Master Chief is back, and this time Earth's coming with him.
Actually, that's probably just how it seems, considering the massive media blitz and buildup surrounding one of the most anticipated titles (and definitely one of the most anticipated sequels) in console history. Magazine ads, commercials and movie trailers, even an all encompassing alternate reality game raised the level of Halo 2 awareness to an incredible, almost life altering level. Even owners of other systems have bowed down to the prowess of Bungie’s title, begrudgingly accepting the fact that the title is one of the best action titles ever created. Well, the wait is finally over for Xbox fans, so grab a plasma grenade and your favorite firearm, because it’s time to lightly scratch the surface of Halo 2.
Now, before you start questioning my or Game-Over’s commitment to complete coverage, let me put these facts forward: One, I’ve played through this title at least twice as well as taken quite a bit of time with the multiplayer, so this is by no means an uninformed review or a write as I play bit of coverage. Two, there are a number of twists, turns and secrets that I blatantly refuse to spoil for you, my fellow gamers. Bungie’s fiercely guarded the plot of the game for an explicit reason, and I know that I (along with other reviewers) completely agree that players will want to experience this title completely for a reason. Finally, (and perhaps the start for my critique) Halo 2 is one of those titles that will probably split gaming allegiances down the middle: if you had issues with the first title, you’ll probably find the same issues with the sequel. I’m not implying that the gameplay has remained static; in fact, there are a significant number of tweaks made to Halo 2. But players of both games will notice a certain amount of repetition from the first game to the second, a feat that can only be successfully pulled off by a “Game Of The Year” award winner.
To that end, let’s take a look at some of the few aspects of the storyline that are either already known or aren’t much of a surprise. First of all, it’s pretty blatant that you’ll suit up again as everyone’s favorite alien slayer, Master Chief. Your feisty and wisecracking AI companion, Cortana, also makes a return, helping and commenting on the battles you find yourself in. You’ll also find the nameless grunts that populated firing lines, drove Warthogs and acted as general Covenant fodder are here, and have plenty more to say this time. While the estimates have ranged from 15-20,000 lines of dialogue, the bottom line is that you can play through this game at least three times and not hear every word from the massive script for the game.
This script also provides a lot more information about The Covenant, including some secrets about who they are and what motivates them. In fact, one of the things that can be said about Halo 2 is that it is truly engrossing. As soon as you turn on the Xbox, you know you’re in for a ride, and the folks at Bungie gladly take you for a large one. Interspersed with cutscenes, the timing of the story feels just right – Even during the most pitched battle, development doesn’t feel rushed, and the pacing never comes across as too slow or distracting. That’s extremely important, considering that it goes through a ton of significant (and dark) themes, such as revenge, redemption, and betrayal set during a time of invasion and all out warfare. These subjects commonly repeat themselves over and over in a seemingly deafening crescendo, culminating in a cliffhanger ending that is arguably one of the weaker moments in the game.
Now, I have no problem with cliffhangers at all. In fact, there’ve been plenty of these abrupt endings in games and other forms of media. However, it feels like the game builds up a significant amount of momentum, primarily to arrive at what seems like an incredible turn in the plot, only to hastily slam to a halt without any sense of resolution. Perhaps this would’ve been different had the storyline gone for a solid twenty hours or more of play. However, I managed to go through the game in about 10 hours, which also included restarting twice due to a faulty Xbox that I wound up completely replacing. That duration is something experienced or fanatical Halo players should be able to do easily, with extra time for the Legendary setting. Even still, there’s something slightly disappointing about waiting three years for a title, only to be able to blow through it so easily. It definitely implies that players will have to wait for another few years or (potentially – I’m not starting rumors here) the launch of Xbox Next before we see Master Chief again.
While this is disappointing to say the least, this is somewhat mitigated by the newer features found within the game. Perhaps one of the most significant is the ability to dual wield weaponry. Although you’re not going to be able to dual wield many of the more powerful guns, such as holding two rocket launchers or sniper rifles, you’ll be able to pick up and fire most one handed firearms. This includes things like plasma rifles, SMGs or pistols. The needlers have returned as well, and while they were significantly weaker in the first Halo, they’ve become much more effective and damaging in Halo 2. Effective use of this redesigned firearm with other weapons can become a deadly suppression or raiding tactic on targets. For instance, plasma rifles can strip away energy shields while the explosive quills eliminate their target via explosion. This increase in firepower comes at a cost; players won’t be able to throw any grenades at targets as long as their hands are full. What’s more, players won’t be able to actively commit stealth kills via melee without automatically throwing a weapon away. This feature provides a significant choice for players during a firefight: do you need to lay down a hail of ammunition, or do you need explosive clearing power?
This choice is also informed by the weapons that happen to be around at the time, because there are certain arms you’ll change your tactics for. For instance, I’ve mentioned some of the smaller weapons, but the trusty rocket launcher and sniper rifle have returned (in particular, they’re more powerful at a trade off for slower reloads). There’s also a shotgun and a semi-automatic battle rifle that pops off three shots at a time. Of course, most players will be interested to find out what Covenant weapons have been included so they can use the enemy’s tools against them. There is an incredibly powerful grenade launcher called the Brute Shot, which hurls shells at high velocity at its target. There are two long range weapons, the Covenant Carbine which fires a number of radioactive bullets at foes and a Particle Beam rifle – the alien’s version of our sniper rifle. However, hardcore Halo players will love the inclusion of two other weapons. The absurdly powerful fuel rod gun from the first game can be grabbed and used against large numbers of troops or enemy vehicles. What’s more, you’ll also be able to pick up those damnable energy swords that would give you fits on Legendary mode and use them against their owners. While the reach is somewhat limited, the capacity for one hit kills on anything is definitely worth it.
You’ll need some of the added destruction to take on the tons of vehicles that’ll be thrown at you. Yep, I said tons of vehicles. There’s more mechanized mayhem in Halo 2 than was ever hinted at in the previous title. In fact, there are a number of firefights where you’ll face off against five or more Ghosts that come bearing down on your position. Fortunately, you’ll be able to perform a sweet jacking maneuver (slightly) reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto to commandeer new vehicles. By getting close enough and timing when you hit the X button, you can throw an opponent from their machine. Tanks fare a much worse fate, as you bash open the hatches before hurling a grenade inside to kill its occupants. However, once the jack is complete, you have a new machine that you can use against your opponents. You’ll have to be careful, though, because the enemy is just as eager to recover their vehicles as you are to take them.
That actually brings me to an interesting section, that of the AI in the game. Incredibly intelligent on both sides, Halo 2’s AI schemes are much more aware of their surroundings and the enemy in general. Grunts, for instance, are much harder to call fodder right now. They’ll actually provide additional support, taking down enemies and laying down fire to allow you to flank positions. The grunts will also take out targets from the sides of Scorpion tanks or drive you around in Warthogs, letting you accurately man the support turret. Enemies are intelligent also, setting up ambushes, circling around for better shots and retreating from incoming grenades.
While you won’t be able to take the AI completely along with you, you’ll have the option to play the entire game via co-op play to adventure through the game with a friend. This is especially useful on harder difficulty settings like Legendary, when you’ll need the extra hand to have an easier time through the hordes of opponents thrown at you. But once the short campaign mode is over, you’ll probably want to take on multiplayer mode, either via system link to connect consoles or via Xbox Live. The number of features that are included within Halo 2 are truly impressive, and could serve to be a model for other titles. For instance, players will have the option to form parties, groups of people who’ll transition from match to match on the same squad without having to worry about optimatching people. You’ll also be able to form clans of up to 100 people to fight massive online battles with, propelling your group up the everchanging online rankings.
You’ll have plenty of maps and types to fight across with your friends, clans or new found competitors. There’s a number of modes, such as Slayer (the typical deathmatch mode), Capture the Flag, King of the Hill and Oddball (where you hold onto a ball for as long as possible before you’re killed). This is supplemented with Juggernaut (similar to Oddball, but you’re the target that players want to take out), Assault (where you try to place a bomb into the opposing team’s base and detonate it in time) as well as Territories (where you try to control a set number of areas on a map). On top of that, each mode has a number of additional sub types which, when combined with the number of multiplayer maps, will provide plenty of online mayhem for most gamers in a very stable environment that rarely ever shows lag when online.
Halo set a high bar for graphics on Microsoft’s system, establishing a watermark for future titles and an expectation that its sequel had to be graphically arresting. Well, Halo 2 does manage to surpass its predecessor with the sheer number of details that it manages to display without dropping frames or slowing down. That includes split screen co-op play. We’re talking about highly detailed environments that can support at least 8 separate large character models for human and alien alike, not to mention tracking or displaying fired ammo. The environments also appear to have received a touch up from the original to Halo 2. Simply put, take a look at the screenshots with this article. This is a gorgeous game. Water looks phenomenal in this game, and the game is particularly sharp if you play the game on a progressive scan TV, which gives the title a more cinematic feel. This extends to the numerous cutscenes scattered throughout the game. However, there are plenty of visual issues that occurs throughout cutscenes, such as pop up of textures on models and tessellation on environments when it doesn’t need to that’s extremely distracting.
Audio quality is much better, with plenty of star voice overs provided by Keith David, Ron Perlman, Orlando Jones, Michelle Rodriguez and David Cross, amongst others. You’ll often find yourself commenting, “Hey, I know that voice!” as you take out enemies side by side of your AI companions. Remember the number of lines that I mentioned earlier? Well, they come into play in vivid detail, and quite a lot of them are funny, reflecting Bungie’s quirky sense of humor. The main characters, such as Master Chief and Cortana, deliver their lines with dry wit and skill, and pulls players in during every line. This is bolstered by an extremely active soundtrack, which includes some of the original soundtrack from the first title with driving guitars and rhythmic, booming drums to hype a gamer up. You’ve never really taken out opponents until the sound begins to swell to let you know about a massive battle coming up.
Outside of these features, there was one other objection I noted before I signed off to let players get their Halo 2 on. Like the first game, you will get lost easily, providing plenty of backtracking and second guessing as to where you’re supposed to go in a level. Part of this is due to the graphics, because many of the corridors and areas do appear incredibly similar to previously entered ones. To this end, you may find yourself stumbling your way from place to place until you discover a new enemy waiting to target you, firing a few rounds your way and indicating the new direction you’re supposed to go.
Is Halo 2 worth the hype it received? Well, it definitely is worth it for the multiplayer, for the augmented gameplay features and for the vocal delivery by the Hollywood talent in the title. It isn’t, however, thanks to the weakly developed storyline, similarity to the original title and the long duration that we’ll have to wait through for the continuation of the saga. But, with a little multiplayer and some solid clan competition, I think most players will manage to bide their time with Halo 2 until the next title arrives.