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Halo: Combat Evolved Preview

publisher: Microsoft
developer: Gearbox Software
genre: Shooters

PIII 733, 128MB RAM, 32MB Video Card, 1.3GB HD
ESRB rating: M

release date: Sep 30, 03
» All About Halo: Combat Evolved on ActionTrip

As Microsoft launched its Xbox console, many eyes turned to Bungie and the unveiling of a project called Halo: Combat Evolved. Even though most of the gaming community was widely disappointed for not being able to experience Halo on their PC's, the game emerged as the leading Xbox title and received massive critical acclaim worldwide. Yes indeed, Bungie's first incarnation of Halo was meant to be a PC game, until Microsoft turned the project around and made it exclusive to their new technological marvel, the Xbox. This move did not bring down the game's popularity, quite the opposite. Halo's amazing scope and its overall quality soon set new standards in the world of FPS games. But, while it may be one of the best Xbox games ever, Halo is, in its heart of hearts, a PC-based FPS. After the hullabaloo of E3 brought us Halo 2 to slake the thirsts for more Master Chief, the hardworking team at Gearbox Software picked up where Bungie left off, and followed in the footsteps to bring the ringworld known as Halo, back home to the PC. Microsoft and Gearbox were kind enough to share with us their latest Halo beta build. So, after so many years of waiting, we finally get to see the game where it belongs.

Before we get down to the good stuff, I should mention that the development team didn't change an iota of content (At least as far as the single-player is concerned - 2Lions), nor have they altered the storyline in any way, shape or form. At any rate, I'm sure a majority of gamers already knows the scoop, but for those of you who have not yet experienced Halo, here's a quick synopsis: The entire human race faces a great threat from a cold-hearted alien religious sect, called the Covenant. Most of the remaining humans are scattered and greatly outnumbered, with their supposedly advanced weapons and armor practically useless against superior Covenant technology. The plot follows the sole surviving unit of the so-called SPARTAN II project, a soldier known only as Master Chief. He serves on a ship called the Pillar of Autumn, which, while trying to escape a Covenant armada, finds itself crash landing on a strange, ring-shaped object, called the Halo. Unfortunately for him, many of his crewmates perish in the crash, and the Covenant isn't giving up so easily. The Master Chief's job is simple: Stay Alive. Thanks to his top-notch training, highly advanced body armor, and a mean streak a mile wide, he stands among the few to measure up to such a challenge.

The instant we saw the game in action, it was apparent the boys and girls at Gearbox most certainly know what they are doing. All the addictive elements of Bungie's excellent Xbox FPS are evident in its PC counterpart. One of the most admirable aspects of Halo: Combat Evolved is its incredible depth, which is definitely a missing component in many games nowadays. Numerous artists, designers, animators, and programmers are the reason why this game remains so addictive, even to this day. This is why PC gamers should be waiting for Halo with baited breath (I know I am.... - Six). Another instant reaction was that the entire game feels more at home when you play it with the tried and true keyboard and mouse combination. No matter how you look at it the controls are more intuitive on the PC. It's like slipping on an old shoe, it just feels right. The best indication of this is when you operate the Warthog - aiming and driving is a lot easier than on the console. The slow and bulky Xbox controller can hardly stand up to the precise aiming and accurate movement you can achieve by using the mouse and keyboard. Perhaps the only thing missing when played on the keyboard is the forcefeedback. But, if you're that desperate, you can switch to a controller with forcefeedback support at any time - if you have one that is. Also, I'd like to take this opportunity to suggest that the developers change a few keys in the default keyboard control settings. For example, instead of using the Z key for the zooming scope in sniper mode, it would be far more agreeable if they threw in the ol' mouse wheel (I believe most of you would concur with me on this). Personally, I find that crouching works a lot better with the 'C' key, as opposed to the default left CTRL key. Of course, these kinds of idiosyncrasies are exactly why keymap options were installed, so every player can set up hotkeys to their preference.

Naturally, Master Chief's entire arsenal is back. There really didn't need to be a whole lot of work done on them - all of the weapons were well-balanced and tweaked to perfection in the Xbox version, so making the transition was a breeze. Next to the standard choice of human weapons, which include assault rifles, pistols, rocket launchers, and fragmentation grenades, you're also able to grab yourself some sweet and powerful plasma weaponry used by the Covenant. Coupled with all the mighty weaponry, players will have the opportunity to enjoy a huge choice of human and Covenant vehicles. Regardless if you're riding a Warthog or the colossal Scorpion tank, it's easy to notice that the developers made a solid effort to optimize them in every possible way.

Halo: Combat Evolved still demonstrates some of the finest AI patterns on the market. To set a quick example: taking one of the enormous Covenant guards can be a great challenge even when you bring in about four or five marines to provide suppressing fire. Even when he's alone and cut off from reinforcements, a single Covenant guard can resist a variety of coordinated attacks. Also, if you challenge him one-on-one, he can be a pretty tough cookie (The bastard is good at evading my rifle butt attacks! - 2Lions) - again, one of the best AI routines I've ever seen. Your marine comrades are equally resilient and will often watch your back in dire situations. Eventually, a sense of camaraderie develops between the troops and you'll find yourself watching after each and every one of them.

The PC version of Halo shows significant visual improvement over its Xbox counterpart, particularly when you run the game in 1600*1200 resolution (you should really see how impressive that looks). Also, the design team did a terrific job overhauling the graphics in order to exploit all the advantages of DirectX 9.0. From what we've seen, this makes all the difference. Generally, thanks to higher resolutions the graphics are considerably sharper this time around, which makes it easier for players to observe minute details, meticulously designed character models, and many other things that just weren't noticeable on lower TV resolutions. Of course, the game is still very much in the beta phase, which can easily be observed as you cross through unpolished segments of certain levels. Other levels, however, look impressive and work at a decent frame rate (for a beta). If there are any visual drawbacks in the PC version it would have to be the background textures, which still remain in their Xbox form - a minor annoyance, to say the least, but one must remember that while this is a top shelf game, it is still a console port. On the other hand, chapters like Truth and Reconciliation, The Silent Cartographer, and Halo exhibit splendid reflections - frequently present throughout several outdoor and indoor levels. In addition to that, all the particle effects seem prettier than those I remember seeing in the Xbox version. (It's just that you're seeing them in more detail - 2Lions) The brilliant Halo physics are also there and work even better this time around. All in all, when it comes to visuals, we were delighted with what we've seen and hope that things will look even better when the final version is unleashed. (I can't wait to see the PC renditions of the Warthog Jump! - Six)

The sound quality is superb in every way. The surroundings are filled with various ambient sounds and the NPC's have an amazing variety of responses and catch-phrases that make the game a lot more enjoyable. Also, all of your favorite tracks, created by award-winning composer Martin O'Donnell, are back once again. Essentially, Halo's audio still stands as one of the most impressive efforts in recent memory.

Another thing we were most keen on testing was the multiplayer mode, which allows for a number of additional features that were unavailable in the Xbox version. The AT staff got hooked on a certain outdoor map that allows you to play where the Silent Cartographer mission took place in the single-player campaign. This map gives you a chance to take the new Rocket Warthog for a spin, as well as the Banshee Covenant aircraft. The Xbox version didn't allow the use of the Banshee in multiplayer, but the PC version does; and let me tell ya, you're in for some mighty sweet action when dogfights start. As for the Rocket Warthogs, they drive exactly the same as ordinary Warthogs, except these are equipped with a nice little rocket launcher at the back (instead of the usual machine gun). Using Banshees gives a whole new feel to multiplayer matches. If you improvise (and practice well enough) there's a lot of cool stunts you can pull off.

To make things even more exciting, two cool new items were added to your arsenal - the flamethrower (which can be very effective against opponents that are on foot and open to short-range attack) and the fuel rod gun (used by the Covenant in the single-player campaign). Like before, the variety of standard weapons in Halo also ensures hours and hours of fun in multiplayer mode. Grenades, for example, add a special flair to matches and can sometimes create a challenging atmosphere, particularly if you're playing a match with 16 players at once (as tradition would have it here at the AT office, Dex, our resident grenade-lobbing freak, started kicking our asses with his usual toss-a-grenade-and-run-away-like-a-little-bitch tactic).

Next to the familiar choice of maps that were available in the Xbox version, Gearbox threw in six new ones, which include Ice Fields, Death Island, Danger Canyon, Infinity, Timberland, and Gephyrophobia. Each new multiplayer map has the capacity to accommodate 16 (or fewer) players per match. The LAN matches we went through were lengthy, intense, and extremely addictive. Currently, we have no idea of how the online multiplayer works, but the developers assured players that they are working hard to optimize the game for all types of connections (be they 56k modems or commercial broadband).

Things are shaping up nicely for the PC version of Halo. You've longed to see the game on your PC's and now that day is close at hand. The time we've spent with the beta proved that Gearbox is on the right track and that the game will be a successful PC port worthy of the original. Here's to October and Halo's resurrection on the PC!



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