Thursday, November 11, 2004

Halo 2 Initial Thoughts

Well, it's quite a game. There's no question about that. It's really two different games, though, and there are multiple audiences for each game, and all that combined makes for a more difficult evaluation than it would originally seem.

Now if you see a standard review of this game, it will be 9.8 or something like that. Again, though, Halo 2 is really two different games. I haven't played the multiplayer, but like I said yesterday, people I trust say that it is absolutely fantastic. 10 out of 10. No question. So if you have an Xbox and Xbox Live and you like to play multiplayer, this game is a must have. In fact, if you are all of those things, you already have the game and have been playing it nonstop since Tuesday. This discussion will not be about that.

The single-player campaign is less of a slam dunk, and after about four hours, I want to share some impressions with you now, with the caveat that I'll have more after a few more hours.

The Halo backstory is a well-developed, thoughtful piece of writing. And the character of Master Chief is an absolutely great piece of design. The cut scenes are excellent, even with the occasional normal-mapping issues that have been commented on in most reviews. The 5.1 sound is some of the finest I've ever heard for a game, as is the music. In other words, the game has extremely high production values. For a console game, it's off the charts. Even for a PC game, the production values would be considered very high.

Technically, the game also pushes the Xbox very close to what must be its limits, which is also a reason to look forward to Xbox 2 next year. In 480p mode, the game looks 'nice.' It doesn't look incredible or amazing or anything like that. There is noticeable aliasing and low-res texture are very noticeable. However, the framerate has stayed high even during firefights and the animation is outstanding, so I think Bungie has done everything they can inside the performance thresholds of the platform.

This game also has a sense of humor which is usually utterly lacking in first-person shooters. The aliens are particularly funny at times with their comments during battles.

I've seen many reports that the campaign mode is only 8-10 hours long. I saw someone claim that they finished the campaign in 8 hours on legendary difficulty. Unless you are an ├╝ber-goober yourself, ignore that. That length is for people who play games like they're falling off a cliff, wanting nothing so much as to reach terminal velocity and stay there until they hit the ground. Playing the game as fast as possible, for them, is the game. So those numbers don't mean anything.

For us mere humans, I'm guessing that 15 hours is a more reasonable estimate. That's not lengthy by any means, but Max Payne 2, which was one of the best games of 2003 (the second-best, in my opinion, behind KOTOR), was of similar length, so I don't think it's a huge issue as long as those 15 hours are well-spent.

However, I do think there are two issues that could be significant, particularly if you haven't picked up the game yet and aren't big into Xbox live. The first is the controller. The Xbox S-controller is fantastic, absolutely first rate, but trying to use it in a first-person shooter is very difficult. Trying to use any gamepad in a FPS is very difficult. The mouse is, by far, the best aiming mechanism--it's both tremendously accurate and totally intuitive. The analog stick, in contrast, is unbelievably annoying. It's far less precise and far, far more difficult to use. If you've put in fifty hours with console FPS games, you've probably completely adjusted, but if you're a PC gamer thinking about picking up a console to play this game, be warned that the learning curve for aiming is stiff. It will drive you crazy. It still drives me crazy, even after I've adjusted to a large degree. There is nothing more annoying than dying in a level because your aiming was imprecise, not because your tactics were poor.

The second issue is that Halo is a member of the 'shoot shit at a frantic pace' genre. There's nothing wrong with that, but some of the reviews seem to imply that it's a revolutionary game, and clearly it is not. It is a great game in the same way that Morrowind was great--not revolutionary in the slightest, but evolution of a genre taken to an extremely high level. The levels are well-designed and generally interesting (although I'd rather get cut scenes related to plot advancement and development more frequently), but everything I've seen so far I've seen before, and in all likelihood, so have you.

Like I mentioned earlier, those are initial impressions. After I get in 5-10 more hours of play, I'll have more for you. I'm also playing another Xbox game now that I am very, very impressed with, at least initially, and hopefully I'll tell you about that in another day or so as well.

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