In the history of videogames, each system invariably lands its super-mega winner, its system-seller, its Barry Bonds. On Genesis, you rolled with Sonic the Hedgehog
. On Nintendo 64 you got Super Mario 64
, on PlayStation you had Final Fantasy VII
, and on Dreamcast you loved Soul Calibur
. On Xbox, Bungie's first-person shooter, Halo
, has become the MVP for three years running -- an unbelievable unmatched streak on the Xbox. But there is a new kid in town, and strangely, you've known its name for years.
Halo 2, this year's most anticipated title -- along with Valve's Half-Life 2 and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas -- is a whopper of a game. It doesn't matter which way you cut, dissect or analyze it, Halo 2 comes up aces in every way. It's a noble achievement in storytelling, gameplay balance, and multiplayer design. And it's easily the best console-based, online game on Earth. Like so many people have said thus far: In 2004, Halo 2 will own you.
While it's been three years since Halo stormed gamers' Xboxes, Bungie has quietly toiled away at creating a natural evolution to its award-winning first-person shooter, and it has succeeded wildly. It's crazy to say that every bit of hype Halo 2 receives is deserved, but once you play it, you'll be pressed to agree. All of the improvements mightily outweigh the minor complaints from the surprising, cliff-hanger story in the single-player campaign to the unendingly blissful carnage of the online game.
The Story Deepens
The most coveted aspect of Halo 2 in Bungie's three years of development has been the storyline, which sadly, I will not reveal now. I don't want to ruin it. What I can say is this: Halo was a game about exploring a single ring, and in that it's like the movie Alien. Halo 2 is like Aliens. The first Alien movie was about learning the parameters of a single creature. The second movie was an onslaught of aliens, multiple plots and sub-plots, and conspiracies. It was bigger in scope and more encompassing in its ambition than the first. Halo 2 is a massive expansion of the original story in every aspect. The story is more complex, and to a much greater extent than its predecessor it's more vast, more mysterious, and ultimately, a much meatier one. Just like Aliens, it is bigger in scope and more encompassing in ambition than its predecessor.
Dozens upon dozens of instances convey its larger scope. It takes place in more locations than the first game did. Many cutscenes are well directed and worth watching again. Only a few areas of the story require criticizing, one of which is the ending. It's a cliff-hanger. So, depending on your level of enthusiasm, you'll either like it or hate it. Either way, Halo 2 is like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, it's a middle chapter in the series.
So, with nearly four times the amount of discourse from the first game and almost 20,000 lines of dialog, Bungie's story is deeply woven into every aspect of Halo 2, from the heart-stopping first hour to the climactic (and curious) ending. During the course of its 15 levels and just like the first game, you'll hear dozens of funny quips and memorable lines delivered by human soldiers that reverberate throughout its 10-15 hours of gameplay (yeah, that's what I said, 10-15 hours). You'll find that each soldier has something worthwhile to say even in the middle of the most distracting action scenes, surprising you when you least expect it.
What's best about the storyline? Bungie has proven to be an excellent yarn spinner. Unlike Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which tried to do everything and then ended up doing too much for its own good, Halo 2 tells a story with balanced restraint and minimalist tendencies. It tells a good story, without getting in your way. Not once did I feel I waited too long for the shooting to start again.
Halo 2 is still a whiz-bang shooting frenzy. Each time a cutscene is finished, Bungie's opus leaves you with the strong need to plunder forth in search of the answer to the bombshell plot-points it has left at your doorstep. It is a unique feeling to be propelled through a videogame with such clarity, focus, and perhaps most of all, smart editing.
The pacing is where Bungie excels the most. The game's smooth, even-keel tempo is well thought out, with small skirmishes, medium-sized battles, and massive onslaughts all book-ended by new information that reveals twist after surprise twist. Unlike the first game, you'll travel to many places, switching back and forth in time. Because of this, the story might throw you off now and again. The constant audio cues also require you to pay strict attention to what's being said at all times; all the more reason to play it through a second time. The story is perfectly told up until the cliff-hanger of an ending which is done so by design. The ending...well, let me put it this way, you'll either like it or hate it, but either way, you've got to play it to know.
Bungie is known for creating deep, rich first-person shooters with solid storylines and excellent multiplayer modes. They did this with a handful of Marathon games on the Mac and they've continued the trend with Halo on Xbox. There were few criticisms with the first game in this series, and while backtracking across every level in reverse order was a valid one and some of the weapons were unbalanced, Halo did a pretty bang up job.
In pure gameplay terms, Halo 2 is much better than its predecessor. All of the best elements in Halo have evolved, and Bungie has addressed all of its fans' concerns while advancing natural points of gameplay without screwing things up. Broken into parts, the long-time Mac, PC, and Xbox developer has improved the already silky control. It's added duel wielding, it's increased the range of useable weapons and drivable vehicles, it's upped the intelligence of your squad mates and the enemies, it's kept an incredible balance in both single-player and multiplayer modes, and it's created a wide range of diverse levels that feel different from one another.
There are tons of great little additions across the board. If you want a different weapon, you can trade with allies (as long as your gun has ammo). You can jump into a Warthog and watch as your teammate jumps into the driver's seat and tears down the road to the right place (although these guys flub their directions quite often). You can jack enemy vehicles whether it's a Ghost, a Banshee, or... something else. You can track enemies with rocket launchers and watch as the heat-seeking rockets pummel enemy tanks to bits. Your vehicles take an impressive level of damage. When toasted by an onslaught of bullets, many vehicles wind up whirling into a secondary explosion catching off-guard opponents for a death or two. In the interface, the menu provides more information and is more clearly laid out. You've got binocular vision now, aiding Master Chief's ability to see farther at all times. Even your new Mjolnir Mark VI Armor regenerates faster than the previous one. Heck, even Banshees now can perform loop-de-loops and barrel rolls.
Bungie listened carefully to its fans. The team was fully aware that the idea of traversing through Halo 2's levels backward wouldn't be such a hot idea...again. In the sequel, you won't do that. The first three levels take place on somewhat familiar grounds, be they a space ship or Earth itself, but after that, you're in for a healthy smorgasbord of assorted levels. As you progress, you'll switch back and forth between locations, be they snowy, forested, beach-like, dirt-strewn, interior, or even dark, pitch black regions (a la Doom 3). You'll find that in each level, there are several ways to beat it. Whether you want to charge in all guns blazing, jack vehicles, snipe, what have you, the weapons, vehicles, and the level designs in particular encourage multiple ways to dominate a level. And even though this is a linear game, the levels are big -- and wide -- enough so that you can traverse old terrain multiple times without it feeling stale.
One partial criticism of the levels is that Bungie's interior designs, be they hallways, control centers or whatever, almost always look perfectly symmetrical. Nice to look at, but after a ferocious fight, you'll be hard pressed to know which door you walked in and which to walk out. The arrows were always a good helper before, but are there fewer in Halo 2. Of course, a safe bet is to head in the opposite direction of the string of dead bodies. But given no map, you will find yourself wondering where the hell to go more often than not. It's not a huge issue, but after beating Halo 2 and going back to play Halo, Bungie's ship and interior designs are almost as repetitive in both architecture and texturing as before. More distinct texture work and asymmetrical ornamentation would've helped. But again, this is just minor nitpicking.
Microsoft gave us two days to beat Halo 2 in mid-October, and although we were a little worried at first -- not knowing exactly how long it would take to beat it -- two full working days was more than enough time. According to Bungie Halo 2 is much longer than the first game -- about twice as long. My experience was that it took about the same amount of time to beat this as the first game: I finished the single-player game in 13 hours on Normal difficulty level the first time through. Maybe it's because I've now played a whole lot of the first Halo and so therefore I'm so familiar with it, but I somehow expected it to take much longer.
But with Bungie, it's all about balance. While the Easy difficulty level is now easier, and Normal seems a little easier than before, Heroic is slightly harder and Legendary is much, much, much harder.
One of the many core ingredients to Halo's success was its amazing sense of continuity. You'd fight until your knees would buckle and then you'd transition into a cutscene or another locale; either way it yielded just a few significant load times. The ring of Halo felt like a real world; a real place with flora and fauna (well insects, anyway), with all sorts of activity, and with secrets of its own.
Halo 2 takes that sensibility one step further. It keeps its own distinct sense of rhythm and fluidity. The sequel is smoother, prettier, and shinier in every possible way than the first with the most miniscule of framerate issues. It has one load time, and that's the single load at the beginning of the level. After that, it's pure, smooth beauty.
There are a few regular, albeit minor hitches much like in the first game. When transitioning from one area to the next, you will see a quick text message at the bottom of the screen that reads "loading," just as you'll see the game read "autosaving" after almost every major battle. Each time, you'll feel a little hitch in the framerate. It doesn't affect gameplay.
Other than that, Halo 2 plays like a dream. I've just played a series of atrocious Vietnam first-person shooters, and I've gone back to play Halo as a reference, and Halo 2 is golden. It controls gorgeously. It genuinely spanks everything else. The smooth response time and the luscious movement is a pure pleasure to play. Turning around quickly, tracking an enemy while he jumps, or even sniping a darting drone (one of the new enemy types) -- none ever presented an issue.
I Call Shotgun!
While you could actually dual wield guns in Nintendo 64's GoldenEye 007 and more recently in games like Red Faction II, dual wielding in Halo 2 is the perfect addition -- and like everything in Halo 2, it's done better. In fact, I returned to playing the original Halo to do some, eh-hem, "research," and I realized just how badly I missed it. What's more, I realized how much freedom it provides. Dual wielding is a cinch: Pick up a weapon with X, and pick up a second weapon with Y. When dual wielding you're prevented from throwing grenades, but that ends up balancing the gameplay. And hey, if you've got two M7/caseless submachine guns or even two Needlers (which are superior to the originals), you're a thundering rain of bullets to the enemy. You can mix and match all sorts of dual-wielding weapons, as long as they're one-handed. The simple addition of a second hand-held weapon creates endless possibilities during single and multiplayer games, and it feels so natural, you'd swear you did it in the first game.
The weapon set has grown in size and stature. As a result Bungie's unusually subtle and superb selection has broadened the range of gameplay. What I mean by this is the first Halo was a great visceral experience designed to play fast, furiously, and up close. The gunbutt smash turned out to be an excellent up-close attack that created serious options when nose-to-nose with an enemy. Being able to wield the Covenant Energy Sword evolves the great toe-to-toe combat of Halo to a new plane in Halo 2. With the Energy Sword in hand, you can attack in two ways -- by just swinging away using B, or by targeting an enemy, locking on, and performing an instant kill using the right trigger. All of a sudden this single addition heightens the up-close combat dynamic to a new level. You'll feel an entirely new level of bravado. Elites, Hunters, Brutes, and even tanks that were once tough to get close to are all potential mincemeat. They're a great new challenge to rush and plunder. To balance out their strength, swords take damage, indicated in the HUD where a regular weapon's ammo supply is shown so you can see it whittling down from 100 units to nil.
Master Chief continues to use both Human and Covenant weapons. On the human side you've got the M6C pistol (which is not as powerful as in the first, sadly), M7/caseless submachine gun (dual wield with these and it's all good), the shotgun, BR55 Rifle, a better sniper rifle, and the rocket launcher (with a slightly slower reload time) to name a few. On the Covenant side, there's the Plasma Pistol, Needler (now actually worth your while), Plasma Rifle, Brute Shot (an awesome, arching grenade launcher), a Sniper Rifle (not as powerful as the Human sniper rifle, but quite handy) and the Covenant Energy Sword. There also are surprise weapons that I cannot divulge. Let's just say there are more weapons than I have listed here. And let me add this -- those weapons you've speculated about for the last thee years? They exist.
All in all there are more -- and better -- weapons lying around, making for a different kind of decision-making process than in Halo. Before, one always wondered how long it would take to switch back to human weapons as they held a dumpy Covenant Plasma Pistol or skimpy Needler. Now, because you can dual wield and the weaponry is greater and more balanced, the abundance of choices is all about style. The amount of experimentation built into Halo 2 is enormous.
This reminds me, I have to take a second and talk about vehicular jacking. This has to be one of the most outrageously fun, dangerous, and rewarding new moves in the game. In single or multiplayer, when an enemy Banshee comes barreling down on you and he comes close enough, spin around and press B to jack him right out of the air. It's freakin' awesome.
There are options here too. When jacking, you can actually pound enemies on the head and then throw a grenade in the cockpit, or you can simply hurl the goon out. It's sooooooo much fun and it's so damn rewarding that the measure of pure glee is difficult to accurately weigh. I once ripped open a hole in a pair of twin Covenant tanks and blew the crap out of them within 10 seconds. What an amazing rush that was. In Halo that was once considered crazy, sure-death behavior. In Halo 2, it's not only encouraged, it's expected. To take it one step further, the natural evolution of the Energy Sword's use in multiplayer (Swords and Nades) is a pure rush of senseless chaotic bliss. It's ridiculous.
Then there is the AI. Both human and enemy AI has improved -- not by leaps and bounds, but it's another gradual evolution. In your first bout with the Covenant, you'll see them dodge and take cover like before, throw grenades, attack in groups, and generally do all of things they did in the first game but with more aggression and intelligence. Also, some enemies will take more gunbutt mashes and others require more bullets than before. Your AI is upgraded too. Your teammates will take cover, duck, roll, fire rocket launchers at the right points, drive vehicles, and head to snipe points. You can switch weapons with them too (without having to kill them).
Xbox Live: Multiplayer Madness
While you might have been waiting for the single-player story for years, the online mulitplayer experience is simply unmatched on Xbox. There is no question about Halo 2's online brilliance -- it's unbelievably, insanely, devilishly good. It's addictive and distracting and it tears you from reality for hours on end. It will rattle your senses. It's easy for me now to say that Halo 2 is easily the best console-based online game on Earth.
Halo 2 is primed for 2-16 players on Xbox Live, and there are 11 multiplayer maps with which to start, one hidden one, and two Halo 1 maps. But it's become pretty clear that Zanzibar is the ultimate Capture the Flag map. After hours of playing all sorts of maps, Zanzibar proves pure to be genius. I have never loved playing CTF as much as I have with Halo 2. Got a good set of friends and headphones? Goodbye weekends, hello divorce.
In many respects the range of maps is remarkable. Some are clearly designed for larger groups (12-16); they'll make themselves clear when you try them with too few players. While others are perfectly designed for small to medium parties (say, six to 10). By default there are amost no power-ups, just like in Halo, but power-ups were never Halo's thing. What launches Halo 2's greatness into the stratosphere is the endless set of options, sub-options, sub-sub-options, and customization with which you'll endlessly fiddle.
Games from Halo include Slayer, King of the Hill (remain in one area longer than anyone else), Oddball (players strive to grab a skull and then hold it for as long as possible, while everyone else attacks you), plus Team Oddball, Juggernaut (remain the Juggernaut longer than anyone else, while everyone else tries to kill you), and several Capture the Flag variants. You'll also get new games Assault (plant a bomb in the enemy base and then protect the bomb bearer), and Territories (like King of the Hill but with multiple moving hills). In each gametype you can determine which weapons, vehicles, powerups, time settings, starting weapons and other options you want. Plus, each multiplayer mode actually has built in sub-variants, all with their own options.
Xbox Live: Clans, Rankings, Parties
Bungie has gone way beyond the call of duty for Xbox Live. Just like in the single-player game, you'll be able to dual wield and jack vehicles. You'll be able to pick from Spartans or Covenant types, and you can dig deeply into customizing your soldier's looks. You can pick armor colors, tints, under-armor colors, outline colors, background and foreground colors, and more.
Once you've set up your preferences, you're ready to go online and join a clan. You can create a clan with as many as 100 people, but you can only belong to one. Like Rainbow Six: Black Arrow, one player becomes the founder, and he can recruit staff, members, or peons, all titles providing different privileges. All of your ranked clan activities are trackable on the heavily re-tooled Bungie.net. Each clan gets a private homepage, private forum, and dozens of other cool things. To increase your clan ranking, which is separate from your individual ranking, you can challenge other clans to small or large matches. Make no doubt about it, these clan matches will become the love of your life for the next two years. The game's front-end is essentially light-years ahead of anything else on Xbox Live. And coupled with Bungi.net's enormous clan and stat-tracking support, gamers are in for a genuinely superb, seamless online experience.
For competitive players, there are two types of games, Matchmade Games (which are ranked), and Arranged Games (which are unranked). This separation of ranked and non-ranked games enables Newbies to jump in without getting slaughtered, and it gives real competitors the chance to really show their stuff without having to deal with doltish young greenhorns.
Players can also join parties, which are independent of clans, but which are a natural extension of Friends' Lists. For instance, while on Xbox Live another player can ask you to join his party which means that each time the game type is switched, you'll immediately be included without having to jump out and be re-invited.
We played the online Beta version this summer and System Link games for review in October. During the Beta trials, the game moved with a steady 30 FPS, but as with any online game, your connection is the key. Hosts are automatically determined by who has the best connection, and if that connection fails it will automatically switch to the next best connection. You'll feel a slowdown and a pause, but it's far from being a miserable experience. On the contrary, it's close to perfect. During the Beta phase, it was still ridiculously fun, insanely deep, and beautiful while still staying for the most part solid as a rock. System Link games worked like a champ -- there is very little slowdown, quick loadtimes, and excellent sets of choices.
There are uncountable options in Halo 2. A few of note: If you wanted to play Capture the Flag with more than two teams, you can. In fact, if you want to play with as many as eight teams in one CTF match, you can. You also can have four players on one Xbox Live account, split with individual gamertags. While in four-player split-screen you can have all four players logged onto their own accounts, or one can log on, and three can play as guests. You can still play two-player cooperative offline. And though it's a letdown, you cannot play coop online. Sigh... it would have been great in theory to play co-op online, but Bungie didn't feel it could make the experience as good as it wanted, and so the team decided not to include it.
The only real criticisms are relatively minor ones. It would have been great to play co-op online, but you can't have everything. And if Bungie doesn't feel comfortable with it, then online co-op may not have worked out all that well in the end. In multiplayer, it would have been cool to distinguish the Covenant's abilities more from the Spartans'. They play exactly the same. And well, could there have been more maps?
In nearly every way, Halo 2 comes through with shining colors. First of all, you'll witness loads of excellent-looking cutscenes. The game is overflowing with scripted events and cutscenes, most of which run seamlessly on the game engine proper. There are some strange, notable exceptions. While the cutscenes are massive in scope and very pretty in design, oddly, you'll actually see a little slowdown, pop-in, and LOD issues during cutscenes. It's a little off-putting at first, and by no means does it ruin anything. But it does detract.
You'll also see Normal and Bump Mapping, both of which give great depth and texture to characters' faces and bodies. The Normal Mapping is both good and bad. Bungie does a much better job than Starbreeze did with The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay from a technical standpoint (which is not to knock Starbreeze's excellent effort). There are fewer seams, there is less aliasing, and less flickering. Normal Mapping is quite a beast to tame, and it appears Bungie has done some, but not all, of the harnessing necessary to complete the task. Eyes don't quite fit in sockets and sometimes bodies look more like an assemblage of parts that a singular whole. Then there is the technique itself. Put a Normal mapped character against a standard textured background and it looks like he or she is in front of a blue screen in a movie. Put that same Normal Mapped character in front of an artistic background and it looks even more artificial. It's not terrible, but it is noticeable, and when things are that noticeable they detract from the game's overall believability.
The third aspect that's distinct about Halo 2 is how HUGE everything is. I don't mean like big eyeballs, trees, or rocks, I mean that the size and scope of the world has dramatically increased. It's like Bungie went out and bought a wide lens camera and shot everything as if it were Ansel Adams photographing Yosemite. Remember how big and cool it was to look up in Halo and see the ring of Halo arcing up in the sky? That's nothing compared to Halo 2. You'll see amazing star-lit galaxies, gorgeous clouds filled with light, and giant, intricately designed cityscapes looming in the background, but that's just on one ship, one planet, or someplace else... that I can't talk about. Everything is rendered with an artistic touch, an eye toward colorful lighting, and with an emphasis on size.
Technically, the texture resolution is greater in all aspects than its predecessor, and the texture maps themselves are more detailed, whether it's the granular etches and dents to Master Chief's Mk. 6 armor, the detail to a massive space craft, or the simplest of things like dirt, rocks or grass. Master Chief really does look about three times better too; he's visually god-like. Every creature that returns from the first game was re-created from the ground up. You'll see more articulate, more highly refined enemies and hundreds more walking, attacking, and resting animations. The visuals hold up impressively well in the multiplayer modes too.
There is so much more to talk about visually. By playing in progressive scan mode with a widescreen TV, you'll be in for a real treat. All of the Covenant creatures show visual upgrades, the water is prettier and more realistic, the animation for all creatures is fabulous, highly articulated and believable, and the lighting in all cases is just short of breathtaking. It's not like you haven't seen a game that hasn't done these things before. It's that Halo 2 handles so many of them so well, simultaneously, and with such consistency, whether it's in single-player or multiplayer, that the overall effect is remarkable.
Lastly, the vehicle physics are top notch. Whether we're talking about Banshees, Warthogs, Ghosts, Scorpions or other vehicles, they all obey a rich, consistent physics system. The vehicles bounce and flip like they did in Halo, but now instead of infinite punishment, they take accumulative damage: Piece by piece. And when they explode and then explode again, it's a pure visual orgy of particles, light, smoke and fire. You'll hear them before they burst. You'll watch glass break, tiny, medium and large chunks of metal fly off Scorpions, and you'll see the coolest jet streams flow from Banshee wings. And now, when you're in the Banshee or the Ghost, you'll have a boost effect, highlighted by a searing blue flame from the rear jets.
As if all of these other elements weren't enough on their own, every sound effect, line of voice-work, and song in Halo 2 is first-rate. Marty O'Donnell and his staff have done a masterful job of not succumbing to Hollywood interests and ruining the game. Instead, the heavenly choirs, the on-the-fly changing songs, and the great pacing and feel of Halo, just like the rest of Halo 2, have evolved into something better. They remain pure and true to the game's origins.
The intense mix of war drums and military taps ebb and flow depending on the amount of enemies on screen and your location on the map. Smartly, there are always silent periods providing that much needed white space. Later on in the game, Steve Vai's guitar playing is perfectly handled. His vibrant intense style of electric guitar is weaved into the game with enough subtlety that you won't notice its presence until well after he starts. The gothic-influenced choir has returned, with local talent hand-picked by O'Donnell and his wife Marci, who masterfully conducted the orchestra. The voice-acting is well done and exuberantly performed in every area.
If you haven't already hooked your Xbox to a good stereo system, now is the time. Halo 2 takes advantage of the system's Dolby 5.1 support and hammers it home. The clarity of the sound effects is one thing, but the separation is distinct sounds is impressive. You'll hear bullets whiz by our head, bombs exploding on all sides, and the enormous sonic boom of Covenant ships on the horizon is so unnerving, the result is a mixture of fright and exhilaration.
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