Living The Halo Life

WARNING: This article contains spoilers not only for the Halo games but also the Half-Life games, so beware!

I'm not writing about Halo 3 this week.

Really, I'm not. Instead, I'm taking a side-by-side look at two of the biggest FPS games today: Halo and Half-Life.

Before anyone had ever heard of Halo, I was already cursing the luck that put all the games I wanted to play onto hardware I didn't own: namely, the PC of a good friend, where I got to see the original Half-Life and play a bit of it. I was immediately reminded of the first Unreal game as well as Marathon. It seemed to be a game that, while it was a first-person shooter, was unlike most of the games in that genre that were popular at the time: twitch games where character and story took a back seat to action and colored lighting.

Noises were made about bringing the original Half-Life to the Mac, and apparently the port was even completed. However, faced with the burden of out-of-contract support for keeping the multiplayer for the Mac and PC versions in sync, or condemning Mac Half-Life players to a multiplayer ghetto, the developer chose not to release Mac Half-Life at all.

Then Microsoft purchased Bungie, putting a few more years between the Macintosh and Halo than originally envisioned. The Mac I have can't run the game unless I turn all the graphical features off. That would likely have been true even if Halo had been released first as a Mac game; laptops are usually not known as gaming rigs, and that is what I use.

So I am not one of those overly embittered by Bungie's move to the Xbox. I probably would never have bought one if it had not been for Halo, but now that I have it there seems no reason why I shouldn't put the burden of gaming on a separate machine that costs only a few hundred dollars (not including the games, of course) and so far has lasted more than four years without any major problems.

Originally, I had intended only to buy Halo for the Xbox; firstly because it was all I was really interested in, and secondly because I harbored a secret thought that perhaps the Xbox would not make it big, that Microsoft would cut Bungie loose, but that in the meantime Bungie's finances would be healthy enough for them to keep on making great games for the Mac.

None of those things happened. While my collection is by no means extensive and I do play Halo and Halo 2 more than anything else, I do have over 30 other games and many of them I have enjoyed.

So after being unable to play the original Half-Life and fearing that perhaps even Halo would slip through my grasp, at the beginning of this year I had in my possession the sequels to both of those games as well as an Xbox to run them on.

A comparison seemed inevitable. At least to me.

Going Out On Top

These two products represent studios and titles that are at the top of their games. On the PC side, Half-Life was widely considered to be the best shooter, if not the best game, ever produced, and the sequel was also widely heralded. In the same year Halo was announced, 1999, Half-Life had already been voted PC Game of the Year by just about every organization that had such an award and probably even some that hadn't. Likewise on the Xbox side, Halo picked up the tarnished mantle of the console shooter dropped by Goldeneye and became the Xbox's must-have title, virtually driving the console's sales all by itself. Halo 2 gave Microsoft's gaming division the only black ink it's ever seen, and crushed single day sales records.

Both series also have interesting histories when it comes to hardware platforms. Half-Life made its mark on the PC, but the version that shipped for the PlayStation 2 had more content and improved graphics. Ports for the Dreamcast and Macintosh were essentially completed but never released. Halo, announced for the Mac and PC, was eventually released on the Xbox and then ported to the Mac and PC. While the PC version of Halo is capable of producing higher resolutions than the Xbox version, which is locked at 480 horizontal lines of resolution and 30 frames per second, Halo PC never garnered the same respect among PC shooters that Halo enjoys in the console world. The Xbox port of Half-Life 2, on the other hand, is pretty darn decent; one could argue that HL2 has the leg up on Halo in that regard, although perhaps it remains to be seen how Halo 2's port to Windows Vista fares to make a fair comparison.

Is that all there is, though? With the two games so different and yet so alike, is there nothing that Halo and Half-Life can learn from each other to get even better in the future?

Six Of One, Half-Life Dozen Of The Other

Two games could scarcely be more alike and more different at the same time.

Both franchises are known for paying more attention to story and character than many other shooters. That both storylines borrow heavily from other sources is unquestionable; Halo owes a lot to Aliens and Iain M. Banks, and Half-Life quite a bit to the X-Files, War of the Worlds, and a Stephen King novel called The Mist.

Both are first-person shooters with arguably science fiction settings. Those settings are pretty different, though. The Halo franchise starts out in the uncharted regions of space as the UNSC ship Pillar of Autumn crashes into the strange Halo artifact. Sure, Halo has grass and trees, and other familiar aspects, but the gas giant Threshold and its moon Basis are always in the sky, as well as the ringworld itself stretching up from the horizon, there to remind you that you're not in Kansas anymore.

Halo's color palette is bright and bold. The Master Chief's green suit seems less like camouflage and more like a hot-rod's paintjob. The group of alien species known as the Covenant have a decided fetish for the color purple, as all their vehicles are adorned with it, inside and out, and some of them even bleed it. Plasma weapons glow brightly in the dark, and the surfaces of alien objects and artifacts take on an almost supernatural sheen. From the drifts of white snow to the vibrant colors of swamp-dwelling insects, every part of Halo is alive with motion and color.

Halo 2 took that ball and ran with it. Where Halo had amazing attention to detail and textures that drew your eyes to important objects and areas, Halo 2 blew out the detail on textures just about everywhere; the effect is almost too much at first. Your eyes are drawn everywhere to patterns and movement, even on the most unimportant objects and on surfaces that in Halo 1 were flat and monochromatic.

On the other hand, where previous old school shooters were known for being predominantly one color-- Doom was red, Quake was green, and Quake 2 was brown-- Half-Life 2 is almost uniformly grey. This is, of course, a direct result of what they've chosen to do with the story. After the accident that led to the alien invasion of the Black Mesa lab where Gordon Freeman worked, another, referred to as Black Mesa East, was set up, presumably somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Letters in the Cyrillic alphabet adorn some of the buildings you can see along your travels in the game, although unfortunately most don't actually form any real Russian words. Perhaps some other Eastern European language is being used, but it wasn't one I recognized. Your eventual goal is to reach the pseudo-Soviet-sounding city of Nova Prospekt.

I'm tempted to say that this restrained use of color is good because it means that when color is used it is more important. Except that here, it never does get used. Everything is muted. The civilians, their run-down tenements, and indeed their entire surroundings, are all soft shades of brown and grey. Combine soldiers, their vehicles, weapons and hideouts, are usually dark grey, black, or muted shades of blue. Tripods and gunships are in muted grey and brown tones. It all fits the melancholy tone of the story: a world where humanity is under an unseen alien thumb.

While you can argue that it's more fun to play around in the Halo universe's crayola box of colors, the artistic choices in Half-Life 2 are appropriate as well, and the latter game's sharper images go a long way towards compensating.

Pimp My Ride

The two games approach the use of vehicles in vastly different ways as well.

While the areas you cover in Half-Life 2's two major vehicles, the hovercraft and the dune buggy, seem to be quite a bit larger than the vehicle areas of Halo 2, they seem somehow more restrictive.

In both Halo and Halo 2, you are rarely forced into using a vehicle if you don't want to. Parts of Two Betrayals require a Banshee to complete, and of course the Maw finale pretty much calls for a Warthog. Aside from that, it's all up to you. Want to tool around the hillsides of the level "Halo" in Halo 1 in a warthog? No problem. Want to hoof it? Also no problem. It's easier with the hog, but you don't need it. And if you've lost your hog by dropping it off a cliff, or just left it in the central "hub" area of the level when you complete one of the three lifeboat areas, Foe Hammer will even drop you off a new one. Earlier in the level, there's a switchback ramp that seems designed to make sure you take the hog with you into the underground area with the light bridge. If you don't, though, you can grenade jump the gap and complete the entire level on foot if you like.

Same goes for Assault on the Control Room. You'll have a chance to pilot Warthogs, Ghosts, Scorpion tanks, and Banshees on this level. If you want to do it without any of the toys, though, you can.

In Half-Life 2, this simply isn't the case. Each segment of the vehicle levels is broken up with obstacles like broken bridges or ramps that are only passable in the vehicle. You can get out for a while on foot, and there are several opportunities to do so, but you can't decide to complete an entire vehicle sequence without a vehicle. And you never have a choice of more than one vehicle. And you can't bring a vehicle anywhere you're not supposed to, since the game refuses to continue until the vehicle is beyond your reach. Many gamers may have complained that Halo 2 has too many parts that seem like a rail shooter, but Half-Life 2 seems far more confining in comparison.

In addition, there are no airborne vehicles at all. A dogfight with a gunship might seem like a great idea, but I couldn't find anything even approximating an airplane.

What Half-Life 2 doesn't make you do is choose between speed and carnage. Both vehicles (eventually) get their own weapons that can be aimed independently from the vehicle's steering, which is something you never get in Halo or Halo 2. You can't drive a warthog and gun at the same time, and ghosts and banshees only fire in the direction they're driven. With no cooperative mode in Half-Life 2's Xbox port and the involvement of friendly AI very limited, this ability was probably a necessity.

On the other hand, the amount of carnage that can be wreaked by a Warthog team of a driver, rocket launcher-wielding passenger, and a LAAG gunner is so overwhelming that I long for four or even six players in cooperative mode just to see what could be done with real live human players instead of marines.

A Tale Of Two Heroes

The Master Chief and Gordon Freeman are entirely different sorts of heroes, and this changes the way the gamer feels about them, and about him or herself, when they play.

The Master Chief is the soldier's soldier, the elite of the elite, to pardon the pun. Enhanced both physically and psychologically, wrapped in an energy shield from stolen alien technology, a Spartan is the ultimate killing machine. That's a tough billing to live up to when you're all thumbs. Playing as the Master Chief demands more than mere competence-- it demands style and panache while you're single-handedly defeating the enemy and trading quips with Cortana.

Freeman's burden might be heavier-- after all, it seems he's charged with saving humanity not once but twice with only minimal help, but he is, after all, not a trained soldier. He's a physicist. With his red stubble, thin build and his thick-rimmed glasses, he's the everygeek; or at least, someone that Half-Life 2 players can probably come closer to imagining themselves becoming than the professional killing machine that the Master Chief is.

Half-Life 2's villain gets some good mileage out of this very concept late in the game, berating his incompetent forces for bungling Freeman's capture. There's no pressure to be a Vidmaster when you're playing Half-Life 2; no need to speedrun the level, to no-shot the level, to survive without even getting hurt or without using any health packs. Just surviving and winning the day is enough for old Freeman, and who can blame him? This isn't quite what he signed up for, anyway. His position in the story mirrors that of the player; you're not a hero, you just play one on T.V.

Taking Inventory

One area where the Halo and Half-Life franchises really diverge is their inventory and weapons systems. Half-Life 2 basically uses an extension of the model as set down by Doom more than a decade ago. You can pick up one (but only one) of every unique weapon you come across and a certain amount of ammo for each. To pick up items like weapons, ammo, and health packs, all you do is walk over them, meaning that Half-Life 2 suffers from the same problem that Halo did, which is that sometimes you inadvertently use a health pack you might have wanted to save for later, as restoring even one point of health uses up a whole object.

Half-Life 2 partially addresses this problem with health and energy recharging stations, which you have to press a button to use.

Half-Life 2 hasn't gone whole hog with an RPG-like inventory interface, but it is more involved than Halo's simple approach. Bungie made their approach even simpler with Halo 2, eliminating powerups completely (no more health packs or camouflage and overshield pickups) which essentially means there are no health or inventory issues at all; your shield takes damage and then recharges, and you can only carry two weapons and a certain amount of ammo for each.

Halo and Halo 2 don't really have any other inventory objects to speak of; just about everything else you interact with is either by pushing them or shooting them or both. You can't pick anything else up or drop it. There are no keys, no PDAs, no nonsense. Halo and Halo 2 are very clearly action games and very closely focused on that aspect; exploration takes a back seat to firefights and fisticuffs, and puzzle-solving is completely absent.

Halo basically lacks inventory control, and Halo 2 not only lacks inventory control but lacks anything you could pick up if you had one, as powerups don't exist and keys aren't necessary. It's another part of the "less is more" philosophy that focuses Halo 2's gameplay clearly on the action. Whether that clarity of focus is worth the lack of any diversions from the core gameplay is debatable, and it may be that the puzzle-solving of Half-Life 2 takes away from the title's replayability, as although you might enjoy the hundredth time you take out a gunship or the millionth time you decapitate a zombie with a saw blade, the same probably can't be said of the thousandth time you use a floating plastic bottle to raise a platform.

Quantum Gravity

Where Half-Life 2 really shines is with the Gravity Gun, with which you can manipulate objects at a distance by pulling them towards you or pushing them away. This means you can safely remain at a distance and pick and choose the objects you want to interact with, and even move objects you can't pick up, like duplicate guns and extra ammo.

A large number of objects in the game can be affected by the gravity gun. I've spent more minutes than I care to count just picking things up and throwing them; it's practically a minigame in itself. Many objects are useful as weapons, and others are just fun to throw. Still others form part of many physics puzzles throughout the game, and most are a lot of fun-- the kind of puzzle where the hard part is figuring out what you're supposed to do (which usually isn't that hard at all) and the process of executing it is pretty straightforward.

That's a stark contrast to puzzles in Bungie shooters. The Halo series one can honestly say has none at all, although tricksters have created a few of their own by trying to skirt around the path Bungie planned out for the player. Marathon, with its slightly more complicated interface and inventory system, had a few platform-jumping, door-unlocking and button-pushing puzzles, perhaps the most famous of which was in Colony Ship For Sale, Cheap, which required the player to use a series of interlocking button mechanisms to raise a series of platforms in another room into a stairway. The less said about the puzzle the better, sufficed to say it may very well be the reason why Halo contains no such puzzles.

Half-Life 2's puzzles, on the other hand, are fun. Some just offer you additional amusement and perhaps extra supplies and ammo; others are mandatory as you must solve them to proceed. However, they never feel too frustrating.

What is frustrating is the challenge the gravity gun presented to mission designers. Half-Life 2's most fearsome enemies are the quasi-organic aerial gunships and earthbound tripods. Both are best taken out by multiple hits from the rocket launcher, which is guided, but in a much different way than Halo 2's.

Half-Life 2's rocket launcher has a laser sight. After you fire the weapon, the projectile homes in on wherever you "paint" the red laser light. However, gunships and tripods have countermeasures, so if you just aim straight at the target and fire you'll never hit a thing. You have to aim away from the target, wiggle the laser light around in a random path, and then direct it at the target to defeat the countermeasures. Since you have to be able to see the target all that time, you have to be in the open. Duck behind something like a nearby wall, and you'll find your rocket homing back in on you. Not fun.

These two baddies are so tough, and rockets usually so scarce, that at certain difficulties and in certain locations, you're given a special crate of infinite rocket ammo. Since you can fire on-target and still not deal any damage because of the countermeasures, and since nearly every other weapon (save the grenade in some situations or the vehicle-mounted weapons) is ineffective on them, this is the only way of making sure players doesn't paint themselves into a corner too often, facing an enemy they must defeat to advance but without the ordnance to do so.

The crate is nothing special-- a rectangular green box, about the size and shape of many similar objects in the game.

Still, it must be fantastically heavy. Because even though the gravity gun can overturn vehicles, levitate supposedly full oil drums, and toss other hefty objects about like they were rag dolls, it has absolutely no effect whatsoever on crates of infinite rockets.

It's easy to see why; if you could carry one around with you the whole game, you would, and having done so, there's almost nothing in the game that would stand a chance against you. It's an insidious combination of variables that doesn't have an easy solution without changing a whole lot of factors, but still is winds up making you scratch your head when you come across it.

Not that Halo and Halo 2 don't have similar tradeoffs. More than one player has wondered why a military cyborg who can flip over a warthog or other heavy vehicle with no effort is strangely slowed by carrying a flagpole, or can't carry even a small sidearm along with two other heavier weapons, or why a magnum won't fit in a glove compartment.

Two Arms? Two Arms!

Halo was widely heralded for making a master stroke when it limited Halo players to only two active weapons. Similar things were said about the removal of all resource management tasks from Myth; the missing features actually purified the experience of playing the game. Being able to hold only two weapons isn't so much about realism (does anybody seriously think that carrying a sniper rifle and a rocket launcher is equal encumbrance to a pistol and a plasma rifle?) and more about forcing players into making strategic choices.

To pick up a third weapon, you have to drop the one your carrying. So instead of Half-Life 2's neat process of grabbing an object with a gravity gun, walking somewhere, and putting it down, in Halo or Halo 2 you have to do the gun-exchange shuffle, hitting a button repeatedly as you run to throw a gun ahead of you while reaching down to pick one down off the ground. I've often wished that you could stow a weapon or two on a vehicle rack or something, just to transport it somewhere for later.

In Halo 2, at least, you can trade weapons with marines, either to give them weapons to hold that you want to get back later (weapons used by AI players don't completely deplete their ammo stores) or to make them more effective assistance in a firefight. The rebels in Half-Life 2 aren't bad shots, but they'll only use the rocket launcher if they want to; you can't force them. A pity.

Half-Life 2 doesn't make you choose, since you basically just collect guns all the way through the game. At the end you'll have only one left, but that's not a choice you make yourself, the game makes it for you. Trust me, if you haven't played that part of the game yet, you won't miss the other guns. If you have, you know what I'm talking about.

A Little Of This, A Little Of That

In the final analysis, are these just two games that share little more than a crosshair? Maybe so, but that doesn't mean I can't dream.

What I'd dream about, if I could, would be a game that has Halo 2's variety and flexibility of vehicles with Half-Life 2's larger surface area. A game with Halo 2's strategic arms limitations, but Half-Life 2's expanded inventory. A game where health and shields are separate, but I can choose when to use health powerups and when not to. A game with Halo 2's vibrant colors, but Half-Life 2's impressive water and fire effects. A game with Halo 2's friendly AI you can trade weapons with and carry as fire support and passengers, but Half-Life 2's gravity gun. A game with Halo 2's enemy AI, but Half-Life 2's physics puzzles as optional diversions.

Will we see such a game? Perhaps someday. Probably not from Bungie, and almost certainly not in the Halo series; Bungie has a definite idea of what the Halo series is about, and it's action, not fiddling about with soda cans and drum barrels. That doesn't mean that some developer can't take the best from both of these proud franchises and make another shooter that gamers can enjoy.