Having enjoyed putting together the C&C3 review yesterday I've decided not to rest on my laurels and immediately proceed with another PC games review. At some point I will actually review truly classic games that everyone should play immediately if they have not done so previously (Freespace 2, Hostile Waters, Planescape: Torment etc etc), but frankly it's more fun to look at those games which everyone has heard of but which actually aren't all that. Hence:
Halo was first unveiled circa 1999 as a major first-person shooter from the makers of the classic Marathon series on the Apple Mac and the Myth series of strategy games on the PC. Halo promised to combine a solid SF setting (basically an Orbital from Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, althouh lazy reviewers referenced the more obvious titular construct from Larry Niven's Ringworld books) with equally-good vehicular and personal combat all set against a solid storyline. However, a bump appeared in the road during development, namely a large, misshapen, three-times-too-big bump called the Microsoft X-Box. Before you could say "Killer App!" Halo had been gagged and dragged screaming off to the land of Console Exclusive Releases, leaving PC players feeling vaguely cheesed off, but the developers immensely richer. Anyhow, Halo came out for the X-Box, made a tremendous wad of cash, got lots of people to buy the thing and was praised by all and sundry as the Best Thing Ever, with even the usually-more-difficult-to-excite-than-Al-Gore Edge magazine getting unseemingly excited and awarding it maximum points, which felt rather wrong, a bit like Barry Norman giving a five-star review to Debbie Does Dallas.
Meanwhile, the PC community had basically forgotten that their promised classic had been carted off to the land of mass appreciation, mainly because Half-Life 2 had just been announced, Doom 3 was on the way and something called Far Cry was looking a bit tasty as well. When Halo therefore arrived on PC at the end of 2003 like an overeager puppy anxious to please its new owners, it was rather cruelly ignored and reviews were less than stellar. No doubt some of this can be put down to PC owners generally believing that console games are unchallenging sacks of crud and console conversions are very disappointing (although if the game in question is developed by BioWare, this rule no longer applies), but most of it can be put down to the fact that Halo is in fact a bit (but not totally) crap.
Things get off to a solid if unoriginal approach when your spaceship detects a huge alien artefact in space and your captain decides to check it out. Your ship then gets borded by what appears to be a bunch of gibbering monkeys wearing brightly-coloured spacesuits, giggling like lunatics and running around like a bunch of five-year-olds on acid. These turn out to be the primary recurring footsoldiers of the Covenant. They are the worst enemy ever conceived for a first-person shooter. Shooting them is satisfying, but would be more so if your collection of weapons weren't entirely inspired by the Super-Soaker 5000. Things obviously go pear-shaped and you end up stuck alone on the huge alien construction, at least for about ten minutes until you meet up with some of your mates and engage in squad-based combat with the Covenant.
This takes up the first third of the game and is actually enjoyable. There's some nice non-linearity to the game, combat is generally okay and Halo's approach to grenades is, if massively overstated, nonetheless a welcome innovation in the staid FPS genre. Much respect to the vehicles. If there is one thing Halo gets right, it's the vehicles and vehicle combat, which are fun throughout the game. Also, whilst the gibbering Covenant monkey grunts remain infuriating, more challenging opponents turn up who are more interesting to fight.
You may suspect a huge "BUT" is coming and you would be correct. About a third of the way through the development of the game Bungie apparently checked in on the gametesters and realised that people were having fun fighting in outdoor environments with vehicles and alongside NPC allies and against a reasonably decent opposition. Bungie apparently decided that it would make perfect sense to therefore kill all of the NPC allies, take out the vehicles, set the second two-thirds of the game almost entirely indoors on the same map just repeated over and over and replace the Covenant with The Flood, the Flood being basically the headcrab zombies from Half-Life with the added bonus that they sometimes explode when standing right next to you and they never appear in numbers of less than four trillion. I can only assume that Bungie had a moment of rebellion against their evil corporate overlords at Microsoft and tried to sabotage their own game, but it didn't work because it came too late in the day and all the previews had enthusiastically widdled on about the great part of the game and not even mentioned the large chunk of it that sucked donkey legs.
Towards the end of the game, around the time you've slaughtered your sixty quadrillionth Flood creature and passed through the same room eighty times, things do get vaguely interesting again and you experience an enjoyable jeep ride along the spine of an exploding starship. However, given that the game ends three seconds after this, this turns out not to be the return-to-form you were hoping for but rather a rather cruel way of the developers telling you they could have made the whole game as fantastic as that, but chose not to because they were too busy spending their development budget on beer and pizza.
Of course, Halo (**) wasn't a total write-off. As I said, the first third of the game is still fun, the multiplayer is okay (if nothing special by PC standards) and it did give us the superb Red vs Blue Internet comedy series, which is a Good Thing. However, it doesn't really make up for the fact that nearly two-thirds of the game is unplayable by all but the terminally stubborn and the ending is so blatantly sequel-incurring that they may as well have just demanded your credit card number before running the final cut scene.
Halo is available for the X-Box (USA, UK) and the PC (USA, UK) and has been out for ages, so should be quite cheap on both systems. There are sequels which are apparently far superior, but given that the PC port of Halo 2 was apparently a total disaster, I am not in any hurry to play them.