Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: September 16, 2003
Buy 'HALO: Combat Evolved': PC
Halo in the evening and Halo in the morning: that’s how to best describe our meeting with Bungie, Microsoft and Gearbox Software when they were in town for their showcase tour for the eagerly-anticipated PC version of Halo: Combat Evolved. On Monday, I was invited to partake in a LAN party, and what was only meant to be an hour of good multiplayer FPS fun turned into three hours of shouting, yelling, spawning, respawning, laughing and bragging over an excellent frag, up to the point where my wife was giving me subtle hints that it was time to get going by putting on her jacket. Without her hints, we would have been there until the crack of dawn. Needless to say, Halo multiplayer is awesome, totally fun and highly addictive, and the LAN atmosphere and free beer certainly didn’t hurt any.
For the few people who are STILL unfamiliar with the Halo concept, let me quickly enlighten you. A few years ago, Bungie came along with word of an exciting new project for the PC by announcing the arrival of Halo. Immediately, it was the talk of the town, and the concept of driving vehicles was born way back then, not with the recent slew of games sporting this phenomenon. As people got excited over Halo, their dreams were shattered when Microsoft came along and snuffed out their hopes by announcing the buyout of Bungie, resulting in Halo becoming an Xbox exclusive and the flagship and launch title for the fledgling console. Now, two years after its Xbox debut, Microsoft and Bungie are delivering the goods by bringing Halo back to where it rightfully belongs by hiring Randy Pitchford and his Gearbox Software band of brothers to bring us the Halo goodness!
The story remains the same, as Halo takes place in the year 2552. The main character is Master Chief, a SPARTAN-117 super soldier model, born and raised for combat and thrown in the mix in the battle against the Covenant, an alien species trying to find and conquer Earth. Of course, we humans have been exploring and colonizing space while the Covenant has been busy tracking us down and destroying our bases in the process. When planet Reach gets overrun by the aliens, you escape in the starship Pillar of Autumn, and on your way out you come across an alien construction, a weird ringlike world hovering over another planet … Halo.
Now you are all caught up on things, and we are ready to kick some alien ass, or as one of my favorite movie quotes goes, "I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I'm all out of bubble gum."
The single player part of the game is identical to the Xbox version, as every mission, level and event are an exact port. The only notable difference is not in the content but the controls, as the game pad functions have been mapped onto a keyboard and mouse, which, of course, you will be able to re-map to your liking. Randy mentioned that he and the other Gearbox folks are die-hard FPS fans, growing up with all of the classic shooters, and there is only one way to play an FPS -- with a keyboard and mouse. From that perspective, Halo has gotten an upgrade because let’s face it, messing with the two analog thumbsticks to move and aim is just no fun, and aiming can be a bitch. Halo is finally getting played the way it is supposed to be!
One of the most impressive features of the Xbox version was the incredible AI it sported, and Randy assured us that it will match and even surpass that in the PC port. As you beef up the difficulty level of the game, you will encounter more enemies, they will react in a smarter fashion, and you inflict less damage upon them while you take more. As Randy likes to brag, "Legendary will still kick your ass!"
The only other "upgrade" the game has received is the graphics. They are not different, just bigger and better. What does that mean? Well an Xbox has a resolution of 640*480 and only plays on a TV, while we cranked up the PC version to 1600*1200, and everything looked super crisp and clear. Try that with an Xbox … oh wait ... you CAN’T , even if you wanted to. Now doing all of this was no easy task. According to Randy, it has only been in the past 6+ months, with the release of DirectX 9 and the newest graphics boards that they were even capable of matching the Xbox's superior gpu. Everything had to be rewritten to match the pixel shader 2.0 standards, but people with older machines do not have to fear, as Gearbox is working hard to minimize the system requirements. It should run fine on a P3 733/933 with a Geforce 2 MX, although without some of the impressive bells and whistles.
During the LAN session, we tried out four of the six new multiplayer maps (there are a total of 19 maps, so the other 13 are conversions of maps in the Xbox version). The new maps are called Ice Fields, Death Island (a single player location adapted for multiplayer purposes), Danger Canyon, Infinity, Timberland, Blood Gulch, Sidewinder and Gephyrophobia ("fear of bridges," for those of us who attended the School of Hard Knocks). We got a chance to play Blood Gulch, Timberland, Death Island, and Danger Canyon. Each map supports up to 16 players, with eight people on each team. One thing you will notice right away is the fact that the maps are not super large where you wander off and run around for minutes all by your lonesome self, but they are large enough for 16 players to have room and maneuverability. On all of the maps, you have two team bases on opposite sides, and depending on which multiplayer mode you are playing, you will need to control waypoints (a la King of the Hill), or they merely serve as spawn points (Death Match).
Each base is not only your respawn point but also the place where you will find most of your vehicles and weapons. In the Xbox version of Halo, the Banshee (an aerial assault vehicle) can only be used by the Covenant in single player mode, but for the PC version, it is also available in multiplayer mode, and boy, is it fun! Gearbox certainly didn’t stop there. You also have two new multiplayer weapons available: the flamethrower and fuel rod cannon. While we all know the flamethrower is more of a close combat weapon to fry nearby enemies, the fuel rod cannon is more of a long-distance bombardment weapon, as it spits out some green plasma in a downward angle, which is very suitable for attacking from an elevated position and packs enough punch to flip over Warthogs. While we are on the subject of the Warthog, this is another unique vehicle which Gearbox added to the multiplayer mix, with a rocket launcher mounted in the back.
As I mentioned earlier, we also had another meeting the next morning during which we got to play through parts of the single player mode and then circled back for some more multiplayer goodness, where we then got to see the 2 other new maps, Ice Fields and Gephyrophobia. While we were not allowed to take any screens of these two levels, I can say that Ice Fields was particularly interesting since it is situated in an icy canyon where the ground level is covered with huge snowballs and icy surfaces, and the overhead is connected by caves, ledges and bridges. Taking a Scorpion tank and maneuvering it through obstacles, slipping and sliding all over the place AND trying to take out enemies turned out to be quite grueling, and your lack of accuracy quickly negated the fact that you were suited in armor and packed a heavy punch.
The Gephyrophobia map, on the other hand, features a huge bridge in the middle of the map with team bases hidden inside huge rock formations on each side and overhead ledges in an elevated position, which are accessed through portals. This is a map where the new fuel rod cannon comes in very handy, as you can seriously lay the smackdown on any opposing forces that are trying to make their way across the bridge.
In terms of multiplayer, we previously mentioned the CTF and DM modes, but there are also the Race Mode (racing around the track in the vehicles and knocking out your opponents), Slayer (a DM variant), and Oddball. If all of this is not enough variety, then do not despair, Gearbox is adding a mini in-game editor where you can tweak each and every aspect of the multiplayer mode to create your own custom multiplayer game that goes way beyond anything you have seen so far in any other game.
In terms of content, Halo for the PC is already finished, but Gearbox is mainly taking their time to optimize the netcode for multiplayer gaming. From what we have seen, Halo is looking great, plays even better and has an extremely fun multiplayer portion to the game. Although I would have liked to see new single player content in the PC port, it seems Gearbox went for an exact copy, although more of the same is not always a bad thing. In terms of a demo, Randy said we will NOT see anything prior to the game's release but rather after it hits store shelves, as they want to focus all their attention on polishing the game. Since I am not an Xbox owner and have missed out on Halo experience thus far, I am certainly looking forward to Halo's release on the PC, where it should have been all along!