XBOX REVIEW: HALO 2

The Xbox community has endured lengthy delays waiting for the most anticipated game of 2004 and all of them want to know if it was worth the wait. Receiving the actual, final build of this game for review was as terrifying a prospect as I had ever encountered during my years as a game journalist. The worst fear being "What if I just didn't like it?"

A game that is surrounded by incredible amounts of buzz, hype and anticipation by journalists, fanboys and casual gamers alike, isn't an easy thing to critique. If you're too hard on it, your fellow journalists will brand you a moron and work will cease to come your way. If you're too easy on it, others will call you a lightweight fanboy with no critical barometer and if you decide the game is so-so, both sides will think you're a complete dumbass. So what is a game journalist to do when faced with reviewing a game that could literally change your employment status? You just dive in and let your raw instincts and emotions kick in, as if you had never heard of Halo before. While that sounds great in theory, let me tell you that it doesn't really work all that well.

I'm what you might call a Halo fanboy because I kind of, sort of, read the Halo novel that filled in the holes of the first game and actually bridges a gap between the first Halo and Halo 2. It's not a prerequisite but it's nice to see Bungie's commitment to creating a living breathing Halo universe, not unlike George Lucas' Star Wars.

Single Player Campaign

With my love of Halo out in the open, inserting the Halo 2 disc into the Xbox was like a religious experience quite truthfully. Like many of you I was dying to get into the multiplayer experience but I was told that the single player campaign was my first stop on the map. Since I have been a regular on Gamespy's Halo multiplayer arenas since the inception of that genius inspired little exploit, I figured I could wait a couple more days before I took the game online. Little did I know then, that a dozen hours later I'd be finished the Halo 2 campaign mode on Normal.

A lot has been written about the multiplayer aspects of Halo 2, but the single player campaign was virgin territory, hence my excitement to sink my teeth in. Everything you loved about the Halo can be found within the walls of the second game and that also goes for everything you didn't care for. The worst moments in the original Halo involved wandering through identical areas, completely lost and wondering how the heck to advance. Halo 2 continues the tradition set forth in the first game which consisted of explore the area, battle a wave of enemies, explore, get lost, battle a wave of enemies, repeat. In my heart of hearts I found that to be disappointing as I was hoping for a little more creativity, and I level this criticism mostly at the interior settings of Halo 2. They are even more confusing than in the original. The game itself throws enough surprises at the player to make up for it, including some strange plot twists that reminded me of Hideo Kojima's decision to introduce Raiden as a playable character in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty, therefore relegating Snake to a secondary role. As some of you may remember, that wasn't the most popular move in gaming history. Don't take this as doom and gloom; some of you may love what's coming. Personally I felt that Bungie did a masterful job at the pacing and plot of Halo 2. It is the perfect mix of story and action, without getting heavy handed or too complicated (but you will have to pay attention). It is because of this incredible sense of pacing and evolution of the story that I found the ending right out of left field. Don't get me wrong, I understand the need to set up the next chapter, just don't do it at the expense of your fan base. Note to those pissed at me now: I didn't like the cliffhanger ending in The Empire Strikes Back either.

Weapons & Vehicles

In terms of gameplay advances, dual wielding weapons seems to the be biggest improvement to have an adverse effect on the action. Often times playing with two entirely different weapons will yield much more devastating results than you'd think and experimentation is key. One slight drawback to dual wielding is the inability to lob plasma grenades or other projectiles while doing so. Changing the tides to your favor with a well timed grenade toss can sometimes be the equation between failiure and success and I found myself missing this feature more than I liked the dual weapon feature. But to each their own.

Forget everything you thought you knew about the original weapons as well. Some have changed for the better, some have been removed and some take on a new life when combined with another weapon during dual wielding. A cool new trick is the ability to take someone elses weapon during the game which often results in a funny exchange between the Master Chief and the team member who had no choice but to give up his boomstick. One of the most devastating weapons in Halo 2 just happens to be the plasma sword, which functions differently when compared to online and offline play. During the single player campaign its great for slightly longer than melee distance attacks, but functions much the same as the other covenant weapons in that it can run out of energy. Take that weapon online and you'll notice it just doesn't drain. I assume that is due to the fact that any one crazy enough to bring a sword to a gunfight deserves to have unlimited energy. Good luck taking it into cyberspace. You'll definitely need it.

Melee attacks are back and some diehard Halo players will notice some animations have changed, and it's not the end of the world, but why fix what wasn't broken Bungie? Anyway a well placed smash to the face with the butt of a rifle can't be beat. Saves ammo and gets the job done 98% of the time.

Another visual advance that might have some gamers questioning, is the absence of a health bar. Bungie decided that it was no longer needed and they were right; the game provides more than enough visual heads up to let you know when you're being hit, recharging your shields or making contact with the enemy. I thought I would miss this feature to be honest, but after an hour it was like I had broken up with it and gave it the old "it's not you, it's me" routine and happily moved on with my life.

Vehicles....ah the vehicles. There is nothing more satisfying than kicking some covenant jerkwad out of his Ghost while he's cruising by and taking over the controls. That has been one of the most talked about features since it was made known and it really makes Halo 2 that much more interesting. The controls of the vehicles have been tweaked to perfection with some receiving boosts that make all the difference, both in single and online player.

Co-Op

Co-op play has returned to the party in Halo 2 and I along with my colleagues were very dismayed to discover that co-op mode is not available online nor with system link, but only via split screen. Split screen just doesn't cut it for a game of this stature and I find it a terrible oversight that it's the only option available to those who want to play the campaign mode with a friend. I did play co-op mode with the guys here and it was fun, but only because we were playing on a very large TV in the lounge area. If I had to suffer through this on anything under 36" I wouldn't even show up to play. I know some of you don't care about split screen and I will say that Legendary Halo 2 in co-op mode is as addictive as anything could possibly be. It does help to know the level maps and play with a friend who is equally as bas ass as you are, but that's like preaching to the converted. Had co-op mode been available online or via system link, my score of this game would have been over 5.0.

Campaign Round Up

Now that I've looked at all of the peices of the campaign mode, let me put it all together for you. Halo 2 is an epic on par with The Lord of the Rings in terms of sheer scope. The locales you will visit, the numerous ways in which you can turn the tide in your favor and the enhanced intelligence of your teammates and enemies will captivate you for weeks. Although the campaign is short, each level is brimming with enough imagination and open ended playability to ensure that you'll visit your favorite levels often. When you do return you'll be surprised to find that the enemy decided to adlib the script. No longer can you count on the same ambushes, attacks and enemy placement, which earns Halo 2 a 10 out of a possible 5 in terms of replay value.

Xbox Live

Of course the online mode is nothing to sneeze at and is what people will be playing long after they finish Campaign mode. 16 players can go at it in any number of modes online and you'll quickly discover that some maps are geared for larger groups and some for small groups. The functionality of Halo 2 online is unequaled and there is something here for everyone. Before you even step into a Live arena, the amount of configuration options, both cosmetic and mechanic are almost overwhelming. You'll spend quite awhile simply selecting what you would like your character to look like, even though you'll never see him. From there you can start or join a Halo 2 clan and Bungie has pulled out ALL of the stops in terms of sheer options and control.

Games online are separated into two categoies: Ranked and Unranked. This is a godsend to anyone who has ever played online before. It simply means that if you are new to the Halo 2 experience or online FPS in general, you won't have to suffer constant defeat and humiliation at the hands of Halo 2 beta testers who live sheltered lives and want to kill you, to make themselves appear more powerful. As well, Halo vets will love playing with those of equal ability and will not have to listen to questions from the peanut gallery like "What's a halo?" and "What does FPS stand for?". Thank you Bungie!

The sheer number of contests available online will satisfy any purveyor of Xbox Live. I've always been a CTF man, and I will most likely remain a CTF man. Playing CTF on Zanzibar is a great way to spend the rest of my life. In the space of this review I can't name all of the game modes, but you'll find many of the usual suspects such as King of the Hill, CTF and also some interesting new games.

I never noticed any bad lag during my time online so far, nor have I experienced any framerate drops worth mentioning. Uncharacteristically my DSL provider has been more than fulfilling its promise of decent service lately and that might account for spotless online experience lately.

Visuals & Sound

It's been three long years since Halo: Combat Evolved arrived on store shelves along side the Xbox system. In that time it has been no secret that the system has serious muscle when you compare it to other consoles and even other PC games. Recent surprises such as Chronicles of Riddick and the upcoming Doom 3 for the Xbox have managed to further distance itself from the PS2 in terms of graphic prowess and Halo 2 draws another line in the sand. Halo 2 could not appear on the PS2 without some serious visual impairments and framerate handicaps. Gamers will notice that while the environments are lush and beautifully detailed, nothing really jumps out in Halo 2 as being completely awe inspiring, aside from some large scale...oh that would be telling. Having said that, Halo 2 IS a gorgeous looking game which when taken altogether makes a fantastic work of art. Each level on it's own is visually appealing especially in terms of scope; these levels are not only large but chockfilled with details that dwarf the original in so many ways. As I mentioned earlier, the indoor levels are the most frustrating due to the repetition of textures and symmetry. You'll be wandering aimlessly through these areas hoping for a clue as how to move on. The lighting, reflective and particle effects are astounding however and coupled with the fantastic sound effects, war has never sounded so good in Dolby 5.1. If you don't have your Xbox going through your stereo (not to mention hooked up via progressive scan HDTV) then you're missing out on an even better visceral gaming experience. Halo 2's visuals and sounds will put your lucid dreams to shame.

The soundtrack alone is pure orhcestral epic, providing a backdrop of music that harnesses the energy of the events and battles while the voicework is dramatic without being cheesy or puffed up. Halo 2 is much too classy a production to feature the latest in indi-techno crapola or aging metal stars, even though I'm sure somewhere along the way some corporate suit suggested that Rob Zombie, Snoop Dogg, Hillary Duff or all three would be perfect to perform the Halo 2 theme song. Some things in life are just better left alone as I'm sure you'll agree when the **** hits the fan in Halo 2.

Closing Arguments

The FPS console shooter was once thought technically impossible due to the control method. Rare's GoldenEye changed perceptions in 1997 and advances have been made since then in furthering the genre on the home consoles. Games like Red Faction, Time Splitters, Rainbow Six and the original Halo have proven that it is not only possible to create a compelling FPS for the home (and online console) market, but that in many ways these pioneers can revolutize what is taking place on the PC. Halo 2 continues that process with it's tight control, excellent plot and fantastic compelling action sequences. There is a lot to be gained from reverse engineering the Halo 2 development process that future games would benefit from. As well there are mistakes to be learned from as well, although they in no way impede the playability of this stellar title. Xbox owners have waited a long time to play Halo 2 and it's extremely doubtful many will find that it wasn't worth every painstaking moment that they couldn't play it. It's a fantastic effort that will far outshine other sequels appearing in 2004 whose developers perhaps haven't learned the same lessons Bungie has.

Preview by Vaughn

Imagine a world where your enemies actively seek out weaknesses in the architecture and exploit them, knocking down pillars, blowing out windows, knocking down doors in a decidely offensive fashion. Unfortunately for you, they aren't trying to hide; they're trying to get closer to you. Welcome to the world of Halo 2 which Bungie promises will be more interactive, more visually impacting and a helluva lot more violent.

Bungie has been keeping the plot of Halo 2 a closely guarded secret and being fans, we wouldn't have it any other way. We can tell you that the sequel will take place on Earth and if you thought Master Chief had his work cut out for himself last time, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Some of the single player enhancements include the ability to "board" slow moving or stopped vehicles such as Ghosts, Warthogs etc. A message will appear on your HUD (heads up display) when the opportunity arises. Simply hold down the X button and if you time it just right, you'll see MC jump onboard and remove the driver from his position in a very cool and violent fashion. Along with the aforementioned destructable environments, Halo 2 also features incredible dynamic lighting which will enable MC (and enemies) to shoot out lights therefore adding an element of stealth that wasn't possible in the first game.

Another wonderful addition to the gameplay is the ability to dual wield weapons. Now MC can take the fight into John Woo territory and sport two killing machines on his arms. The new weapons we can tell you about include the Battle Rifle, which is an evolved version of the original assault rifle and features increased accuracy, a scope, and a slower rate of fire. The SMG (Sub Machine Gun) is a rapid-fire gun that trades a high volume of bullets for decreased accuracy. This time around players will even be able to use Covenant weapons (commence drooling). This includes the Covenant Carbine - an energy based sniper weapon and the almightly Covenant energy sword. Other weapons are promised but Bungie is very hush hush about them.

Since the fight is coming to Earth, it wouldn't be polite to invite the Covenant race and ignore other hostile life forms, so Bungie has introduced some new competition, namely The Brute (half gorilla, half rhino and all pissed off) and The Prophets whom Bungie desribes as "giant space Popes" who provide the political, religious and spiritual leadership in the Covenant. Not sure what that means in terms of gameplay, but with the Covenant's higher powers on the premises, we're guessing that their inspiration and dedication to slaughter everyone on Earth will be quite high.

While most normal people have never played the original Halo online - something it wasn't intended to do, but possible with GamesSpy Arcade (and quite fun too!) - those who bring Halo 2 home won't have to worry about going to such lengths as Halo 2 will support Xbox Live. Expectations for the multiplayer gameplay is indeed, high and from what we've heard, gamers won't be disappointed, even those who just want to play the game via a LAN or split screen.

  • Each player can use an individual box in LAN games (up to 16 boxes)
  • Players can join a game in progress
  • If the game host leaves, the game will migrate to another host and keep on going!
  • The host of a game can lock it, preventing anyone else from joining
  • You can play as Spartans or Elites in multiplayer
  • Player models can be customized with color schemes and emblems
  • The handheld rocket launcher includes a target tracking feature - when zoomed in an enemy vehicle, the reticule turns red and the rocket will home in on the target.
  • The needler has received a fire-power upgrade from Halo 1 (it no longer just leaves a nasty skin rash)
  • You can dual wield single-handed weapons
  • The Covenant Energy Sword can be wielded by players!
  • The Warthog and Ghost can both be boarded and are both fully destructible
  • The Warthog in this case was equipped with a rocket launcher and also comes equipped with a horn (R trigger) as well as an e-brake (L trigger).
  • The Ghost is equipped with a boost feature (L trigger) to zoom away at 2x the normal speed (but you can't shoot or steer as well)
  • New map = Zanzibar
  • Destructible fusion cores litter the map and will explode when shot (and kill nearby players)
  • The defensive team has two stationary turrets at their disposal - but both can be blown up with a well placed shot(s)
  • You have to hold down X to pick up the flag
  • The map has tons of interactive and destructible objects: breakable windows, opening gates, lowering bridges, destructible columns and more..

Bungie and Microsoft are hedging their bets on this one. Halo is still the best selling Xbox game to date and continues to appear on best selling lists almost 3 years since it was released. Needless to say the expectations for Halo 2 are quite high on both sides of the fence. Microsoft has officially announced Halo 2 LE (Limited Edition) which will be released at the same time and retail at apprx. $54.95. Halo 2 LE will consist of:

  • Collectors tin
  • The entire Halo 2 game and a second DVD with bonus content:
  • The Making of Halo 2: Behind the scenes of Bungie Studios
  • Featurettes on game design, animation, music and more
  • Deleted cinematics and characters
  • Art gallery, from concept to game
  • Commentaries from the development team, and much more

New details are beginning to surface faster as the November 9th release date approaches. Stay tuned for more info and for now, take a look at the absolutely HUGE screens.

Halo 2 Preview

One of the most anticipated previews of E3 is the sequel to Halo, imaginatley titled, Halo 2. The demo we saw shows a powerful battle taking place between the marines and the Covenant alien forces. The game is loaded with action and amazing graphics. Fans of Halo have every right to be excited as long as the quality of what we've seen here is maintained.

Taking place in the burnout shell of Mombasa, the environment is gritty, dirty and hellish. The city has taken its fair share of damage and offers an environment that offers protection in the ruins but may be harboring enemies around every corner. Unlike some games that reuse the same backgrounds everything seen here appears random with a variety of architecture.

Huge guns, explosives, metal suits and futuristic military vehicles comprise Halo 2. Expect some new guns, weapons, suits and vehicles this time around.

Click For Media
System: XBOX
Dev: Bungie
Pub: Microsoft
Released: Nov 2004
Players: 1 - 16
Review by StewXX
RATING (OUT OF 5)
OVERALL
4.5
GRAPHICS
4.5
CONTROL
5.0
MUSIC/FX
5.0
VALUE
5.0
XBOX LIVE
5.0