GamingHalo: Combat Evolved

I came very late to the Halo experience, mostly because I didn't have the capabilities of investing in Xbox live. My TV and Xbox is upstairs, my cable is downstairs, and plugging the Xbox into the cable box downstairs would require me to drill holes in the floor, yadda, yadda.

Well, along came wireless networks. I finally decided to convert my computer, Tivo, and Xbox to wireless, thereby skipping the awkward problem of cables between floors. My wife surprised me the Halo collection one day (I love my wife), and just like that I was playing Halo 2 online. But this review is about the campaign, which I just finished yesterday.

Halo follows the story of Master Chief (Steve Downes), a cyborg awakened for the sole purpose of kicking alien butt. He is ordered around by Captain Jacob Keyes (Pete Stacker) and the sassy artificial intelligence hologram, Cortana (Jen Taylor). We never get to see what Master Chief looks like, because he always wears a helmet. This makes him alternately customizable (that could be YOU under that helmet!) and strangely impersonal.

Master Chief is part of an ongoing war against the aliens known as The Covenant. Who exactly they've made a covenant with is uncertain. These aliens range from squat comical Grunts to the dog-like Jackals, from the predatory Elites to the behemoth Hunters. The Covenant ambushes Master Chief's ship, the Pillar of Autumn, and it ultimately crash lands on the ancient ring world known as Halo. But that ring is there for more than decoration, and both the Covenant and the human forces are in for a nasty surprise.

Halo has it all, from a veritable geekgasm of detailed human weapons torn right from the Aliens Space Marine playbook, to ground and air vehicles that can inflict even more destruction. Marines shout orders and follow Master Chief's lead, just like Starship Troopers. To paraphrase Hell Comes to Frogtown, everyone is there to kick alien posterior and chew bubblegum…and they're all out of bubblegum.

Halo is drenched with testosterone, a product so perfectly targeted to adolescent boys that I actually created Master Chief as a comic book (that I published, incidentally) long before the Xbox even existed. That's right, Brenkin Kree wore a featureless helmet, carried a rocket launcher on his shoulder, and had a wristwatch computer named Babe who bossed him around. Just like Master Chief, he was bred specifically for war.

Did Halo rip me off? As much as my ego would like to think otherwise, I sincerely doubt it. Halo is merely the distilled perfection of every boy's dream; the biggest badass in town, thrust into an Aliens flick and armed with all the military might of the future.

In retrospect, Halo is surprisingly mundane. Mostly, Cortana comes up with new missions and tells Master Chief what to do. There's very few twists, but plenty of old standbys: kill this target, rescue this person, flip a switch and kill lots of aliens while doing it. The vehicle missions tweak this paradigm a bit, but not by much. Mostly, I survived by having Master Chief smash his vehicle into the bad guys, jump out, and run for his life while spraying the countryside with hellfire. Shake well and repeat.

The character scripts are well done, but good scripts are now standard fare for most first-person shooters. We expect the marines to act intelligently, the bad guys to act even more intelligently, and the drones to act like morons. As my wife is fond of pointing out, the Grunts are funny and stupid-looking so it makes it okay to kill them.

The voice acting is passable. Taylor's voice acting in particular is uneven; she ranges from sedately reading her lines to infusing them with far too much enthusiasm, sometimes in the same breath. Since she's critical to the plot, this is a major flaw in the game. Because her commentary is only loosely tied to what's actually going on in the game, I often had difficulty understanding what she wanted me to do. Sorry, Cortana, did you say "that's an awfully big pit, don't fall in it" or "that's an awfully big pit, JUMP in it"? This led to several frustrating moments where I didn't know what the hell was going on and just ran around until either Cortana flat out told me or I figured it out myself.

There's a few things that make Halo different. For one, Master Chief has a personal shield that regenerates quickly over time. This means that, barring a series of sudden attacks, Master Chief will always survive (this is a difficult adjustment for someone new to the multi-player…there's no slow sniping, it's either one-shot one-kill or nothing). Master Chief can apparently leap tall buildings in a single bound, but the jumping mechanism isn't particularly precise…which can be deadly in the wrong situation. Finally, the same mechanics that give air vehicles a weightless feeling also applies to ground vehicles, making them maneuver more like gliding hovercraft than actually 3.25 ton road hogs.

Compared to today's standards, Halo's merely a good game. But back when it first debuted, it was a great game. I enjoyed experiencing a bit of gaming history. We'll see how Halo 2's campaign stacks up.