As a long-time devotee of the gaming arts, I've noticed that certain trends tend to repeat themselves. Sega systems fell victim to Sony in consecutive hardware generations for instance, and Nintendo's GameCube is falling prey to the third-party software curse started by the N64. The more things change, the more they stay the same it seems, and the same holds true of console launches. Each shiny new video game machine in recent memory has entered the market with one exemplary must-have title that has single-handedly justified its existence. The afore-mentioned Dreamcast launched with the incomparable Soul Calibur, the PlayStation2 was bailed out by the stellar Madden 2001, and Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader convinced many a GameCube owner that their little lunchbox was worth its weight in gaming gold.
Of course, the Xbox is no exception to the guidelines mentioned above. Microsoft's hefty set-top gaming system, often seen as the most likely to bomb out of the three-way console tussle, debuted with its very own gaming masterpiece: Halo. Premiering alongside a host of great-looking duds, this excellent title single-handedly strapped the big black 'Box on its sturdy back and carried the machine into the homes of millions of gamers. Halo was developed by long-time Macintosh veterans Bungie (of Marathon fame), who were purchased by Microsoft prior to the launch of the Xbox. In retrospect this turns out to be one of the best business decisions Microsoft has ever made (and not just in the gaming space), as the Xbox launch would have been an unmitigated disaster without Bungie's marvelous sci-fi shooter.
What is initially striking about Halo is how complete and polished it is, considering that launch games are typically lacking in one area or another. Every aspect of Halo, from the visuals and audio components to the play mechanics and game balance, is finely tuned and executed with painstaking precision. Bungie has been doing just that for years in the Marathon series, which fused refined FPS action with abundant sci-fi story elements. In many ways Halo is the spiritual successor to the Marathon legacy, but manages to exceed its roots and blaze its own trail to gaming greatness. It's not at all revolutionary, but it takes familiar game elements and pieces them together perhaps better than any other game of its kind. Through an excellent single-player or co-operative Campaign Mode and a Multiplayer Mode that even exceeds the high standards set by GoldenEye 007, Halo is definitely a high-water mark in the evolution of first-person shooters.
A great game requires great visual, audio and interactive components, but the presentation of these elements is often what separates the great games from the ones that are merely good. From the onset, you're treated to one of the most polished experiences to grace a console system. The title screen greets you with a soothing choral arrangement that accompanies a panoramic view of the ring world Halo as it floats in space. From here you'll navigate clean and uncluttered menu screens, as the music switches to a rousing drum and violin fight song that will make great use of your A/V receiver. Throughout the game, Halo makes excellent use of a fully orchestrated score to heightens its emotional impact; you won't find any cheesy metal riffs or empty J-pop here. During the game the sleek, diminutive HUD effectively conveys the necessary information in a minimum amount of space, while on-screen navigation cues guide you to objectives.
The acting is surprisingly good, as your fellow marines and your AI partner Cortana are all competently voiced. Even the Covenant forces sound great, especially the English-speaking Grunts, who tend to flee screaming at the drop of a hat. The real-time cinemas are fantastic as well, as the game becomes "letterboxed" during key story segments. The only negative is the story itself, which is your run-of-the-mill humans against aliens in space plot, much of which is lifted from other sources (the movie "Aliens" and the novel "Starhammer", to name a few). Menu options are accompanied by a wealth of descriptive text, much of which is actually humorous ("You were probably expecting a crass 'two balls' joke in this space. Are you nuts? We'd get sacked!"). There isn't one pixel out of place in Halo, as Bungie's fanatical devotion to quality is evident from the very beginning and carries through the rest of the game.
When discussing the visuals in Halo, I only need to say one thing: it's still the best-looking Xbox game to date, even nine months after its release. The level of graphic splendor seen in this title is usually reserved for high-resolution PC games running on bleeding edge hardware. Halo is an absolutely gorgeous game filled with visual detail previously unseen in console games. From the high-polygon models, to the multi-layered textures, to the bump-mapped everything, all the way down to the explosions and particle effects, Halo is pure, unadulterated eye candy. This is honestly one of the smoothest games I've ever seen, and unlike other Xbox games is virtually free of aliasing, texture shimmer and pop-in. You can see for virtual miles in every level, all the way to the horizon in most cases (except at night or in foggy conditions, where visibility would naturally be reduced). This is one of the best-looking games I've seen to date, and easily stacks up against the best and brightest on PlayStation2.
The textures in this game have to be seen to be believed. I'm a bit of a stickler for textures, as smeary low-resolution textures tend to dampen my enthusiasm for a title. Imagine my utter shock when I witnessed objects getting more detailed as I approached them instead of less. While the textures are normally high-resolution and look great from all distances, there is an extra layer of texture detail the becomes visible when the camera is very close to an object. Rocks look more rocky up close, water looks more liquid up close and trees look... well, they look like fucking trees instead of a blurry indistinct mess. There are a handful of poorly-textured objects throughout the game (mostly in the large outdoor snowfield level) which stand out in sharp relief against the otherwise detailed scenery, but these are thankfully few and far between. All told these are the best textures I've yet seen in a console game, and Halo definitely sets the bar a little higher for future games in this area.
Nothing looks flat in Halo, thanks to extensive reflection- and bump-mapping. This might not be completely evident at first, but becomes very noticeable during the nighttime level Truth and Reconciliation. Shining your flashlight on just about anything reveals bumps, crevasses and irregular markings that give objects a sense of depth and texture that looks startlingly life-like. As a result, objects like rocks, trees and water take on a more organic quality that deepens the immersion players will experience with this game. Even the stainless steel Covenant facilities on Halo are full of depth, with panel lines and grooved etchings creating a sharp relief amidst the extensive shiny surfaces and reflective machines. These techniques compliment the excellent texture artwork perfectly, lending the world of Halo a more tangible feeling of substance than most other games. There is also a deep sense of permanence, as you will often return to a previously traversed area to find the same bloody corpses, scorch marks and discarded weapons you saw hours ago. Very cool.
While the object modeling is of a very high quality, the animation really sets Halo apart from other video games. All of the myriad animations, from the reloading of the rocket launcher, to the jostling of the Warthog as it climbs over hills, to the frantic scurrying of Grunts fleeing in terror, are extremely smooth and life-like. It may sound odd to describe fictional alien movement as "life-like", but if these creatures actually existed I imagine they might move just like they do in Halo. The physics system that governs all this movement is spot-on most of the time, as things move exactly like you think they should. From bodies soaring through the air due to a grenade blast, to the path that a weapon takes as you drop it on the ground, everything just looks and feels right. In addition, every object in the game casts a realistic shadow, from gigantic super-structures right down to discarded weapons and grenades lying on the ground. All of these little details, when added to the expansive levels, transform Halo into a true work of gaming art that should delight even the most rabid anti-Xbox fanatics.
The only real negative point concerning the visuals is the relatively low 30fps frame rate, which drops even further during heavy action. This can sometimes affect your ability to aim properly, but the adjustable analog sensitivity partially compensates for this. And it's not nearly as bad as the frame chop in games like Medal of Honor: Frontline, where you sometimes have to stand mere inches from your target in order to hit them with any accuracy. While a smooth 60fps engine would have been preferable, I'm not sure I'd want to sacrifice any graphic detail to achieve it. The game moves smoothly enough most of the time, so it's not really the most pressing of problems. Perhaps Halo 2 will grace us with a smoother experience, but what we've got is tolerable for now.
Sound is often overlooked in games, as it's usually just noticeable enough to comment on, but not impressive enough to talk about in great detail. Halo, on the other hand, sounds awesome. Ass-kickingly awesome, in fact. The game takes full advantage of the built-in Dolby Digital capabilities of the Xbox to pump out loud, voluminous sound that fills the room and draws you into the on-screen action like few other games. Directional sound is used to great effect, as many times you'll be able to find the action simply by hearing from where the sound originates. Each weapon gives off a great variety of sound effects, and the Covenant voices (especially the cowardly Grunts) are simply a hoot. And while things like Plasma Rifles haven't been invented yet, I'm sure they'd sound something like they do here. The attention to detail is amazing, as striking objects with your weapon will produce a wide variety of "thud" sounds. Sometimes striking the same object will produce a number of different sounds, and smacking Covenant corpses always produces a gratifying wet "thwack". Halo is as much fun to listen to as it is to watch, and Bungie should be commended for the sonic quality they've achieved with this game.
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