What is Halo? It is a ring-world, a weapons system, a prison and also the biggest bomb in the galaxy. It shows in every moment of gameplay or cut-scene that whoever made Halo loves their science fiction. The costumes, the aliens, the worlds and above all the story reek of a rich heritage – novels, comics and films boiled down and rendered into a masterpiece. (Reviewer takes hit from oxygen bottle).
Halo is also what saved the Xbox – a First Person Shooter with a kick-a* story and loving references to Iain M. Banks, Larry Niven, 2000 AD and Aliens – the movie. The space marines that mill about in support have the same look and feel as the panicky jaw-fodder in Aliens. They even shout “they’re everywhere!” as the enemy hordes close in. So far, so derivative. But then we hear the same cry, this time from a little alien soldier. We can see the opposition’s fear of us, and more importantly of you, the Master Chief: Cyborg hero to the marines – “There he is!” comes the awe-struck shout – and bogey man to the Covenant – “He’s everywhere” screeches a waddling grunt, running for his life. Halo gives us fantastic enemies that show character and humour. It makes killing them so much more fun.
So much of what made Halo excellent is still here in this PC port; the dry humour – episode titles like “I could have been your daddy”; the stylish world design; the intelligent combat and the whoop-for-joy vehicles. The Warthog jeep, with its turret machine gun lets you drive like a maniac and carry marines into battle; the enemy hover-bikes and phantom fliers, with their organic design, give you the edge in the air; the Scorpion tank rumbles beautifully through one of the most powerful sections of the game.
Thankfully the combat is still as fun and challenging: you can forget marching into the melee and mowing down the masses. The opposition will quickly fry your shield, your armoured shell and then your cyborg rump. From the start it is obvious that your enemies aren’t dumb robots. They hide, they talk, and they outflank you. They panic and rally as the battle flows. This is what “Combat Evolved” means, and Halo rightly set the benchmark for small-arms fighting in a First-Person Shooter. It’s still good in parts.
Keeping things rolling is a powerful and driving soundtrack; sometimes eery, sometimes f**htening, and always woven into the fabric of the game. Some wonderful battle music – jazzy drums with a simple staccato roll – has echoes of the best scenes in Three Kings, and has the same nerve-jangling effect.
Not everything that this PC version shares with its Xbox brother is good. The Flood’s zombies, for example are too much of a Half-Life rip-off. In the company of the rasping jelly-fish they bring back too many memories of green blood at the Black Mesa. The gimmick of having two or three fighting factions wipe themselves out is effective, but also a Half-Life touch. It also begins to wear thin as yet another Flood vs Covenant skirmish erupts around the corner.
There are also too many cookie-cutter levels; bland halls linked by drag-and-drop corridors inside which lurk tiny little loading moments. While the action in each hot-spot is challenging, the repetitive bits of architecture do start to drag. Later on in the game you’ll retrace your steps through the same sections – it all works within the context of the story, but still it feels like one big wrapping-up process as the end approaches.
Sometimes the action fails to save the level design. The point of lowest quality is the long and boring trip to the Library behind the blue drone. Not since Doom have I seen such obvious monster-triggering spots and mass-onslaught of enemies (Serious Sam/Will Rock excepted). On the one hand the massed ranks make a change from the slippery tactical combat in the rest of the game; on the other hand it’s a bit numbing. The Flood will come in waves, dropping from air vents and out of thin air. You’ll step into a trigger section, fight back the first wave; step into the same section: cue wave two. For all the talk of “Combat Evolved”, this is one h** of a throwback section. Where the Flood are thick, the combat is primitive.
If you want to feel the rage of a Neanderthal with his back-fur on fire, try and pit your top-end graphics card against Halo’s graphical constraints. OK, so the res options let you go up to 1600×1200; the performance doesn’t keep up, however. On both Radeon 9800s and higher-end GeForce cards there were jaw-dropping slow-downs. In fact the graphics engine seems to optimised (i.e. works well only at) 800×600. For those with machines costing ten times the price of an Xbox and with at least three times the power, this is unacceptable.
For those who’ve never played co-operative Halo on an Xbox, not having it on the PC may not be a bother. Ask any Xboxer, though, and you may get a faceful of spittle as he or she traps you in a happy tale of collaboration: the holding on for dear life to avoid going back to the last checkpoint; the accidental looting of a buddy’s weapons; the time when the pair of them attacked in a pincer movement and finished off a Covenant platoon with 2 grenades and a pistol between them. Yes, cooperative play had quite an effect on gamers; it took a snazzy FPS and made it special. And because there’s nothing worse than being in a beautiful world and not having anyone to share it with – Halo on Xbox deserves thanks for giving us that opportunity.
And then the sad refrain, the sorry ending to that tale: “No co-op on PC” whispers the shocked Xbox veteran. A hushed silence. “Who cares?” replies the online death-match addict. Well, fair enough. There are vehicles and new weapons to enjoy in the online Halo world; there are several modes of combat which benefit from years of other games’ multiplayer experiments. But nothing fills the hole where cooperative mission play used to be.
If you have fond memories of Halo on the Xbox, keep them there. While the engaging story-line and excellent scenarios have come across onto the PC, that first-time effect coupled with the exquisite cooperative play have been lost. Add on top the unacceptable slow-downs and not-that-stupendous graphics, and what you have is an OK FPS with a great story that nearly carries it over the finish line to greatness. If, on the other hand, you’ve never played Halo at all, then I suggest you play it on an Xbox – they’re pretty cheap these days.