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Hands On with the Halo Universal Binary
September 28, 2006 | Bryan Clodfelter

Halo, which many believe contributed a hefty chunk of the force that propelled the XBox to success, has always been a source of controversy. At first, when Microsoft bought Bungie and announced that Halo would be an XBox exclusive, Mac and PC gamers railed against Microsoft (as well as Bungie, to a lesser extent), but after critics and early adopters alike hailed Halo as one of the best games ever made, Halo became a phenomenon that still reverberates across living rooms and college campuses today.

Two years after the successful worldwide launch of the XBox, Halo was ported to the Mac and the PC, fulfilling the hopes of many users who felt that the game was meant to be played on the computer rather than a console. Again, for a while, controversy reigned: while Halo ran gracefully on the XBox’s paltry 733 MHz Pentium III CPU, 64MB of RAM, and seemingly underpowered DX8-compatible graphics hardware, computer users found that they needed several times the firepower in order to run Halo smoothly on their systems. Eventually, as computers became both cheaper and more powerful, this source of controversy died out, leaving Halo to continue on as an extremely popular choice for Mac and PC gamers, thanks in part to its imaginative single-player plot and captivating multiplayer gameplay.

When Apple announced its intentions to move the Macintosh platform to Intel processors last year, many Mac gamers wondered if Macsoft, the developer responsible for porting Halo to the Mac, would release an update that would allow them to play Halo on their shiny new Intel-powered machines without having to slog through the game under Rosetta emulation. Several weeks ago, Macsoft finally satisfied users’ wishes by releasing a universal binary version of Halo. However, there was one catch: although receipt-carrying customers who bought the game after January 1st, 2006 could acquire the update for free, owners of Halo who purchased the game before the turn of the year (read: the vast majority of Halo’s installed base) would have to pony up an additional $5 to help offset Macsoft’s development costs and bandwidth bills for the sizable 650 megabyte download. With discussions ranging from rants about the price to debates about hypothetical graphical improvements introduced by the Halo update well under way, IMG got its hands on the game in an attempt to sort through the confusion, and to help readers decide if the update is a worthwhile investment.

The Good . . .
With that lengthy introduction aside, there are a quite a few good things to say about the Halo Universal Binary update. First of all, if you have an Intel-powered Mac with a respectable graphics card (note the indirect jab at the Intel GMA 950 chipset), Halo is nearly twice as fast as the former, non-universal version. This performance came at a price, however. In order to make Halo a universal binary application, Macsoft had to move the entire codebase from Metroworks Codewarrior (which, until the move to Intel, was the Photoshop of application development on the Mac) to Apple’s XCode development suite; a process that took several months, and while I’m not a financial expert, a considerable amount of money. Fortunately, the move to XCode gave Macsoft a chance to squash a few longstanding bugs and streamline the installation process a bit. While most of the fixes and changes are fairly minor, a couple of them stand out as being particularly appreciable. First, while they were rebuilding Halo, Macsoft made an important step forward by ditching cooperative threading in favor of preemptive threading, which some users may recall is exactly the same move that Apple performed when they designed Mac OS X. Remember how performing even simple tasks (like printing) in Mac OS 9 or earlier locked up your system until the job in the foreground finished? In a nutshell, cooperative threading allows certain processes (called threads) to take over your entire system, regardless of whether or not they actually need all of that power. Under preemptive threading, threads work together on a much more equal basis, which suggests that the universal binary of version Halo should be faster than the previous rendition on all systems (but more on that later).

Next on the list of appreciated changes, Macsoft finally eliminated the irritating conflict that arbitrarily reset displays to 60 Hz (causing eye strain and wreaking havoc on the geometry of CRT monitors). They also revamped the installer, which now places a single 1.4 GB application on your hard drive (with an improved Halo icon to boot), rather than a folder containing a horde of resource files. Lastly, Macsoft added a bit of functionality by giving users the ability to quit the game at any time by pressing Command - Q. To top off the list of fixes and improvements, Halo now renders a few pre-existing effects a bit better than it used to (bringing it slightly more into line with the PC version of Halo). For example, as you can see in this comparison shot, the waves ahead of the Scorpion tank no longer exhibit the strange jagged edges that were apparent in every previous version of Halo.

Halo Waves Comparison

Taking into consideration bandwidth costs and factoring in the amount of the time and effort that Macsoft spent reconstructing Halo, five dollars might sound like a fair exchange, but don’t forget—there’s almost always a catch.


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