Friday, November 23, 2012

Review of Halo

Everyone knows about Halo.  In fact, everyone has played Halo by this time, and probably its numerous sequels, and probably read the novels and watched the live action series.  It was just about the most popular FPS series of all time, until Call of Duty came along and proved that you can always out-obscene obscene success.  And it's still ridiculously popular.  As such, there's not much of a point in giving you any background.  It's Halo.  You know exactly what it is.  You know its legacy, you know its strengths, you know its weaknesses.  You all have your own opinions of the game.  In fact there's probably very little point in reviewing it period.  I wouldn't even bother except that I doubt many of you have actually played the damn thing since 2001, so you might be interested in hearing how well it has aged (fairly gracefully, as a matter of fact).  I recently reinstalled Halo 1 for PC, and started dabbling in the multiplayer and the campaign a little, and I thought that this would be a good time to write a review.  (And as a random aside, I do believe this is the most "mainstream" game I've yet reviewed.  And it will probably remain so for awhile, given my chronic hipsteritis.  At least, until I review Call of Duty 4.  And oh what fun that will be evil grin maniacal laugh.)

Kickin' it oldschool

Halo is a game about shooting things.  It's also a game about cheesy space opera exposition, and vehicles that control like jet-propelled Zambonis, but mostly shooting things.  As Master Chief (or John 117 if you're a fanboy, or simply "my sweet Johnny" if you're a fangirl, or perhaps "that stupid bugger who can't swim and has no personality" if you're a bitter Halo hater), you're trained to solve your problems in one of three ways: grenades, bullets, or pummeling.  Luckily, most of your problems have to do with religious zealot aliens who like to shoot first and ask questions later, so violence is the only interpersonal skill you need.  Combat still feels nice and smooth, with a nice balance between the different interlocking tactics.  Again, there's little point in going over Halo's gunplay.  You all know the drill.  You shoot, you stick elites with grenades, you melee fools who get too close, you take cover when your shield is down, you learn that some weapons are useless, and you sometimes get forced to drive vehicles that control like jet-prope... erm, did I already use that metaphor?  I did?  Well they are a little finicky, suffice to say.  It's perhaps not the most lush FPS experience out there, but it's a very solid and enjoyable one.  There's only one thing that drags Halo down: its level design.  Halo has some of the worst FPS level design I've seen this side of the mid 90s.  It's insufferably bland and repetitive.  Outdoor levels are mostly passable (not good, passable), but interiors fall into a tedious sequence of identical sterile corridors with identical mobs of enemies in them.  The effect is detrimental at best, and downright game-ruining at worst.  And yes, I'm thinking specifically of The Library.  Just because everyone complains about it doesn't mean it isn't deserving of complaints.  I've put up with this sort of thing in games before, but Halo is by far the worst.  Not just because it's so repetitive, but because what's being repeated is so monotone in the first place.  Even the best levels in Halo are uninteresting.  Perhaps even unpleasant, in their cold blandness.

The sad life of Bob.

Which is odd.  The game's art style is actually quite colorful.  But at the same time, it's very...well, like I said, cold.  And environments give the impression of a lack of care, not because there's anything rough about them, but because everything is so utilitarian and unadorned.  That being said, there's actually a lot of really impressive stuff going on.  When you start breaking Halo's visuals down, you find lots of effects and features that were quite ahead of their time.  You'll see some primitive god rays, and some lens flare.  Visual distortion filters such as screen blur.  Soft shadowing on every object.  Reflection mapping on many different surfaces.  Physics effects on everything from  vehicles to in-game items to dirt clods and sparks (which bounce realistically off walls and the floor).  Very sharp texture detailing.  Light bloom.  There even appears to be some sort of poor man's bump mapping on some textures.  In fact, just looking at its collection of graphical parts, Halo is probably one of the best-looking games of early last generation.  It doesn't quite end up being quite the sum of its parts, but it still deserves major credit for having such an impressive array of graphical features.

I don't know whether to reference Aliens, or Predator.
There's a story, too.  It's competent, if unconcerned with bucking any videogame narrative conventions.  Stuff happens, and it's dramatic.  In between stuff happening, other stuff happens that involves shooting lots and lots of aliens.  It's good.  Someone actually put some effort into it, and their effort shows.  The story progresses at a good pace, develops some interesting ideas, has fairly solid characters, and has a satisfying plot arc.  In the grand scheme of things, it's not anything particularly special.  Just cheese wizz scifi with the expected debts to other universes.  But it tells an entertaining tale, with the touch of a confident storyteller.  Were it a movie it would be about on par with other blockbuster scifi adventures, if not quite deserving of immortality.  And that's not something that you can say about the plot of every FPS, or even most of them.  So I respect the story in that regard, even as I'm not particularly enamored with it.  I can see the appeal.  I do have to chide it for failing to do anything special in terms of its storytelling, with its cutscene-to-cutscene narration.  But I'm mostly doing that for form's sake.  Far be it for me--the guy with the stick up his ass about blockbuster videogame storytelling-- to let one of the most popular blockbuster videogame stories pass without at least a slap on the wrist.   

Me with a turret-mounted rocket launcher.  This will only end in tears.

And also, let's talk about the multiplayer.  Because I loooooooove Halo's multiplayer.  Combat feels just as smooth as in the campaign, and there are lots of different options at your disposal.  Team matches in particular are loads of fun.They feel like miniature wars, with players mounting vehicle assaults, taking up guard points as snipers, and just going in on foot, through levels that often feature many different paths and routes to the enemy base.  The pace is significantly slower than that of later Halo games, and the focus is less on the arcadey aspect of the game and more on the variety of different roles you can play.  And while we've seen stuff like this before, the fact that Halo manages to give the sense of being in a large-scale conflict with only 16 players is awesome.  What's more, most of the irritations of single player disappear when playing online.  Levels are significantly more interesting, and the gameplay feels a lot deeper and more varied.  And more open, too, since you're given a lot more choice in what you want to do.  This is not to say the multiplayer is perfect, because it isn't.  It's got some balancing issues.  The pistol is extremely powerful, for instance, and the assault rifle is borderline useless.  Luckily, everyone is still on a mostly equal plane, since you start with the pistol, so it's not really gamebreaking... just a little annoying.  Equally annoying is the fact that at least half the servers are running bizarre modifications.  I've run across matches with infinite rockets, matches where everyone only has one bullet, matches where you don't appear to have any weapons at all, matches with modified maps, and matches where everyone is just supposed to spend their time trying to break out of the confines of the level through vehicle glitches.  Which may be of interest to some people, but I personally would just like to play a normal game of Halo.  This isn't really the fault of the game, but it does keep the multiplayer experience from being quite as enjoyable as it should be.     

He died as he lived: purple.

Ultimately, I like Halo.  I do.  It's a fun singleplayer experience with a fairly interesting storyline, and an even more fun multiplayer experience if you like some Battlefield sensibilities mixed with your Unreal Tournament fragging.  If there must be a game that's wildly devoured by mainstream gaming, this isn't a bad choice.  At the same time, it does have some glaring issues, not the least of which is its horrible level design. Yeah, I think it's overrated.  How could it not be, given that it's got more zealous followers than many world religions?  But when we apply the "overrated" label, I think we can often go too far and start underrating games.  Yes, Halo isn't quite deserving of its legendary fame, but it's close.  It's a very solid FPS with a lot of good ideas that are mostly executed well.  It has strengths and its weaknesses.  And while it's not one of my personal favorite FPSs, it's still a lot of fun to load up every once in awhile.

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