Turn back now
if you don't want every single aspect of Halo 2 revealed to you within the next 1500 words. This is one of those truly rare milestones of gaming that deserves to be played both unspoiled, and untarnished by other people's views. Rest assured if you dug the first Halo game, you'll love this one - there's your review. Now go.
For the weak-minded readers still here though, let's continue...
Remember how much I loved
Halo? While not quite the best game ever, it still holds the distinction of the most fun
if you ask me. It put Bungie on the map as one of the premier games developers of all time, showed the world there was finally a reason to own an Xbox, and perhaps most admirably of all, proved that consoles could do first person shooters just as good, if not better in this case, than PCs could.
So to put it lightly, Halo 2 has much to live up to. And on playing through the first couple of levels, you might think that it'd failed in that regard. But you'd soon be proven wrong.
|No FMV here, this is all rendered in-game believe it or not|
First let's back up for a second. Before the game even starts, the story is introduced via a rather splendid cut-scene that picks up right from where the original Halo ended. It's a court room of sorts, with a disgraced Covenant Elite soldier being sentenced to death for his failures in the first game.
This is just one of several mind blowing cinematics that emphasise Bungie's skill at interweaving an involving story into the game, and it's one area much improved over the original. Also of note though, is just how incredibly stunning these cut-scenes look - especially when you consider they're all rendered real-time within the game engine. With liberal use of blooming, bump-mapping, high detail textures, and depth-of-field blurring, these sequences go down as some of the best graphics I've ever seen
in a video game. Yes, right up there with Doom III.
Dr Jekyll & Mr Hype
So when the actual game starts up shortly after, and we subsequently find that the gameplay graphics are several notches lower, it all feels a bit disappointing. It's a very pretty game, don't get me wrong, but it can't even begin to touch the pure beauty of those cinematics, and it's one of several initial downers that start the game off on a bit of a bad foot I feel, the other main one being the weapons.
The original game had you kitted out with the assault rifle and the pistol for 90% of the time, and let's be honest, you were more than happy with it that way I'm sure. These were some of the all-time greats in video gaming weaponry, making the gunning down of thousands of evil alien scumbags all the more fun. The bad news is that the assault rifle is long gone in Halo 2, and the pistol has been nerfed to near uselessness.
In their place we have the new sub-machine gun, which with the weediest of sound effects, lacks any sense of power, and joining it is the new and "improved" battle rifle - although it comes with a scope, it's relegated to three bullet bursts though, which sadly rules out the old "hold down the trigger with a demonic grin" style I was so accustomed to in the first game. These weapons are joined by tons of new alien ones, including the lightsab...er, I mean Covenant Sword, and they may take a bit of getting used to.
The bottom line is that your first experiences with Halo 2 are strange and new, rather than familiar and friendly. You'd hope it'd be like catching up with an old friend, but alas it's not quite there. Sure, on the one hand it's same old Halo, with that awesome feel to the movement, the rock solid architecture, the glorious sound, and the crazy sense of humour - but it just doesn't feel quite as cool as it used to.
This isn't helped by the slightly mundane opening level or two. Fighting through Earthen settings is just a little disappointing compared to the beautiful alien worlds of the original. And what happened to that epic E3 demo level from 2003? No where to be seen here, yet it would have been a much more ideal opener to the game.
Tanks For Coming
Yet fear not, because around level three or so, you're given access to a Scorpion tank, and the subsequent vehicular-centric episode is a pure belter - truly one of the best bits from either Halo game, and from then on it's sweet, sweet candy. It becomes clear from this section forward actually, that the vehicles play a huge part in making this game such a work of art.
|Vehicles are just as fun as ever...particularly jacking 'em|
Remember the fun you had in the first game when you took off in that Banshee and flew around in the snow for a whole level? You get much more of that sort of thing here. There's huge airborne dogfights, full-on long range tank warfare, and perhaps most fun of all, massive Ghost pile-ups on a regular basis. The game sprinkles vehicles around liberally, and importantly gives the enemies equal access to them too. Some levels can't even be finished without 'em.
With the levels improving as the game progresses, the graphics also seem to pick up as well. The greatest part of this revamped engine is its ability to render wide open spaces, and it's something which far, far outclasses any other first person engine I've ever seen. Although far more detailed, even Far Cry's epic views fall short of the tremendous landscapes you can see here. I honestly thought some were simple 2D background images until I took a closer inspection though my newfound binoculars. Such views will most definitely take your breath away.
In addition, this much enhanced engine also allows way more action to take place on the screen at once, giving you colossal fire-fights right up there with Call of Duty for intensity. Needless to say, the more you play, the more those initial twinges of disappointment dissolve.
|Not only do the same enemies return, but now you're fighting with them|
To quote Fox News though, in the interest of being fair and balanced there remains one central trait of Halo 2 that I think was a conceptual mistake. Despite excellent execution, I just can't help but feel that the inclusion of an alternate player character was a case of bad judgement. This series is all about the Master Chief after all - or more specifically, it's about him beating the shit out of the Covenant. Having you therefore take control of the disgraced Elite from the opening sequence, goes way, way against that. In possibly the biggest mistake of the entire thing, the game even has you controlling the Covenant for the final end-game mission
Okay so this character, The Arbiter, turns out to be a semi-interesting guy in his own right, but I couldn't shake that yearning for more Master Chief any time he was "off screen" and the Arb's missions kicked in. I also think that the fact that many of these missions have you facing off against renegade Covenant, with therefore no human weaponry in sight, hurts their enjoyment level too. The alien guns look nice and all, particularly the railgun-like sniper rifle, but there's nothing to beat that feeling of rock hard Earthen shotguns and rocket launchers filling up half your screen.
|I challenge anyone to find me a better multiplayer game than this work of beauty|
But fuck it, why complain when there's so much more I could praise instead. The new widescreen mode for one, the complete removal of slowdown from the engine for another, then there's the return of that glorious co-op feature, the new and improved physics, the gloriously rich story, the hilarious dialogue of your fellow marines, that kick ass laser sword, bumping into familiar faces, the even more ferocious Flood, vehicle jacking, duel wielding, your team mates new-found ability to drive vehicles, and perhaps best of all...Xbox Live play!
Multiplayer is much improved right across the board in fact. Although it lacks an online co-op option, it's otherwise flawless, destined to go down as one of the all-time online greats. The maps are nigh on perfect, blending all styles of play together in some form, and the weapons are expertly balanced too, resulting in much more interesting and strategic showdowns. It's good old Halo, but at the same time there's hints of Battlefield 1942 creeping in at the same time, thanks to the new humungous size of the maps. On the whole it's even more polished than the single player game in fact, and I actually think it's so well done that you could pick the game up solely
for online play if that's more your bag.
Is This The End?
So on the whole, while it took me a little while to warm to Halo 2, a stark contrast to the insta-love I felt towards the original, it captured my heart in the end. Halo 2 continues the legacy of the Xbox' benchmark title, and provides a nice mixture of the familiar with the unknown. Although it won't change the world like the original did, simply 'cos this is a series we now know inside out, not a surprise hit coming outta nowhere, it'll still be remembered as one of the system's prize accomplishments decades from now when the Xbox is long gone.
Switching back to the first game after navigating the Halo 2 single player campaign, I was surprised just how dated it now looks in comparison. Don't go using the original as a coaster any time soon though, as Bungie recently announced their next game would be kick starting a brand new series - these two games could well be all we see from the Halo universe.
Or will they? With Cortana getting hit on by The Flood king, Chief about to take on the entire Covenant Armada, and The Arbiter stranded too far away to be of any use, there seems to be plenty of story left to tell. Halo 2 actually ends with a big arse Empire Strikes Back style cliff-hanger when you think about it, albeit a slightly anti-climactic one.
So here's to Halo 3 then - Xbox 2 launch title perhaps?