Reviewed: December 14, 2003
Released: September 30, 2003
Have you heard the news? North Americans are fat! It's true. Well, it must be, anyway, because I saw it on the news. Wolf Blitzer said so. And my plump video gamer hands get all sweaty and clammy at the notion of thinking for myself, so I'm not about to disagree. No longer satisfied with soccer moms or daytime TV personalities or even washed-up movie stars whose names begin with "M" and end with "arlon Brando," the obesity epidemic has spread to video game consoles. I speak, of course, of the Xbox.
OK. Fine. The Xbox is fat n' flabby. Go ahead. Laugh it up, fuzzball.
Following its release, the 10-pound black box endured a barrage of skepticism, scorn and ridicule. Its gargantuan, Batman-inspired controller was too fat and the quality of its launch lineup was too thin. But the Xbox's main claim-to-fame other than having been nominated by its peers as the console most likely to crush your metatarsals - was that it was home to the almighty Halo: Combat Evolved, sci-fi space shooter extraordinaire. Xbox loyalists had their ace in the hole, the ultimate trump card to settle those infantile console wars that litter gaming forums from sea to digital sea.
The flagship title kept the fledgling system afloat during those initial rocky months. At times, the specter of Halo loomed so large it seemed as if the gaming community was divided into two factions: those who had played Halo...and those who had also played Halo.
Left out of the love fest, PC gamers had to settle for a spate of hollow promises and shifting release dates…until now, anyway. Nearly two years after its original Xbox release, Halo has finally arrived for the PC…with added goodies, no less. See? I told you good things come to those who wait.
Originally developed by Bungie Studios (ironically for the PC then shifted to Xbox), the task of porting the critically acclaimed title back to the PC was handed off to Gearbox Software, best known for the outstanding Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise and Half-Life expansions. Gearbox has sought to make amends for the numerous delays by adding PC-specific multiplayer perks n' tweaks: six new maps, two new weapons, two new vehicles, a graphics engine rewritten to take advantage of DirectX 9 features and distant promises of editing tools for the community to tinker with.
I am pleased to report that the PC version can swap punches with the original, and come out on top with a more fluid control scheme, superior visuals, and a deeper multiplayer mode.
The epic adventure begins onboard the Pillar of Autumn, an interstellar colonial warship. Overpopulation has forced humans to colonize other planets. But colonization efforts trigger a war with a fanatical alliance of aliens known as the Covenant. Under direct orders from the United Nations Space Command, vessels being pursued by the Covenant must steer clear of Earth, to prevent humankind from being destroyed.
You are the Master Chief, a cyborg super soldier serving under the command of the UNSC. Out in the far reaches of space, the Pillar of Autumn is breached and obliterated by the Covenant. You are roused from your cryogenic slumber just in time to secure the ship's AI construct, Cortana, and make it to a lifeboat with a platoon of over-eager space marines in tow. Marooned on the strange ring-world Halo, you are left to fend off the Covenant and, with Cortana as your guide, unravel the mysteries of a potential super weapon.
I was delighted to discover that Halo’s control scheme translates better to a mouse and keyboard than it does to a controller. Halo uses the traditional WASD configuration, so FPS junkies will be able to get down and dirty moments after suiting up.
The single-player campaign remains identical to the Xbox original, except the cooperative mode has been scrapped. It’s a shame, too, because I have fond memories of mowing through Covenant critters with friends, but the multiplayer additions ease the pain of the loss.
With a smattering of cinematic influences, Halo borrows liberally from sci-fi films, but none more so than Sigourney Weaver's Alien quadrilogy. The weaponry, the vehicles, and the colonial marines all echo the Aliens influence.
Evaluated purely as a shooter, Halo is straightforward; you blast through waves of enemies with an arsenal of 10 weapons (you know the staples: pistols, pulse rifles, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, etc.), salvage ammo and medkits, and do your best to keep the bullets flying. Your combat armor, with its rechargeable shield, offers a bit of a twist and will impact your attack strategy by periodically forcing you to make tactical retreats.
But what really sets Halo apart from the competition are the peripheral elements; specifically, squad mate AI and vehicles. In truth, your marine squad mates aren’t that handy in a firefight, but their mere presence makes you feel that you’re part of a larger struggle.
Ammo conservation is also a priority. In the game’s later levels, you’ll be frantically swapping weapons and slapping in magazines, fighting for every inch of terrain.
Slick vehicle physics take a cue from Goldilocks; they feel just right. I squealed with delight when I learned that the Banshee (a tiny, one-man jet fighter previously restricted to the single-player mode) is now available in multiplayer.
The Warthog - half Humvee, half ATV - is outrageously fun, and should probably be illegal. Actually, if Joe Lieberman gets his way, itwill be illegal soon enough. But in the meantime, this is the kind of amusement you could only find by watching the entire Icelandic air force carpet-bomb Clay Aiken.
Get enough friends together and you can have a threesome (stop snickering): one to drive, one to ride shotgun, and one to man the devastating chain gun in back. What did you think I meant? Get your mind out of the gutter. And remember: practice safe driving.
You’ll also get a chance to commandeer the destructive Scorpion tank, as well as the Ghost, a nimble Covenant hover bike with speed to burn.
I was never too keen on the stylistic presentation of the Covenant, and that remains unchanged with this PC port. A far cry from H.R. Giger's nightmarish Aliens vision, the Covenant have more in common with Walt Disney. Wildly colorful, a bit clownish, a bit goofy...Fwuffy wittle space aliens just don't do it for me, even if they're armed with plasma rifles.
A major plot twist midway through the game (which I won't reveal without pleading and/or confectionery) brings a second enemy into the fray and will force you to rethink your combat tactics just before you grow tired of greasing Covenant scum.
While the single-player campaign is a standout, Halo really stretches its legs and outdistances the competition with its accessible, furiously paced multiplayer mode. MP modes are highly customizable, and offer a new twist on some old standards. In addition to the Banshee, PC gamers get to toy with a Warthog variant that’s loaded with a rocket launcher instead of a chain gun. And then we have a pair of all-new matching his n’ her guns: a Fuel Rod gun, which is the Covenant’s idea of a plasma grenade launcher; and a flamethrower, for those intimate, personal moments. Only you can prevent forest fires.
The online battlefield is controlled chaos. Bodies fly left and right, Banshees dive-bomb, Warthogs crest hills out of control. Half the challenge of multiplayer is trying to suppress your laughter and amusement long enough to shoot straight.
There are now a total of 19 multiplayer maps, each with distinct landscapes. Timberland, a vast, hilly forest, seems to be the star of the new maps, while Blood Gulch remains the old favorite.
Powered by GameSpy, servers were plentiful. A cursory scan during peak game time revealed over 600 servers. (It's worth noting, though, that the same scan revealed only about 1000 players online - roughly 1.5 players per server - and my feelings toward half-people and midgets have already been well documented in my previous reviews.)
Come for the single-play – but stay for the multiplayer.
If you've been crying yourself to sleep at night, wondering why you dropped $400 clams on a video card only to have its awesome power wasted on Pong, fret no more. Halo is as pretty as they come. Things that look this good usually wear a sash and participate in swimsuit competitions. “If I had one dream, it would be for world peace.”
Gearbox rewrote Halo PC's engine to take advantage of DirectX 9 technology. To be perfectly honest, I haven't a clue what that entails, but I can tell you this: visually, Halo PC crushes its low-res, grainy Xbox precursor.
Outdoor levels are stunning, brimming with serene, alien beauty. If not for the Covenant and the shrapnel, this would be travel brochure stuff. Some of the indoor levels are a bit stale, filled with flat, cut n' paste scenery, but you won't be focused on the decor when Covenant Elites are trying to cave your skull in.
Combat is intense. Sparks fly, clouds of dirt are spit up by explosions, blood (both human and alien) stains walls and floors, battered and broken Covenant corpses litter the battlefield…War is hell.
Fantastic, wide-screen cut scenes piece the story together and will provide more than a few “ooh ah” moments.
Ah, but all is not well; playing in both 1280x1024 and 1024x768, intense firefights in close quarters frequently grinded to a halt. I was stunned to see my AMD 3000+, Radeon 9700-powered system - considered bleeding edge only six months ago - brought to its knees.
The good news is that Gearbox included a wide range of visual options to accommodate most users, so you should be able to tailor the game to your system, but gamers will want to triple check what they've got under the hood before snapping up Halo.
The outstanding audio component of the Xbox version arrives perfectly intact, which is good news for everyone involved. The soundtrack is part Starship Troopers, part Predator, and all good. By turns orchestral, tribal, militaristic and cinematic, composers Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori offer pieces that complement the relentless action perfectly. The military themes will have you frothing as you cut a swath through Covenant ranks, and the more ethereal, angelic pieces will make you sweat and grit your teeth as you trudge through darkened corridors.
Sound effects pack a punch and match the run n' gun pace. Your subwoofer will be working overtime, rocking your floor with every explosion. The MA5B Pulse Rifle sounds so damn cool, you’ll squeeze off rounds just to hear your tweeters sing. Some of the Covenant weapons are a little bland and puny, but certainly won't discourage anyone from picking them up and blasting away.
Voice acting is spectacular, if a little sparse. The Master Chief is the strong, silent type, and you won't get much more than a sentence or two out of him. But it's the macho, oversexed colonial marines who steal the show. Their hilarious taunts ("Get up so I can kill you again!") will provide more than a few chuckles and enhance the overall experience. It's no wonder the game's most memorable moments occur with they’re at your side, talkin’ trash and covering your back. Awesome!
The single-player campaign packs in around 15-20 hours of play, but factor in the challenges afforded by the varying difficulty modes and the replay value increases tenfold. Those who managed to beat the game's "Legendary" difficulty mode wear it as a geek badge of honor. Add to that a polished multiplayer mode that's guaranteed to smack you in the mouth and make you drop your Jell-O pudding pop, and you've got a title that's well worth the sub-$50.00 price tag.
As mentioned previously, the lack of a cooperative mode is a sad omission. But I think the enhanced multiplayer feature, with new maps, weapons and vehicles, fills the void and may even prove a more worthwhile component, depending on your personal tastes.
The only issue that's worth exploring as a prospective buyer is that of the steep system requirements. To get the most out of the Halo experience on the PC platform, you will want to be armed with some serious hardware from nVidia or ATI - and with high-end video cards retailing at twice the price of an Xbox console, you may want to think long and hard before reaching for your pocketbook.
There's a good reason why Halo has sold more than three million units and is regarded with misty-eyed reverence by gamers the world over. With all apologies to Vin Diesel, Halo is fast and furious, frantic and frenetic, fluid and fun. I'll cut it out with the "F" words...But you get the idea.
The staggering system requirements are a point of concern, though, and I feel I can't give the title a universal stamp of approval without a word of caution.
But if you've got the hardware, it's an electrifying experience you can't pass up. Halo: Combat Evolved is one of those rare games that will remind even the most jaded gamers why they love to play so damn much. What are you waiting for? Lock n' load.