Eurogamer turned 15 this week (happy birthday to us, etc!) and Bungie’s latest game, Destiny, is due out on Tuesday, so when we were considering which article to drag out of the archive this weekend there really was only one choice. Eurogamer’s launch editor John “Gestalt” Bye (we all had nicknames back then) penned this famous critique of Halo: Combat Evolved way back in the day, which left us with a legacy of “Better than Halo?” comments directed at any other review with a high score forever after. Always with the wit.
Read on to see what John made of Halo when he published this review on 13th March 2002, the eve of the original Xbox‘s European launch. Having worked with John in the early days of the site, I’d like to apologise to him should he happen upon this relic for going through and adding a few more hyphens than he would have liked, but I will preserve his strange love of incomplete ellipses floating in space. -Tom B
Of all the games in the Xbox’s European launch line-up, Halo is
perhaps the nearest the console comes to having a killer app. It’s
the biggest-selling Xbox title to date in America, and the press on
the other side of the pond have been raving about it for months.
Now that it’s finally arrived here in Europe, the question is, can
it live up to the hype? And the answer is yes .. and no.
You want some?
Halo puts you in the boots of a futuristic cyborg soldier known
only as the Master Chief, and as the game begins you are being
defrosted from cryogenic storage aboard a warship pursued by an
alliance of alien religious fanatics called the Covenant. Luckily
there’s time for the engineers to power up your mobile armour suit
and run you through some diagnostic tests first though, which gives
you a chance to get to grips with the game’s controls. Although I
normally have difficulties with console shooters, Halo proved to be
surprisingly easy to control, and the cinematic introductory
sequences mean that you have several minutes to just run around
admiring the scenery before having to actually shoot anything.
Indeed, the opening sections of Halo come across as the bastard
offspring of Unreal and Half-Life. Having completed your test run
you must make your way to the bridge to talk to the captain,
without the benefit of a weapon and getting only glimpses of the
enemy as battles rage in side corridors and behind doors which are
wedged half open. Even when you finally get hold of a weapon and
join in the action for yourself, the atmosphere doesn’t let up as
you make a dash for the last remaining lifepod, fighting alongside
scattered squads of human marines as Covenant boarders try to block
your escape route.
Bright Light City
All of this pales into insignificance when you finally touch down
on the mysterious ring which gives the game its title. With the
surface of the vast orbiting Halo arcing into the sky above your
head and grass-covered mountains towering all around you, the
scenery is spectacular to say the least.
Not that you’ll have long to stand gawping at the view, as the
Covenant are soon joining you on the surface to search for
survivors. Guided by the soothing voice of the ship’s female AI,
entrusted to your protection by the captain, you soon find yourself
roped into tracking down the other lifepods that escaped your ship
and helping the marines to fight off Covenant forces long enough
for a dropship to arrive and evacuate them. We won’t spoil the rest
of the game for you, but suffice to say that there are plenty of
plot twists and dramatic in-game cut-scenes to keep you amused over
the course of Halo’s 10 missions.
One of the surprisingly cute Covenant foot soldiers. If he’d survived this encounter, he’d probably be running away screaming two seconds after this picture was taken.
The one downside to this heavily scripted story-led malarkey is
that the game is depressingly linear at times, shuffling you from
one encounter to the next and rarely giving you any real choice in
where to go or what to do. While running around space ships and
Halo’s interior you will find an amazing wealth of locked doors
which keep you from straying from the one true path, with
occasional neon arrows conveniently painted on the floor to point
you in the right direction in case there was any doubt. The outdoor
settings look fairly open at first sight, but although there’s more
freedom of movement there are still only one or two paths open to
you most of the time thanks to steep-sided canyons and the
occasional rock fall.
Superstars In Their Own Private Movie
It’s easy to forgive Halo these shortcomings for the first few
hours though as it sucks you into a gorgeously rendered sci-fi
world of bizarre aliens, curvaceous architecture and gaudy weapon
effects. Halo is one of the most visually impressive games we’ve
seen to date, and the only real problem on the eye candy front is
an over-reliance on shiny metallic surfaces, giving it a slightly
fake CG look in places.
The AI is equally strong, with the Covenant using cover and
grenades to full effect, while groups of marines work together to
cut them down, calling out directions as they track down
stragglers. It’s not perfect, and the enemy is a little passive at
times, often allowing you to duck back behind cover and wait for
your shields to recharge instead of pressing the attack. We were
also a little alarmed at the frequency of friendly fire incidents
in confined areas, although your men do at least apologise if they
shoot one of their own. This constant chatter from both sides all
adds to the atmosphere, and there’s something undeniably satisfying
about seeing a panicked Covenant grunt running away from you with
his arms waving frantically in the air, shouting “he’s unstoppable”
and “they’re everywhere”.
If you want to do some screaming of your own, Halo features a full
co-operative mode, allowing you and a friend to fight your way
through the campaign side by side. It’s a rare luxury these days,
but one which adds a lot to the game’s replay value. Naturally the
game also includes the usual deathmatch and capture the flag modes,
as well as king of the hill, checkpoint races and “oddball”, where
you get points for holding on to a ball for as long as possible.
Apart from co-op (which only works with two players) all of these
modes support up to four players, either on one Xbox with a
split-screen view or with multiple Xboxes networked together using
the built-in ethernet adapter. Things can get a little choppy at
times with more than one player sharing the same screen, but
overall it works well. If you’re feeling really adventurous, it’s
even possible to play over the internet by hooking your Xbox up to
a PC running some (very unofficial) third-party software.
Say What You Want
The hog might look cool, but it’s a real pig to drive.
Halo isn’t without its faults though. For starters, those of us
weened on PC shooters may find it a little frustrating that you can
only carry two guns at a time. As the game uses a checkpoint-based
autosave system, if you find you have the wrong weapon for the job
your only choices are either to run back to wherever you dropped
the gun you really need now, or to muddle through as best you can.
And while most of the game is spent fighting on foot, often alone
behind enemy lines, the small selection of vehicles which you get
to drive from time to time aren’t quite as satisfying. A
combination of slightly awkward controls, low gravity and
incredibly soft suspension makes the buggy in particular a real pig
to drive on uneven surfaces. Maybe I just need more practice, but
the single-player game doesn’t really offer much opportunity to get
the hang of driving and flying the various vehicles, except when
you’re in a hurry to get somewhere and getting shot from all
Where Halo really falls down though is the pacing. The first few
hours of the game is a work of unadulterated genius, constantly
throwing new sights, enemies and weapons at you. But things go
rapidly downhill from there on in. Suddenly you find yourself
spending more time beneath the surface of Halo than above it, and
most of these underground facilities are made up of a handful of
drab prefab rooms repeated over and over again, with different
combinations of monsters thrown in to block your way, and big
glowing plot arrows in every room to point you through the one and
only exit. Needless to say, clearing level after utterly linear
level of near identical rooms soon gets tedious in some of these
missions, especially when you find yourself forced to backtrack
across a couple of miles of terrain that you’ve already explored at
one point, with only a change of inhabitants to keep you
interested. The game does at least pick up again at the end for an
exciting finale, but by this point finishing the game may have
become more of a chore than a delight for you.
Halo is very much a game of two halves. The first half is fast,
exciting, beautifully designed and constantly full of surprises.
The second half is festooned with gobsmacking plot twists and great
cinematics but let down by repetitive, paint-by-numbers level
design. Bungie could quite comfortably have cut several overly
lengthy sections from this second half and still ended up with a
respectably time-consuming game while maintaining the
adrenaline-pumping pace of the first few hours. As it is Halo is a
flawed masterpiece, one which is well worth owning but which may
start to grate after a while.