Buy 'HALO: Combat Evolved': PC
Yes, it's true, Halo is finally here for the pc. And, yes I must say it, it was supposed to be a PC game in the beginning right? I mean Bungie, the developer, was hot on making one of the best single player/multiplayer experiences ever for the PC this side of Half Life (the game was originally meant to be the follow up for Myth, an RTS and the Mac, but i guess things changed). Then, Microsoft came along and tapped on their shoulders and said, "hey boys, need a lift?" Well, what's a girl to do? So the game immediately began development only for the Xbox. This was grave news for the pc gamer. Would it possibly have a chance of being released on the PC? The rumors flew for some time. "Yes" it would simultaneously launch with the Xbox. Then "no" it wouldn't launch with the Xbox but would be released later. Then "no" it was an Xbox title only.
Then some time after the Xbox version was out we heard, "ok maybe." Well, at least we could cling to that for a while.
So, we waited for the Xbox launch. And oh boy was Halo having a heyday. This was considered an Xbox launch product, a product so good that people would actually go buy an Xbox to play it. Well, it worked. Halo blew the doors open for the Xbox. As a PC gamer I had to sit back and listen. Listen to how great it was. Listen to how much fun it was. So, would it ever make it to the pc. No word could be found for almost a year. Then we started hearing about Gearbox and a port for the pc. Well, this was interesting. They would farm it out to another company to support the pc version while the very talented folks at Bungie would continue working on Halo 2. Gearbox did make an expansion for Half Life called Opposing force that I thoroughly enjoyed. Maybe they could pull it off.
So here it is two years later and we finally have Halo. You may have read some other reviews by now and learned some things about it. Overall the fun element has been preserved from what I experienced on the console version. There are some unexpected things in Gearbox's port of this fantastic game that may have you scratching your head though.
Let's dig in….
Most good games that I have played all the way through have some kind of a decent story to keep you involved. Halo comes through in spades here. Some, after playing the Xbox version have gone out and bought the book so they can further immerse themselves in the world that Halo creates. That's what most forms of entertainment from books, movies and games are going for, immersion. Feeling like you're in a place that really could exist and walking around that environment to experience it for yourself.
You are the Master Chief and you are forced out of some kind of cryosleep to save humanity. Well, at least you are going to try and save your own ass for the most part. The ship you start out on, The Autumn, has some visitors that are taking it over and your help is needed. Once you fight your way to a last remaining pod, you and a few marines, along with a little AI friend find yourself crash landing on a peculiar ring shaped planet. From the moment you land you are pursued and are constantly on the run.
As the story unfolds you find other survivors and different confrontations that you must face to get further into the plot. Your AI companion is a constant muse in helping you understand and realize your goals. For the three people on the planet that have never played through Halo, I don't want to ruin the story so I won't go into details. Yes, I was one of the three so that makes two of you. You do continue to unearth more and more information about what Halo actually is and you eventually find a greater purpose.
As far as games go, I would say the story is excellent and compelling. I found playing through other recent first person shooters, like Unreal 2, that the story felt like a backdrop to demonstrating the really cool technology and graphics. Although Unreal 2 did end with a bang in the story, Halo tends to keep a good pace throughout.
There are some areas, especially in the Library that it gets very redundant and you feel like you are ready for something new. And, there are a few points in the 1.0 and 1.1 version that I played where the story was interrupted by some unrefined programming. There is one place where the story was actually at a pinnacle, unraveling some very important, plot changing news when the vocals were not synced up and just plain missing? Could have been a glitch in the system but it was certainly very frustrating.
Once the game was loaded onto my hard drive I launched it with great enthusiasm. Immediately I heard that beautiful acappella mens choir and saw Halo spinning in the background. Goose pimples. Could the original spirit of the game be in tact? I quickly checked to see if there were any updates. None were available at the time of launch. Yes this is something that as a pc owner I do with every game. Then I clicked that little button called settings. This is something that I usually do as well because default resolutions normally are very low.
Well, that was my first mistake. I only cranked the graphics up to 1280 x 1024 to start with. There are higher settings but I didn't want to be too risky until I played and saw how it performed. As I watched the opening sequence no troubles arose. However, once I started down a hallway I noticed some slow down. Then, once the covenant, your main enemy in Halo, were firing at me it was actually unplayable. The frame rates slowed down like a herd of turtles through peanut butter. Yeah, slow. Ok, your first question is, "bet you have a slow machine?" Well, I didn't think so until Halo got a hold of it.
My machine is a P4 3.2 with a Radeon 9800 128 meg of ram. I also have 512 of ddr3500 system Ram. Not the fastest on the planet but certainly way above the specs described on the box.
System requirements on the box: 733 MHz, 32 mb/3d T&L capable video card.
Well, my rig will run Unreal Tournament 2003 with everything turned up at 1600x1200 resolution. UT2003 looks much more advanced in its show of color, texture and uses of hardware T & L than Halo does. How could this be that it was running choppy? Next I turned the resolution down to 1280x768. Back in the game to fight these tricky aliens, but wait a minute, still choppy. Hmm. I have the latest video drivers don't I? After a quick check on Radeon's site, yes I did. Ok, lets back it down again, this time to 1024x768.
Ok, on my machine at 1280x768 the game now plays without slowdowns. Here is the bad news. Those high resolutions screenshots you have been looking at in previews of Halo, for the most part those aren't playable. I'm guessing that some patching of the game along with new releases of video drivers from NVIDIA and ATI will address Halo specifically and provide some help. As a matter of fact I saw that NVIDIA released their new drivers sporting a new name today. They are claiming a huge gain in performance for games like Halo. The release includes some verbiage claiming "performance in the DirectX 9.0 application HaloPC™ improves by up to 58%." Link: NVIDIA Introduces ForceWare Release 50 Graphics Driver. I'm sure ATI is hot on the topic as well. NVIDIA needed this release as they have been having difficult reports regarding their video cards and DirectX 9.0 performance. But that's another story.
Ok, so how does it look at 1280x768? Well your not going to be as impressed as you were when you first saw some video and screen shots a couple of years ago. When the game was still in development for the pc, the videos of the vehicles kicking up dirt and banshee's flying around the sky was all the rage. Now, not so much. At this resolution, because the computer monitor is high definition it does look better than a normal TV would with the Xbox. Not sure about an Xbox hooked into a high definition tv. That may be close. I'm comparing the Xbox's 800x640 resolution to the pc version? Well, in a word yes. There is clearly no comparison if you crank the graphics up to 1600x1200 but then again, unless your running the game on a no holds bar supercomputer, what's the point? Again, with some video card driver updates and some optimizing patches from Gearbox this may all be mute in a few months.
The Graphics at playable resolutions still look good. Shiny surfaces abound, even off the covenant. The covenant, are the aliens that you spend most of the game fighting. The graphics are clearly not going to blow you away anymore but they aren't bad. Once your playing away you will forgive and forget. At that point they look quite fine and you will actually find some areas where it looks very good. Just so you know, most of the screen shots here are done in 1600x1200 so you can see how good Halo can look. With the resolution turned down more jagged edges appear but once again, this is forgivable because the game pulls you in so well.
You may be asking at this point, "Haven't you dogged the graphics long enough." To that I answer "yes." I just want people to know what to expect when they try and play. I suspect there will be many a frustrated gamer out there wanting to play. But, on their P3 or older P4 with a decent graphics card, they may find the game too choppy to keep playing.
On to the good stuff. Quite frankly, the AI is the best I have seen. Yes, better than Half Life in many ways. Certainly better than the last few FPS I have played over the last couple of years. Sure there were a couple moments in Unreal 2 where things went well. And, there was a moment or two in Thief that the AI was believable and rather ‘human' acting. In Halo however, the covenant actually can be quite frustrating because they act with such logic. If one is hurt, he will do a lot of duck and cover maneuvers that can get you very frustrated if you're low on health yourself. The strafing ability is quite impressive in some of the enemy characters. I remember being shocked when I threw a sticky grenade at one of the elite's and he side stepped it very quickly and leaped towards me before I could get another shot off. After passing through about half of the game you begin to get a feel for how each of the covenant will react. It's just about then that you get swarmed with the flood. The flood's whole strategy is to do live up to their name. They flood you with wave after wave of several type of fast moving zombie hordess. You just have to love a fast moving zombie hordes don't ya?
The ai in your comrades is worth mentioning too. I have found that other games which allow you to have ai buddies tag along end up being quite frustrating. In some of those games your ai companion gets lost or even finds a way to get stuck. This did not happen in Halo for me. The ai stayed with me and even apologized if they gave me some friendly fire. They also chide you for poor driving or friendly fire on your part.
One question I had with the game was how easy it would be on the pc. Let's face it, the toggle switches and joystick maneuvering on a console will never match the lightning quick accuracy of the mouse and keyboard. I know that may invoke some naysaying from the console domain but it's not a contest. Would anyone like to face fatal1ty in a 1 on 1 deathmatch with an Xbox controller? I think not.
So my concern was with the accuracy of the pc, would the game be a challenge? I played through on Heroic difficulty. I thought about trying Legendary but I had been warned by someone that it would be to hard. "Hmmmm, yeah, I bet" was my thought. Since I had not played through much of the Xbox version of the game I had no experience with the strategy of Halo. And yes, there is strategy.
Just to give you a frame of reference, I play very well in other first person shooters like Quake 3, and the Unreal series. Having said that, I felt that I was up for a good challenge if Halo presented it. Well it certainly did, in spades. Yes, you can aim much quicker with the pc but the auto-aim feature in the Xbox port is not there. The enemy moves with speed and grace. They will stop drop and roll quicker than you will when you realize you have to upgrade your pc to play the game. You need patience and strategy to get through some of the areas in different levels because you can get stopped in your tracks. There are, as I mentioned previously, times when you start to get a feel for the types of movements the different covenant have. But they are still tough customers. I'm playing through on Legendary difficulty now and I suspect I would have given up had I not gotten used to the strategy and weapons in the game on Heroic difficulty first.
Another important thing that I find really pulls me in to a good game is open ended gameplay. No, you can not progress through Halo like a completely open ended game. It is very linear and you must follow that objective path to make progress. However, I found myself getting through a certain area by the hair of my chin only to try it again with a different strategy in mind. This, to me, makes a game very fun because you don't feel completely without choices as you progress through. You have a little control over which way you choose to beat down the enemy in a specific area. Or, you can choose not to fight at all and hop a banshee fleeing for your life. Did I mention you can fly the banshee?
Throw grenades and clear a way and then run out like Rambo shooting anything that moves usually will result in immediate termination. However, I found that sometimes running through and trying to hop in an enemy vehicle before he could get to it was a great alternative. Or, in some places you can try to use some of the flood against the covenant. Truly this gives the game a feeling of having some choices in the matter of saving humanity. This provides you with a sense of being a part of the story as it unfolds.
Your main weapons are standard human fare and have no real surprise. Yeah, it's fun to use a sniper with night vision. I find dropping my issued weapons in favor of the alien weapons much more fun. You have a choice, once you mow them down, over a couple different types of alien blasters. Each has different uses and come in handy in different ways. You also have a couple types of grenades. One type is sticky and will stay on whatever or whoever you throw it on. For the most part though nothing to dramatic here. Oh, did I mention that you can steal a banshee from those hateful bastards and use it against them?
The music is very good. Well composed and fitting to most situations. It gets more intense in the right places. It comes in at just the right places with some very ambient, moody tones to set the stage. In some places it builds and pulses to increase the adrenalin. This is just another touch to the game that shows great attention to all the right details.
Sounds in the world and from your enemies are very good. Each different type of alien covenant have their own unique voices and character. This is mostly reflected by their little taunts and unique vocal inflections. The sound is very professionally done and it furthers the immersion factor even more. There is nothing worse than booting a game up and just when your ready to really feel the mood, in drops a voiceover that sounds like your uncle Fred carrying on at the back yard barbeque. Or worse, Uncle Fred trying to sound like he is being a serious voice actor and just ruining your favorite game. Ok, I pushed the Fred thing to far. The voiceovers are professional and well done, nuff said.
I put this in the let's wait and see category. At launch there were just hardly any playable servers out there. I did find that with the first patch things got a little better, but not much. I found myself taking ten steps forward only to be brought right back to where I started because the latency was so bad. You can actually find many playable servers at this point but things are so disjointed on most that if you're looking for a good team deathmatch, it's basically just a big spam fest. There were several games that I just left because the spawn points were in areas where people just waited for you to spawn and fragged you before you got to move. There was already a kind of feeling that if you didn't know the multiplayer game very well, you were a newbie and you would hear about it. I assume that there were many Xbox players on line because the taunts came in droves if you made a rookie mistake with a vehicle or a weapon you had never tried before. I'm going to keep trying the multiplayer piece of Halo but it is definitely not what it was touted to be when it was first in development.
Halo on the PC supports up to 16 player LAN and online multiplay. Unfortunately the two player co-op mode that was present in the XBOX version of the game is absent on the PC. I was very disappointed to see this. My favorite way of playing multiplayer games is coop and it is very hard to find that for the pc these days. In the end it's all about the money and it just isn't worth the extra development time, which can be substantial for adding cooperative modes, for most companies to add.. Bummer.
Overall there is no question that the sum of Halo is greater than its parts. I loved playing through the single player game and learning more about the covenant race and the insidious flood. Halo has a character to it that many games try to aspire to and just never quite find. The developers at Bungie are just downright amazing. They have raised the level of expectation when it comes to story driven first person shooters. Graphically it doesn't stand in the same halls of glory that it would have a couple years ago. It doesn't look bad at all, but it won't be the best you have seen. As I have found with most great games, you really don't pay that much attention to the graphics when you are completely immersed into a game and enjoying the ride you're on. When it's fun you find a lot of forgiveness for Halo's minor indiscretions.
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