My Halo is better than yours"
Like legions of PC gamers, I was pretty pissed when Bungie's awesome Halo wound up coming out for the Xbox instead of the PC. It had been touted as a PC game since its inception. It was a slap in the face, as if the love of my life decided to shack up and wrestle sheets with Bill Gates. I was dejected, betrayed, bamboozled, hoodwinked and thoroughly upset.
Then I reviewed the Xbox version, and suddenly all was forgiven. The game proved sensational and is still one of the best first-person shooters on any system.
So after four long years, we finally get to see Halo running on a PC thanks to Gearbox, who took over the port job from Bungie. Even though the game doesn't do for the PC what it did for the big black box, it's still a very impressive FPS offering. Intuitive mouse and keyboard control coupled with a variety of online multiplayer options have earned this Halo admittance through the pearly gates. But be warned: you'll need a divine system to enjoy this gem to its fullest.
For the most part, the story and single player gameplay remain unchanged. The drama unfolds in the distant Halo galaxy, named after the huge donut-shaped object that floats there. Humanity's long standing war with the amalgamated alien race known as the Covenant has brought you to Halo via the Pillar of Autumn (a mini SDF1-sized battle cruiser). Before long, you and a handful of crew members find yourselves stranded on the giant ring, fighting for your lives and possession of the planet itself.
You assume the guise of Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced super Marine with some very handy rechargeable armor. Offering suggestions and general navigation is the Pillar of Autumn's onboard computer, Cortana. This little construct has been transplanted into your hi-tech helmet for easy transport and it plays a vital role in Halo's story.
And that story is compelling, with enough twists to keep you guessing. From the smart writing to the well-scripted voice talent, Bungie was obviously serious about Halo's plan from start to finish.
But this isn't a book, people. Shooting hordes of ridiculously intelligent aliens and driving a variety of vehicles serves as the bulk of Halo's gameplay. All the weapons from the Xbox version make a return, including the machine gun, pistol, frag grenades, sniper rifle, shotgun and rocket launcher. Covenant weaponry (which can be picked up and used, remember) is back as well. These are energy-based and brutal; Covenant weapons more easily slice through Covenant energy shields, which obviously comes in handy. The Needler and adhesive plasma grenades are two of the coolest weapons you'll find in any FPS.
Handling these noise-makers is made easier than ever thanks to the mouse and keyboard support, arguably the way Halo is supposed to played. While the Xbox control's ease and intuitive use amazed us, it pales when stacked against the tried and true WASD control scheme. You just feel like you have complete control, which can never be overstated. But if a controller is what floats your boat, then Halo offers full support for Direct X compatible gamepads. Or just go turn on your Xbox.
There are plenty of instances where being a foot soldier just won't cut it. Not to worry, because you can still drive, hover and fly across many of Halo's gorgeous landscapes. Driving the Warthog buggy, Scorpion tank, Ghosts and Banshees is pretty easy. Each vehicle handles differently - the Warthog is the most difficult to drive due to its point-then-accelerate control, but this is made much easier with the mouse and keyboard.
Despite what you hear on Dr. Phil, looks matter. Halo is still one of the best-looking games on the Xbox, and lucky for us the port kept in most of the goodies. Reflective surfaces and photorealistic elements such as grass and skies really show off the game's eye-candy. Great bump-mapping and attention to detail gloss over the fact that many of the textures look a bit flat when up close. It doesn't look quite as good as the Xbox version, but after all, it's a port. Catering to a countless number of system configurations can be costly.
Speaking of which, I hope you spent last month's salary upgrading your rig, because the system requirements needed to turn up all graphical goodness is just unforgiving. On a 1.2 Ghz CPU w/ 768 MB of DDR memory and a new Radeon 9800 card, the game still chugs horribly at any resolution above 1024x768 with moderate anti-aliasing. Things fared slightly worse using an Nvidia FX 5900, if you'd believe it. Unless you have an uber-rig you'll have to scale things back quite a bit to get it running smoothly. I guess the game is all about processor power.
During multiplayer matches (more on that in a bit), people often stop mid-game just to offer advice to other gamers on how to properly adjust their settings for smooth gameplay. Where's our tech-support kickbacks? At any rate, you'll need a great rig to get this looking right, a far cry from the sweet standardization of console gaming.
But far from standard is the game's A.I. Your enemies are smart and legion, two things we don't often see in FPS games. You'll occasionally team up with various Marine NPCs, who are a great help and add a good deal of realism to the mix. They'll split up, charge, grab their own vehicles, ride shotgun or man Warthog gun turrets. And most importantly, they'll accurately cover your behind. Plus, their banter is fitting, varied and often comical.
However, a keen battle sense is required when dealing with the Covenant warriors, who are still formidable adversaries. They too will split up and try to flank you. They will often seek cover, charging or retreating depending on the odds of survival. Some of them have impenetrable shields, some have cloaking devices (ala the Predator), some have swords and many have at least two of the three.
The game's A.I. really comes into play when you raise the difficulty settings. I have yet to play another FPS this realistically challenging. The hardest setting is a love/hate relationship of frustration and sheer enjoyment. I heartily recommend it.
In our review of the Xbox version, we didn't really get into Halo's level design. The seamless indoor/outdoor environments are fantastic, but they do repeat a lot. You'll cover the same ground often, which at times gets repetitive.
The one area where Halo PC really differs from its Xbox brother is its online multiplayer support for up to 16 players. Along with the familiar maps from the Xbox version, six new multiplayer maps are here for a total of fifteen. Games include Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Last Man Standing, Race, King of the Hill and Oddball, all of which (except Oddball) can be played as Team games if you desire. In Oddball, one character must hold a skull for a given amount of time while everyone goes crazy trying to take him down. You can't fire a weapon, but the skull does devastating melee damage. Capture the Flag and the Races are easily the most fun.
To spice things up, Gearbox has included some exclusive online content for the PC version. You can now choose between the normal Warthog and a black version fitted with a rear-mounted rocket launcher. Two new weapons are here as well: the Covenant fuel-rod cannon and a flamethrower. The fuel-rod fires consecutive plasma blasts in an arc and boasts a speedy re-fire rate, while the flamethrower is, well, a flamethrower. Rounding out the new bits is the ability to add the Covenant Banshees to just about any multiplayer map for added strategy and fun.
However, after all these years you still can't play as the aliens in the online multiplayer, which is the way Halo was originally advertised so many years ago. Red and blue versions of the exact same character models are a bit silly considering the inherent warring sides already built into the game. Color-coded Marines fighting each other seems more like a watered-down training simulation than a full-fledged war between factions.
The multiplayer modes also feel a little too simplistic considering the potential. Halo was originally designed as a Tribes-esque game featuring a compelling mix of team play and mission-based multiplayer. This changed when it moved to the Xbox, but I really hoped they would have rethought it for the PC version. Instead, it simply feels like just a port of the Xbox version rather than the phantasmagoric PC game we have all been waiting for. Plus, the super-cool co-operative mode is grossly absent from this installment. It's a real bummer since that was one of the best ways to play through the original, and the multiplayer doesn't entirely make up for the omission.
But there are still countless hours of fun to be had with Halo. If you couldn't stomach the control pad and the lack of online support (or Xbox itself) really turned you away from the Xbox version, then this Halo is sure to please.