I realize I'm very late to this game, but I finally got the chance to play through Bungie's famous first-person shooter, Halo, often-called "The Greatest FPS Ever Made." Since I don't have an Xbox, and not sure how I'd adapt to playing an FPS with a controller if I did, I played the Windows version on my PC. I assume everyone here is familiar with the game, so I'll skip the background and technical stuff and just discuss some aspects of the game I found intriguing. And, no, I don't consider it to be the greatest FPS (I'd give that to Half-Life 2), but I did enjoy it.
Having just completed Halo a few days ago, I'm still a bit ecstatic over that fantastic last level--and if you've played it, you know which level I'm talking about. For those who haven't, your avatar has to navigate an all-terrain vehicle though a roller coaster-like course through the entrails of a giant star ship. The time limit is tight, and it takes a steady hand to get to an emergency aircraft and escape before the ship explodes. It's a difficult segment, but an exhilerating way to end the game on the highest possible note. It's got a great cinematic feel to it, and I'm sure it'd be entertaining to watch someone else play this level. There is something about time limits that does seem to heighten excitement, though they should be used sparingly.
Now, for some thoughts about game difficulty levels. I'll say that this is one of the hardest first-person shooters I've played, though not quite as difficult as Far Cry. I started a campaign in Heroic mode, but after playing for a few hours realized that it was going to take me weeks to finish the game if I kept it in that mode. So, I backed off to "normal," which I think is probably the best level for experienced but not necessarily obsessive FPS fans. I really wasn't expecting such a difficult game (I'd wrongly assumed Bungie had "dumbed down" the FPS for consoles). I thought later, though, that most console games are more difficult than PC games. Think of games like Contra. Cheat codes aside, you have to be willing to put a lot of work into surviving more than a few minutes, much less completing the game. My thought is that one reason these console games have been so difficult is the traditionally limited space the developers have had at their disposal--make a game too easy, and gamers will blast through the game in a half-hour and want their money back. Inflate the difficulty, and gamers spend weeks (or even months) honing their skills enough to beat it (or, more likely, get frustrated and give up). We might also think about coin-operated arcade machines, which were designed to suck down quarters. Most arcade games I've played have about a nickle to minute ratio for experienced gamers, though experts can play all day on a quarter.
In short, many people seem to associate a game's difficulty with its value. If you managed to play all the way through Halo in a half-hour, you'd probably feel cheated. Likewise, I doubt that Bungie could've added much more in the way of cutscenes or side-quests without wrecking the game's pace (it already seems a bit enlongated to me). I know I have a tendency to try a game first at a higher level of difficulty so that it won't be too easy, but I still feel kind of dumb for doing it. All it seemed to do was make my avatar's weapons less effective.
Games shouldn't have difficulty levels. One standard setting is fine. A good developer would offer opportunities for extreme challenges, but always provide some alternatives for gamers without quite that level of skill. For instance, perhaps a particularly nasty battle could be "softened up" a bit with some strategy, or even avoided entirely. Lots of games have this design, including some parts of Halo. Some of the most difficult challenges in Tomb Raider were entirely optional, but I wanted to play them all.
Secondly, I think one reason Halo is so popular (besides the console aspect) is that it gives players plenty of opportunities to show off. You can do all kinds of stunts in the vehicles, and many of the battles have a theatrical quailty to them. There are various devices built into the game to heighten this. For instance, if you have passengers in your vehicle, they'll yell out cheers and egg you on to more dangerous stunts. Some of the enemies will yell out in fear as well, particularly if you're doing well. It's a subtle thing, but it does punch up the fun level. I mean, we want to be encouraged and recognized for our achievements, right?
Race and Gender in Halo
A third interesting thing about Halo involves gender and race. The "Master Chief" wears a helmet at all times, and only his voice gives him away as a male. Indeed, I wonder if Bungie tinkered with the idea of pulling a Samus--not lettting us know the gender until the end (or perhaps not at all). There is nothing else in the game that makes it necessary for the MC to be make. The only females in the game are unseen pilots of transport craft and a sexy AI named Cortana. Cortana actually rides along for most of the game in the MC's head (the MC is a cyborg) and works almost like an additional personality. It's a nice conceit, but opens up a big can of worms when we try to anaylze it from a sexual perspective. Are women not allowed to have corporeal bodies? Does all of their power emanate from men or machines willing to shoulder them? Perhaps even more interesting is that the female pilots of the shuttlecraft all seem to have black American accents. Is this a statement about their role in the warrior society? (They must carry the burden but none of the glory?)
In the last cutscene, the MC is shown taken off his helmet, but his face is blocked by part of the spacecraft. I guess the player (a male) is supposed to identify with the MC and imagine his own head there. It's a neat trick, and I'm sure it was intentional that the player never see the MC's actual face.
While I'm waxing intellectually for a moment, we could push back a bit and just think of the implications of a cyborg avatar. Isn't the player himself something of a cyborg? After all, the avatar is rather like the inorganic or machine aspect of the cyborg. We can't interact with the game world directly; rather, we must control an avatar. There's a strange relationship here between body and mind that warrants more attention.
When I ask most people what they like about Halo, they say "the vehicles." However, those are folks who mostly play it online or in multiplayer (deathmatch style). Fans of the campaign almost always say "the story," and I agree. There are a few things about the background story that make for compelling gameplay. First, there is the mysterious game world--a habitable ring orbiting a planet. At first, no one knows anything about the long-dead aliens who built this ring. What happened to them? What did they build the ring for?
Second, is the condition of the human race. We're in danger of annihilation at the hands of what amounts to a bunch of religions fanatics. These aliens are much more advanced than humans, but eventually we're able to hold our own. The key to the human strategy is the construction of super-soldier cyborgs, of which you are one. It's always to play a game in which the stakes seem so high.
Of course, the story goes through several twists as the gameplay continues. Eventually, we learn more about the aliens who created the ring (Halo) and its purpose. It's also nice to be surprised at several points. For instance, I was certain that when I finally reached the Captain (who'd been abducted by the horde), he'd be transformed into some sort of super-alien and I'd have to duke it out with him. However, there are no real "boss fights" in Halo.
The story is told mostly from cut-scenes, but there is some limited in-game monologue (I can't say "dialogue" because you never get to control what the MC says). Why is it so hard to do dialogue in FPS? I'm surprised that more FPS's don't offer tree-like dialogue menus, though I guess doing so might (gasp) suspend the rat-a-tat-tat for a few minutes. Perhaps the best game would base the avatar's responses on the player's in-game decisions and gameplay strategy, so that a stealthy player would say certain things while a daredevil/kamikaze would say other things.
Perhaps the biggest criticism one could have of this game is the repetitive nature of the encounters. There are only a handful of enemy types, and you have to kill thousands of them. Thankfully, it is possible to skip through several levels. Obviously, Bungie hoped to make up for the lack of bosses and the like by having the avatar fight massive waves of enemies.
Another weakness is that we really don't get to use the vehicles much, particulary the super-cool tank, scorpion, and flying vehicles. Perhaps the problem is that they're simply too powerful--some of them are, in fact, invulnerable. However, some of the most fun moments for me were in the ATV, leaping over a ridge and flattening a whole platoon of enemies before they could retaliate.
I realize also that Halo isn't an RPG, but it would've been nice to see some sort of increase in powers and abilities (it is, after all, a pretty long game). Perhaps the avatar could've been "upgraded" at certain intervals--maybe you could choose if you wanted more speed, more shields, more stealth, etc.
At any rate, Halo is a fine game, and it's no wonder why so many people enjoy it. Even if you don't like FPS and modern gaming in general, I encourage you to try it out (with an open mind). You may find yourself actually liking it!
There's a reason why Halo 1 and 2 have sold gazillions on Xbox (and the first did well on computer). I've always said they put you smack dab in the middle of a classic space opera. It does a lot of the same things that other FPS games do, but polishes everything to a very high degree and makes it all work together as a cohesive whole. I've beaten 1 on the first Xbox, but only got about halfway through on Halo 2. I'll probably finish Halo 2 on the 360. If you haven't already seen it, I recommend you check out the hi-def trailer for Halo 3 - some good looking stuff going on there and it's look to go to dramatic new places for the whole Halo-verse. 360 users still have a long wait for that one though...
As for using a console controller, while admittedly I'm not a mouse and keyboard FPS guy myself, I can say that many good console FPS games are tuned quite well for console controllers. The Xbox and Xbox 360 controllers are particularly good at FPS-style games.
Halo certainly is a great game, and certainly a major accomplishment on the XBOX. The game tells more interesting story than your general FPS (I guess having a proper writer DOES help). I really like the games two major innovations: the two weapon limitation, which requires you to make tactical descisions, and the recharging shield, which lets you die fairly easy, but make the game less of an excercise in quicksaving and loading.
However I find, some of the levels were overly strechted out (like the horrendous Library. of which Bungie admitted it was a mistake), making the game sometimes tedious to play. The limited number of enemies didn't bother me so much, there are games that have fewer. However, the AI is rather predictable, and after a while the firefights start to grate. Also, the pacing of some the levels is predictable: set piece - in between bit (generic hallways, a canyon) - set piece - repeat ad nauseam. HALO 2 is generally much better paced, although it sometimes still suffers from the same problem.
On skill levels, I take the opposite position: players with lesser ability should be able to see all, without skipping levels or circumventing enemies. Skilled players should have the option of added opposition. It's an achievement to finish a game at its highest difficulty level, so a gamer who want to go for that challenge should be able to. Games that adjust their difficulty dynamically, lessen the achievement for both inexperienced players (who miss out on stuff without realizing) and experienced ones (who can't claim the achievement)
Tip: The graphics of the PC version absolutely shine, but on a lot of systems the game defaults at a lower quality than the system may be capable of, yet the higher quality setting is unavailable from the in-game options. Try starting Halo from the command line with the shader type as a parameter: "Halo.exe â€“use20". If you have a moderately recent videocard (say Radeon 9600 or the Nvidia equivalent), you'll be treated with a higher framerate, light blooming and shiny and bumpmapped textures. It looks pretty amazing, even now.
In response to Bill: XBOX FPS games generally play OK. FPS games on the 360 play better, mostly because oth the enhanced controller. However, all console FPS games rely on auto aiming to enable players to actually hit something. The unrivaled accuracy of the mouse and keyboard, combined with the lack of player aides makes playing a FPS on the PC a completely different, and more fair, experience.
The Red VS Blue Halo spoofs are amusing in small doses and get more surreal as they go on.
A friend of mine in college forced me at gunpoint to watch 20 eps of Red VS Blue in a row and I almost killed him for it-- watching that many episodes of anything in a row, even mini-eps, drives one to madness.
=- Mat Tschirgi =- Armchair Arcade Editor
Hear my gaming podcasts!
I've played Halo on the PC and Xbox. I was a convert to the console and took a month or two to get used to the Xbox controller vice the PC mouse and direction keys. I finally overcame what I considered the be an awkward controller scheme to beat Halo 2 first and then the original Halo on the Xbox. I've replayed the final levels on both the original and Halo 2 many times and I do like the original better, however, after replaying Halo 2's last level I did miss some things from playing it before, mainly the final cut scene dialog.
I agree that the story makes the game and have started reading the three books; The Fall of Reach, First Strike and The Flood. They're very true to the games and are a fast read.
I watched the trailer for Halo 3 and can't wait to get it and the Xbox 360.
I played it in Normal mode and cannot imagine playing it any higher than that. I've been on Xbox live many times as well and can't handle the cheating that's going on. I think it would be fun to play on Xbox live with a bunch of you guys but I know it'd be hard to setup.
If I had to pick between Halo and Half Life, I'd go with Half Life. I just finished Half Life 2 on Xbox and it was simply "fabulous"!!!!!!
Great article Matt. Cheers
I like the idea that every game review post will have everybody on the site posting their own impressions. Now we just need "did you find this review useful" links, and we can be Amazon. :)
My Halo experience is unique. I have never owned an Xbox. I played Halo with the husband of a co-worker so my main experience with the game was co-op. We went through on heroic and then on legendary, and I later went through on heroic by myself. Halo was definitely fun and had enough story elements and references in it that the uberfans turned it into a religion.
I actually went back and played partway through Marathon because of Halo. Marathon was just too danged slow for me, though. I also read the books. They added a good deal of back story. (Master Chief is definitely a guy, Matt.) And then there was I Love Bees, the Halo 2 viral marketing campaign. I wasn't involved in the actual decoding process, but I listened to the result, five odd hours of the best radio drama I've probably ever heard. After all this story goodness, I suppose Halo 2 was pretty much required to be a letdown.
Halo 2 was supposed to have tie-ins with the I Love Bees story. Nope. I'm sure uberfans have found a scrap or two to link them, but all of the characters and backstory of I Love Bees was dropped for Halo 2. Halo 2 was supposed to make me feel like I was getting a feeling for both sides of the conflict. Not really. All I learned was that the Covenant was less fanatical and more political than I'd thought. They were way more interesting to me when they actually believed in something that might mean something to the story. I'm sick to death of supid human politics, so why am I now supposed to become invested in stupid alien politics? I play shooters to get rid of all that and enjoy some plain old insect politics. Halo 2 did deliver some of that, but not more than I could beat in a day.
Overall, I found the Halo games to be solid FPSes, but I've been there and done that a few million times now. Every year around its birthday (Dec. 13) I dust off DooM and play through at least the shareware episode. Halo isn't more fun than DooM in terms of action. The extra polish is nice but completely irrelevant when the fighting heats up. And as far as story and characterization are concerned, Halo 2 got its ass handed to it by it's own marketing campaign. The argument can certainly be made that I'm an old crank who's tired of FPS games, but the sad truth is that there's been virtually nothing new in those games for a very long time.
Vehicles? Other than finding nasty places to set up camp with the jeep's machine gun and that last run out of Halo 1, I never got much of a thrill from the Halo vehicles. They're way easy to spill, don't protect you much, and can only be used for the next half a click before another dungeon sequence forces you to abandon them. They felt like a gimmick. Plus the carjacking mechanic in Halo 2 never seemed to work consistently.
Sticky grenades? A) Big whoop. B) Shadow Warrior and other games
Laser Sword? Um, Dark Forces anyone? Plus those games had blocking.
Advanced AI? Meh. I never found the Covenant particularly bright. At best they might attempt a half assed flank. Mostly they just stick to cover, pointlessly slowing the game down because I use cover better and am a better shot than they are. And you'd think the idiots with the completely vulnerable backs would learn to stop charging you after seeing two of their buddies go down to a simple pistol shot in the back. :P
Realistic Weapon Limits? Good lord. You could go back to Ikari Warriors and undoubtedly further for this one. Plus why does a guy who apparently flips over jeeps with one hand get weak in the knees trying to carry three guns? Buy an extra holster, Master Chief. :P
Also, the fact that you're a lone operative in completely enemy controlled territory would seem to indicate a need for stealth, but unless the Covenant you came across were all asleep, their perfect sight through darkness and undergrowth meant stealth was rarely a useful option.
Sorry to be such a grumpy old man. I did enjoy Halo 1 and 2, just not enough to understand the credit they recieve for "amazing" gameplay and innovation. Of course I felt the same way about Far Cry, DooM 3, and Half-Life 2.
Oh well, here's a positive note to end on, if you like goofy humor.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZr3MIMfmAc (link courtesy of Joystiq)
I have no idea why this is so funny.
I think one of the subtle factors that can't be overlooked is the limited integration of "real world" physics into the Halo-verse. Beyond the lack of destructible terrain - which perhaps we'll finally see to a degree in Halo 3 (there are pluses and minuses for the inclusion of such a feature) - the weapons, jumping, vehicles, etc., all benefited from influencing and being influenced by other factors. It's also one of the things that made Half-Life 2 so great. "Physics" is a dirty word to some (a gimmick) - in essence one object acting realistically on another - but it's ONE of the factors that can take a game to the next level when implemented correctly. Obviously if you take anything too far, too realistic, it ceases to be a game and becomes a simulation/simulator, but if you get the mix just right, you can significantly up the fun factor.
By the way, brn, lone operative? Another interest factor in the Halo games was fighting along-side squad-mates. No, they were not uber powerful like the Master Chief, but they were there and helped more often than not. This factor was upped for Halo 2, certainly. Sure, certain sequences had you going solo, but then that's the Master Chief's "role".
I have to admit, I was very disappointed that I couldn't play Halo campaign mode on my LAN. That would have made it much more fun, but apparently the PC version doesn't offer it. Not sure why; seems like a stupid thing to leave out since it was so popular to play split screen on the Xbox!
Anyway, one of the reasons why I liked Quake 4 was its heavy use of team work. You seldom had to "go it alone" like you do in Halo or Doom 3. Plus, I found that your teammates in Halo were practically useless; they didn't even seem to have as good of AI as the convenant--particularly against the aliens with swords. The only time they seemed useful was when they were riding along in vehicles, though I daresay their aim wasn't very good. Still, any little bit helps. I tried for awhile to keep them alive, but it proved nearly impossible.
The AI buddies were supposed to be helping. On heroic and legendary I generally found them to be little more than cannon fodder. Keeping them alive was a suicide mission. That's probably why I have a different experience of them than other AAers.
Oh, and as regards co-op for PC, my understanding was that since network co-op was never coded by Bungie it was split screen co-op or nothing, and Gearbox decided the effort wasn't worth it.