The Story So Far:
Three years ago, Halo changed the world of console-based, first person shooters with seamlessly integrated exterior and interior landscapes, staggeringly huge levels and plenty of fodder for itchy trigger fingers. It combined fast and furious gameplay with squad-based tactics, and boasted one of the best multiplayer experiences on any platform, period. If you owned an Xbox, you had to own Halo. Does the same hold true for the sequel? Yes. Yes it does.
While Halo was the godsend the Xbox needed to keep sales competitive with Sony's Playstation 2, there were some glaring issues with the game that bugged just about everyone. Levels were repetitive, the weapons were unbalanced--some less useful than others--and there was no Live play (not that we can blame them; Xbox Live didn't exist then). Halo 2 aims to remedy all of these quips, which it does, but it creates a few more minor ones. All-in-all, though, it shines in a way no Xbox title has before it. Bigger, Better, and More:
First of all, the Campaign mode is a vast improvement upon that of Halo with dramatically changing landscapes and a myriad of thrills to satisfy even an extreme sport junkie. Halo 2 picks up right where the first left off, with the destruction of Halo and the shame of the Covenant defeat. What you'll notice about the Campaign right away in the first cutscene is the inclusion of the Covenant's side of things, which will complicate the story - and intrigue the player - up until the end. The single-player story is amazingly presented, but never really reaches the satisfaction, or, at least, resolution, of the first. But there is so much to love about Halo 2 that the problems with it seem miniscule, trivial little nothings. At the heart is second-to-none gameplay that will haunt you while you sleep and distract you while you work.
The pacing of the game has been streamlined to include a greater variety of foot-based/vehicle-based events. In fact, it seems the Campaign mode puts more emphasis on vehicles this time around. That said, through the boasted 15 hour campaign you'll be on foot quite a bit. On normal, the campaign is actually around 10 to 12 hours to complete, which I suspect would be less for those used to the Legendary difficulty from the first game.
The difficulties, too, have been streamlined. While Easy is far too easy, Normal has been made easier, and Heroic, harder. Legendary, however, offers a completely new game for those bold enough to attempt it. In the other difficulties you could get away with taking hits from enemies, catching Elites off guard, and plowing over aliens in the Warthog. Legendary is not this way. The AI is incredibly sharp on the harder difficulties. They aim for the head, throw grenades like mad, and will flank you on a whim. This makes for some tactical battles which will try not only your aim, but your patience as well.
As for the modes, the fan-favorite co-op mode returns intact. The only noticeable difference is that there is no (or very little) slowdown where there would have been in the original. In fact, the whole game plays at a near unstoppable framerate; the only time I experienced a jump was when the game was performing an auto-save or loading the next area, which is only a slight jump that never affects gameplay. Well, there's one other time I experienced slowdown, and that's in a 16 player, system link game - that's 4 people per Xbox - on a small map with ungodly amounts of shooting going on.
The vehicles have been given an overhaul. Among the old favorites are a few new including a modified Warthog (with a mounted Gauss Rifle) and some new Covenant toys. The Banshee can now loop and barrel-roll, and all the Covenant vehicles can perform a speed boost. To counterbalance these changes, players are given the ability to jack or mount and disarm an enemy controlled vehicle. Though one could easily knock an enemy off the Ghost and take it, jacking a tank requires you to rip open the hatch and toss in a grenade. It's as exhilarating to do as it is maddening when done to yourself, but it gives the game with an element that can be exploited by players to even the battlefield.
The weapons have had a complete makeover as well. Gone is the piddly Assault rifle and in its place is the Battle Rifle. The Battle Rifle fires three-shot bursts and has the ability to zoom. The Submachine Gun or SMG ends up next to the old Assault Rifle in the bullet-spew category. But since the ability to dual-wield weapons has been added, this time around the bullet-spewing is a gorgeous ballet of doom. The Magnum, which many believed overpowered in the first game, can still hold its own in a gunfight but lost is the ability to zoom. There are a few new weapons on the Covenant side including a grenade launcher, beam rifle, and (my new favorite) the Energy Sword. The Covenant Needler, my favorite underused gun from the first game, is now worth picking up, dual-wielding, and wreaking havoc with. All the weapons are significantly more balanced than in Halo. The question is not what gun will do the job, the question is: which gun do you want?
I mentioned the ability to dual-wield weapons. And you can. The combinations are limited to the one-handed weapons (the pistols, SMG, Needler, Plasma Rifle) and the combinations can be quite interesting. Though dual-wielding is nothing new for those used to first person shooters, the addition to Halo 2 is natural in a way that deepens the gameplay and keeps things extremely varied. Finding the best combinations of weapons is almost a joy unto itself, but when implemented (using left trigger for left gun, right trigger for right) you'll be hard pressed to go back to one gun.
Everything about Halo 2 screams balance, and thus, there is a trade-off for dual-wielding. The weapons do slightly less damage and are less accurate, but you get the option of extra bullets (or plasma) and quicker shots. Thus, learning how to alternate weapon bursts effectively is important and rewarding. Grenades are also unusable while dual-wielding, which offers options for those who don't dual-wield, and might make you think twice about grabbing another SMG.
My biggest pet peeve with any game is the lack of sound depth and quality. Sometimes a gorgeous game would have atrocious voice acting or music, hoping the common gamer was quick to forgive. Thankfully, the music in Halo 2 is absolutely stunning and the voice-acting is splendid. Remember the achievement in voice acting and music in Metal Gear Solid? Well forget it. Marty O'Donnell and his group have composed one of the most beautiful scores ever for a videogame and the voice acting is top-notch (though I still think Revolver Ocelot rules). The choirs from Halo return, which is of no surprise. New to the series is the inclusion of prog-rock infused riffs that seamlessly integrate into the campaign.
The most amazing thing about Halo 2, however, is the attention to detail. The graphics are nothing short of staggering even when there are small hiccups. The texture models are so gorgeous you could easily mistake the in-game graphics for prerendered CG. Everything is modeled with exquisite artfulness, and the design of each level is impeccable. Give it a few tries and each multi-player level will grow on you like that smell after not showering for a week.
The story, too, resonates with a flair for the cinema, and I was taken aback at the quality of dialog each character has. But the detail does not stop there. The customization options are so great that they will overwhelm and exhilarate. Try to create a player model without spending hours figuring out the right color, symbol, and flag. Try to find that perfect multiplayer mode. Go ahead, try it. The combinations are numerous and that alone will keep you up past your bedtime.Xbox Live Multiplayer:
Among the achievements of Halo 2 the Live play is the most significant. This alone will keep Halo 2 fresh longer than its predecessor and on everyone's Xbox long after this generation of games has gone. Halo 2 Live is absolutely the definitive experience of Xbox Live games. Here you can jump in a matchmaking session, arrange a party, and quick join a game. Matchmaking automatically places you with people of equal ranking and keeps battles intense and close. You can also invite your friends into a party and jump from game to game with them without having to search for them.
Possibly the most astounding online element Bungie included is the ability login to Bungie's website (www.Bungie.net
) and check out details of the battle you just fought. Find out where you were killed, with what, and by whom. Find out where that annoying sniper was hiding from and where the best hiding places are. Complete statistics are kept for every game and every player, even custom games. Matchmaking games are mapped in the Game Viewer, so that you can actually see every conflict and shot fired on the battlefield superimposed as informative icons over a zoomable, ariel view of the multiplayer map. If you're looking to improve your game, Bungie.net is a great way to learn the ropes, or to just review some awesome games you won or came close to winning. This level of statistics reporting and tracking is completely unheard of, and the best thing to hit console gaming since Perfect Dark.
Online play is implemented so smoothly that it is truly an enjoyable way to spend time with your long distance gaming pals. The game comes with two months of online play for free, but you won't want to play for more than an hour without a communicator headset. Voice chat is seamless (as good as most cell phones), and continuous throughout the various loading and configuration screens. While configuring a game, the party leader can ask the party members about game details. With Halo 2 Live has matured into a service that makes it almost preferable to play online rather than in-person. Halo 2 also integrates the in-game chat seamlessly. Speak normally into the Xbox Communicator, and anyone within your radar range will hear you, but at a volume appropriate for their distance from you. Tap the white button and you'll transmit a message over your team radio until the game detects that you've stopped speaking. To let you know the duration of the broadcast, the game gives you a satisfying buzz of static that greatly enhances the immersion of the online play. The voices of players speaking out loud are played through your television speakers, while the radio transmissions come to you in your earpiece. In all, the element of voice chat is extremely well-implemented in Halo 2, and shows the way for future Live titles to deal with notions of group gaming and social play via the online network.
To round out the online environment, the Clan building system is smoothly integrated via Live and the Bungie.net Gamertag linking. You can be a member of any single clan, and you can switch your clan affiliation at any time. Through the in-game Live interface you can create a clan, invite members, and manage member priviledges. Every clan has an Overlord, and ranks include Staff (can invite and kick out members), Member, and Peon. Clan matches are handled through specific Matchmaking modes, and the clan is automatically given its own homepage on Bungie.net where anyone can see the stats and records for all games played. This kind of team-building and Internet integration on such a large scale (in the past 24 hours over 350 thousand unique players have played Halo 2 online, and the number keeps growing) has never been tried with console gaming in quite this way before.Conclusion:
Halo 2 is not perfect. There are some minor issues that need to be addressed. First of all, the normal mapping engine is imperfect. During the cutscenes, for example, textures would load from low-res to high-res. This isn't a big deal as it never affects gameplay and happens rather infrequently, but it is noticeable. Also, the co-op would have benefited from online play. And there could have been more multiplayer levels, or at least they could have included some more of the old favorites from the first.
Regardless of its minor faults, Halo 2 is the best reason to own an Xbox so far, and makes the price of admission to Xbox Live well worth it. There are a lot of great games coming out this season, and without a doubt Halo 2 is among the best. For many Xbox owners, and gamers in general, Halo 2 will become much more than a game; it will become a way of life.