System: Microsoft Xbox
Players: 1-16 (Via X-Box Live & LAN Party)
When the X-Box first launched, there was really just one game that was considered must have. Sure you had your niche games that satisfied fans of whatever genres you wanted, but only one game on launch day could be considered truly awesome. That game was Halo, and it remained the only real reason to own an X-Box for quite a while. Eventually, with the help of their online service X-Box Live, and a few key game releases, the system grew in stature. Yet still in many peoples minds the best game on the system was Halo, just like Goldeneye on the N64 before it. When Halo 2 was announced much blood rushed and many palms did get sweaty. Message Boards exploded with anticipation. The hype for this game has been staggering, rivaled only by Half-Life 2 in terms of the amount of people expecting it to be the best ever.
So now the hour of our anticipation arrives, Halo 2 has been released and has already made Microsoft $125,000,000. So was the hype justified? Is this the be all and end all? Let me preface this review by stating there will be some spoilage. Now then, enough small talk, lets get down to business.
We start off the review with the first spoiler. Halo 2 isn’t the story of Master Chief. Bungie have gone and made the game the story of both Master Chief and the leader of the Covenant military forces on the first Halo, who becomes known as the Arbiter. So you will go through Halo 2 playing as both characters, first as MC (Master Chief), then as Arbiter, being switched off when it was time to move the story forward. The only real difference between them is Chief has a flashlight and Cortana in his ear, while Arbiter can cloak for short periods of time.
As for the story, it starts off shortly after Chiefy gets home from Halo, and goes on ti show you for the first time both sides of the story, as Arbiter is proclaimed a Heretic for allowing the first Halo to be destroyed. He is stripped of his rank, tortured and condemned to die. He is eventually spared his death sentence and is instead given a suicide mission as the “Arbiter” to stop other heretics from diverting true believers from the path of the righteous. Eventually a portion of the Covenant fleet mistakenly attacks Earth, not realizing it is humanity’s home planet, and MC is off to stomp more Covenant. I don’t think I’m spoiling the story here by saying eventually another Halo is found.
I actually found the Covenant side of the story to be more interesting myself. The Arbiters actions, as well as those of a few other power hungry leaders, lead to some very dramatic storylines. The human story just seems to be there, as they rely more on the feelings created in the first game to make you care about the characters. Especially troubling is Cortana, who now talks and poses like she’s your girlfriend instead of an Artificial Intelligence. Maybe having an AI inside your head isn’t such a good idea after all.
How do you go about describing the best looking game on the system without making you think its going to blow your socks off? That’s the problem I face with Halo 2. The game IS the best looking thing to hit the X-Box, but the graphics won’t give you a heart attack when you see them. This is partly because the graphics are so similar to the first Halo, yet still look better than before. There are levels in Halo 2 that made me stop what I was doing and look around, only to be killed shortly after. The glow of computer monitors, the shine on the armor of various Elites. The scope of your sniper rifle actually showing a small image when you aren’t looking through it. All of this and more easily makes Halo 2 the best looking game on the system, but because so much of it looks so similar to the first Halo, you might be disappointed that it doesn’t grab you by the throat.
This game sounds really good. So good in fact you probably don’t have a stereo good enough to listen to it. The quality of voice acting has continued to rise in the past couple of years, so the time is probably going to come when voice acting will only be mentioned when there is a poor job done. Halo 2 is another example of this. The voice cast is superb, and while it’s never really mentioned how the Humans and Covenant can understand each other where in Halo they couldn’t, when they speak they sound right. Lines are delivered fluidly, without any of the usual pause that some games have where the script turns a page, and each of the voice actors cast fits the characters. Except perhaps the Flood Overmind, but who knows how a talking plant is supposed to sound (Except for Levi Stubbs perhaps)?
The excellent sound track to Halo has returned for Halo 2, with the theme being reworked a little to sound even better than before, amazingly. Starting a mission while listening to that gets the blood going. Master Chief tends to get the older Halo music, remixed at times but recognizable. Arbiter’s music is more understated. It’s there, and it is noticeable when you are looking for it, but it gets drowned out during battle most of the time, only really making it’s presence felt when a battle is coming to a crescendo. Both the Chief music and the Arbiter music are enjoyable, though Arbiters feels a little sad, almost as though the music is conveying how he feels.
Sound effects are fantastic here. Sub Machine Guns rip into the air like buzz saws, especially when there are lots of them firing at once. The surround sound experience in some of the battles is very intense, as there are some battlefields where you will be completely surrounded by the enemy and fire will be coming at you from all angles. This game is a reason to own a surround sound stereo on its own.
Not a lot has changed since Halo in the Control department. You still run around using the same joystick configuration, the L trigger still throws grenades, unless you have a second weapon in your hand, then it fires that instead. The ability to wield a second weapon is the biggest change for the controls, really. You run over a small enough weapon, hold down Y to pick it up with your left hand, and presto you’re now twice as deadly. You cannot target two separate targets, but you can kill twice as fast.
There are some minor changes to the Covenant vehicles. They all still move the same way, but someone at Bungie clearly played Crimson Skies and figured all the neat tricks you could do would be a nifty addition to the Banshee. So don’t be surprised if you find a Banshee in Crimson Skies 2 some day. Second, all of the Covenant vehicles now have an afterburner function. You hold press the L button and your vehicle shoots forward a little. Nothing too dramatic, but useful when you want to ram something in a tank, or to get yourself up a hill. The single player mode vehicles are also slightly different from multiplayer. The Banshee, for example, has a bomb you can drop in the single player campaign, and that isn’t available (at least not that I found anyway) in the multiplayer.
All of the vehicles, like the Puma…I mean Warthog, now take visible damage, so you can tell when its time to abandon ship. Also, as a nice addition, you can now carjack enemy vehicles. It isn’t the easiest thing to do, so don’t go thinking Halo has gone GTA. It goes against every instinct I might have in combat to stand still and hold X while near a vehicle that wants to kill you, then melee attack the entrance until it opens and finally dropping a grenade in to clear your passage. Finally you get off the vehicle and hold X again to enter the presumably gooey interior.
I have for the most part discussed the single player campaign in the review so far. Now its time to switch over to the multiplayer. The first Halo was at one time supposed to be Live enabled, but Live wasn’t ready on time so that got delayed and the game shipped without it. The rest of the multiplayer features in Halo made it the classic it has become, but there were still people who wanted to play it online. After all, 4 players on a split screen can be pretty crummy if you don’t have a 50 inch TV. And while lugging 3 X-Boxes and 12 friends to a conveniently vacant house for an evening or a weekend may sound fantastic, it is very often unachievable due to technicality’s like wives not wanting 16 men lounging around her house. Never mind the question of what videogame geek even KNOWs 15 people at any given time. So the addition of online play to Halo 2 was not only expected, it was all but demanded by the public. And Bungie, being the nice amiable people that they are, agreed.
At any given time, there are roughly 35,000 people playing Half-Life or Half-Life based Modifications, making it the most popular game to play online. Or at least it used to be. That crown now belongs to Halo 2, where even at 6 in the morning you can find 16,000 people playing this game on X-Box Live. As I write this Bungie’s stats page shows there have been just under 350,000 unique players on their servers in the past 24 hours. While that is fantastic in many ways, it’s also the cause of my number one complaint about Halo 2 online. As you no doubt have heard by now, Halo 2 doesn’t use a standard server browser to let you find games to play in. Instead, you select the kind of game you’d like to join and Halo 2 goes out and finds a game that has the gametype you want PLUS players who are of roughly equivalent skill to your own, which Bungie measures and assigns using math that makes nuclear physicists shudder. The fact that so many people are playing should make it easy to find a game, but its bogging down Bungie’s servers so much that it can take as much as 5 minutes to find a game. Bungie has recently released a patch that is to relieve the waiting time, but we at Inside Pulse review games as released, so what they released is what you see reviewed here. While Bungie could have been lazy and released a game with a server browser that lets level 50 players go nuts on little level 4 players, they chose to instead make you play against people your own size. And it works. Every game I played online in Live was competitive. It may not have been me being competitive that particular game, but the games were always close until the end. So yes, I can forgive Bungie for going that route with their game browser.
What I can’t forgive, due to it’s blatant oversight, is the lack of a rematch feature in Live. You can form a party and get rematches that way, but who has time to add 7 people to your friends list for a rematch? Or better yet, 15 other players for a team match? All it would have taken is a button that says rematch yes or no. It would also have cut down on the amount of complaining about the 2 to 5 minute waiting periods to get into games. I’m hoping this gets patched at some point also, but for now I’ll have to live with it.
I’m going to live with the lack of rematch options because the game is fantastic, to put it bluntly. While at times the game just feels like any other online FPS, the level design, game type design and the customization that is allowed for game types makes this a paradise for those who get bored easily. That’s a good thing, because the game shipped with a limited number of multiplayer maps. More will probably be coming via X-Box Live Downloadable Content, but for now you best get used to the maps on the disk.
I found when I first started playing online that it was difficult to tell who was friend and who was foe in the team battles. Various icons over players heads were difficult to understand. And the Red and Blue battle armor isn’t always easy to differentiate on some of the maps, at least not right away. Eventually I did come to get the hang of things, and my opinion of the game improved as I did so. The more I understood the game types the more I wanted to play them.
The single player campaign is not the hardest game in the world while playing on normal, but once you increase the difficulty to Heroic things become much more interesting. Enemys all at once become even more deadly then before, making the experience more enjoyable yet also more frustrating. Story elements change a little bit as you play the game on harder levels, cut scenes are voiced a little differently. Little things like that are what make a person curious enough to play the game again if the game is good enough. This one is.
Replay Ability: 8/10
If you own an X-Box this is quite simply must have material. If you don’t have one and have been waiting for an excuse to try out the system and X-Box Live, this here is your reason. You will not find a better reason to try this system out, if only for its Live abilitys. Sitting on your couch blasting people half a continent away with little or no lag while listening to trash talking in your headset is just too fun to describe in words. It has to be experienced. Quite simply this game is a system seller.
Nothing in this game could be considered original, really. Instead this is just a blending of the best parts of many other original games. Online connectivity, voice chat, blasting aliens, giving you another character to control, etc. It’s all been done before. None of it has ever been brought together in one complete package quite so well though. There are flaws in Halo 2’s armor, and the lack of true originality one of them.
The single player campaign ends quite abruptly, very much like Legacy of Kain did at one time. It might just end too soon because it’s so good that I wanted more, but no, the real reason I think the end comes too soon is because the end does come too soon. I’m not going to say what happens, but don’t be surprised when you see the credits role. It feels very much like at some point Bungie said “Ok we’ve got a deadline of November 9, we have to ship then, where can we end this story and get away with it, then finish it in Halo 3”
The real addictive quality found in this game, the reason this game should be studied by the cigarette industry if they want to increase the potency of their product, is it’s online component. Quite simply, when you are in the game it’s impossible to tear yourself away. You may get frustrated at the minute waiting to get into games, but thats just proving my point. If you weren’t all that bothered by the waiting then the game probably wouldn’t last that long in your X-Box. It would be out the door and in some used bargain bin by now. Much of the gameplay is similar to that found in the first Halo, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the game is addictive.
There are some issues I have with this game, they just feel very minor when compared to the rest of the game. For instance the Plasma Sword is far too over powered to be in multiplayer matches as it is. The waiting for online matches and the lack of a usable rematch function makes for an irritation that is badly in need of some soothing lotion, in the form of a patch.
There are times during the single player campaign where I had no idea where I was supposed to be heading. What happened to those useful waypoint markers from the first Halo? And while I enjoyed playing as the Arbiter, I bought the game to play as Master Chief. I think they should have been upfront about the character switch, just like I think Konami should have been with their sequel to a megahit.
Replay Ability: 8/10
Short Attention Span Summary
While we may have to wait for Halo 3 before the story is truly completed, and the promised battle for Earth is really and truly engaged, we can take solace in the fact that what Bungie has delivered is a fantastic multplayer experience wrapped around a great single player mode whose only fault is that it ends far too soon.