Halo fits the bill nicely as the first Xbox FPS.
In 2001, a little known Apple-based developer called Bungie released a game that would be on of the launch titles for Microsoft’s first venture in the video game console business. Its name was Halo. Seven years later, with a sequel under its belt and millions of copies sold worldwide, Halo shows that being a multi-million seller game doesn’t exactly mean it has to be bland nor easy in difficulty.
It all starts about five hundred and fifty years into the future, the human race is through building on Earth and brings its construction skills to space. Massive space stations cruise through the vast emptiness of the galaxies. Sadly, emptiness isn’t an option, and space is too crowded for a video game. Peace wouldn’t be a good setting for one. The Covenant, a race of intergalactic beings who aren’t to happy with that threatens to wipe humanity off the map. With it, a massive orbital station is discovered during the many battles that both races ensued – a ring shaped weapon of gigantic proportions, named Halo, that was built by an unknown civilization.
During one battle in particular, the Pillar of Autumn, a massive space station built by the humans, is being directly attacked by Covenant troops while it was making its way to the planet that is surrounded by Halo. The cyborg Master Chief is aboard the station and is entrusted the mission of saving as many personnel as possible. This mission leads to an all out, one-person guerrilla battle against the Covenant, in order to reach Halo and find out its purpose. Being made to run off a video game console and not a computer, Halo imposed a major challenge to the developers at Bungie. Very few FPS games in the past managed to work with a controller in the past, and not only that, but the Xbox was a new system with a controller that was different than what was available at the time. The two triggers function the same way as gun triggers, with the option to change whether the left or right one is the gun control and the other is the grenade throw. The analog sticks function as the movement and aiming controls, allowing a full 360 degree movement pattern – left, right, forward and back, including diagonals and the different heights of aiming, from standing to crouch. Much to all the brawler’s delight, a melee attack is assigned to the B button, which works well in conjunction with a grenade in the many tight spots you’ll find yourself in the game. Instead of using the common array of different weaponry that is collected that are managed in an inventory like most shooters, Bungie took a different approach that works as an extra layer of strategy to the gun fights, that all in all wasn’t completely original at the time, but works really well with the tense action featured in the game. Having the choice to carry only two weapons at a time, you are forced to decide what approach you want to take to battles. With a touch to the Y button, guns can be changed on the fly. The weapons themselves make this decision even harder, as they are all a blast to use, pun totally intended. Divided between the two warring factions, all weapons can be used by the Chief. The humans have the handgun, which contrary to common shooter belief, is extremely useful and precise, an assault rifle, the weapon that against all popular opinion will be the one weapon that will be least used, a shotgun, a bringer of pain at close quarters, a sniper rifle that can be deadly at stealth situations and the rocket launcher, the most fun use of three tunes that anyone could come up with in 2552. The Covenant provide interesting alternatives, amongst the which include the plasma pistol, a small and deadly green laser gun, the plasma rifle, which shoots out blue laser bolts at a fast rate, the needler, a weapon fires deadly target-homing laser bolts at an extremely fast rate, and the plasma grenade, which functions the same way as its human counterpart, with a catch: targets can be tagged by it, turning them into involuntary kamikazes. The main difference between human and Covenant weapons is the fact that the aliens don’t have to reload. While that proves to be useful during battles, it makes dropping and exchanging guns a must in order not to run out of ammo in the middle of fire fights. The tactical savvy will choose to make a mix between both styles of weapons, as in most cases, ammo and guns are plenty for whatever choice they make.
Fire fights in Halo are the main point of the experience. With an absurd quantity which rivals any war movie around, the best terms that can describe the battles in Halo are pop and shoot. Along with normal hit points, Master Chief has the cover of rechargeable armor to protect him. When he gets hit, the armor decreases, and when that's gone, he's vulnerable to fire. When that happens, hiding in a spot for a couple of seconds will refill the armor, and the fight can continue. It may seem like the fights come pre-chewed due to this, but the enemy numbers will make it up ten-fold. In most of the fire fights you'll be alone and outnumbered, with few and far between cases where you get a bit of support from fellow soldiers. While the fights are pure action and adrenaline pumped parts of the game, they tend to be repetitive, due to the overuse of the same locations throughout some parts of the game. Level design, from the middle of the game til the end is bland at best: corridors and bases are repeated too often, resulting in a sense of deja vú every time you pass through a door to an enemy filled room. The level design also comes in the way of the progression, because most of the times the locales look a bit too similar, and in some cases that makes you run in circles if you get too caught up in a fire fight.
The enemy comes in a variety of forms. Normal grunts tend to be group-based, getting scattered if separated, thus, easy prey. Higher ranking Covenants, called Elites, carry a limited shield similar to the Chief's and take longer to be killed, and due to the fact there are more than a couple of types of these, you'll definitely be kept on your toes. Hunters will be somewhat of a challenge the first time, and once you get the hang of fighting groups with mixed enemy types, Halo game play truly shines. Even the most frantic of battles can be won with careful aiming, patience and precisely aimed grenades, but for the hasty types, mounted guns can be found scattered around the battlefields as well, for a "retribution" type comeback. Deeper through the game's story, that should take a medium skilled player about fifteen hours to complete, you'll come across some other challenges better left unspoken.
Unlike most FPS, vehicles do play a big role in Halo. Ranging from a super powered tank called Scorpion to an ATV with a mounted gun, the humans aren't defenseless. The Covenant don't stay very far behind, with they own versions of attack vehicles, like the hover bike Ghost, armed with a precise laser and the Banshee, an aircraft that behaves similarly to a Harrier fight jet, taking off vertically and with two types of weapons on board, both for ground assault. In the humans' case, non playable characters can join Master Chief either on the side or Gatling gun/rocket launcher seat in the ATV's case, or the gunner and side panel seats on the tank, but the driving is left for the Chief.
Halo's soundtrack comes as a sidekick to the action, balancing the pace of the game and giving you cues about what's going to happen. In particular instances, you'll be in an area without any sound, only to be greeted by a tense theme, telling you an ambush is about to take place. The game's main theme is a mix of choir and electronic music that seems a bit out of place sometimes, while in others, it's perfectly attuned wit the action. The sound effect department is on par with the music, and while it's nothing to write home about, it get's the job done. Graphically, Halo is still impressive in comparison to newer Xbox games and even shooters. There are some instances of blurry effects and rough edges, and slowdown does occur when too much particle effects appear on screen at the same time. Weapon models are detailed to the point of the assault rifle having an ammo counter besides the HUD. Speaking of HUD, a blueish theme is seen throughout the entire game, off and into menus, in the panels you'll rarely use to open doors and operate elevators and even in on screen text messages reminding you of your objectives. All is easily readable even in standard definition TVs. Other details, like textures and lighting effects aren't tough to the eye, and it shows how much games evolved in the six years that separate this game from genre setting examples like GoldenEye and Rainbow Six.
While Halo tends to be a rinse and repeat type of game, the repeated portions are well done and worth going through til the end. The different types of weapons, enemies and settings make up for the lack of variety in the levels, and can encourage multiple plays through the game using different tactics and approaches. For a launch title, Halo certainly delivers, even today. If you still are in doubt whether or not this game is worth playing, consider this: if you played any other FPS on the Xbox, you certainly played a bit of Halo, because some mechanics set by it are still being used by other console shooters. So why not return to the inspirer of them all? All in all, you'll come out wondering why you missed it in the first place. I certainly did.