Halo 2 Vista Preview

It has been a long time coming, but Microsoft is finally preparing to release a PC version of Bungie's Halo 2, for better or worse exclusive to Windows Vista. During a Microsoft-held demonstration today at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to get some hands on time with the game as well as learn about the tweaks being made from the original Xbox version released back in November 2004.

At the helm of the project is Hired Gun, a small ten-person studio hand-picked by Bungie some twelve months ago for the purpose of translating the game to Vista. Conducting today's demonstration was Hired Gun's Jo Clowes, who noted that the team has been working very closely with Bungie's designers in determining how to retain the feel of the game on the PC platform. The team even operates out of Bungie's former offices in Redmond. "Our sole purpose in life is to bring Halo 2 to Vista," laughed Clowes.

Though Halo 2 Vista's multiplayer mode has been widely previewed, today was the first demontration of the game's single-player campaign. There has been no new gameplay content added to the campaign, so players who have experienced the Xbox version will have seen all there is to see in that regard. Unfortunately, the Xbox's cooperative play feature will not be included in the Vista game, the co-op mode in the original game is conducted in PC-unfriendly same-screen fashion.

Visually, Hired Gun has removed the game's three levels of texture fidelity that on the Xbox resulted in the frequently criticized popping effect particularly common in cutscenes. On the PC, only the game's highest resolution textures are used. In addition, certain textures such as bodily fluid splatters have been redone at higher resolution, and shader effects have been rewritten for the game's DirectX 9 engine. However, Hired Gun has not actually recreated the game's main textures and geometry at higher resolutions or polygon counts--a time-prohibitive hypothetical effort--meaning that, particularly during close-up shots in cutscenes, Halo 2 is still clearly behind the modern PC game graphical curve. Of course, it will run at any resolution supported by the player's video card, which in itself helps the game's visuals.

Control-wise, Hired Gun is attempting to make the game feel as similar to the Xbox version of Halo 2 as possible, particularly when using an Xbox 360 controller or other game pad, which Clowes notes has taken a great deal of close communication with Bungie designers. Indeed, playing the game with an Xbox 360 controller does feel nearly identical to its Xbox counterpart, even with the higher FOV that comes along with the significantly higher resolution.

All of Halo 2's controls are fully customizable, with any function assignable to any mappable button on the controller, keyboard, or mouse. In fact, both the controller and mouse can be used at the same time, allowing creative players to take advantage of both the analog movement of a controller and the precise aiming afforded by a mouse. After playing a bit with a standard WASD setup and feeling amusingly powerful with the Covenant sniper rifle, I gave the hybrid method a shot and discovered it feels remarkably satisfying. It of course requires some significant control remapping, but also offers a fairly close translation of the trigger system for dual wielding, with each hand controlling one gun. By default, both guns are mapped to the mouse; when holding one gun, that gun is fired with the left mouse button, and when holding two guns they are mapped to the left and right mouse buttons respectively.

Along with FASA Studio's Shadowrun, heading to Xbox 360 and PC later this year, Halo 2 will be a showcase for the Windows Live service that will launch on Vista. Unlike Shadowrun, Halo 2 will not allow cross-platform multiplayer between console and PC users. Hired Gun determined that implementing that feature would have been overly limiting to the PC version of the game.

For example, included on the disc will be a complete set of level editing tools, which are intended to be more complete and extensively supported than those included in Gearbox's PC version of Halo.

Clowes is hopeful that the internet community will take advantage of the low-level scripting capabilities of the level design tools to provide a wide variety of game types and environments. She demonstrated one of her own creations, a version of capture the flag that replaced the flag geometry with that of a large physics-driven soccer ball that players manipulate with vehicles or rockets. Players joining online games with custom maps will be able to have the maps streamed to their machines automatically.

Windows Live will offer similar functionality to the Xbox Live feature set. It will come in two tiers, free Silver and paid Gold. Gamertags are shared between the Xbox and Windows incarnations of Live, so players with a Gold account will have Gold functionality on both platforms. Unlike on Xbox Live, a Silver account will allow players to compete online as well as use the game's built in voice chat. "We tried playing it online without voice, and it just wasn't fun to play," admitted Clowes.

Silver will also allow players to run a dedicated server for Halo 2 and will operate with a server browser much like existing PC multiplayer games. A Live account will provide an Xbox-like experience, with peer-to-peer matchmade games. Gold players can of course also opt

to join or create games using the standard server-based system. Custom maps can be used with either service. The Windows Live platform also includes various anti-cheating measures that affect any game using the service.

Halo 2 on Vista will have a full complement of Xbox 360-like Achievements, most likely numbering around 40. As a result, this will mark the first time Achievements have come to the Halo franchise, and Clowes hinted that the Achievements that ship on Halo 2 Vista might provide clues as to what type of Achievements Bungie is planning for Halo 3 on Xbox 360. Some are obvious, such as beating the campaign under each difficultly level, while others have less straightforward goals, such as taking out a player of a significantly higher skill level on Windows Live.

All of the downloadable Halo 2 maps released over Xbox Live will be included on the Vista edition disc along with the standard set of maps. As far as whether any of the additional bonus video content from the Halo 2 Collector's Edition would be included, Clowes gave no comment but stated that there may be content-related anouncements of some kind in the near future.

When asked whether Hired Gun has any other projects in the pipeline beyond Halo 2, Clowes responded with a knowing smile and the hint, "We haven't been created for just one game." She declined, however, to elaborate any further.

Halo 2 for Windows Vista is currently expected to be released within the first half of 2007.