The second coming?
Believe it or not, Bungie first introduced Halo to the bespectacled masses way back in 1999. At the time, it was a first/third-person action game for the PC and Mac (you know, that cute little box your dad uses to burn CDs) boasting a plethora of unique changes to the action genre. All plans abruptly changed, however, when Bungie was acquired by Microsoft, who morphed Halo into the world's best console first-person shooter and the number one reason to invest money in their strange green box when it launched in the fall of 2001.
Halo wasn't the game we were expecting it to be. It was better. What a difference two years make.
So one could only wonder what insane changes might have occurred in the three long years Bungie has been working on the highly anticipated sequel, Halo 2. How exactly do you improve a game that is widely agreed to be among the best of all time? Well, it turns out you don't do much. Halo 2 is an exceptional first-person shooter that expands on the original with a fantastic multiplayer component, great control and a few notable gameplay tweaks, and while it stumbles a bit in its single-player campaign, it's still more than worthy of a permanent spot in your collection.
The campaign picks up right where the first Halo left off, with Master Chief enjoying a hero's welcome back on Earth while the leader of the Covenant forces is branded a failure and sentenced to death. This dual viewpoint approach dominates the game's storyline, bouncing back and forth between the human efforts to stop the Covenant invasion and a burgeoning civil war threatening to destroy the Covenant from within. It's a little hard to get into the nuts and bolts of the plot without spoiling the big twists, but suffice to say, it's your job to shoot things, drive things, and kill things in order to save the universe.
Perhaps due to the popularity of the original game, Halo 2 benefits from a much more comprehensive narrative; a few Halo novels written in the intermittent years have fleshed out the conflict, and this game revels in its newfound mythology. A great deal of the plot focuses on the aliens, which is pretty cool, but at the same time leaves you wanting to hear more from the humans. It's a little lopsided.
It's also very, very linear, following much the same formula as Halo. You'll go from location to location shooting anything that makes your reticule turn red, then figuring out which door/path is open, running through it and killing more things. While it provides a nice enough mix of indoor and outdoor areas to keep things fresh, Halo 2's campaign is still very much a scripted corridor shooter. You don't explore, you don't solve puzzles, you don't do really anything aside from kill, kill, and kill, and often you're just doing it to get to the next cut-scene. To be fair, the scripting is good and the game never feels like target practice thanks to the solid A.I., but those who found the rail crawl marginally frustrating before will find it hasn't changed much over the years.
Some will also take issue with the fact that despite three years in the making, Halo 2 has a cliffhanger ending. We have no idea if another game is planned (though we'd bet our unborn children that it is, were that legal), when it might be out and for what system. Yet BOOM- the game leaves you hanging with plenty of unresolved conflicts and without a particularly satisfying climactic point like the Warthog ride from hell in the original. After such a long wait and such passionate fan fervor, it feels a little cheap of Microsoft and Bungie to leave "em out to dry.
The campaign is a little shorter than the original, clocking in at around 10 hours if played by a Halo vet on the Normal difficulty setting. Of course, opting to try it on Heroic or Legendary will extend that play time significantly as the number of enemies increases and the A.I. gets nastier.
You'll see many familiar aliens from the original game alongside a couple new ones, most notably the apish Brutes and some hard-to-hit flying beasties. Ramping up the difficulty seems to raise their I.Q. as well, which is good to know because on Normal, the game isn't very hard. You can also play through the full campaign cooperatively (though not online through Xbox Live), which is great fun.
Though the single-player experience is not very thrilling in its design, the fragging itself is top notch. Before Halo, console first-person shooting was regarded as awkward, difficult and ultimately ill-advised. The game not only changed that widely held opinion, but has become the unrivaled benchmark in console shooting, so much so that just about every game after it has 'borrowed' its intuitive control scheme. Lucky for us, then, that the same great gameplay is back, intact and in a few ways improved.
For one thing, you no longer have to scour the land for health packs " Halo 2 forgoes traditional health entirely by removing it from the game and simply increasing the rate at which your shields recharge. If your shields are gone, you can only take a few hits until you die, creating a more tactical experience. You'll run into battle, watch your shields erode, and then find cover as they recharge. It creates a faster-paced game and removes the multiple stamina bar management. Health packs are so 2001.
A more heavily touted feature is dual-wielding. Most one-handed weapons can be dualed and you can mix and match to your heart's content. Both guns can be fired independently using the two triggers, letting you deal out a prodigious amount of damage very efficiently and making previously underwhelming weapons much more intriguing. Dual Needlers, for example, unleash a devastating torrent of homing needles that can eradicate ground units handily. The flipside of dualing, however, is that you lose the ability to toss plasma or frag grenades, which as we all know are perhaps the most useful weapons in the game. Dualing has its purpose but is not overpowered, just a smart, fun addition.
New weapons are here alongside most of the old ones. The SMG isn't very effective alone, but can be deadly when dualed. Your trusty Battle rifle is back with a new burst fire rate and groovy mini-zoom. Since you spend a lot of time dealing with the Covenant, you'll enjoy their cool plasma tech in the form of a solid Carbine rifle and a very effective sniper rifle, not to mention a few other nasty surprises. The best weapon in the game, though, is the Plasma sword, which you'll remember from the original game when the Elites used it to gut you over and over again. Well, now you can gut them right back. You can swing the sword as a melee weapon or lock on to an enemy and perform a usually critical charging uppercut from a good three meters away, which is the most effective attack in the game. It's great fun and adds a whole new ninja dynamic to the game.
But even a giant blade is no match for a giant tank. Most vehicles from the original are back, including two variations of the world-famous Warthog (one with a machine gun turret and one with a pulse gun turret) and the big nasty itself, the Scorpion tank. The Covenant ships are more exciting, though. The whip-quick Ghost (now equipped with a boost) is perhaps the best in the game thanks to its maneuverability and accuracy, while the graceful Banshee has a couple new evasive moves. The vehicles pleasantly play a larger role in the campaign than last time and are essential to what makes this such a great series.
Not to be outdone by Grand Theft Auto, Halo 2 now lets you jack enemy vehicles by simply pressing "X' as they pass by, at which point you'll trigger an animation of you hopping on the vehicle and tossing the poor driver headfirst into the dirt. It's actually a bit harder than it sounds, especially when dealing with a Ghost trying to mow you over at top speed, but the move is hugely satisfying and a great alternative to wasting your cache of plasma grenades trying to bring down a tank. It doesn't play into the campaign much but is undoubtedly one of the more essential concepts for Halo 2's awesome multi-player.
Playing the original Halo with buddies was an always exciting but somewhat difficult experience; you'd either have to cram together on the couch to play split-screen or link together a few Xboxes for a LAN party. Halo 2 does away with all that thanks to its fantastic Xbox Live support, which does as much for the game's multiplayer experience as it does for your aching back " no need to carry your TV up to your friend's second-floor apartment.
The breadth of options for online play is staggering. Supporting up to 16 players at once, Halo 2 features seven main game types: Slayer, Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Oddball, Juggernaut, Assault and the new Territories mode. Most of these were in the first Halo and should be instantly familiar to vets. Recalling EA's Battlefield series, Territories is a new mode that has two teams fighting for control over certain locations of the map, while Assault is like reverse Capture the Flag as you plant a bomb in the enemy's base.
Each of the modes comes with a built-in list of variants created by Bungie, which include Team versions and weapon-specific game types (turn Oddball into Rocketball!). Plus, players can set up customized game and tweak just about every conceivable thing to their liking. With about a dozen maps spanning the gamut from small melee style arenas to vast, open playgrounds, the combinations and permutations are deep. Unlike the original Halo, you can play any type of game on any map. Given, certain kinds of games make more sense on certain maps; you wouldn't want to play 2 on 2 Capture the Flag on a giant map, for instance. At any rate, the choices are many and the variety impressive.
We do take issue, though, with the continued lack of offline bot support. Since online success depends heavily on learning the maps, the ability to play maps offline with bots seems like a no-brainer, yet again we're shut out. Curses.
But otherwise, this is a complete online package. Xbox Live has seen more than a few upgrades since its inception, and Halo 2 takes advantage of the service's stability by producing a well thought-out set of features. Finding games of the appropriate skill level is easy thanks to handy player rankings and a smart Optimatch system. If your team or group of friends wants to stick together while checking out different game servers, you actually can move everyone through the system together by forming a temporary party. Full clan support is here as well for those wishing to go semi-pro.
They've thought of just about everything, particularly when it comes to stat-tracking. Extensive stats are recorded after every match, including medals, hit percentages and head shots, fleshing out the experience for vets who want to see how they stacked up. Astoundingly, Bungie.net actually keeps track of every player's performance in every matched game by tracking wins and losses. At least it works right now " we'll see what happens when the number of players online goes from a few hundred thousand to a few million. Heck, if the host cuts out of a game, the server will automatically switch to another user so the whole game doesn't crash. Smart, smart, smart.
When you combine the solid performance of Xbox Live (I suffered very few lag issues when testing out Halo 2) with the built-in team mechanics afforded by the use of voice, vehicles and modes, you get an unrivaled online fragfest. It might not introduce anything particularly new in terms of gameplay, but what it does, it does better than anyone else.
Not to take anything away from it, but when Halo first hit the scene, it was a revelation in graphical design partly due to the world's unfamiliarity with the power of the Xbox. Nowadays, we expect big things from Xbox games, and Halo 2 mostly delivers the goods. The in-game action is beautiful, from the eerily realistic bump-mapped surfaces to the accurate physics and animations. Fancy lighting effects are everywhere " the game world is consistent, smooth and popping with color. Aside from one load when you start the game, it all streams in seamlessly with just a tiny hiccup when you pass through a loading area. It's technically unsurpassed.
At times, however, the game suffers from some weird pop-up texture issues and occasional framerate slowdown, though this is usually constrained to the cut-scenes. You sit through quite a few of them over the course of the story and can't help but notice their general lack of polish.
The sound, on the other hand, is flawless. Several rousing themes chime in from time to time to punctuate the action and lend a cinematic sense of drama to the goings-on. An enormous amount of dialogue was recorded for Halo 2, so much that you'll rarely hear lines repeated. In multiplayer games, the voice chat volume changes depending on your proximity to others, adding more to the immersion. Tack on great Dolby 5.1 positional support, and you have every reason to upgrade your sound system.
Your experience with Halo 2 is inextricably tied to your particular wants and needs from a first-person shooter. Despite a genuinely better plot this time around, the short, linear campaign and unresolved ending will certainly aggravate those hoping for a more evolved single-player game. But make no mistake " what Halo 2 lacks in its single-player it more than makes up for in its great gameplay, gorgeous delivery and flat-out addictive multiplayer. This is as good as console fragging gets. Once again, a little slice of gaming heaven from Bungie results in an easy recommendation.