The pyrotechnics of Bungie's tactical action game destroy all graphical standards in computer gaming. A visit to Bungie's headquarters also made us excited about its other great features.
A beautiful day: the sun is shining, gracefully the sun's rays are reflected by rolling waves on the lake. My view passes over the gently rolling hills of the idyllic landscape. This seems a perfect time to pick flowers or walk along the cozy riverbanks with a song on my lips. Instead, I try the rocket launcher out, which my team captured with an assault on a depot. The smoke trails of the projectiles hover in the air before they are gently blown away by the wind and disperse. Perfect illusion, but not pre-rendered eye candy. We are in an interactive gaming world unlike anything the PC has ever experienced. Oh my God! is one of the more calm responses by mere mortals seeing Halo for the first time.
Too Good to be True?
A first-time meeting with Bungie's new action game stimulates the sort of disbelief provoked by attractive used-car offers and seductive classified ads: Wait a second, what's the catch? So far we haven't found any. While the gaming scene thrills itself with the graphical abilities of new systems such as the Playstation 2 and X-Box, a monster game is in creation here which could reduce all existing design standards to carrion and ash. Look at the exclusive Halo footage on our CD-ROM for the current issue: then repeat the following sentence slowly: There are no prerendered cutscenes, but real animation with interaction. Next generation graphics with today's hardware - how the heck are those guys doing that?
Every Bungie programmer is more likely to sell out his grandfather than to disclose how they perform their graphical trickery. Since the game isn't expected before the end of the year, Bungie doesn't want to give away too many hints to the competition. Nevertheless, they gave us some insider information. One reason for the easy, realistic look is the sophisticated combination of multiple, overlapping texture layers. One texture is responsible only for dynamic dirt: If a vehicle is struck by a glancing bullet, the burn marks and dents persist on the surface. Another texture layer allows per-pixel rendering of light reflections. A gun-mounted flashlight throws an amazingly realistic-looking cone of light.
With this overwhelmingly beautiful game world Bungie could have made the tales of the Brothers Grimm come to life without limiting one's imagination. However, Halo offers a solid science fiction story which is a bit inspired by Larry Niven's Ringworld: in the not too-distant future Humanity has built up a nice little space empire. But then they meet the Covenant, a technically advanced but diplomatically underdeveloped alien race. The discovery of the mysterious ringworld Halo, which circles an enormous gas giant, gives Humanity one last chance to turn the tide of the war. Now it depends on whom can be the first to get the ancient, hidden technology into their claws. A small troop of Humans face a numerically superior and better equipped Covenant force. Using guerilla tactics you can raid enemy bases for better equipment. The Humans and Covenant are only two of the species who have discovered the Halo. Besides other alien races you will also learn about the Halo's native inhabitants.
Stealing from Aliens
The two main races differ not only in foreign policy. (We come in peace vs. We kill you) The Covenant are a good bit taller and would give even professional basketball players inferiority complexes with their 2.5 meters in height. Everyone has his own, preferred technology. The car is Man's best friend and native vehicles with wheels and chains dominate. The aliens prefer hovering vehicles and aircraft. Don't be embarrassed if you opponents have prettier toys - During the game you'll have plenty of opportunities to steal weapons or vehicles and use them for yourself.
The Weapons Selection
With weapons, Humans traditionally like everything that fires projectiles. The Covenant seem to have cheap power sources and prefer energy-based weapons. Both parties also use melee weapons when needed. Sharp blades are best suited for stealthy attacks. You can also see the Halo engine show its muscle with weapon usage. With many of the heavy weapons you can externally see how much ammunition is still left. With heavy-calibre weapons you can externally see how much ammunition is left. Not a bad thing, considering that you can see if your opponent only has one shot left in his rocket launcher. With projectile weapons cases are realistically spat out; combined with large muzzle flashes a spectacular effect. The laws of physics apply to water as well. Ejected cases float slowly in the tides. Some weapons only make a sad Blubb! because they simply don't work in wet surroundings. [Cyberbob: Hmm remember Marathon?]
Right to the Bones
An example of the spectacular character animations is a three man team riding to the bones in a jeep. The driver and passengers alike are thrown back by an abrupt brake and are heavily shaken on unsteady terrain. In addition the vehicle axles are moving so realistically that one wants to fasten one's seat belt. The secret behind these fast, smooth and believable character movements is called Inverse Kinematics. Instead of using prescripted motion animations the Halo engine calculates the effect of external influences on the corresponding body parts. Even small details like weapons' recoil should have a visible impact.
It is those small details which make the gaming world so realistic: For example if a tall alien squeezes itself into a human jeep it will be squatting with its knees very [uncomfortably] bent behind the steering wheel. (Comparable with Martin Deppe on a Smart test drive) Further examples for animations repertoire which we have tried are: A handstand, pointing in a certain direction and kneeling in front of another player. The last one is supposed to show humorous appreciation for a team member doing a good job in multiplayer. [Martin Deppe is a GameStar writer]
Without the linear straitjacket
Team objectives are nice, but what about Halo soloists? This is still the most mysterious aspect of the game, because it is an old Bungie tradition to complete the single player campaign last of all. First the engine had been programmed, currently the multiplayer is being worked on, and then eventually the solo campaign will be designed. Bungie spokesman Doug Zartman explains their atypical prioritization: When we observe the game play on our network it gives us a lot of clues about what can and can't work in solo mode. We code the AI based upon those observations.
The Halo team has planned a lot for the solo campaign: We want to remove everything that could remind you that you are only playing a game. They want to avoid linear progression between levels and borders in the game so that players can really explore the world. You can assume several missions at a time. How and when a given objective is to be completed is a matter of tactics. An example: Do I rush the enemy base or do I take a hangar first to steal a particularly strong tank [the BAT?] there?
Tactics are evaluated above all other team aspects in the multiplayer testing sessions. In the above mentioned jeep one player is solely responsible for driving the all-wheel [generally this means an off-road vehicle] vehicle. Player two sits with his 50mm cannon in the back seat and keeps larger opponents like gliders or tanks in his sights. Player three gets comfortable with his shotgun in the passenger seat and defends the jeep against smaller targets. Doug assured us that the keys to victory are specialization and teamwork: If such a three person team gets to know one another and everyone does his job right, they become a unit with tremendous firepower. To give the loyal chauffeur a chance, there are not only points for shooting enemies. The person who can ride over uneven terrain smoothly and without huge turns is at least as important to the team as an accurate gunner.
The controls are based on current 3D action standards. You use the mouse to direct your avatar's line of sight and the two mouse buttons serve as triggers for the active weapon. Many of the available weapons will have two firing modes. The other hand is used for the usual movement controls on the keyboard. At present you look at the rear of your avatar and can select between different viewer cameras. Basically a more flexible variant of the Tomb Raider perspective! However, the whole view decision is not yet finalized. It is well possible that Bungie may include the first-person perspective which is common for 3D shooters.
Hardware for Halo
There remains one not so insignificant question, and that is what hardware is needed for this graphical monster. We experienced the game on a Pentium III 450MHz with 128Mb RAM and a TNT-2 Ultra graphics card. Bungie however stressed that the final minimum and standard configurations are still completely up in the air. In any case, a 3D accelerator card is a requirement. It would also surprise us if the game would run smoothly on anything below a solid Pentium II processor. In the final game it will be possible to reduce various graphical details, but this castration of the extravagant effects would break almost any gamer's heart.
System with a future
One could sell even a cheek-cheek cake simulation with this graphics engine; [Noc: Beware the dreaded cheek-cheek cakes!] many development teams would aim for simple action. Halo's stylish features, ranging from driving simulations to substantialtactical mission planning, will be enhanced with much more content. Two critical components for the game have yet to be completed: first the mission design [possibly referring to mission objectives and related tactical conditions] and second the artificial intelligence of your opponents and comrades. If Bungie does only half as good a job as they did with the engine, Halo will be one of the most exciting games of the year. The question is what year: November 2000 is when the game is scheduled for release but the development team's detail-oriented focus and long to-do list could result in a 2001 release.
Once it is out Halo could easily become the father of a whole new generation of games. One could become very friendly with the idea of further Bungie titles in the same universe and they are considering a port to the X-Box console system from Microsoft. The powerful engine could also be licensed to other developers.
Originally posted May 15, 2000