Halo: Combat Evolved

Well, after much vaunting and strange television commercials aplenty, the X-Box has finally arrived, and a lot of sceptics are already seeing the rather chunky funky console in a new light. The game that has probably contributed the most to such conversions is Microsoft's flagship title Halo, a sci-fi shooter of truly epic proportions. So what has all the fuss been about?

Plot-wise, you could be forgiven for thinking that the concept behind the game was a little clich├ęd going purely on the content of the manual - a strange and aggressive alien race destroys a human starship, and you are amongst the retaliation force determined to push back these marauding green-skins - hereinafter referred to as 'The Covenant' - before they get too close to earth. I don't want to spoil the plot for you, it's an excellent piece of workmanship, but I will tell you right now, it's nowhere near as simple as that. Be prepared for twist upon twist, with each important plot point picked out in surprisingly well-acted cut scenes that are all the more impressive for the fact that they utilise the in-game engine. No pre-rendered offerings or Resident Evil-esque bad acting here!

OK, down to the nitty-gritty, it's a first person shooter and I know exactly what you're all thirsting for... the GUNS! Well, bad news first, as I know a lot of people are going to be disappointed by this: you can only carry two weapons at a time. This might sound restrictive to people used to bopping backwards and forwards along a huge arsenal of goodies, but it has two major advantages that should not be ruled out. Firstly, it is more realistic. I know the Green Berets and the SAS are trained to carry a lot of stuff, but I doubt that even they could carry a bazooka, M16, pistol, sniper rifle and goodness knows what else. Secondly, it avoids confusion. Given the limited number of buttons on a joypad, the only other methods would be a button that cycles through a large list one by one, making swapping in the heat of combat not only impractical but dangerous (imagine coming across the rocket launcher when you were expecting the pistol). The other method would be a cumbersome inventory system that would either take a lot of time to use, or would cause an unwelcome break in the combat. For those of you who are still concerned however, I might also add that you can also carry two different types of grenade to supplement your arsenal, and up to four of each at that! This gun/grenade combination gives Halo a unique feel, and obliges players to frequently swap their weapons for new ones from fallen enemies - how many games have neglected to allow you to do that eh?

The weapons themselves are a varied bunch, divided as they are into human and covenant types, and it might surprise you to discover that the wondrous assault rifle style gun that is the darling of many a blast-fest is the biggest turkey of them all. Sure, it kicks out a constant stream of bullets, but those bullets are very, very weak! Some of the larger baddies can take a whole clip without dropping, and when it comes to the energy shields that proliferate, this little ammunition gobbler will hardly dent them. In contrast, the pistol is quite a favourite of mine, packing both a hefty punch that is adequate to take down even light vehicles with patience and a x2 sniper scope for more accurate work. Naturally, there is a far more powerful sniper rifle with a x10 scope, but this is unwieldy at close range, limited in ammunition and has to be reloaded every four shots. The only other human weapon is the generic rocket launcher, which also boasts a modest zoom function but is rarely useful against anything smaller than a vehicle.

Covenant weapons have a satisfyingly alien appearance, and have one or two nice touches. The pistol/assault rifle alien variants run from a battery which cannot be replaced, obliging you to discard and replace at regular intervals. You can overcharge the pistol to produce a semi-homing blast that does immense damage and knocks out shielding in a single hit, making it a great utility weapon. The plasma rifle packs a better punch than the marine variant, and is pretty damn effective with it. And then there is the needler. This is my favourite weapon in the game for its simple effect. It fires at a rate comparable to an uzi, and the shiny blue crystals track onto enemy targets provided that they were carefully aimed in the first place. Once they strike, there is a small delay before they explode doing a modest amount of damage. Pound a full clip into a single target however, and you will see a far more spectacular explosion that is large enough to damage other creatures nearby, and fill a target full of enough ammo and they might explode up to 2 or 3 times after death! Watch the way those bodies go flying, A-Team style through the air and laugh with me: Muahahahahaaa!

Speaking of your opponents, some thought has definitely gone into their tactics. The smallest enemies attack in waves, usually with a larger 'boss' character. Kill the boss, or enough of their comrades however, and they are likely to run like cowards, screaming and yelling in a most pleasing manner as you chase gleefully after them to put a beautiful little bullet in their scummy, twisted alien hides!!! Joy!!! *ahem* sorry, don't know what came over me there. Naturally, the larger aliens are made of sterner stuff, and many include pretty glowing shields in both fashionable figure-hugging varieties and arm-mounted disk shaped ones, although both variants will wear out with continued pounding. AI is likewise excellent, with aliens taking cover behind rocks and in corridors, sneaking around behind you when they can and bunching in groups for a concerted assault. On the whole, it's a good job that you've got your buddies to help you. The personal shielding helps too - basically, it's like a second health bar that offers complete protection and depletes as it takes damage. If it gets dangerously low however, all you need do is duck into cover for 5 or 10 seconds and, lo and behold, it fully recharges itself! Some might think that this would make the game too easy, but be warned that there are precious few moments to duck behind a rock once a full-scale assault is underway. Instead, it alleviates the constant worry of 'do I have enough health?' that has dogged some of its predecessors so plainly.

Now, a quick word on vehicle safety. Can everyone hear me? Good. Rule 1: Vehicles are a lot safer than NO vehicles. There is a limited variety that you can actually snaffle and use, and not all levels feature them. The most common is the Warthog, a jeep-like construct employed by the Marines. It bumbles along at a fair rate, although its overactive suspension is prone to uncontrollable fits of bouncing, which is great fun both to watch and use. Fortunately, should the jeep flip over all passengers jump clear automatically, and you can flip it back onto its wheels with a tap of the X button (a function true of all vehicles). The Warthog also has a very big machine gun on top that, while inaccurate, is great for taking out compact groups and enemy vehicles. One marine can drive while one operates the gun, and a third fires personal weapons from the passenger seat. AI marines won't drive for you, but they're more than happy to operate the firearms for you while you're busy running aliens over. Other vehicles include a nice bobby hoverbike, a butch tank with machine guns and a huge turret, and an alien flying machine that is sadly only available in one of the single player missions. There are a couple of other vehicles, but they can't be commandeered. So blow them up.

Speaking of levels, they are absolutely immense. It can take anything from half an hour to two or three hours to get through them, and the graphical superiority of the X-Box really has been used to the full. Trees are especially nice to look at, and it seems a pity that so much of the action happens indoors. That said, a couple of the levels do suffer from 'samey' rooms that make it a little difficult to keep track of where you have and haven't been, and they are a little linear, but very few games aren't these days (Thief and Thief 2, anyone?). There is also plenty of diversity between levels, from alien battle cruisers to forgotten facilities, gorgeous outdoor locations and one murky swamp. As for the final mission, it's pretty damn tricky and utterly spectacular. I don't want to give away too much, but I will say I hope you've passed your driving test!

The thing that sets Halo apart is its multiplayer. Up to 16 people can play deathmatch and capture the flag style shenanigans through linked systems, or up to four on a single X-Box given enough pads. There are plenty of game types, and a lot of customisable options to choose from too many and varied to list here, but where the game truly comes into its own is in co-operative play. More FPS games should have the option to take a buddy through the main game campaign rather than just relegating buddies to blasting the bejesus out of each other, but until the rest of the gaming community catches up at least we have Halo. The experience of co-op is something else entirely, running through the undergrowth with your best mate shouting tactical instructions to one another, leaping into the warthog together to kick some serious buttock takes on a new dimension with a human gunner, and it really is tremendous fun.

I guess I should really round this review off with a few niggles, but I'm struggling to think of any at the moment. True, the saving system is a little strange (the game pauses for a millisecond at key points on the level to autosave every time a significant goal is achieved) but the break in the action is so momentary and the advantages of not having to save manually are legion, so this is easily forgiven. I think the game's biggest failing is its lack of computer-controlled 'bots' in Multiplayer. Being able to play Capture the Flag against a computer controlled team would have made Halo even better than it already is, but then I am merely nitpicking. This is a superb game, and a worthy flagship for X-Box's future Rear Admirals.