To satisfy the legion of Halo fan boys filling forum upon forum across the Internet, let it be said that Halo 2, the sequel to the single most influential Xbox title ever, delivers a singularly magnificent multiplayer experience. Indeed, the rich, beautifully executed online and coop play is almost enough to make you overlook just how weak the single-player campaign really is.
How weak is the single-player campaign? Well, that depends on what you look for in a first-person shooter. Playing through the storyline is a throwaway 10-12 hours for a seasoned player. However, at least this length can be extended slightly by upping the difficulty to Hard or the even more insane Legendary mode. Players not as comfortable running around in shooters would be advised to certainly run around in Normal mode until familiarized with Halo’s much touted control scheme.
It’s a control scheme that simply works even on the Xbox’s mammoth controllers. Simple button schemes combine with fluid camera movement and floaty jumping to make maneuvering in Halo 2 simple, even for easily confused FPS players. The entire game mechanic seems streamlined to enhance the on-screen action. Weapons you can carry are still kept to a minimum to enhance some sense of realism and, more importantly, to eliminate long and frustrating menu hunts to find the specific weapon you are looking for.
It’s not just the attacks that are simplified to keep the action flowing either. Halo 2 has completely eliminated the health bar first used in its predecessor. While initially jarring to those raised on Doom and its descendants; not having to run around hunting for medpacks is a treat. Health is basically gauged via the energy shield system introduced in Halo. Your shields take a certain number of hits and recharge as you run around not taking damage. If your shields happen to become depleted you are forced to take cover as you can only survive a small amount of damage. The shields finally reward tactical play directly, by allowing players to use cover and terrain to their advantage to maintain health – instead of having to scuttle away from a good fight, tail between legs, just to find mysteriously left behind medicine.
Halo 2 offers up a few more noticeable tweaks in gameplay from its predecessor as well. The most touted of which is the ability to now dual wield smaller weapons. The most surprising result of this is a sudden rush of many players to grab the once useless Needler. Two of those little shredders become devastating in the seconds before you seem to run out of ammo. Dual wield levels the playing field for players who enjoy lighter weapons, while the addition of such monster cannons as the Brute Shot reward the heavy weapon specialist. Last but not least, the Covenant Plasma Sword is at long last available for both human and Covenant troops. Its melee swath of death is immensely satisfying in corridors.
Lastly, vehicular combat has been given a whole new dimension by the ability to carjack in a sense almost any vehicle on the field. Ghosts, Banshees, Warthogs and even Wraith tanks can be boarded and commandeered. While this can be fun in the campaign mode, it truly shines in multiplayer when you can steal your friend’s ride and then run him over with it. It almost conjures up shades of Grand Theft Auto, does it not?
All right, it has been established that Halo 2 continues the series’ grand tradition of fun play control. Where it truly outstrips all others is in the variety and care the multiplayer campaign has received during development. The bones of the multiplayer experience are solid. The action gameplay keeps online matches fresh and fast paced. All of the multiplayer maps are built with a consideration for variety and different modes of tactics. There are vehicle favoring fields and down and dirty corridor levels. There are even asymmetrical fortress type levels that are simply perfect for plotting large tactical sieges.
Furthermore, Bungie has invested a great deal of time and effort into improving the mechanics of online play – allowing single players, and even whole clans, to compete and link into matches easily. Like Dead or Alive: Ultimate, complex ranking systems are tracked so you can always gauge opponents’ skills before a match and only fight those worthy of your time. Lastly, you can now customize your character’s appearance to make it far easier to spot friend from foe on a crowded battlefield.
With a variety of different multiplayer modes – some familiar, some new – it is always a new experience jumping into group play. Slayer (aka Deathmatch), Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, and a host of other modes can be customized infinitely to provide a new experience time and time again. There is certainly enough content here to keep Halo 2 thriving on the Xbox Live servers until the inevitable Halo 3
One notable omission in the multiplayer experience is a flaw that troubled the first Halo, which is its distinct lack of bots. It is a shame considering that Halo is a rare first-person shooter that exhibits an intuitive and responsive AI in all of its enemies. As a player you are still forced to deal with pesky human adversaries in multiplayer, whether it is over a LAN, splitscreen at home, or via Xbox Live.
It is well known that Halo is famous for clean and fun play control, but how does the rest of the game measure? The brevity of the single-player experience has already been mentioned, but how does the quality of those few campaign hours rate? Alas, weak storyline rears its ugly head in Halo 2. The plot begins with a bang, and an absolutely first-rate cut scene that humanizes (ironically) the Covenant and sets up the crux of the story – aka the dichotomy between the valiant humans and the misguided aliens. Alas, such brilliant storytelling is about as short lived as a Carmen Electra marriage. All of the characters are rapidly drained of any individualism and reduced to placeholders simply there to advance from level to level and make witty comments along the way. Even the main Covenant ‘hero’ is subjugated into becoming the Arbiter, a nameless hero determined to fight every suicidal mission his prophets can throw at him. Between Master Chief and the Arbiter it’s up to the computer, Cortana, to provide the story’s most human commentary.
All right, perhaps it isn’t fair to penalize what is fundamentally an action title for being a little light on storyline; but it is clear that Bungie wanted Halo 2 to be something more than just an online shoot ’em up. The stodgy story is further crippled by poor level design in the campaign mode, which is rarely more than running from point A to point B while shooting everything that moves – human or Covenant. Then, just when you can’t decide if you are supposed to sympathize with the humans or the Covenant, everyone’s favorite parasites from the first Halo, the Flood, are dropped in to kill everybody. At this point the game devolves further into something rather like Doom: full of gross little slug aliens and bulbous zombies. If you hated the Flood in the first Halo then be prepared for abject agony again, and make sure to keep your shotgun handy.
To add further insult to injury, the storyline devolves yet further into a blatant rip off of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, complete with a moan inspiring ending that will be talked about for years to come for its sheer disappointment. It might as well read: “But the princess is in another castle.” Cliff hangers have their place, but they should at least provide some sort of resolution in the short term.
At least Halo 2 has offered some improvements in the single-player campaign over the first Halo (not that it would be a particularly difficult feat). Graphically speaking the game has progressed considerably, but it still lacks the beautiful art direction of some other Xbox ‘eye candy’ titles. The animations are fluid, particularly on the Covenant soldiers and vehicles, and a great deal of attention was focused on making Master Chief look as good as possible considering his rather simplistic design.
The environments are far more varied than the original Halo, with greater vistas, superior lighting, and more cohesive architecture. The simplicity of the overall designs works wonderfully during battles as it isn’t particularly distracting, but unfortunately this same simplicity makes the game’s rendered cutscenes often appear unfinished and empty.
In contrast to the only slightly above average graphics, the audio in Halo 2 is truly the stuff of legends. Never before has score, sound effects, and sound editing been mixed with such beauty and aplomb. The newly implemented positional sound effects add a whole new dimension to the audio experience. At long last you can use aural clues to determine enemy positions, although this is most effective when using surround sound speakers.
In addition to the lively and appropriate sound effects, the score of Halo 2 truly is its own character in the story. While the game characters may be flat, the music soars in an eclectic blend of both orchestral and techno styles. It does the rare job of capturing a mood of excitement and action without being jarring and obtrusive.
Finally, the voice acting in Halo 2 is abundant and, for the most part, superb. Keith David and Michael Wincott, in particular, give the Covenant slightly more depth than their human counterparts. The only complaint one can really make about the voice acting is that the Covenant appear to have adopted English as a second language. It’s especially jarring hearing the little alien guys chirping witty catchphrases early on in the game. But while the little fellas always used to offer ‘funny’ one-liners in the original game, the larger Covenant brutes were somewhat more mysterious and overtly alien with their distinct lack of English dialogue.
All in all, Halo 2 is a fun, fast paced shooter with lots of multiplayer action. It is not, however, the be all and end all of gaming that the hype machine has unfailingly claimed. Honestly, if you’re not an Xbox Live subscriber, or don’t have a few consoles to link up with your friends, then Halo 2 really isn’t much more than a rental option. Perhaps if more devotion had been poured into the story campaign as was obviously dumped into the multiplayer; then, and only then, would we truly have the game of ages.