Monday, April 7, 2008

Play: Halo: Combat Evolved

Can there be a more perfect game than this? After playing games like Pac-Man, to Super Mario, to Sonic the Hedgehog, to SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, SimCity 4, SimTower, SimIsle, Tomb Raider, and Final Fantasy (as well as '90s-era DOS games like Jill of the Jungle, Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure, and Secret Agent), this has to be the most perfect game thus far.

The story is relatively standard pulp. You play a cybernetic super soldier, kind of like Predator, only you're the good guy. You are the faceless, anonymous, most-awesome-looking body armor-wearing Master Chief. I'm not a fan of body armor by and large. The closest I got to wearing it was when I used to play ice hockey, and donning and doffing it was tedious and dull. Not Master Chief. The dude lives in it, and lives to fight the alien bad guys.

The alien bad guys are on a religious quest to wipe out the human race, and you begin playing in the middle of the story, whereby you and the aliens have come to a head at this massive ring-world built by someone other than the humans and the aliens you were fighting. The micro-awesome is the MC's armor, but the macro-aweseome belongs to the Halo itself. The game designers were thoughtful enough to include it within the perspective of actually being on the Halo. Meaning? You get cool scenes like this:


I want to drive on a freeway going around this thing. For those of you who read different science fiction than I did, yes, I know, shades of Larry Niven.

Beyond that, you shoot shoot shoot, kill kill kill. That part is not particularly special. What is special is the way the game teaches you how to play. After watching the movie that begins the game (it seems virtually all non-sim games since 2000 have gone to long cut-scenes), you are guided by the female computer voice-over, known as Cortana, as she shows you how to aim, shoot, and use your accessories.

I've not played many games where the tutorial is part of the game, but this was very well done.

Top it off with perhaps the best feature in game design I've experienced: auto-save. None of this "look for the glowing blue ball", but rather, you finish a level, the game saves, and you have no need to go back and re-load at the last save some 30 minutes ago if you are killed. The auto-save feature is the best game improvement ever since games moves away from the arcade-style "3 lives and you're dead" meme that lasted through the early-1990s. If having to go back all the way to the beginning to the Green Hill Zone for the umpteenth time killed my interest in conventional 1990s games (and sent me to the Sim games), then having to level-up and look for blue balls is about to kill my interest in conventional 2000s-era games.

Halo lets you play as much or as little as you like, and you are not punished for it by facing dozens of rounds of the exact same battle sequence just so you can advance your skill set to include some spell, which frustrated you so much the last time you played that game two months ago that you put it aside.

The only problems I have with Halo are the confusing maps and unfair fights. I found myself wandering in circles in beautiful terrain for nearly an hour before I walked enough of the right zones to activate the next cut scene. Also, facing a barrage of ten thousands alien bad guys all by yourself when you have one bullet left and one health point blinking red is disheartening, prompting many times to "restart the level" with full ammo and lots of health.

If those are the only two faults in Halo, then the game is fantastic.