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Games for Windows LIVE Review, Part 2: A Look at Halo 2 and Shadowrun

In the first part of my Games for Windows LIVE review, I examined Microsoft's melding of Xbox Live with the Windows world, and discussed how incomplete this new integrated service is. Now, a week later, I've had time to play the first two Games for Windows LIVE titles, Halo 2 for Windows Vista (Halo 2 PC) and Shadowrun, and I'd like to further the discussion with a look at these titles and how they compare to their console-based brethren. (I've previously reviewed Halo 2 for Xbox as well.)

I have to tell you upfront that the prognosis is not good. While Microsoft's efforts to combine Windows Live and Xbox Live are admirable, this initial version of the combined service, which we might simply think of as LIVE, is incomplete. On Windows, you cannot access LIVE from within the OS itself. Instead, you have to be playing a LIVE-compatible title like Halo 2 PC or Shadowrun. This stands in sharp contrast to Xbox Live on the Xbox 360, where the pervasiveness of the service, and additional features like TV show and movie downloading, are its biggest strengths.

But what about the games? Are Halo 2 PC and Shadowrun any good? Let's take a look.

Halo 2 for Windows Vista

To the typical Xbox fan boy, Halo 2, or the Halo franchise more generally, are the be-all and end-all to owning Microsoft's video game consoles. (Witness the furor over the upcoming Halo 3--see my Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta review--as evidence of its continuing draw.) In truth, however, Halo 2 (and its predecessor, Halo: Combat Evolved) are among the most derivative games ever created. As a huge sci-fi and fantasy fan, and a long time PC gamer, I guess I'm just a bit too experienced not to see the wholesale rip-offs: Halo steals from books like Ringworld, obviously, as well as numerous films, including George Lucas' Star Wars series. It's kind of unsettling.

That said, Halo virtually invented the concept of the first person shooter, though I'll understand it if Goldeneye fans choose to quibble with that assessment. Before Halo for Xbox, consoles just couldn't seem to get first person shooters right. The controllers were too vague and imprecise. The graphics weren't up to snuff with the every-evolving PC. The consoles themselves weren't as powerful as gaming PCs. I credit the release of the PC-like original Xbox and Halo for making people believe that console-based shooters could be more than acceptable: They could be fantastic.

Now, as a diehard keyboard and mouser who grew up on such fare as Castle Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, Quake, and Duke Nukem in the decade before Halo arrived, I have to say that Halo and its sequel didn't really impress me much. As noted previously, the storyline is derivative, though entertaining. The game play is good, especially in multiplayer, though I'd argue that pure shooters like Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament 2004 stand heads and shoulders above Halo and Halo 2, even now, years after they were released. But that's obviously just my opinion: Where Halo was a smash hit, Halo 2, released in November 2004, was a blockbuster success comparable to the biggest Hollywood movies. Millions of people still play the game online today. It's hugely popular.

So popular, in fact, that I've been gathering up the street with 5-16 of my friends each month to engage in what we call "Halo Havoc," a night-long Halo 2 blastfest that's only interrupted, briefly, for pizza and beer. Over the years, more and more of the Halo Havoc guys have migrated to the 360, and we've been trying to get into some of the 360-specific games that I insist are better than Halo 2 (like Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 3 for starters). There's just one problem: Though these games are indeed "better" in the sense that they offer more enjoyable online play, we've had all kinds of problems getting them working on the LAN. Halo 2, meanwhile, just keeps chugging along. It just works. And now, almost three years later, Halo 2 is still a big deal. It's a big enough deal that its move to Windows has been eagerly anticipated for quite some time. Microsoft is even using it as an excuse for gamers to upgrade to Windows Vista (see my review), since the title is artificially exclusive to that system.

Halo has always had a checkered history on the PC. The original Halo was ported to the PC in 2003, about two years after the original Xbox version, and that latest would set the stage for a continued emphasis on the Xbox consoles over the PC. Now, Halo 2 PC is arriving about two and a half years after the Xbox version of the game. It's interesting to note what's changed and what hasn't.

Overall, the Halo 2 PC experience is very similar to that of the console version. However, because this is the PC we're talking about, Halo 2 now has some additional features and, as it turns out, some new problems.

First, like the original Halo, Halo 2 PC runs dog-slow on most PCs, which I find as distressing now as I did when the original came out. My desktop PC is top of the line in virtually every way, except for the video card, which is a middling ATI Radeon 1600 with 256 MB of RAM; this card brings my overall Windows Experience Index down to a woeful 4.6; otherwise, the score would be 5.3, though my memory and hard disk both attain a score of 5.5. Microsoft says that Halo 2 PC requires a WEI of just 3.0, but the company recommends 5.0. On my system, I have to tune down the graphics to 800 x 600 and disable a number of graphical features in order to approach Xbox speeds. And that's silly: The original Xbox shipped with a now-ridiculous NVIDIA GPU that seems to handle the game just fine.

Microsoft has instituted a new installation scheme for Halo 2 PC so that the experience is more console-like: When you insert the game DVD, the auto-run screen prompts you to Play Halo 2 for Windows Vista, not install it (Figure): the game then installs just the bit you need to get started and then installs the full game over time (Figure). It's not quite as seamless as the console, of course: You still have to wait a bit for the initial bits to get installed, and then there's that pesky Activation window here you need to type in one of those gynormous alphanumerical strings that Microsoft likes so much (Figure).

Once the game does start up, you'll be treated to a virtual identical Halo 2 experience, complete with the exact same in-game movies and game play. And if you choose to use a wired or wireless Xbox 360 controller, as I have, then your experience will be all the more console like: With a controller, Halo 2 PC plays almost exactly like its console counterpart.

As for the differences, Microsoft has of course added the LIVE bits to Halo 2 PC, which we discussed in the first part of this review (Figure). As with the Xbox 360, you can use the controller's Xbox 360 button to activate the LIVE screen (or Xbox Guide as its called on the 360), instead of the HOME key. This contributes to the overall console-like feeling, but the lackluster look and feel of the LIVE screens, combined with the lack of functionality compared to the console version, helps to remind you that you're still in the PC ghetto.

On the good news front, load times are significantly faster on the PC version: If you've ever cursed that Halo logo while the band of light moved slowly from left to right, you'll laugh out loud as these screens come and go in just a handful of seconds (Figure). The single player campaign holds up pretty well, though I found it amazingly easy on the Normal setting. And the Achievements are off the map: You get 30 points for every level you complete, so you can rack up some serious points quickly. In just two days of playing, I amassed over 450 points playing this game. Any third person shooter fan who cares about Achievement points should pick up this title just to pad their stats.

Speaking of which, the multiplayer version of the game is as good as ever, and here the Achievements flow even more quickly, though individual multiplayer Achievements are generally only for 5-10 points each. You get Achievements for everything in multiplayer, so I let my son hop online for an ego boost: He quickly snagged 8 Achievements in just two games, adding to my three multiplayer Achievements from just a single game. Silly. (Some sample multiplayer Achievements include Sniper Kill, for killing one enemy with a sniper rifle, and Counterpoint, for killing a sword-wielding enemy. None of them are exactly tough to get.)

One of the big complaints about Halo 2 is that the ending is an unexpected cliff hanger than gives the title an incomplete feel. Certainly, there is nothing to suggest that the game is about to end, and that was one of my original complaints as well. Because you can easily examine the exact list of levels in Halo 2 PC, however, using the Achievements list, it's easier to tell when you're getting close to the end. For example, as I write this, I'm on the Uprising level and only have to complete that and two other levels to complete the single player game. On the console, there was no way to know because Halo 2, like its predecessor, shipped before Microsoft instituted the Achievements system.

What's missing, of course, is the ability to play online against Xbox-based Halo 2 gamers. This is understandable, since Halo 2 was an original Xbox title and is not 360-specific. Still, that would have really completed the picture, and I wonder how mouse- and keyboard-based PC gamers would have destroyed their suddenly human controller-wielding opponents. As it is, the online experience is still very good overall, though I'll probably return to 360 land once I've mopped up all of the multiplayer Achievements. As noted before, there are just so many better games to be had.

Overall, Halo 2 PC is a decent effort, though it's hampered by stringent hardware requirements, a bogus Windows Vista requirement, and the simple fact that the game is years old: It looks on par, graphically, with the original Half-Life and can't really be fairly compared to stunning-looking PC/360 games like Half-Life 2 (see my review of the Xbox version), Quake 4, and FEAR. It's just not in the same league. What bothers me is that Microsoft will no doubt pull the same trick with Halo 3: No doubt, we'll be looking forward to Halo 2 PC in 2010. Give me a break.

Shadowrun for Windows Vista and Xbox 360

Unlike Halo 2, Shadowrun, which is available in versions for both Windows Vista and the Xbox 360, comes with no baggage. It is, in other words, an unknown. I was on the Shadowrun beta, though I only had access to the Xbox 360 version. So I was curious to see how the Windows version compared and, most importantly, how the two games work together. You see, that's the twist here: With Shadowrun, Windows-based gamers can compete against Xbox 360-based gamers for the first time

Put simply, Shadowrun is a middling game, good, but not great. On the other hand, Microsoft has done a nice job of making the experience reasonably identical on the two platforms, and sure enough, you can jump into the Windows version of the game and compete against Xbox 360 gamers without any noticeable issues.

Shadowrun is a first person shooter. Like Quake III Arena or Unreal Tournament 2004, there is no single player campaign. Instead, the single player version of the game emulates multiplayer and you play against teams of computer-controlled bots (Figure). This is absolutely OK. As I noted previously, Q3A and UT2004 are arguably the best shooters ever made. And Shadowrun works amazingly well in single player mode: The bots can be configured to be nearly god-like in their abilities, so it's a great way to train before heading out in the wild, wooly world of LIVE multiplayer.

Oddly, however, Shadowrun is bogged down by a bewildering amount of information to learn, magic and tech to use, and features to memorize. In fact, the complexity of this title is such that you literally need to go through six full training sessions--each with an associated Achievement, no less (Figure)--before you should even think about actually playing the game. This complexity stands in the way of Shadowrun being a great game: I'm guessing that Microsoft wanted to differentiate the title somewhat, so you can utilize an amazing array of weapon types, magic items, technology, and other gear. You can also choose between several character races, each with its own attributes. The result is a mess, in my opinion. In fact, this game would be much better if you could simply turn some of that stuff off: A Shadowrun Lite version would be most appreciated.

Of course, the big deal here is cross-platform gaming. And here, Shadowrun shines. You can play private and public matches, and if you go private, you can choose between LIVE, System Link (LAN), and Local (splits screen on the same system), a la an Xbox 360 title (Figure). (Not surprisingly, the menus are virtually identical on the Xbox 360 version of the game.) Choosing System Link, you can create a match, or join an existing match, and it doesn't matter which system, Windows or Xbox 360, on which the matches are created.

From that point, you can divvy up the human players between the two teams, choose your respective races (Figure), select how many computer-controlled bots there should be, and setup other features, like the map and game type (Figure). You can even engage in some cross-platform chatting, though LIVE is limited to audio and text chat only (Figure). (Video chatting is available on the 360 only at this point.) Then, you're ready to rock and roll (Figure).

Multiplayer game play is excellent, with the caveat about the complexity of all the in-game stuff, and works nearly identically between Windows and the 360. I played on both systems using an Xbox 360 controller, and while I would have liked to have tested mouse and keyboard play on Windows, the truth is, I've been using an Xbox 360 controller for over a year and a half now, and it would take me a while to get back into the swing of things. Microsoft tells me that it has configured Shadowrun so that PC gamers don't have an undue advantage, however.

Like Halo 2, Shadowrun on Windows suffers from some PC-specific silliness. It doesn't utilize Halo 2 PC's unique install-as-you-go scheme, but instead forces you to install the game (a lengthy process) before playing. You also have to Activate it on the PC, naturally. And like Halo 2, Shadowrun runs poorly on anything but a high-end gaming PC. Microsoft recommends a WEI score of 4.0 and recommends a 5.0. Yugh.

One cool feature of the cross-platform stuff is that you can actually get Achievements in either version of the game: As long as you log on to the same LIVE/Windows Live ID account, the Achievements will register to the same game. So, for example, I got the first three training Achievements on the Xbox 360 version of the game and then booted up the PC version and played through the next three on the PC. All six Achievements were applied to the game "Shadowrun" on my "Paul Thurrott" LIVE account. Neat.

Final thoughts

While both Halo 2 PC and Shadowrun are notable titles for different reasons, neither is a classic. In fact, I'm disturbed that Microsoft's LIVE launch is accompanied by just these two lackluster games, while the company has said that only a version of the UNO card game would join the LIVE stable by the end of the year. To be successful, LIVE needs more and better games, especially from third parties. How amazing would it be, for example, to switch between PC and Xbox 360 versions of games like Call of Duty 3, FEAR, and Oblivion? Now that I've sampled the future, I want more. And right now, LIVE just leaves me hanging.

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