The only thing people need to be concerned about when it comes to Halo is how soon they're going to get it and where they're going to find the time to play. With a story good enough for a full length novel, audio and visual elements as detailed as any you've ever seen and excellent pacing, Halo is the reason for Xbox and vice versa. Bungie has brought to the Xbox the game that will prove hundreds of thousands of naysayers wrong (about the system and thegame) and bring sweet relief and joy to those who've been biting their nails and pacing in circles waiting for Microsoft's machine to arrive. Hype is one thing; reality is another; Halo on Xbox is one of the best things to happen in videogames.
Halo takes place in the far future where mankind is locked into a brutal war against a race of aliens known as the Covenant. These dudes are seriously evil. They wipe out entire planets at a time, and they are so fast at doing so that we poor humans are unable to get much information on them before they nuke us into oblivion.
The horde of aliens is getting closer and closer to Earth with the clock quickly ticking down before they completely annihilate our race. Finally the line is drawn. In a massive battle near a human planet, only one ship survives: Pillar of Autumn. The commander of the ship decides to lure the Covenant as far away from Earth as possible so she programs the ship's AI to jump to some random location in the opposite direction of the home system.
Eventually the ship arrives at a distant area or space where they find both a gas giant called Threshold and its small moon known as Basis. This wouldn't be so strange except for the fact that they find a giant ring construct floating between the two objects, which is about 10,000 miles in diameter. Unfortunately for the small ship, the entire Covenant battle fleet had followed them and arrived in the system shortly before.
When you boot up the game, you're knee deep in the middle of the Autumn being evacuated. That giant ring construct is Halo and the secret that it holds is the part of the story that will be up to you to discover.
"Are those guys fighting with you?"
"Drive the Jeep! I wanna see the Jeep!"
"Damn, this feels like a movie!"
"I thought the fun part happened already."
"How come the enemies speak English?"
You will fire roughly 4 million rounds at all sorts of alien creatures and vehicles by the time you reach the end of Halo. It's definitely a first person shooter with the emphasis on shoot. But it's how you're motivated to deal all of that damage that makes the experience so enjoyable. And I'm not referring to the backstory of the game either. The artificial intelligence of the enemies is sophisticated enough and increases in difficulty at such a nice steady pace to that you are literally getting better the more you play.
There are a handful of basic enemy types that you'll encounter in Halo including the small annoying Grunts, force-field wearing Elites, shield carrying Jackals, terrifying Hunters and the good old cloaking Elites --they carry cool energy swords that you don't want to know about. Each of the different enemy types behaves and attacks according to their specific "personalities" and so there are tactics in dealing with each.
Grunts are basically chicken-ish and so they like to attack when they have plenty of backup and run away once you isolate them or show your aggression. The magic is in how they express themselves. When Grunts run away they only get so far and hide behind cover before they muster some more courage and pop out again. You simply pop them at will with whatever weapon you have handy.
Elites have an entirely different plan. They have shields, just like you, so they're more likely to go toe-to-toe. Once you get their shields down, however, they panic and become even more aggressive with a running melee attack of some kind. Since their shields are down, your best bet is to smash them with a melee attack of your own with whatever weapon you may be carrying. How often have you gotten frustrated in other FPS games and wished you could just smash the enemy in his side-chewing mouth? An up close and personal attack with the butt of your assault rifle is one of the more underrated joys that Halo will bring you.
The cloaked Elites, Jackals and Hunters are all just their own kind of trouble. The point is, you can have some expectations of what an enemy will do when you encounter them, but their individual moves will always keep you on your toes trying to react best to what they're doing. I said you'll spend 4 million rounds in Halo but I'd guess that you're only landing a third of them even if you're good.
How you'll actually play Halo is a result of how your Mark V Master Chief is designed to function as a warrior. Your cyborg's limited cargo space is how things stay nice and balanced. Human weapons include a pistol, the assault rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun and rocket launcher. Weapons you can pickup from the Convenant include a plasma pistol, plasma rifle and the needler (a cool looking delayed reaction weapon that homes in on targets). Each has a unique rate of fire, ammo capacity and damage potential, which is important because you can only carry two weapons at a time. You can't have doubles of anything so you'd better choose wisely when it comes to the tools of destruction you'll carry. The Sniper rifle for example has 10x zoom and night vision capabilities but it only carries four bullets at a time. Great at long distances, but enemies often like to attack in packs like I said. One of your four concussion grenades or four plasma grenades (courtesy of the Covenant) is usually a better way to go with a crowd of bad guys. You can only carry so much ammo for each weapon so reloading is another great way to make yourself vulnerable in Halo. This is a deliberate move on the part of Bungie to further limit you from dominating the game.
The limitations of the Master Chief along with the speed of the game and behavior of the enemies is what makes Halo a great console first person shooter. They come together to strike a fine balance between an all out firefight and using some tactical combat techniques. You can wade into a room with a dozen Covenant and feel confident because you've got a rocket launcher, shotgun and a full complement of grenades. But unless you're also good on the analog sticks and able to move about to use your weapons efficiently you'll get creamed. Traversing and tracking your targets is slower like you'd expect on a console and the enemies seem to know this. They'll try to outflank, surround you and close in for the kill, so it's up to you to be fast, accurate and smart all at the same time.
The vehicles of Halo are revolutionary. This is where the game seamlessly transitions from first person to third person perspective in real time. Furthermore, each vehicle including the Human Warthog and Scorpion and the Covenant Banshee and Ghost has a weapon and armor set up. I've already raved about the innovation of the Warthog Jeep in a separate feature but the accolades apply to all of them. I get the feeling though that the Jeep was Bungie's initial pride and joy. The control scheme works essentially the same as in first person with one analog stick for aiming and looking and the other for moving forward and back. It will feel extremely strange at first, but it does become second nature fairly quickly. The physics of the Warthog are better than the physics of some dedicated off-road racing games, and this includes the passengers riding in the driver's seat, passenger's seat and at the turret. They all bounce around and react with every single jump and fishtail you make. It even affects their accuracy when there are enemies to be shot at. The truths is, in single player or multiplayer games, there is no videogame experience that can compare to mobbing around in the Warthog with buddies (either AI or human controlled) blasting enemies from the passenger seat or the machine gun mounted on the back. Maybe this is why you'll be delighted, as I was, that Halo requires plenty of Jeep driving throughout the game. Unfortunately the Scorpion tank doesn't get as much love, with only one, but significantly long, section of the game featuring tank play.
That's enough gushing for now. Halo does have some elements to it that are not good and even a little disappointing. First off, the level design really hits a rut about midway through the single player game. The middle third of the game basically has you playing the same level over again except instead of fighting your way in to an objective like you did the first time, you're fighting your way back out. There's a major plot twist to keep you interested and motivated to keep playing and the sections you cleared on the way in are re-fortified with enemies and new objectives on the way out, but it is the same maze of bridges, corridors and areas you've already seen. The effect is, that after being constantly surprised and impressed early on in Halo, you eventually realize that you're doing a lot of things over again that you assumed you were done with. If I kill every bad guy on my way into a base, why are there even more bad guys waiting for me on my way out? Constant instant gratification early on in Halo soon turns to a holding pattern of waiting for something new. You'll definitely get the reward towards the end of the game, but it would've been great if there wasn't any dip at all.
The much hyped co-op mode is a blast since you can play through the entire single player game with a buddy, but we were disappointed that you will NOT be able to go co-op with two Xboxes, two TVs and two Halos using a link cable. It turns out that Bungie had every intention of including this but couldn't squeeze it in on time. It's especially frustrating because you can do Multiplayer with a buddy and two Xboxes but you're limited to the dedicated Multiplayer maps and game types. They're good, but there's nothing like having a friend literally help you through a game on his or her own full screen.
The multiplayer game is quite exhaustive with mulitple game types and customizable options of each. You can go straight deathmatch with friends and do what comes naturally but this is Halo, there's always more to it than the obvious. It's my prediction that the "Rally" games will be extremely popular because we've never had the opportunity to race vehicles around environments with a friend manning the weapons. Imagine Twisted Metal: Black with humans controlling the vehicles and the weapons. That's what we're talking about here. The problem is the game can start to stutter the more players, vehicles and explosions you add.
Remember you can connect with up to three other Xboxes with up to four players on each 'box in multiplayer games. A game with sixteen players holds the promise of a lot of fun, but it's in your best interest to keep the game type as simple as possible if you want to keep a decent framerate. However, anybody that experienced Perfect Dark's multiplayer game won't have a problem with the framerate hit. As a rule of thumb it's best to spread out players on as many Xboxes as possible. So if you have four buddies and they all have systems and Halos, don't all lump together on one TV for split screen action, spread out and link up with four TVs.
The game is not invulnerable to severe chopping. Whenever you get multiple vehicles in large areas you're really asking for trouble. Even then you'll only notice unbearable chopping when you get near structures or other intricately modeled areas. In first person however, even with floods of enemies charging in around you, Halo stays rock solid. This is first person shooter remember, not a third person vehicular combat game.
But the game still looks outstanding. IGNcube's Matt Cassamassina is a card-carrying texture junkie and one of the first things he noticed was how good Halo looks when you're up close to a tree or rock. The bark looks woody and the stones look hard and unforgiving.
You may not have time to go on Cassamassina's sight seeing tour of rocks and trees because you'll have all kinds stunning lighting effects from the explosions to keep you distracted. Everything that produces light in Halo will illuminate and cast shadows on the environment with amazing accuracy. Your flashlight, sunshine, the flash from your weapons muzzle, headlights from vehicles and other glowing stuff all light up Halo unlike anything you've seen before. If you flash a light through a transparent floor down into an endless abyss, you won't see anything. If the headlights of your tank are shining on a wall, enemies around the corner --who can't see you-- will see the light reflecting off the wall and come running. The Covenant plasma grenades, glowing with sizzling blue energy, make for some of the prettiest fireworks in the game. Throw one into a darkened area and it acts as a flare illuminating everything around it until it explodes --eliminating everything around it.
Bungie keeps everything fairly confined in Halo so there's no outstanding depth of field. Even the outdoor areas have the natural boundaries of a mountain, canyon walls or the ocean to keep things nice and close. The beach section has water and you can go into it, but the H2O isn't very impressive and the blue sky texture is actually closer than you'd think. But while outside you can always look up and see the rest of Halo climbing up, over and all the way around to where you're standing.
The animation is best part of the game that's easiest to overlook because it's so natural. Marines, enemies and vehicles move with intricate articulation and fluidity. Rather than simply moving arms and legs, Bungie gives the illusion of weight to each individual character with proper hip and leg movements that would go along with weight transfer. Put another way, I've never seen a Covenant alien, but I'd expect them to scurry away, hop around and chase after me like they do in Halo if I ever met one because those buggers look real.
The very first level of Halo teaches you to listen and listen well. You'll have to find a certain marine in the middle of a firefight and let him tell you where you're supposed to go to advance. Even in basic stereo there's enough separation and sound balancing for you to hear what you need to hear from your comrades. In 5.1 surround sound, you're gong to be fully immersed.
If you've got 5.1 you will appreciate the voice acting and sound effects even more than your two-channel Halo-loving brethren. The Covenant speak English (like all good aliens) and you'll hear them say things like "Go look over there!", "He's HERE!" or "They're everywhere!" when you encounter them. Brilliant. You're marines are from all over the Earth and come complete with Australian and Spanish accents. But voices are only half the story.
The sound effects help you through the game since you'll be able to hear if enemies are around and where they're coming from. You'll even be able to identify them by sound after just a few rounds of play. This way, you can equip that rocket launcher if you know there's an ass-kicking coming your way. But engine noises, reloading sounds, shield recharging, firing echoes and even footsteps are all top notch and only get better. Great stereo equipment is going to be a must have for the Xbox with games like Halo out there.
And the original music sets the mood for the epic storyline. The Gregorian Chant-style harmonizing on the main menu screen will become and instant classic and you may find yourself humming right along with it. String arrangments are heavy throughout but that doesn't mean it's all slow and heavy all the time. When the pace is picked up you get the bass-heavy part of the orchestra kicking in to keep you on edge.
In the game itself, music can fade in to ease you into a new area or it can hit with a bang to let you know there's something significant coming up. Whatever the case, it's clear that the pace of Halo and the music blend beautifully to create one overall mood that changes several times throughout the game.