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Halo - Deconstructing the circle
Halo: "The aura of majesty or glory surrounding a person or thing that is regarded with reverence, awe, or sentiment." Well, at least that's what the word means according to the Oxford dixtionary.

Instead, Halo could have easily become an ironic joke for gamers to sneer about. The plot of Microsoft's (MS) coveted launch game: a story of humanity against an alien horde was hardly groundbreaking stuff. Even the risky decision to make it a First Person Shooter (FPS) seemed quite mad really in a market awash with second-rate shooters and in a console market that hadn't seen an outstanding FPS since Goldeneye for the N64. The genre itself, although having evolved over the years particularly in multiplayer mode, was beginning to feel lacking and in need of new ideas.

Halo was, however, released to critical acclaim, garnering a 10 out of 10 from Edge magazine no less: A gaming publication unafraid to call a game a 'lemon' if it truly deserved it, and one which would soon see itself mercilessly butchered, plunged in alcohol, served on ice, and gleefully nibbled as part of the editorial's celebratory afternoon fixer-upper.



I can't say I've read the review in Edge (back issue on order), but I can definitely understand why it received such high acclaim. If you want a review of the title, there are numerous to be found on the net, as it's been out for sometime with the early US X-Box launch. This article is my attempt to explain why the game's design makes it such an eminently playable and enjoyable gaming experience (fair warning: some 'spoilers' are included for those who are playing the single player mode).

FPS - more fun for everyone

Amazingly, Halo was originally planned as an RTS (Real Time Strategy) game, but early in its development it soon became apparent to its creators that the game, particularly the sections with vehicles, were more fun to play as an FPS action game.

The first person game perspective has been around for decades, tracing its roots back to a game called 3D Monster Maze for the Sinclair ZX81 (although ID's 1992 game, 3D Wolfenstein can claim to have introduced the first person shooter genre as most gamers recognise it today).

Over time the FPS genre has become more obsessed with 'realism': A word that finds its way into game press releases and even the odd review, which doesn't make a lot of sense when you consider that the techniques it uses to dupe the viewer are firmly entrenched in the art of painting.

How so? Well, the FPS has the game's protagonist holding a gun at the bottom of the screen, which is foreshortened to create an illusion of depth, so that the weapon appears to point into the screen - it was a good attempt, and an innovative one when first introduced, as it's designed to bridge the barrier between what is occurring onscreen and the player's physical situation. It is though, simply a cosmetic and psychological ploy, as it doesn't aid the gamer to aim accurately as the gun comes into the screen at such an odd angle, making it impossible to judge direction and range with any precision. It's also patently 'unrealistic' as a gun should be pointed dead ahead, not across the body. The gun is placed to one side - usually to the right for some reason - purely because it doesn't obscure the centre of the screen, where the action is and where a crosshair floats providing the accuracy needed for gameplay.

The field of sight in an FPS is also unnaturally narrow. The player loses peripheral vision, which we naturally use in any given situation to apprehend sudden movement around us. A truer FPS perspective ought to be similar to looking through an elliptical security camera or a photographer's 'fish eye' lens. Probably the closest example actually in an FPS would be the Field of Vision (FOV) setting in Quake, used by professional players to give them an extra slice of time to respond to danger. There are other factors involved in the act of 'seeing' that could also be mentioned, but basically it should be clear that realism isn't a word that ought to be associated with the FPS genre in it's present guise.

Bungie, the developers, had a wealth of experience making FPS titles, so they were obviously aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre (for example - what no legs??) and were able to work with the accepted conventions. Not to make a more 'realistic' game, but one that is simply more fun to play. An FPS can provide a mix of gameplay that other types of games cannot achieve - it lends itself to fast-paced action, but can equally be applied for more strategic gameplay. Halo attempts to traverse the tightrope between the two, seeking to create a balance of play that requires intelligent thought, fast reactions and stealth from the gamer.

And as someone recently wrote regarding FPS games: "They will always be more like remote-controlling a robot with tunnel vision rather than being there yourself. Of course, remote-controlling a robot can be fun." Oh yes...

A sweet engine under the hood is more important than a new paint job...

A game's system must remain consistent and it's probably the strongest asset that this game has to offer, because it's consistently fun - for instance your character moves effortless with one button press from FPS mode to the higher and wider vehicle mode. Driving is also very intuitive as you simply point the camera with one analogue stick and control speed with the other. The physics of the vehicles allow you to rocket over dips, power slide, skid and intentionally flip them. They also enhance the game with the facility to carry more players or NPCS. The game is definitely difficult in places (depending on the level settings), but unlike the real world, it knows that it must be inherently fair. It's not 'unrealism' that ruins a game, but a lack of coherence, because there needs to be a direct link between convincing game dynamics and gameplay enjoyment. Bungie knew this in spades and have even added features that allow you to test the consistency of their work. Design consistency is generally broken down into three areas - causality, functionality and spatial management:

Causality

Halo intelligently deals with causality issues by basically allowing you to do most things - so try shooting Captain Keyes on the first level and you end up being hunted down as a rogue soldier by crack troops and the whole ship's crew. Even shooting a few marines at any stage in the game will wind you up in the middle of cross-fire between assault rifles and alien plasma. Obviously, this can get pretty damn messy, but it's the fact that you can actually do this when alot of games try to lock you out or tie you into leaving non-player characters alone by making them mission critical or just simply unkillable. You can even dive off cliffs if you want, but by the time you hit the ground you know instinctively that your shields won't be able to take the impact. The one occasion where I thought I'd actually found a glaring instance of failing cause and effect turned out to be a dead end - when I flipped a tank and it crushed me, but even though it's irritating, especially when you splatter a squad of marines in the process, it does make sense - a strongman may be able to lift a lorry or pull a train, but allow said lorry to fall on his head or the train to merrily steamroller over his body and he'll be stone dead. So 'flip and slide to the side' people.

Grenades are a key resource in the game and the fact that you're chucking them all the time means that they need to work in a believable manner. When they explode not only do they cause damage to your enemies (or buddies, if you're so inclined), but leave a permanent mark on the ground along with swathes of red, blue and even orange blood splattered all over the surrounding walls and floor. Detritus and prone bodies are also swept up into the air with the force of the explosion and can end up anywhere, in one case draped over a ceiling support. Thankfully, there are definitely no stupid dumb arse doors that can only be opened with a flimsy key that your grandma could kick in with her fluffy slippers. They're either open or locked tight and chucking a grenade at them results in a different explosion sound effect that firmly signals that it ain't gonna open unless it wants to. They are never there purely for an aesthetic effect,

Functionality

Function issues can be just bloody irritating - ever been impressed by a special weapon, only to find its a one-hit-wonder that only works at one bizarre moment in the story (usually involving you standing on a god forsaken hill waiting for the ascendance of a stupid star or moon, and even then it only works if the monster you're trying to kill is a rare breed of short-haired hill yeti, who has an obsession with climbing god forsaken hills in the middle of the night!! Yes, I used to like RPG games)? Thankfully though, objects that only work once either explode in a satisfactory fashion or heal you. I didn't found the weapons to be an issue either. If they overheated you waited it to cool down or if you ran out of ammo you simply swapped the weapon for whatever was available. Neither of these function designs felt like a cheap trick to make the game more difficult. In fact, they felt like thoughtful touches, which only added to the challenge as it taught you to learn each weapon - using their strengths and dealing with their weaknesses. Even when I got caught by a checkpoint save with a few shotgun shells at one point in the game it forced me to learn how to take out a Banshee with two or three well-timed hits to the under carriage, and how to aim for a hunter's weak points with a melee attack. I didn't manage it the first time, but because of the checkpoint saves I was back in again having another go in seconds.

Spatial management

There are no real spatial issues either, you don't have any nasty clipping problems (as in C&C: Renegade) where you find your gun suddenly floating through people's heads or disappearing into walls. Refreshingly, the only thing that you'll see looking along a wall is a solid wall, which makes a nice change and helps to generate a sense of solidity to the environment, which I felt throughout the game.

The only minor inconsistency that I could create was by ramming a warthog into a doorway that the aliens wanted to lock before you got there. This resulted in the vehicle getting stuck a little way into the wall, while crazily accelerating continually. This was the only occasion where the pre-scripted story got in the way of the gameplay, as your character would automatically die if he attempted to get back into the warthog to drive off, as the door obviously had to stay closed.

A game's consistency is all pretty simple stuff, but it's incredible how many titles fall over because of a lack of attention to what should be a core design concern. When you pile together all the brilliant touches in Halo it makes a sizeable heap adding up to a very playable game. While other titles may be just as visually appealing they might not have the substance beneath the glossy skin that holds and maintains your interest as well.

Gotta love those polygons...

The reality of gaming graphics - the more polygons that can be drawn on the screen (without impairing gameplay), the more rounded and organic the characters become and the environment they inhabit. Microsoft quote 116.5 million polygons per second, in comparison with 66 million per second on the PS2. If you want more hardware information on the X I suggest checking out our review of the X Box. The graphics are very good without doubt, but the visual appearance of a game is not as important to me as how it plays. Having said that, most Halo reviews spend half a page raving about the grass. Yes, I know, verdant swathes of green don't make a great game, but they do, of course, add to the whole immersive experience: There are moments, when you're free roaming between skirmishes and you find yourself looking around, maybe to watch the sun reflect off the tranquil marshlands below a cliff or up into the sun, where rays reflect in diminishing circles off your visor and you think 'Wow, this is impressive'. For me good graphics is more about generating a sense of wonder about something that doesn't and will never exist. Sappy, possibly, but when you can equally be intrigued by the play of light over the surface of the plasma rifle you're holding or the organic qualities of an armless Flood man as he tries to push you over, well, that just raises the enjoyment of playing the game.

Making sense of sound...

The X-Box is the first gaming console ever to provide true Dolby Surround Sound in-game and Halo takes full advantage of this new capability - Covenant aliens can be heard trying to outflank you, Banshee ships howl in spiralling circles above and the chatter of the marines around you generate a feeling of being in a crowded room.

Ambient sound is a device that can be finely tuned to heighten any gaming experience when used thoughtfully. As well as using event activated music to introduce key sequences and heighten tension, the game has a library of quality folly sound effects for the vehicles, weapons and even the wind whistling through the various valleys you traverse. Even the lack of sound is put to good use, so much so that you when you find yourself in a still silent room you wish that something would happen, so it wouldn't be so eerily quiet anymore.

The voice files used are an impressive benchmark, which a lot of future games ought to follow with thousands of recordings made in varying accents that even after weeks of play have not become tiring to hear, because they are all subtly different. Some files are even only activated in particular situations, which leads me on to...

AI - "Will I dream, Dave?" 2001: A Space Odyssey

Halo uses behavioural 'agents', rather than heavy scripting that by its very nature has to factor in any possible action. The agents have been coded to represent certain emotions, such as fear and anger, which when intertwined create 'spontaneous' behaviour, which can lead to unpredictable actions depending on what the character 'sees' happening around it. It is for example, an unsettling experience to rush a group of grunts (the smallest alien in the Covenant force and native helium breathers judging from their squeaky voices. Their "Quick, runaway!" as they try to waddle away short-leggedly still amuses me even now) only to find one of them has overcome his fear of the situation enough to lob a well-timed plasma grenade at your crotch. After watching the Master Chief get blown away the game's checkpoint saving system throws you back again into the action, but this time maybe the grunt will run away as he just saw his mate take a shot in the head or join his mates in an attempt to outflank you. It's up to the gamer to figure out the best way through in the current situation. There's nothing worse than having to replay an event over and over again in a game where your opponents do exactly the same thing every-single-time.

The most believable NPCs in games have two main elements: Firstly, we relate to them on an iconic level, that is, that they convey an idea of something that they imitate (Note: Symbols and icons are elements of Semiotics - the study of signs & symbols and how we attach meaning to them. Semiotics is used heavily in games to represent many things like a given state or the appropriate use of game objects, for example a health bar is clearly understood as an indicator of how close we are to dying and white packs with red cross symbols are excepted representations of health or medikits). This isn't a hard concept to understand when you think about the marines in the game. They convey many of the ideas or conventions that we recognise as making up the marine character taken from a pastiche of Nam films you've ever likely to have watched. All the thousands of dialogue recordings with slightly different accents and voices generate an idea of being around a bunch of macho marines. Apart from being highly amusing you become attached to them being around and often find yourself trying to save them. The fact that saving them reaps no reward in game terms, reflects a desire of the developers to try to engage you in their virtual world, rather than forcing your involvement by making you save the marines to complete the missions.

Secondly, NPCs need to be dynamically characterised, not only in the way they appear in the game, but they way they react to you. Simple, but clever touches in Halo represent this well like the words of admiration from the marines during the Truth & Reconciliation level just after you've taken out a moving target with the S2 AM sniper rifle or perhaps the more elaborate example below:

A marine comes up to you on the first level and says he'll take point. You think, 'yeah sure, go ahead; get you're head blown off'. Seconds later the same marine yells, "Contact!" and suddenly, you're covering his position ahead and to the right. He's exposed, but crouching to avoid your cover fire and you're just about to try to take control of the situation. But before you do the lone marine leaps at full stretch for cover to the left behind a pillar, and pausing for a second he yells "Fire in the hole!" pulls a grenade, lobs it over a makeshift barricade and ducks. Hushed moments later and the body of an elite explodes over both the barricade and your head and hits the wall behind you. The enemy appears to be either dead or has wisely legged it. The Sergeant nearby quips: "Son, I guess you think you're a real marine now don't ya?"

Sorry, did I say how much fun I had playing this game? This was not an FMV (Full-Motion Video) or tightly scripted scene, just creative use of AI to enhance NPCs so that they are dynamically characterised and allowed to become a believable part of a believable, but unreal world. Obviously, being able to communicate with NPCs in some way adds to the believability, but since the game was limited by the lack of a keyboard or headphones for voice commands, it makes a very good attempt to communicate in other ways.

Good games have to have a good main character. The Master Chief is without doubt an iconic character aesthetically, even drawing influence from the space marine from ID's Doom series. I would tend to treat this as a respectful 'nod' to the genre's origins rather than a simple rip-off. His whole demeanour and deep gravelly voice also borrows extensively from cinema conventions. For instance, a young Clint Eastwood in his early spaghetti westerns, definitely seems to have been a popular figure amongst the design team. The character is completed by a faceless visor, the blankness of which encourages the gamer to project their imagination onto that character. Here's something to think about - when the Master Chief sits down on the escaping dropship, and you hear the hiss and click as his visor comes off, whose face did you see?

Good main characters also have to move and move dynamically. Although the FPS perspective doesn't allow too much animation of movement as available in a third-person view, the physics drive home the performance-enhancing MJOLNIR battle suit your character inhabits: So that jumping seems effortless and the reload animations have the practised fluidity of a seasoned soldier. This exaggerated sense of control does highlight issues in a game. The more abilities you have and the more control you achieve, the more you come to recognise a certain character's limitations. The Master Chief, for instance can jump impressively, but can he climb boulders or grab hold of a ledge and pull himself up? No. It's actually damn frustrating to see your gun adamantly and uselessly pointing into the screen as you feel yourself sliding down the side of yet another boulder. I've yet to see an FPS that steps away from the fixation of having a weapon of some form glued to the character's hand at all times. Halo is no exception. It doesn't bring anything new or innovative to this area of FPS's, which could have an incredible potential for interaction with a virtual environment. Imagine being able to put your gun away and climb believable up a cliff face or pick up a game object for some purpose? E.g. tie a rope, lift away an obstruction, dig a hole...the list is endless. Halo sticks to its roots, which leads me on to how it deals with narrative.

Want a proper story, then read a book...

Interactive stories are very difficult for games to deal with and rather than trying to tackle this bugbear of an issue that fuels numerous punch-ups in game design circles, Halo, like most games, opted for a passable diachronic (back story) to explain the game world: Cortana, your personal AI can speak to because you are wearing a battle suit containing a network created by a layer of crystals, which also explains why she can point you in the right direction with nav points as they appear on your visor's interface (also conveniently avoiding temper tantrums and 'controller rage' cos you can't find your way around a level). You are more powerful than your fellow marines, because you are the last remaining SPARTAN-II soldier, which means you're stronger (you can cave in alien skills quite admirably), able to flip vehicles (so you can keep having fun driving them), are protected by a shield (which means you can have fun playing chicken with a pack of silver elite) and react faster than them, because you are genetically enhanced. The strange setting is simply explained due to a blind jump you made on a spaceship to lure away your alien enemies from Earth.

With this weird and strangely beautiful ring world clearly entrenched in your mind, Halo gets on with focusing on how you can interact with the environment in which the story takes place, but not with the story itself. The limitations are intuitively dealt with and it plays to its strengths - allowing exploration of the environment with a pre-scripted story.

FMVs are used throughout in a balanced way, which is refreshing. Sometimes, like when you enter the control room, they pull you out into a much wider, sweeping camera angle to emphasise the scale and expanse of a location that you wouldn't fully appreciate in the narrow FPS view, and at other times to progress the storyline and add an inherent core value of a story - irreversibility. The greatest stories require events that cannot be undone - for instance what if Romero and Juliet was a game? Who wouldn't be leaping for the level restart options so you didn't, like an idiot, drop dead from poison, but instead took the gorgeous 'J' home for the night?

Probably the most effective story-telling FMV has to be when you input the video log of a dead private. Afterwards you can't help but feel a sense of impending doom as you wait in a dimly lit chamber alone, quietly praying that some chatty marines will turn up, so you don't have to face what wiped out his entire squad. You might treat 'the Flood' by the end of game as an irritating waste of ammo, but at that particular moment in time, they're an unknown new twist to the plot that leaves you pondering how grizzly your imminent death is going to be. So even though you can't interact with the storyline, it manages to engage you by sweeping you along with its constantly changing tempo to your final FMV and just reward - the end scene (which is really very funny on Legendary difficulty level).

Arguably some of the end levels can be seen as prolonging the life of the game's single-player mode where you repeat locations again, but in reverse. This in itself is an attempt to enhance the storyline by using a technique mostly seen in Role-Play Games (RPGs) - resonance. By placing the player back into a familiar environment with an altogether different mood and pace, the game is using a gamers past memories of what they were doing first time they were there, like wandering along the decimated corridors of the Pillar of Autumn, where they took their first faltering steps at the beginning of the game. This is most effective in co-operative mode as you and your mate will have shared memories of, say, the time you snuck up behind that Hunter, assault butt at the ready, while it was stamping up and down on your so-called friend's bloodied corpse. This time you might be back-to-back taking on a swathe of 'The Flood' swarming down the same corridor with your last plasma grenade primed and ready with a bullet count of 12 flickering on your assault rifle's ammo display...

Halo - a gaming circle of perfection?

Is this game innovative? No it's not, but it never attempted or pretended to be anything other than the best possible FPS game (as we currently understand it) on a gaming console. It deserves the right to be slotted into console gaming history as a title that has had as much impact as Goldeneye had for the N64 - it proves yet again that consoles can make excellent platforms for FPS games and over a million sales worldwide, and numerous awards reflect its achievement.

I haven't really touched on the multiplay and co-op side of the game, which was heavily tested during development. The fact that outside of a really enjoyable single player game there is huge potential for loads of different multiplayer modes simply makes it more impressive. The lack of true broadband multiplay (outside of a PC setup) is disappointing though as the opportunities to play on LAN aren't likely to come around too often.

Halo is a marker for what future X-Box action titles should follow and surpass, as the Doom Series was for aspiring developers of games like Half-Life. And the titles will come - Deathrow, Conflict: Desert Storm, The Y Project, Swat: Global Strike Team, Shoot to Kill: Colombian Crackdown (with Codemasters making some big claims about 'extending the boundaries' of the FPS genre), In the Line of Fire and MechAssault. Oh and Speedball Arena, my personal favourite.

The principles of gaming design are there to achieve the ultimate goal of all games and that is to make them immersive and a pleasure to play - Halo is simply bloody good fun, so if you'll excuse me..."I'm picking up readings of Covenant Dropships in the next valley"..."Roger that Cortana, on my way, Master Chief out..."