Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Even if you bear in mind the company's well-earned reputation for creating excellent games for the Mac and PC, Bungie's epic Xbox first-person shooter is of such a staggeringly high level of quality that you can't help but be surprised. Halo is a complete thrill ride from beginning to end, an experience perhaps best described as a 16-hour-plus version of the siege scene from the film Terminator 2. Those who've spent the last few years looking for a first-person shooter as good as Rare's GoldenEye 007 or Valve's Half-Life will be happy to hear they need look no longer.
You play Halo through the eyes of a character known as the Master Chief, an enigmatic cyborg commando whom you don't know much about but whom everyone in the game seems to have heard of and talks about reverentially ("He's taller than I thought." "Glad you're here, sir." "We were worried before you showed up, sir."). Halo takes place in a space-faring future, where Earth's forces have come into conflict with an alien race known as The Covenant. In the beginning of the game, you're awakened out of a cryo sleep and learn that The Covenant are trying to obtain a mysterious artifact--perhaps a weapon--on an artificial ring-shaped world known as Halo, and it's up to you to prevent that from happening.
Before you arrive on the planet, your ship is boarded by Covenant troops, whom your marine allies engage while your commander briefs and arms you. As you attempt to sweep the ship clean of enemies, you come across numerous instances of marines and Covenant forces engaged in firefights from behind hastily erected barricades. The first time you enter a scene like this, Covenant soldiers attempt to flank you by sneaking up from a passageway to the side, but you can repel them and turn their technique against them, attacking the main nest of them from the right while your allies keep their front line busy. This sort of combat is par for the course in Halo, making the simple days of running and gunning down enemies down the center of a corridor seem like a thing of the past. The Covenant know how to work together as a team and will send in point men to hunt for you in the last place you were seen if you back off to momentarily lick your wounds and let your shields recharge.
You quickly discover that you can carry only two weapons at a time in Halo--a realistic touch that many game players assumed for years would detract from first-person shooters but that lends a nice strategic element to this one. This forces you to choose wisely which weapons you pick up from fallen foes and allies and to learn each weapon well. You have to go into each situation knowing that if you, say, pick up that rocket launcher, you might be able to take out a large unit like a tank with it, but if you don't have a weapon that carries multiple, rapidly fired rounds, you might get overtaken by hordes of oncoming ground troops. Necessity will eventually cause you to realize that the weapons in Halo are very well balanced. Each one has positive and negative traits that might not be apparent at first. The pistol is very basic, but its scope can help you fire on troops who are hiding behind rocks in the distance. The rifle carries many rounds but isn't as effective as energy weapons against foes whose suits possess force fields. The appropriately named needler shoots explosive glass shards that home in on targets, but they often miss their mark if your enemy hides behind an object or runs far enough away. There aren't an enormous number of weapons in the game, but there isn't one that you won't find useful in some way.
The combat in Halo is challenging and never gets old or repetitive because the enemy AI is so good that your foes react in a variety of different ways depending on the situation. If there's a cannon or vehicle nearby, they might get into it. If you blast a volley of glass shards at them from the needler or if their force field's shields are low, they'll likely run behind a rock and hide. If one is close to death, expect him to rush into close quarters and attempt to bludgeon you to death with his gun. Or one might lob a grenade at you from behind a pylon or provide cover fire for an ally attempting to move around to attack you from behind. And your marine allies are just as smart. If you hop into the Warthog jeep and a marine is nearby, he'll jump in back and man its machine gun turret. If another marine is there, he'll climb in and ride shotgun. The marine AI is so lifelike that sometimes you'll find yourself assisting them, instead of the other way around. In one section of the game, you have the opportunity to provide cover for a marine armed with a sniper rifle who's staked out a plateau above a valley where Covenant dropships are letting off troops. He's able to pick off a decent number of them before they draw near, but for both of you to survive, you have to guard the entrance to the plateau to keep anyone from sneaking up, providing the marine with enough time to properly thin the herd. Suffice it to say, if you found yourself replaying the marine sections of Half-Life: Opposing Force to try to keep all your troops alive, you'll be spending a lot of time with Halo.
Not surprisingly, the computer AI provides the game with an immense amount of replay value. You could play the same section a dozen times--and some are so tough that you'll have to--and not have the same events happen exactly the same way twice. Random elements, such as where enemies are located in a level and where those on watch begin making their rounds, are thrown in often. You'll also discover that you have a lot of freedom to choose how to beat a level. There's rarely only one right way of doing something. For example, in several areas, you'll come across Covenant grunts sleeping in place on the floors. You can sneak around and dispatch them with the butt of your rifle, or you can choose to fire a rocket and wake the whole place up--or any variation in between. Unlike in many other games, there's no penalty for not choosing stealth in the stealth sections.
There are also many choices available to you in the parts of the game where vehicles appear. At some points you even have the opportunity to pick from multiple vehicles, such as the Warthog jeep, the Ghost hovercraft, the Scorpion tank, or the Banshee attack craft. You'll have a very different experience depending on which one you choose. If you take the Ghost, you can quickly maneuver around your enemies. If you get in the Banshee, you can rain fire down on them from the sky. If you use the Scorpion tank, up to four marines can hop on the outside. If one of the marines on board has a sniper rifle, he'll start picking off enemies who get too close, while you concentrate on larger targets like cannons and other tanks. Between segments like this and another where you can--if you're fast enough--hijack a Banshee and use it to fly down to a valley below to combat enemies you wouldn't normally confront for another half hour, it should be easy to understand why the vehicle sections of the game are worth playing over and over again. They contribute greatly toward making Halo feel more like a 3D version of classic shooters like Contra and Ikari Warriors than just another first-person shooter by giving it that one-man-army feel.
One of the best things about Halo is that it manages to attain that perfect level of difficulty that provides you with plenty of challenge but little or no frustration. You'll play a tough sequence a dozen times and keep trying different tactics until you make it to the next checkpoint, but you won't be cursing when you die because you're simply having a great time. The checkpoint system is a large factor in keeping you from getting frustrated because it rarely starts you too far back in the level when you die, making it somewhat commensurate with being able to save anywhere in a PC shooter.
Another great thing about Halo is what it doesn't do: It avoids elements like platform jumping and boss battles that have detracted from first-person shooters like Half-Life and Red Faction, focusing instead on pure action and story and expertly keeping either from getting in the way of the other. Its visceral yet smart Doom/Soldier of Fortune-style gameplay is punctuated by numerous scripted events and story sequences that can be somewhat awkward at first but then soon become very compelling.
The main reasons Halo will end up drawing as many comparisons to action movies as other games is that its levels are huge and your goals shift from moment to moment as events happen around you. Unlike mission-based shooters such as GoldenEye 007 that require you to accomplish a specific number of tasks, Halo instead sets you in an environment and expects you to think on your feet and react to a series of quickly changing, hostile situations. It's not inappropriate in the least to call Halo action-packed; it's crammed full of more than 16 hours of fighting for your life. Things just keep happening like some long, consistently exhilarating action movie, making it very hard to stop playing. The game continuously loads in new sections of the level, similar to Half-Life, except here the loading times are one second long (you'll mistake them for a skip in the frame rate at first). There are only nine or 10 times throughout the entire game when you'll see a loading screen, and that's when a new level with a completely new environment is loading. Usually, this is after an important story sequence, so it doesn't even feel like a real break in the action. And after some of the firefights you'll experience, you'll appreciate a momentary breather.
The control in Halo is excellent. It earns the nicest compliment that you can give a console first-person shooter: You won't find yourself constantly wishing for a keyboard and mouse. The vehicle control can take awhile to get used to (especially for the Warthog jeep, which you essentially drive using the game camera), but once you get it down, you'll discover that the vehicle sections are among the best parts of the entire game.
It might sound like a bold claim, but Halo's single-player game is worth picking up an Xbox for alone. It's so good that you'll find yourself looking forward to playing the game over again before you even beat it the first time, and the excellent AI and variety of options for accomplishing your goals will ensure that you'll have unique experiences every time you do. Halo sets new standards for both console and PC first-person shooters, reshuffling the deck to make even recent games like Red Faction--once considered at least near the forefront of console first-person shooters--look dated by comparison.
Halo's a stunning-looking game, full of huge environments that are packed with eye candy. Turn on your flashlight in a hallway, and you'll see a plastic reflective sheen to the wall. Walk up close to a marine, and you'll notice that the visor on his helmet reflects light too. Throw a grenade outside, and the explosion will send up a cloud of dust. Turn your jeep sharply, and clumps of dirt go flying. The game isn't as hyperdetailed as Quake III Arena, but its immense levels, excellent textures, and great special effects put it in the same class.
One of only a few possible complaints that can be lodged against Halo's graphics is that its frame rate is only 30 frames per second. Fans of GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark won't even notice this (and people who sometimes get nauseous playing first-person shooters will in fact appreciate it), but those who've been playing games like Quake III Arena for the last few years will be constantly checking for a run button. That said, the game keeps a rock-solid frame rate in the single-player mode, even when there are numerous enemies onscreen, explosions happening everywhere, Banshees flying by, cannons firing at you, and so on (although there are some dips in frame rate during multiplayer matches).
Halo sounds even better than it looks. With its outstanding sound effects, solid voice acting, and exceptional soundtrack, the sound in the game contributes greatly toward improving an already extraordinary experience. Your marine allies and The Covenant grunt troops have more than a dozen different lines that they say in reaction to events. For instance, if you're crouched down sneaking around and a grunt spots you, he'll scream and run off or he might yell "He's over here!" or "There he is!" The marines can be heard shouting lines like "How does it feel to be dead?!?" at fallen foes, and some even have different accents, which helps make them distinct from one another. ("Hey! Mira! It's a Mark V!") The game's soundtrack ranges from the ghostly opening vocal track to a pounding somehow-noncheesy guitar theme, and all points between (one of those points being a surprisingly appropriate lounge theme that plays when you come into a room where Covenant grunts are sleeping). You probably won't notice at first how good the sound effects in Halo are, because they've done such a good job of immersing you in its world. From the whoosh of an overheating plasma rifle to the soon familiar explosion of a plasma grenade, you're not busy admiring the sounds, you're just there.
The single-player experience in Halo is so strong that it's easy to regard the multiplayer side of the game as secondary, and to a large extent, it is. As in Rare's Perfect Dark, you can play through the entire game in split-screen cooperative mode with a friend. If one player dies, he or she will respawn quickly once the other player either backs away from combat or finishes the fight. Working in tandem with another player is great fun and makes all the game's surprises seem new again. It's an excellent way to play through the game a second or third time.
Halo's other multiplayer modes aren't quite as strong as the rest of the game, due to the omission of computer-controlled foes or allies (known as "bots" in most first-person shooters and "simulants" in Perfect Dark). You can play with up to four people at one time using a split screen, or you can link up to four systems and TVs--using either link cables or a LAN connection--to play with up to 16 people at one time. It has to be said that playing the game over multiple Xboxes with more than six people is fantastic, especially rounds of capture the flag with the addition of either Warthog jeeps or Scorpion tanks. But the cost and setup required to play Halo in this way simply make it impractical for most game players. Unfortunately, most of the game's multiplayer levels are very large and seem created around having more than four people playing, and so do its game modes (capture the flag isn't the same with only four people). Only a few levels are made for groups of four. In most, you'll spend more time looking for someone to shoot than you will engaging in combat. And if you play with fewer than four, you're essentially just playing tag. If the game had included computer-controlled foes or allies, the two- to four-player experience would be much more akin to the great time you can have with five to 16 people.
Still, it's hard to say enough good things about the game. It's one of the few first-person shooters that manages to transcend its genre, meaning that it's not only an excellent first-person shooter, but it's an excellent game, period. Fans of Half-Life, GoldenEye 007, the Marathon series, and any other major single-player first-person shooter will be impressed by Halo, as should anyone else. Not only is this easily the best of the Xbox launch games, but it's easily one of the best shooters ever, on any platform.