Developer: Bungie Studios
Release date: Early 2002
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What's so high-tech about it: Its unique animation system and physics engine raise the standard of realism in a game.
Here's the bad news first: Halo has been in development as a PC game since 1998 but has been reworked to be a premium title for the Microsoft Xbox when the console debuts at year's end. The game's emphasis has now shifted to the single-player experience and not on what could have been its innovative network co-op play. (In fact, it might be gone completely from the Xbox version.) However, the good news is that Halo is being tuned to tap the graphics technology of the Xbox, so when the PC version of Halo hits store shelves (the Xbox version will come out first), the game will probably look even better than originally anticipated on a DirectX 8-compliant graphics card, that is, a GeForce3 or a Radeon2. But we're hoping that the multiplayer game that was originally to be the big selling point of Halo remains in the PC version to come.
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Halo's realistic physics and graphics engine have gotten a lot of attention since the game was announced. Bullet shell casings spit out of weapons and bounce on the ground; the skeletal animation of player characters gets tossed around while riding in jeeps that bob along the terrain and can flip over if the driver isn't careful; dust and dirt, which are separate particle animations, kick up when jeeps roam or players run across the land; and spectacular vehicle collisions show parts breaking and flying off. The designers on the Halo team have been putting a high level of realism and detail into the graphics, animation, and physics, indeed. The gameworld is made to look and act as closely to reality as possible, but the more critical question that remains to be answered is exactly how playable--and fun--a gameworld constructed to follow the laws of physics will be. (Trespasser was the first game that emphasized a detailed, ultrarealistic physics model, but it resulted in a frustrating, unforgiving gameplay experience.)
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Halo's animation system has inherited technology from previous game technology, but its system could be the one to make a lasting impact on future games. For example, inverse kinematics, which is used for vehicle animations, allows for such things as independent wheel movement and reactions. Character models use animation interpolation, which was also used in the previous Bungie game Oni, and animation screens to give character motion a lifelike quality. Animation interpolation is the process of mathmatically generating intermediate frames between two given animation frames; the effect is smoother character animation, more accurate movement, and convincing actions like aiming a two-handed weapon while crouching. But the most interesting question for Bungie is the point at which technology and game design meet to become fun. It's not until the first pieces of the engine come together that the creators know if their tech has the potential to make a game fun. For the Myth development team, the moment came when the game engine could hurl a Molotov cocktail and blow up a dwarf. For the Halo development team, it was being able to drive a jeep over an embankment, watch it catch air then land convincingly by skidding, rolling over twice before rocking back and forth, and then finally landing upright.
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In addition, the technology behind the multiplayer mode (assuming that it will remain) of the PC version, combined with the graphics technology, could set Halo as a standard for other action games to beat. Unlike other combat games that highlight co-op play, Halo players have no fixed roles. That is, you have the freedom to do whatever you want. Instead of having to choose to play as a sniper and then being locked into only sharpshooting throughout a game, you can perform a variety of combat duties, like driving or piloting any of the vehicles, and still take potshots at the alien enemies. This might sound like potential for chaos on the battlefield and confusion over who's supposed to do what, but the idea is for players to naturally gravitate toward duties that fit their skills and interests and therefore develop reputations for themselves in online Halo gaming communities. For example, if you're great at evading the enemy while driving the jeep, you would become known among your peers as a skilled road warrior who can get others to designated locations safely.