fascinating. On the lowest rung, and also the most numerous, are the Grunts. These diminutive pig-faced pests do not pose much of a threat individually, but in groups they can be quite a nuisance. But cut down a couple and they turn tail quickly, screaming in a voice that is too cute for their unpleasant appearance. The next step up are the Jackals. These are a little bigger than the Grunts, but their advantage is that they carry energy shields with them, which makes them harder to kill. But, a well-placed shot will spin them around to expose their soft backsides, and they die easily enough once that is done. Next we have the Elite, which is the standard Covenant soldier. They are protected by armor and personal energy fields and are crack shots with plasma rifles. Supervising them are Covenant Commanders, who look much like the Elite but have yellow armor and carry plasma swords. They also have a nasty habit of turning invisible. Lucky for you the invisibility doesn't work as well when they have their swords in hand. At the top of the food chain are the Hunters, hulking behemoths over nine feet all and clad head to tow in thick armor. Forget taking these guys down with anything less than handfuls of grenades and a rocket launcher. But, because of that armor they don't move too fast, and you can use your speed against them. Once the story has progressed and you get deeper into the bowels of Halo you also come across… well, let's just save that, shall we? No use spoiling the surprise.

    Helping you to complete your missions is a respectable array of weapons. While certainly not on the scale of games like Half-Life, where there are multiple versions of pistols, shotguns, etc., you will find enough guns lying around to get the job done. On the human side of things you have your basic pistol, automatic rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, sniper rifle, and fragmentation grenades. You can also use Covenant weapons, which consist of plasma pistols, rifles, and grenades (which, if thrown right, can stick to an enemy's body), and a needle gun that shoots out crystal needles that explode a second after hitting their target. One thing to remember is that you can only carry two weapons with you at all times, excluding your grenades, so be careful, and be choosy. Will you need that sniper rifle? What about that rocket launcher? Can you afford to not have them? You decide, soldier. It's only your life on the line if you're wrong.

    On the vehicular side of things, you again have a variety of human and alien craft to use. The first vehicle you pilot is the Warthog jeep, which is pretty much a souped-up HUMVEE with a heavy machine gun bolted in the back. If there are any Marines around when you get in the drivers seat, two can get in with you, with one riding shotgun while the other mans the gun. Both are able to shoot as you drive, and they can be a big help when you jump a hill and land right in the middle of a Covenant battle group. You can also run the aliens over if you're good enough. If you choose to you can man the machine gun yourself, but a Marine cannot drive the jeep for you, so you'll be shooting from a stationary position.

    On the heavier end of the scale is the Scorpion tank. Up to four Marines can hop on board and sit on the sides while you drive around, and all of them are able to fire their weapons. The tank itself is able to fire a machine gun and the main turret, and you will have ample use of both during your struggle. The tank is slow, but it is incredibly tough.

    Covenant vehicles you can use are the hover craft and the fighter plane. Both fire standard plasma rounds, but the only real difference is that one floats a couple of feet off the ground while the other can swoop around in the air. But neither is very fast or agile, so don't go into it hoping to stage your own version of Top Gun. Their main job is to convey you from one area to the next, dealing out what death you can while on the way.

    The jeep, tank, and hover craft can all be driven indoors if the hallways are big enough. If you can, do so, as you will occasionally need the added firepower. It is a real hoot to drive a jeep down a hallway, bounce down some stairs, and pop into a Covenant room filled with bad guys. Their squeals of surprise are priceless.

    One caveat here is the control scheme. When you are in a vehicle your view changes from first-person to third-person, and the controls switch so that your left stick moves you forward and backward, and the right stick moves the camera left, right, up and down. Yes, that's right, the camera. You do not actually turn the vehicle. Instead you turn the camera, and the vehicle moves to face that direction. It takes some getting used to, and it isn't clear why this scheme was chosen, but after you get used to it there isn't any problem. It feels just as natural as more traditional controls once you get into it. But don't be surprised if you find yourself flipping the jeep a time or two while getting acquainted.

    Halo is a character all to itself. You start off knowing nothing about it. Heck, you don't even know it's called Halo until later in the game. But as you go you learn more and more, and every revelation is inspired. But the physical aspects of Halo alone are staggering. On its surface you will find yourself in open plains, wooded forests, snowy hills, sandy beaches, and in drizzly swamps. Each one with the perfect ambient sounds, from the lonesome wail of snow blowing across ice to the whine of insects in the boggy swamps. Once you get indoors you are confronted with tight halls, cavernous rooms, and tiered stages that sometimes boggle the mind. But watch yourself, soldier, because you can easily get lost if you don't have a good sense of direction. Some of the hallways look identical, and you would be wise to mark the walls as you go. A simple bullet or plasma charge will scorch the walls, letting you know where you've been, and because the world of Halo is persistent, the mark will be there throughout the entire game.

    Sound has already been touched upon briefly, but a somewhat deeper look is warranted. The game surrounds you with sound, from weapons fire, to Marines chatting, to aliens shouting at you, to the sound of the world itself, be it the rush of a waterfall, the gentle gurgle of a river, or the wind as it flows past you. Sound is constantly coming at you, and it can really help in a firefight when you can't see where the attack is coming from. The music is easily movie-worthy, with the choral arrangement being the highlight. There really isn't a lot of music in the game, with it usually coming in during a dramatic moment or during a cut scene, but when it does kick in you will occasional get goosebumps. The music is that good, and it should certainly be released on CD. A lot of big production films should sound this nice.

    But the biggest cherry on the pie is the graphics. While most people complained that Halo only runs at 30 frames-per-second, you could hardly tell by playing. There is next to no slowdown to be had, and all of the textures are lush, with everything flowing across the screen as smooth as butter. The exterior shots are just breathtaking, and when you get a spare moment you can't help but look around, seeing this large world in motion. It is especially awe-inspiring to turn your head upwards to follow the sweeping arc of Halo as it curves into the heavens above you, the clouds and terrain a distant haze. Close by is Threshold, the gas giant Halo orbits, and on the other side is the moon Basis. Halo sits at a Lagrange point between the two, so they are constantly in position. I have never seen a game on a console, a game as deep and as full as this, that looked anywhere near as good. Everything just oozes style and attention to detail.

    With a game as good as this, you know there have to be some faults. Nothing can be perfect. And yes, no matter how wonderful Halo is, there are some areas that need work. The first thing that comes to mind are the mission objectives. Occasionally these are somewhat obscure, and during those missions you will find yourself running around wondering just what it is you need to do to complete the level. A more specific mission objective list would have been nice, letting you know what still needs to be accomplished. Another nice feature that should have been incorporated is an auto-mapping function. The exteriors don't really require it, as most are pretty straight forward, but many of the interior passages get pretty repetitive, and as was stated before, you can find yourself getting lost if you get turned around. A map would have been nice so you could see where you've been, with doors and such marked. Also, when you get to a new area Cortana will sometimes chime in with some bit of info or she'll add a mission objective, but if there is a battle going on it can be hard to hear her, and you'll miss some of the plot elements if you aren't listening carefully. There needs to be a better audio control setup. Lastly, the interior textures could have done with more variety. They get awfully repetitive quickly, and one ends up looking much like the next. Some of the levels use the same layout as well, and you'll get tired of running through one area, only to enter another that looks just like. A little more variety would have been nice.

    Yet, having said all that, Halo is still an incredible game, despite these minor flaws. The graphics, sound, and control scheme all work together to draw you into an incredibly detailed world. The variety of environments and gameplay keeps you from getting bored, and the story pulls you forward, secretly forcing you to play much longer than you intended. The action is fast, the world is beautiful, and the sounds are divine. Every gamer should make it a point to play this game, as it will be the standard by which all future console FPS games are judged. It alone is reason enough to justify the purchase of an Xbox. Halo is, without a doubt, a killer app, and it deserves all of the praise that the media has heaped upon it. Play this game. Now. You won't regret it. It just may be one of the greatest console games ever made.

    A review by Justin Macumber
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