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Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox Game)

Halo: Combat Evolved has an interesting history behind it. It's developed by the publishing studio Bungie, best known for their Myth series of real time strategy games, but much beloved amongst Mac gamers thanks to the Marathon first person shooter trilogy. In 1999, Bungie officially announced development of their newest first person shooter, Halo, for PC and Mac; there was even speculation of a PS2 port (based on the release of Bungie's PC action game, Oni, on PS2). Screenshots and hype abounded, and gamers started drooling.

Suddenly, during the first half of 2000, Bungie was purchased by Microsoft. Development from Halo was immediately switched from the PC and Mac platforms to Microsoft's upcoming Xbox console (the "Xbox Only" stamp put the kybosh on any PS2 port), with release on PC and Mac promised for sometime in the future. When the Xbox launched in the US in November of 2001, Halo - now Halo: Combat Evolved - was its flagship title. Many credit the initial strong sales of the Xbox to Halo: Combat Evolved, and without a doubt, the title has almost become synonymous with Microsoft's console; in citing the Xbox as the world's most powerful gaming console in their 2003 Book of Records, Guinness used a half-page picture of Halo's lead character, the Master Chief. PC and Mac development has since been out-sourced to third-party port developers Gearbox Software (PC) and Westlake Interactive (Mac) in order to free Bungie up to work on the Xbox sequel, Halo 2.

With all this colourful history, you couldn't be faulted for thinking that Halo: Combat Evolved has suffered as a result. Make no mistake, Halo: Combat Evolved could have benefitted from a bit more development time - but the Xbox's most popular launch title is still deserving of its accolades. After playing through the Campaign mode twice and indulging in some multiplayer action with friends, I can definitely say that Halo: Combat Evolved is a spectacular action title - but not without some rather unfortunate and glaring drawbacks.

As with many games, the actual story is told through a series of cutscenes. These cutscenes, rather than being full-motion video (made famous, if not popular, by the Wing Commander and Command & Conquer games) or pre-rendered computer graphics (favoured by the makers of the later Final Fantasy games), are rendered entirely by the in-game engine. This is not only an excellent immersive tool, but also shows off the game's technology right from the start of the Campaign; the Halo engine, combined with the Xbox's graphical power, is easily capable of creating scenes that could come out of a high-budget Hollywood SF flick (even if the motions are a little stilted and the faces rarely stray from one general expression).

The Campaign mode of Halo: Combat Evolved immerses itself in the trappings of space opera science fiction. If you read the manual, you learn the back-story, although it isn't vital to your appreciation of the game. At the commencement of the Campaign, you're treated to a five minute cutscene, telling how the spaceship Pillar of Autumn has emerged from a blind jump from the planet Reach to find itself in the vicinity of a massive, ring-like structure (the Halo of the title), which turns out to be an artificial space habitat with continents and seas on the inside surface. The enemy of the game - a coalition of alien races known as the Covenant - show up in force after following the Autumn from Reach and board her. In response, the ship's captain gives the order to thaw out your game avatar: the Master Chief, an armoured super soldier whom all the crew and Marines of the Pillar of Autumn look up to, and not just because you're tall - when you arrive on the scene (usually by yourself), any Marines already there make comments like "The cavalry has arrived!" and "... until you showed up, I thought we were cooked!"

After a brief but effective tutorial (which is worked seamlessly into the game world as a post-cryosleep systems check), you're dumped into the action. The captain downloads the ship's AI, Cortana, into your battle armour and orders you to safeguard her against capture - if she falls into enemy hands, the Covenant will learn the secret that must be protected at all costs, the location of Earth. Once Cortana is inserted into your armour, she becomes your adviser and briefing officer, monitoring Covenant comm-channels, keeping in touch with friendly units and formulating mission objectives. Suddenly, you're fighting your way through short Covenant Grunts and menacing Elite troopers to a lifeboat that takes you to the ring's surface, where the action and mystery unfold. It seems that Halo has some sort of purpose, and it's up to you to find out what that purpose is before the Covenant do...

Of course, this is a video game, not a movie, and the cutscenes, while fantastic, occur infrequently enough that they don't interrupt gameplay. Thankfully, you also don't find yourself playing the game and wishing you were watching another cutscene instead. The graphics are superb, and the system is capable of detailing the environment and other characters with nary a drop in frame rate (fixed at a nice, pleasant, non-nausea-inducing thirty frames per second). Gameplay is broken down into ten levels, with a significant load-time between each, but each area contains several hours of gameplay, with split-second loading times at regular, but widely-spaced, intervals. Most of the levels are designed gorgeously, both internally and externally, with huge shafts and chasms, sweeping vistas, seas that stretch to the horizon and, whenever you're outside, the ever-present loop of the rest of the Halo, stretching away, up, over, down and back again. If you switch on your suit's torch light or use the scope of your sniper rifle, you can pick out all sorts of bump mapped detail in every internal surface. And, of course, there's cover enough for you to intelligently take advantage of it, but not so much that the levels feel needlessly cluttered with obstacles.

The action is fast and smooth. As stated before, the Xbox is capable of rendering lots of both allies and enemies on screen simultaneuosly with little or no drop in frame rate (drops will usually happen if you lob a grenade in an alreadysitively hate the obstacle course race against time right at the end of the game.

The thing is, I gritted my teeth, put up with the repetition, played through the game twice and had fun doing it. The challenge of the AI, and the way the game played out slightly differently each time thanks to it, was enough to overcome the level design problems for me, but I can understand why the level design might frustrate and bore some enough to seriously detract from their enjoyment of the game.

In summary, Halo: Combat Evolved is a very enjoyable first-person shooter that almost does everything right. It provides a satisfactory and solid single- and multi-player experience with gorgeous graphics, frenetic action that rewards tactical thinking, and a well-presented story. Even with its level design issues and more minor problems, you may well find yourself picking up your Xbox controller for yet another play-through, especially if a friend joins you in the fun; it's simply that compelling.

Reviewed On: Xbox with Advanced AV Cable, LG RT-29F flat-screen TV using S-Video Input, Marantz SR440 amplifier with 2-speaker stereo output.

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