Like an unstoppable juggernaut of hype, Halo 2 has stormed into the history books with all the subtlety of an intergalactic war machine, teasing gamers for months on end with everything from massive in-depth previews to a theatrical trailer. The first Halo is, in many respects, the story of the Xbox console. Following its release on the Xbox's launch, it sold quickly and garnered numerous "Game of the Year" awards, and for the past three years has remained a top-selling game and easily the single most popular game on the console. Indeed, were it not for Halo, the Xbox may have never established a foothold in the highly competitive console marketplace. Understandably, the sequel has a lot to live up to.
But despite such overwhelming expectations, Halo 2 is essentially a bigger, badder version of the first—nothing more, nothing less. It refines and expands upon many of the original's strongest concepts, stumbles over a few repeated missteps, and offers an experience distinctly similar to the first that fluctuates between modest tedium and prodigious epic. Halo was famous for its intense, epic battles with its remarkably designed AI, and in this respect the sequel delivers familiar gameplay refined and expanded into its finest form.
Although I dare not give away the finer details of the plot, the game takes a narrative twist in the vein of Metal Gear Solid 2, placing the player in the shoes of a Covenant warrior fighting an insurrection within their religiously zealous ranks. The game alternates between the two characters as the plots gradually intersect. This branching story arch, while sure to displease some by taking the focus away from the enigmatic Master Chief, is tautly tied into the Master Chief's adventures and effectively expands on the Halo mythology. The game's climatic but abrupt ending is, as one might expect, merely a set piece to usher in the inevitable sequel that (it would seem) will bring resolution to the series.
As expected, there are all kinds of upgrades to the gameplay. Although all the familiar Covenant aliens make a return appearance, there are a number of new foes that are as diverse as they are challenging, including swarming fly-like aliens and the massive, gorilla-like Brutes. All the old vehicles make return appearances as well, this time with real-time damage modeling. Of course, it wouldn't be a proper sequel without plenty of new vehicles to wreak havoc with, and there are a number of impressive new additions to the lineup. Lastly, weapons have been modified and expanded substantially. The clunky, inaccurate assault rifle from the first game has been replaced with a powerful, accurate burst-firing battle rifle. The pistol no longer has a scope (appropriate, since the pistol was overpowered in the first game), and the rocket launcher has a very useful lock-on mechanism. The Covenant arsenal has been expanded as well, and now include a semi-automatic rifle, a sniper rifle that fires rapidly (but, like all Covenant weapons, can overheat), energy swords, shoulder-mounted cannons, and many others too numerous to list here (sadly though, there is still no flame thrower). And yes, the Needler has been significantly improved.
Just as Halo used smartly designed nuances like the two-weapon system and the recharging shield to markedly distinguish its gameplay from previous shooters, Halo 2 likewise incorporates similarly subtle new concepts while improving on the old ones. The health meter is completely gone; instead, the shield meter now recharges significantly faster. Master Chief can take one or two hits with the shield down, but he's quite vulnerable. The addition of a dual-wielding weapon function is also well implemented—it's possible to carry a wide variety of weapon combinations, and although it's possible to wield some pretty formidable firepower this way, Master Chief can't use grenades or melee attacks while dual-wielding, which gives the feature some strategic balance. But that's just the tip of the iceberg—it's also possible to swap weapons with allies, hijack moving enemy vehicles, and man the gun of the warthog while the allied AI does a surprisingly competent job behind the wheel.
The level design is also substantially improved from the first game; gone are the repeated levels and endlessly re-cycled textures. And although on occasion repetition does rear its ugly head, most of the time, the scenery is varied and often quite stunning. There's a fine balance between open outdoor areas and claustrophobic corridors. Most satisfying, though, is that the levels offer more flexibility in approach than those found in the previous game. Although it's still a completely linear progression, the combat-heavy sections of the levels are often expansive enough to allow for endless variation in strategy.
Though Halo 2 undoubtedly deserves high praise for expanding on the excellent concepts that made the original such a unique experience, it also deserves its fair share of criticism, not only for past mistakes that have resurfaced, but also for its failure to take bolder steps with the franchise. As I mentioned earlier, the vehicles now take damage, but is the damage is purely cosmetic and does not affect the vehicles' usefulness. Additionally, the environments, though they're more interactive than in the first game, are still somewhat static. There are some nice touches, like stone walls that can be leveled, but I'm a little tired of bullet-proof trees and indoor structures that are impervious to heavy firepower. There were also some bothersome glitches in the otherwise superlative enemy AI—on a few occasions they stood still as I shot them, failed to react to their allies being killed, or paid no attention to me when I was right at their side.
Graphically, Halo 2 is a mixed bag on the Xbox. Though it takes advantage of all the latest graphical technologies like normal mapping, per-pixel shading and specular highlighting, it's not nearly as visually striking as this year's earlier graphical powerhouse Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. As in the first game, characters are animated poorly. Indoor textures vary inconsistently from simplistic to stunning, and outdoor textures, though impressive at times, are occasionally marred by draw-in. Additionally, the cutscenes sometimes look downright ugly, filled with mysteriously disappearing/reappearing textures and slowdown. Those complaints aside though, Halo 2 is still much more beautiful than its predecessor; more than one instance left me awestruck at detail of the otherworldly structures Master Chief encounters during the game. Some of the outdoor environments are truly remarkable, and the alien characters are robustly detailed.
Sound, on the other hand, remains a consistent strong point for Halo. The characters are full of personality on the battlefield, and the combination of scripted lines and on-the-fly one-liners makes for an engaging and often humorous experience. All of the requisite bangs and booms are crisp, clear and powerful, and the score is nothing short of masterful.
Halo 2's multiplayer is so well done that it is more a game unto itself than a tacked-on minigame. It's every bit as engaging as dedicated multiplayer games like Unreal Championship, and the addition of Xbox Live play has propelled the already popular multiplayer to even greater heights, enabling all gamers to experience the chaotic 16-player battles that were previously reserved for gamers with System Link. The levels are bigger, better, and a heck of a lot prettier. The refinement of Halo 2 really stood out to me when I saw the redesigned version of the "battle creek" level from the original, and was treated to more weapons, more vehicles, and improved level design. There are innumerable options, ranging from detail character customization to a robust variety of gameplay modes—each with its own set of sub-options.
The Xbox Live setup is a little unusual. Instead of just looking for an available game, players join "clans" and essentially play games with the same people. A player can only join one clan, which opens up a world of great options but lacks the spontaneity of simply grabbing a buddy and playing online at the drop of a hat. Players who don't wish to join a clan can create their own and recruit up to one hundred people, assigning them various levels of privilege. All the clans are tracked and ranked, and clans can challenge each other for a real test of superiority. Each clan gets its own homepage and forum, so it's easy for players to get to know one another, but ultimately I suspect this decision will adversely affect the longevity of Halo 2 when the online crowds start to thin and players are stuck in a clan, unable to simply "pick up and play."
It's been an almost agonizing wait for many, but Halo 2 is finally here and delivers on most of its promises in spades. The unpredictability, scale and intensity of the combat are unrivaled. Despite some relatively minor flaws, Halo 2 continues the saga with a fine campaign and a multiplayer game that is sure to continue to breathe life into the game for the foreseeable future. It's not a remarkable leap forward for the genre, but it builds well on the strong foundation of its predecessor. It took a while, but the Xbox finally has a Halo killer.
According to the ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Violence
Parents should be on the lookout for some intense violence and mild language, but it's nothing particularly graphic.
Xbox owners and first-person shooter fans owe it to themselves to check out the new flagship shooter for the console.
Fans of the original Halo will find plenty to love here, but the game is not going to win over too many people who didn't care for the first.
Xbox Live subscribers, even if they rarely get online, should not hesitate to give the multiplayer a shot. It was anticipated that this game would be the foremost reason to subscribe to Live, and it is.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will miss out on many valuable audio cues during firefights, but the game offers subtitles for cutscenes and is certainly playable without sound.