It's been a long wait for Halo fans who wanted to play the game on the PC. A couple of years back, Microsoft bought out the developer, Bungie, and had them turn Halo into an Xbox exclusive. Now, almost two years later, Gearbox is delivering a PC port of Halo - it promises higher-res graphics, mouse and keyboard controls, and an enhanced multiplayer mode. So is it worth the wait for PC gamers? Can a game that's this old still compete with today's FPS juggernauts?
Gearbox Software did wind up with a lot on their hands when they took the job of porting Halo to the PC. The graphics code pretty much had to be redone due to a few small (but key) differences between the hardware on the Xbox and the PC, and on top of that, Halo also needed to be compatible with a fairly wide range of computers.
Many new DirectX 9 features are used extensively, but I honestly am having a tough time seeing the visual impact. The animations and special effects are rarely better than what was seen on the Xbox; was the console version of the game just that advanced or something? All of these features eat up your video card's processing power, and it just doesn't seem like they do all that much for Halo. Since I can't turn off any of the advanced DX9 effects, it's also difficult for me to see what difference they really do make - if at all.
The one huge problem I find with Halo is that it just doesn't run that well; on my computer listed above (the Radeon 9800 is overclocked past Radeon 9800 Pro speeds), the game would not run well at full detail in 1280x1024. The frame rate was all over the place, and I wound up settling with medium details and 1024x768. I left FSAA off since it caused a major performance hit in Halo without improving the visuals all that much. This resulted in a frame rate that was usually over 30fps, so it was certainly playable, but this is kind of sad performance for computers that are this powerful.
Update: adding either "-use10" or "-use11" to the Halo shortcut will force the game to use Pixel Shader 1.0 or 1.1 effects instead of 2.0 effects. This helped out my frame rate immensely with what seems only a small cost in visual quality. Of course, these options needed to be in the game itself, not as a well-hidden command line option. Also, FSAA ruined my frame rate and didn't help out the visuals much - PC gamers expect these kinds of options and features, and Halo does not deliver them.
Gearbox wound up having to totally rewrite the network code, as the Xbox version of the game only supports LAN play and internet lag was not coded for in any form or fashion. For this reason, just about the whole network system had to be redone in order to make internet play even remotely feasible.
All of the control and interface options in the Xbox version of Halo are present in the PC port, but the obvious new feature here is the inclusion of mouse and keyboard support for aiming. This really does change the way the game is played, and it's a welcome change from struggling with the Xbox controller's dual analog sticks. First person shooters can be certainly playable on a console, but I find that a mouse always works better.
The multiplayer modes do include plenty of new features and custom modes, all of which are easily set up in-game. The actual feel of the mouse movement still felt a little, well, "swimmy"; it took me about an hour to get used to the slightly quirky mouse movement.
Apparently, the problem comes from the game forcing mouse acceleration on; you can get rid of it by starting the game with "-console" at the end of the shortcut, hitting the ~ key during the game, typing in "mouse_acceleration 0", hitting enter, and pressing ~ again. I've tried this and it definitely helps, but this still needs to be an option in the game's menus. Mouse acceleration also seems to revert back to its original "on" setting every time the game starts, which means one has to type in the console command to turn it off every time Halo is fired up.
Halo's graphics were considered to be mostly phenomenal way back when the Xbox version was released in late 2001; not only was the engine very competent but the art was distinct and very unique. We did get several levels that feel very repetitive both in terms of visuals and gameplay, but even those are still at least decent compared to other FPS games.
Some of the textures seem to be of a higher resolution than the Xbox version, but not all of them do. Many character models were recreated, again due to differences in Xbox and PC video hardware. Sadly, they just don't look quite as good as they used to, but I am having trouble putting my finger on exactly what it is.
Graphically, just about everything else seems to be either the same as the original or better. The levels and gameplay are largely unchanged, although the game's water seems to have some new pixel shading effects. The special effects don't seem to have been played with either, although some of them just don't look quite as good when shown on the PC.
In fact, there are quite a few graphical rough edges that were difficult to notice on a TV, but are kind of obvious in high-res on a monitor. Zoom effects, textures on a few enemies, and a couple of the major special effects just aren't as sharp as they could be; the game is still graphically impressive, but everything feels a little disjointed somehow.
One thing that Microsoft insisted on with the PC version of Halo is that the single player experience stay almost exactly the same - except with the new controls, that is, which is enough of a change right there that Halo veterans should give it another play through.
The story has you playing as Master Chief, the last of initial batch of Earth's super-soldiers that have been training since childhood to fight. You'll go up against the Covenant, an alien race that brings together other aliens to rain destruction down. The game's namesake, Halo, is a massive ring-shaped structure above an uncharted planet. Vegetation covers much of Halo, but we have no idea at the beginning what it was built for - we do know that the Covenant want something inside Halo very badly. Let's just say that the story is, like many aspects of the game, far better than what you might expect out of a shooter.
Halo does an excellent job integrating vehicles into its gameplay without forcing you to rely on them. The AI is also excellent, especially on the game's very challenging "Legendary" difficulty. The best part about Legendary mode is that they added difficulty in the right way - the enemies don't really do more damage, nor do they constantly respawn. Instead, they use improved tactics and try to overwhelm you in ways you don't usually see in FPS games.
The AI isn't the only one using tactics, though. You will find yourself having to switch weapons often, as you can only hold two of them at a time (plus some grenades) - and when you run out of ammo on one, you will need to switch or drop what you've got to pick something else up. Grenades are also very powerful, here, and the player will need to use them very carefully to get through some of the harder areas. Halo doesn't include a massive arsenal of weapons, but the tactics required for each one are different enough that you will find yourself becoming a master of all of them - depending on your situation and the availability of guns at any one time.
Many people's complaint with Halo was that a middle portion of the game was repetitive and downright frustrating at times. I didn't find it abysmally bad, but it could have used a bit of sprucing up. At the very least, the last levels and the finale are as satisfying as ever. If I had to pick a specific part of a great game that had to be mediocre, I guess I would pick the middle. Overall, Halo started out as an instant classic, but it still had its flaws; those flaws are getting carried over to the PC version whether we like it or not.
Halo's multiplayer modes on the Xbox were way better than what most console games previously allowed; not only did it have two-player cooperative play through the whole single player game, but it also had 2- and 4-player split screen deathmatch. Add on to this up to 16 players over LAN play, and it became an unprecedented style of game for console players.
The PC version of the game does away with the split-screen gameplay and goes for a more traditional PC-style approach with regard to internet and LAN play. 16 players are supported for internet gameplay via either a server browser available or by going through GameSpy Arcade. Gearbox got to add plenty of new stuff to the multiplayer game: not only are there a bunch of new modes, but there are tons of configurable options, two new weapons, several new maps, and even the ability to fly the game's aerial vehicles in multiplayer. There seems to have been quite a bit of work balancing all this out as well, so hopefully this will spawn an online community bigger than most shooters wind up doing.
The new gameplay modes do add something significant to the online gameplay, and the vehicles are a source of utter hilarity and a boatload of fun. Halo was a blast to play on the Xbox, and it only gets better with a mouse, keyboard, and no lugging Xboxes around just to play without a split screen.
The big missing feature in multiplayer is the cooperative mode. The Xbox version only supported co-op in a split screen on a single console - no network play in any form was included. Gearbox could have spent the considerable time and effort required to make cooperative play work over a LAN or the internet, but they didn't. They instead spent the time to enhance the deathmatch and other team-based modes, but I'm not totally convinced this was the right choice.
It's frustrating to see the slow death of cooperative play, even as we get the occasional gem of a game whose co-op mode makes the single player dull in comparison. Yes, Halo was one of these games, and the lack of this mode is a major disappointment for me. Gearbox has told us that a cooperative multiplayer patch might happen later on, but I'm not betting anything on it. Considering how long it took for the PC port of Halo to even get started, I'm doubtful; let's hope I'm wrong.
Gearbox also promised fairly extensive mod support, although the game doesn't seem to have shipped with any mod tools. Hopefully these are in the works and will be out soon for us to play with, as just about any multiplayer game needs mod tools to be really successful online. Of course, there's also the potential for new single player missions from mod authors, so let's all pray for some nice editing tools.
Halo's sounds and music are top-notch, and it's all been moved over to the PC very well. The 5.1 speaker support works just as well as it did on the Xbox, and the sound effects are all heavy and satisfying. The music is some of the best you'll ever hear in a game; the tribal-sounding drums, haunting chorus, and symphonic tunes are very unique for a first person shooter. It totally goes against the trend of generic techno or rock we usually hear in this kind of game, and it actually works extremely well.
All of the original voice acting is here, from Cortana's smart aleck comments to Master Chief's self-assured growling quips. Game voice acting has hardly improved in the time since Halo was released on the Xbox, so it turns out that this game remains as a shining example of excellent voice work combined with a solid, action-packed story.
Halo PC is a fairly functional port of an excellent game. The lack of co-op and the sluggish frame rate are the big disappointments, but the solo campaign is a must-play for any respectable FPS fan. The enhanced multiplayer mode is very fun for online play, but let's hope Gearbox can get some mod tools going to make it last more than a couple of weeks.