From what I gather, Halo was a long time in coming. Originally planned as an Apple G4 exclusive title, meant to herd the PC gaming scene into a new pasture, Bungie instead pulled out of that endeavor and brought it out as the premiere launch title for the Xbox. They promoted the living hell out of it, smearing it all over the TV, the magazines, and the internet. But it wasn't all the publicity they'd PAID FOR that really gave Microsoft the push they needed to get Halo over the hump; it was instead publicity of the free kind. Reviewers were very keen on this game, so much so that its packaging was almost instantly adorned with a shiny gold star, reading "Game of the year." There was a lot of hype behind this disc, and from what I'd gathered of the multiplayer mode, all of it was rightfully deserved.
My first exposure to the game came almost exactly one year before I actually purchased the system. A friend had received the Xbox for Christmas, and had already decided that the only game he'd be playing for the next six months or so was titled Halo. A little cautious myself, I picked up the gigantic black controller with the clear bubble in its center, and embarked on the first of many four player fiascos. Truth be told, this is a very easy game to pick up on. Much like the N64's Goldeneye, it's quite simple to learn but nearly impossible to master. And, also as in Mr. Bond's Nintendo 64 excursion, there's really nothing I can say here to prepare you for the absolute madness which awaits you in the multiplayer mode.
All the popular methods of multiplayer are there; the classic deathmatch, capture the flag, team deathmatch, as well as a few new options. The available levels range from short and sweet to long, drawn out, sniper havens. A level could be completely desolate with nothing to offer but running space, or overflowing with new weapons, vehicles and hiding places. You'll eventually whittle your list of favorites down to a choice few, but the option is still there for more of an adventure if you're feeling up to it. My sole real complaint here is the sheer size of some of the stages. You will NOT want to play a capture the flag match in "Sidewinder," the ice stage, as a single game could take well over an hour to complete.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the multiplayer mode is the ability to customize your own characters. With the Box's hard drive allowing for an almost infinite number of saves, it doesn't take long for the list of names in your player select screen to become unweildy. It's something that was previously reserved for online PC players; there's no more guessing about who just killed you or who's controlling the tank. It's printed, right there on your screen, in bold letters. In addition to that, there's the underspoken ability to create, tweak and save your own game types. If you're hooked on deathmatches with multiple vehicles, no radar and infinite grenades, you need only make that selection once. The system saves all the information, so you won't need to select all the same settings the next time you're hungry for a deathmatch. It's an enormous part of what makes Halo so good, but it's also something that's very easily overlooked.
Players may also choose to complete a game in cooperative mode, bringing a friend along for the ride. If one player falls, they'll eventually respawn... though it'll have to wait until their buddy is out of the warzone. It's a nice way for a friend to hold your hand if you've no idea where you're going, or a failsafe way to explore the levels a little more fully.
And, if this were purely a multiplayer game, it'd be just fine as it is. A little shallow, maybe... but a fun, mindless shoot 'em up. Fortunately enough, the single player mode is every bit as addictive, and twice as entertaining.
The single player, mission-based game is unbelievable. It amazes me how far the First Person Shooter has come since it took its first baby steps in the mid 90s, and Halo is currently the cream of the crop. You portray the "Grand Master," a legendary warrior cryogenically frozen and revived in Humanity's darkest hour. Players never see his face, but his deep voice quickly confirms both his identity and his authority. There's a REASON he's our last hope, and the experience heard in his voice misleads gamers into believing they're legends in and of their own right. It's a really cool feeling, to say the least.
Halo comes equipped with four difficulty levels, ranging from very, very easy to inhumanly tough. I consider myself something of a specialist in First Person Shooters, and I can't even scratch the surface of the third level on the hardest difficulty setting. It's horribly difficult, but if you're like me, you'll recognize that as an invitation for hours of extremely tough gameplay. My advice, however, is to play through it on an easier level before even trying "Legendary" mode.
Unfortunately, for a game of such visual importance, the actual characters themselves aren't everything I'd hoped for. You'll endure a few cutscenes that probably shouldn't be there; eyes and lips move clunkily. The seams are showing. Make no mistake, the big names and faces in Halo don't give Final Fantasy X's cast a run for their money. The captain (one of the game's centerpiece characters) is emotionless, and difficult to form any kind of a bond with... which takes away from the impact of later levels, when you race against time to save his life. Cortana, a computer-generated hologram, is obviously meant to be the most visually stunning character in the game... and even she falls short. The real stars of the show are the enemies, but they're afforded the luxury of being completely new designs. Sure, the apeish minions look and act like the weasely cowards they're meant to portray, but you haven't anything to visually compare them to in the real world. I'm also a little turned away by the bright, almost neon coloring of enemy soldiers. They bleed a bright blue, and come after you in several different color schemes. Then again, I've never seen an alien, so who am I to judge?
But while the character models aren't as incredible as I'd expected, the surrounding scenery alone makes up for it and then some. You'll see individual blades of grass. You'll see the blood squirt momentarily out of an enemy, seconds after you've shot him, and then pulse along the rhythm of his heartbeat. You'll hide behind individual leaves on a thin branch, or behind the thick mist accumulating beneath a waterfall. It's simply unbelievable.
I'll again draw the comparison to Goldeneye when it comes to controls. There's no question, this system's controller was designed specifically with this game in mind. After a couple plays, you'll be jumping, tossing grenades, firing, ducking, and striking enemies with the butt of your rifle. For god's sake, there's a button devoted to turning on and off your flashlight... AND IT'S CLEAR. Xbox developers may as well have molded 'flashlight button' next to it on the controller. Add to that a built in rumble feature, dual analog sticks (emulating the feel of a PC Shooter, where players use the keyboard and the mouse) and easy-to-reach trigger buttons, and you've got a sweet control setup. I don't have a bad thing to say about it.
Where the visuals of non-playable characters are lacking, the audio most definitely is not. There are hundreds of possible quotes from this game, more depending on which difficulty level you're playing under. That's right, the tougher your setting, the more mature the language surrounding you. They weren't kidding when they said things get more realistic on the hardest difficulty. The voice acting is on par with a major motion picture, with a few exceptions. The production is just incredible... everything is crystal clear, whether you're chatting in an echoing hallway or on the battlefield. Dolby Digital Surround is supported, and that too is top notch. Nothing can express the value of knowing which direction a rocket is coming from, especially when your back is turned.
The largest gripe I have with Halo is its bizarre, seemingly random awarding of checkpoints. No lie, I've been in the middle of a firefight when the system has decided to save my progress. While it doesn't immediately affect me, it does serve as a point of intense frustration when I die further down the line. Instead of reappearing in relative saftey to attempt the task again, I'm dropped right back into that firefight. It gives the player an unfair handicap, and ALWAYS catches him / her by surprise. I'd have much rather had the option to assign my own checkpoints.
What it all boils down to is this; Halo is worth buying an Xbox over. It's the end-all be-all that Microsoft desperately needed to put themselves onto the map as a force in the home console business. It's everything you've heard it is, and more.
Overall Score: 9.8