Without a doubt, Bungie's Halo was the most anticipated of the 14 games that were on display at this year's Gamestock event. After years of waiting, we were finally able to take the reins away from the Bungie designers and play this visually impressive game ourselves. Halo places players in the shoes of a member of an elite military unit that finds itself locked in a guerilla war against an alien group known as the Covenant, which lives on a ring-shaped planet called Halo. Players were originally part of the humans that had to flee Earth after a devastating Covenant invasion. With the aliens hot on their trail, they escape to the mysterious world of Halo and soon find themselves locked in a deadly race with the Covenant to unlock whatever secret this new planet holds.
The build of the game at Gamestock had only a single level, but it contained more than enough action to keep us busy for a while. The levels start a player off in a flying scout vehicle that's skimming over the alien sea above cresting waves. After circling the beach below a few times, the scout vehicle touches down and unloads the player's character, as well as a jeep with a mounted gattling gun. Manning this gun is a computer-controlled member of the player's military unit, and he does a great job of tracking enemies and providing cover fire, even while the player's jeep bounces across the uneven terrain. Controlling this jeep is a relatively simple task that requires input from both of the Xbox controller's analog sticks. The left stick is mapped to the jeep's accelerator and brakes, and the right analog stick controls the vehicle's steering. The steering is a little sluggish, however, because the right stick controls not only the wheels of the jeep, but also the third-person perspective. That is, when players turn the stick right, their camera will pan to the right slightly before the jeep starts turning in that direction, making control a little difficult to get accustomed to. After a few minutes of practice, however, driving the jeep became a blast as we struggled to keep it upright while taking monstrous jumps and doing endless donuts in the dirt.
After a few seconds of driving on the beach, we came across an enemy encampment of about seven to nine Covenant aliens. We were surprised to find two different variants of these alien species. The first is the standard elite unit that's been featured in previous Halo screenshots and movie footage. The second is a new unit called the grunt. This smaller alien stands at about half the height of the purple elite unit, and it dons unwieldy orange-colored armor that features a prominent finlike object on its back. While the elite alien wields the famous energy blade, both alien types carry ranged energy weapons as well.
At this point, we jumped out of the jeep to find that the camera automatically switched to a first-person perspective. Again, input from both analog sticks is required to control a player's character: one to aim and one to move. The computer-controlled gunner remains in the jeep, and he continues to fire at any enemies that are within range. Using a hefty assault rifle, we picked off the handful of aliens that had managed to find cover from our gunner's fire. This weapon's power was able to take out grunts in a couple of hits and elites in a handful of shots. Additionally, we were also able to swing the rifle's butt into the backs of unsuspecting aliens to incapacitate them without alerting anyone. There's even a small side-mounted flashlight to light up the many dark corners of Halo's world. According to Lead Designer John Howard, players will have a number of weapons available to them in the game, including a shotgun, pistol, sniper rifle, and hand grenades. They'll even be able to pick up the Covenant energy weapons and use them as their own. Additionally, Bungie is endeavoring to make these weapons as balanced as possible. For instance, while the assault rifle we were playing with is undoubtedly an offensive juggernaut, it does suffer from a few drawbacks, such as an inconsistent spread and high rate of ammo expenditure. Likewise, while the Covenant energy weapons effectively have unlimited ammo, they do overheat very easily.
While the majority of this level took place outside along the beach, a small portion of it was inside a Covenant base located on the face of one of the cliff walls, which is overlooking the ocean. There was absolutely no noticeable transition when we moved indoors--no loading time, no stutter, nothing. Inside the base, we tried to tiptoe around several aliens that were standing guard, but a heated firefight eventually broke out. Again, we managed to dispatch all the alien defenders and we eventually made our way deep into the heart of the structure--we soon found ourselves standing in front of a computer terminal. When we activated it, it displayed a 3D holographic image of schematics for some sort of tower. The camera then switched back to a third-person perspective, panned around our character in front of the strange holographic image, and then slowly faded to black.
We were excited to have finally been able to sit down with a playable version of the game. The only visible difference we were able to discern between this build and the previous PC versions of Halo was the lower resolution (it was running at 640x480 on a TV monitor). Additionally, the final version of Halo will have full-scene antialiasing enabled, as some "jaggies" were visible in the Gamestock build. Howard also said that Bungie currently has two people working full time on Halo's multiplayer component, although the company still hasn't decided exactly how or if it's going to support multiplayer for the game. Players will recall that when Halo was originally a PC game, it was supposed to be largely multiplayer, much like Sierra's Tribes 2 will be. And speaking of the PC version, Bungie is committed to releasing Halo for the PC and Mac platforms after it ships the game for the Xbox, and the designers do plan on significantly differentiating all three versions from each other. Halo will take advantage of certain Xbox-specific hardware features, like a completely dynamic operatic soundtrack, and the game will stream the cutscene movies off the console's 8GB hard drive while new levels are being loaded into the system memory.
Halo will be an Xbox launch title, and it is expected to ship sometime this fall.