HALO: Combat Evolved

Developer: Bungie
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1-4, 1-16 via system link
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Well, what do you say about a game as good as this? - If you own an Xbox it's highly unlikely you haven't played Halo or at least know all about it, and now it's out on Microsoft's own budget label and available for £19.99 or less there seems to be little reason not to try it, and I say that even if you don't normally like first person shooters, because Halo is so much more…

We all know that games that have as high a profile as Halo usually end up being a disappointment, but our faith and interest in the FPS genre was totally restored and rekindled when Halo arrived to accompany the Xbox launch.

Set in space and on the titular mysterious ring-planet Halo, this is an epic story of a brilliant spaceship commander (Captain Keyes) who would trash his ship and hope to stand and fight rather than lead the massed alien enemy fleet (The Covenant) back to Earth… You are awoken from cryogenic sleep and instructed (during a superb intro-come-training level) to get down to the ring's surface and start fighting. Oh, and by the way, you happen to be a 7ft 'Combat Evolved' armoured cyborg, and you are capable of kicking (and shooting) some SERIOUS arse…

   

Halo's surface has idyllic looking coastlines, deserts and icy mountainous regions, and you'll experience them all in this cinematic, action-packed masterpiece of a game. So for the both of you lunar troglodytes who don't know anything about Halo, it's a amazingly beautiful first-person shooter in the Doom, Quake, Goldeneye or Half-Life mould… But Halo takes this mould and smashes it, taking the use of vehicles - ground-based and airborne - to new levels of interactivity in this type of game. Walk up to a 'Warthog' jeep, a 'Scorpion' tank, a 'Ghost' speeder bike or a 'Banshee' aircraft in Halo and get in… The camera seamlessly zooms and rotates to a third-person, behind the vehicle chase view. When I saw this happen first I was less than impressed (thinking you should "be" behind the wheel in a FPS), and the handling/steering method of the vehicles certainly takes some getting used to (you point the camera where you want the vehicle to go rather than "steer" it normally), but after some practice it seems to work perfectly, just like the rest of the game.

Halo spans 10 levels which vary hugely in size, difficulty and complexity, but if 10 levels sounds like Halo is a short game then think again - there's hours, nay weeks of gameplay in here. Halo only allows you to carry two weapons, and it seems restrictive at first, but soon feels logical and right - sometimes you'll have to weigh up what enemy lies ahead and choose the best combination for the job - it's so much more realistic than these games that allow you to carry entire arsenals into battle, where you spend more time selecting weapons than firing them. A dedicated grenade button (the left trigger) soon feels sensible too, and you'll wonder why all FPS haven't always had one as you accurately toss the two types of grenade around, blowing up the enemy in extremely satisfying ways - the game's ragdoll physics really add to the effect as bodies fly everywhere. The weapons (human and alien pistols and rifles, shotgun, rocket launcher and sniper rifle) all seem to have their weaknesses and strengths, and you'll use them all at some point or another.

   

An amazing feature is that this gorgeous looking game can be played fully through in a split-screen 2-player mode. This is quite simply the best co-operative combat gaming ever, only the considerably newer Brute Force or Conflict Desert Storm have come anywhere near for co-operative gaming, and linked-up Doom on Playstation is the only other thing to supply that feeling of two buddies versus hordes of alien scum (and that required; a link cable, two PSX's, two TVs and two copies of the game). It plays quite superbly; it has a remarkably steady frame rate considering the detailed textures, reflections, lighting and particle effects that are being thrown around. Bump mapping that gives surfaces a genuinely tactile three dimensional look lifts Halo above any other FPS, and the detailing touches like varied bullet holes and scorch marks from the weapons, ejected bullet casings rattling on the ground, shrapnel from explosions, or even the antenna on the Tank that sways in the wind... There are wonderful gaming moments like being able to leap into the passenger seat of your mate's Warthog Jeep (whilst still being able to fire your weapon), or even become a gunner using the rear-mounted 12.7mm M41 LAAG (watch the bullet casings fly!) whilst an AI Marine will occupy the other seat. The excellent AI of both your fellow Marines and the enemy means some amazingly believable battles, you can snipe to cover your buddy, plan two-pronged attacks or fight shoulder to shoulder like brothers in arms… And you can't talk about Halo without mentioning the sound; It's amazing enough on your average TV with its superb reactive music (we want the soundtrack album) and atmosphere-inducing effects, but if you possess a Dolby Digital sound-setup the (that accepts the Xbox's optical input), then get an advanced Scart lead with optical digital out. You have to hear it to believe just how good the Dolby Digital 5.1 is.

   

The enemy are a remarkably atypical bunch, a rag tag collective of alien races known as the Covenant who are united in their fanatical religious devotion to seeing one thing happen - the extinction of the human race. They consist of small bipedal dog-like creatures called Grunts, sneaky bird-like Jackals that hide behind their own portable shields, the elegant and powerful commander "Elite" race, and the massive spiked Hunters that always travel in pairs and are best described as "two-legged tanks with anger problems". You'll come across a few other enemies along the way too. This Covenant might strike you as a strange choice of enemy at first, but even the often cowardly and amusing Grunts can kill you if you underestimate them or get too cocky. Every single one of them is beautifully animated, and you'll genuinely feel like you're fighting an intelligent foe (some are braver and more intelligent than others though).

The deathmatch levels are a varied and interesting bunch, from huge outdoor icy and desert levels to smaller, more typical Quake/Goldeneye/Perfect Dark style affairs. The larger levels even allow the use of the aforementioned vehicles (apart from the Banshee), which obviously adds a whole new aspect to the game. Sniping the driver of a tank (which has both machine gun and main cannon) is terrifying yet incredibly satisfying when you manage it. 4 player deathmatches work well, even if the Xbox starts to chug a bit occasionally when the screens are filled with jeeps, tanks, smoke and explosions. You can system link two, three or four Xboxes together to have 8, 12 or 16 player matches (system linking two Xboxes requires just a single cable, linking three or four require a copy of the game for each machine, a hub, leads and extra TV's) which are simply amazing, and everyone should try to link up at least two at some point to see and play the multiplayer levels at their best and most frantic (although friendships can suffer). All deathmatch modes can have the parameters edited and saved to your own personal preference and game name - a really smart feature.

   

Like all the best games, I didn't want Halo to end, and immediately restarted on a higher difficulty setting (and that's what everyone seems to do until the toughest "Legendary" setting is mastered) - in fact most of us Gamecell lot still use Halo as a tonic after playing some of the appallingly average games that we get to review - it invariably shows you something different, or makes you go "wow" all over again, or gets the heart thumping - it restores your faith in games as a whole - it really is that darned good

All FPS fans and even anyone who enjoyed movies like Predator, Aliens or Starship Troopers should play this game, the dramatic climax to the game would grace any Hollywood blockbuster. We've even found that gamers who usually shy away from the FPS genre are drawn to Halo - heck, Halo has sold countless Xboxes - it's drawn PC gamers back to console gaming and even drawn new gamers to the Xbox. The co-op mode and deathmatch options give Halo an absolutely massive lifespan (2 years old and we still play it regularly).

   

Halo should be given away with the console (and frequently is), and is a true 'system seller', or 'killer app' - Proof positive of the texture handling & polygon pushing capabilities of the Xbox, and also that maybe MS do know what they're doing in the games biz - Even with the likes of Half Life 2, Doom and Far Cry on the way to Xbox, realistically only Halo 2 is likely to replace Halo in our affections… OK, the gushing praise is almost over, as is my easiest review of the year (and it may be 2 years on, but Halo is still a 10/10 in anyone's books).


Good Points

- Great story.
- Superb graphics and animation.
- Perfectly balanced gameplay with 4 difficulty settings.
- The best multiplayer options on a console.

Bad Points

- It ends.
- Halo 2 isn't out for ages.
- It makes all other Xbox FPS look poor.
- No Xbox Live play.
- There's so much going on sometimes that the frame rate drops.



by: Sloppy Sneak

Note: Halo is, surprisingly, one of the very few games on the Xbox that plays better in 50Hz rather than 60. It's not a terrible conversion - there are no borders in sight, but the game does play a little bit slower because it was optimized that way. So you'll need to set your Xbox to PAL 60 "NO" on the dashboard to see Halo at its best.