Sunday, January 29, 2006
Halo 2, Doom 3, and Half-Life 2 (Xbox) Comparison Editorial
By the end of 2004, what many consider to be the biggest shooters of the current millenium were all released and the debates were on as to which one was king. These kind of arguements are common amongst gamers and have stretched back since the beginning of the hobby, however as anyone with any objective sense can tell you, these topics are all very subjective.
The style of gameplay or graphics I find impressive may be boring to you and vise versa. What you see as an amazing innovation may be mundane to me, and needless to say all these arguements happened with the release of (in order) Doom 3, Halo 2, and Half-Life 2. However, the one interesting thing to note is that Halo 2 was the only Xbox title while the others were PC. What this means is Halo 2 was duking it out with inferior hardware and control comparisons (and certainly holding its own if not out-right winning) and any true debator would agree that such a comparison of platforms isn't really a fair one outside of gameplay, audio, and storyline.
In 2005, however, Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 were both ported over to the big black box, which for the first time in history has given these 3 great titles a completely even and level playing field; they all have the same graphic, and controller limitations. No system tweaks, driver discrepancies, or anything of the sort, you simply pop the game in and play. In its most common form, Xbox titles tend to be played in 480i with basic stereo speakers and a Controller-S, and that's the set up that this editorial will be based on.
Because these three titles have already been debated to death, I'm not going to focus on the elements that would not change from a port, such as audio, story, etc., and instead I'll be focusing on graphics and gameplay. Please note that I will also focus solely on the out-of-the-box Single Player Campaigns, and not Multiplayer since Half-Life 2 is a Single Player only title on the Xbox. Also, while Half-Life 2 is a direct port of its PC counterpart, Doom 3 is not, and received a good bit of level re-construction to improve the game's pacing. While I personally have not been able to play the PC version of Doom 3, those who have played both versions have told me that gameplay wise, they tend to prefer the Xbox version simply because it progresses faster and is thus more action oriented; somewhat more like the Doom classics of old. I'll also be discussing these titles in Xbox release order, Halo 2, Doom 3, and Half-Life 2, so let's begin!
Halo 2 - The best selling Xbox title of all time, but how well does Bungie's latest adventure really stack up to PC gaming's best? Well, for me the biggest thing Halo 2 has going for it is gameplay. I believe IGN Xbox says it best with this quote from their Halo 2 review (found at the bottom of the second page):
"You'll find that in each level, there are several ways to beat it. Whether you want to charge in all guns blazing, jack vehicles, snipe, what have you, the weapons, vehicles, and the level designs in particular encourage multiple ways to dominate a level. And even though this is a linear game, the levels are big -- and wide -- enough so that you can traverse old terrain multiple times without it feeling stale."
This is such a perfect summary of Halo 2's gameplay, and the shear variety of its open-ended gameplay is unmatched by either of the other titles. Presently, I have played through Halo 2's Campaign five times, and only now am I starting to run out of new ways to approach all the different battles.
Not only are the levels so large and feature so many options, but the enemy AI is top-notch and offer challenges that simply aren't possible in the other titles. Try to run over enemies with vehicles and they'll dive out of the way, start to over power an enemy and they'll fall back under cover and continue to readjust their angle with yours to stay under cover. They'll flush you out, use supresive fire to pin you down, and generally find great ways to stay alive and force you to rethink those "charge-into-a-room" tactics.
Graphically, Halo 2 is a beautiful game, however I'd rank it as the last of the three in this category. While it certainly is a beautiful Xbox game and the character models seem more detailed and of higher quality (save for facial expressions), many of the backgrounds lack the depth and detail found in the other titles. There's also that damn texture pop-in that plagues the in-game cinematics, and sadly even the later levels of actual gameplay. Not that this detracts from the gameplay by any means, but it is a noticable con. One unique thing Halo 2 does accomplish is to remove the feeling that you're a "floating head and gun" that's typical of most FPSes, as you can actually see your own legs and feet when you look down. A nice touch.
Doom 3 - id Software's horror masterpiece. With Doom 3, the most important thing to consider is what id Software set out to accomplish, and that's a remake of the grandfather of the genre built on an ultra-modern graphics engine. Doom 3 does not have the cutting edge, modern gameplay of the other titles, but instead takes us through memory lane and plays like most major FPSes of the late '90's; and it certainly accomplishes this very well. Generally, you move from cramped interior room to the next corridor/room and kill any monster that spawns in or happens to be lying in wait. While this concept is pretty basic, id Software follows the classic formula well, introducing tougher monsters as you progress, as well as some basic puzzles. While the enemy AI in Doom 3 is very standard fair, the monsters themselves can usually dish out the punishment as well as receive it. I found that many people overly criticized Doom 3 on it's classic, monster closet gameplay, and exaggerated the amount of times enemies would spawn in if you grabbed a simple armour shard. While yes, this does happen, it's not to the extent that most people make it out to be, at least in the Xbox version.
Graphically, Doom 3 is beautiful, featuring a very detailed world, character models, and most importantly, lighting. id Software wanted the player to feel all alone, and the extremely dark atmosphere greatly contributes to this. They use very dark lighting along with a strong sound mix to create the horror atmosphere, and I haven't bene this impressed with a spooky FPS atmoshphere since System Shock 2. The PC version got a lot of criticism for this, and also for the design limitation preventing you from using your Flashlight with any of the game's weapons. To address this, not only does the Xbox version feature improved level pacing, it's also been brightened up to help avoid player frustration.
Being a port of a PC title, Doom 3 follows the classic convention of being able to carry several weapons at once, so to accomodate this with a controller, you can map four weapons to the D-Pad for quick selection, and you can change this at any point, even on the fly (though via the game's menu) to better suit a specific combat situation.
Half-Life 2 - Valve Software's technological masterpiece is considered by many to be the best PC game of 2004, and possibly the best game for the platform. Having been a huge fan of the original title, I had very high hopes, however I must express grave dissapointment in Valve's sequel. While it retains the immersive atmosphere of its predecessor, the gameplay lacks any form of challenge thanks to very poor enemy AI/balance. Even on Hard, Half-Life 2 is a breeze, as the game's enemies are too dumb to seek any good cover, work together, or even damage the player; in fact they often rush towards you to their death. You can easily rush into a room full of Combine Soldiers and mow them down with old style guns-blazing tactics, and unless one of them has a shotgun and is right next to you, the amount of damage you'll take is minimal. Even in vehicles, you can run enemies down with ease as they will not move out of the way or seek cover, even if you're moving towards them very slowly! Vehicle combat also has extremely poor controls with a Controller-S, and lacks the responsiveness of Halo 2. While Half-Life 2's gameplay features generic combat, vehicle combat, and puzzles, typically involving the game's ultra-realistic physics, it is simply bland, boring, and dragged out. The puzzles, while cool, generally involve stacking or simply moving something with the Gravity Gun, and the only challenge here is determining what to move.
Graphically, however, Half-Life 2 is beautiful. In fact, I consider it to be the most beautiful game available on the Xbox. While its character models lack the detail quality found in the other titles, the facial expressions are the most realistic ever seen and add a new depth of emotion to video game characters. The levels themselves are so richly detailed and so believably designed, you'll swear that you're actually there. The only downside to the game's graphics is texture pop-in, similar to Halo 2's, save that it's in all the game's levels on a very regular basis. Again, not a major gameplay problem, but it is noticable.
Half-Life 2 also features weapon mapping to the D-Pad, however you can't rearrange it because all the weapons are available there and you can quickly toggle through them. This is a vast improvement to the D-Pad system found in Doom 3 and makes selection of any of the game's weapons a snap without having to re-map them in a menu.
In the end, of course, it all comes down to the style of shooter that you prefer. Halo 2 is an open-ended, action fest, Doom 3 is a classic, corridor crawl/horror masterpiece, and Half-Life 2 is an immerisve, technological marvel.
For me, the most important thing is gameplay, and the quality of it balanced with what the developer's set out to achieve. Thus, I would hold that these three titles are ranked best to worst in their Xbox release order: Halo 2, Doom 3, and Half-Life 2. However, any of these titles are worthy additions to your Xbox library, and it'd be a shame to pass any of them up.