Review by The Vic Viper

"An impressive game that is an improvement over its predecessor."

Halo 2 is a significant improvement over the original game in pretty much every way. Most of the flaws in Combat Evolved have been fixed (or at least significantly improved upon), the story has more depth, the levels are more interesting, and there are more enemies and weapons. It isn't radically different than the first, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's still a run-and-gun shooter that has you fighting your way through hordes of aliens in order to get from the beginning of the level to the end.

The biggest improvement Halo 2 has over the first is online multiplayer (via Xbox Live!, of course). There are two different "modes" for online play – matchmaking and custom. With matchmaker, you get thrown into a computer-selected map with any number of players and a random gametype. Who you play against depends on your skill level (which is determined by how you do in matchmaker games). Sounds great, and it's pretty good if you don't care what kind of game you play. However, you can't say "okay, I want to play a standard deathmatch game using the Zanzibar map" and have the system create a game for you with those conditions. It's either everything is random or everything is set using a custom game. Custom games are great, except that you have to find your own opponents and it doesn't count towards your rankings. Kind of annoying, but if you don't really care about your stat sheet, then custom games will probably be your preference.

There have been a few gameplay improvements over the original game, such as the ability to hold (and fire) two weapons at once, doubling your killing power. You can only dual-wield the smaller weapons such as the pistol and machine gun, while the heavier weapons, like the shotgun and rocket launcher, have to be used with two hands (just ignore the fact that the Master Chief can flip over a 50 ton tank with one hand that this will seem like a reasonable limitation). The pistol has been crippled, and now works as a weak weapon-of-last-resort instead of a sniper rifle with tons of ammo like it did in the first game. There are several new weapons including a battle rifle, alien sniper rifle, beam weapons, and you can now use the energy swords and fuel-rod canons (which appeared in the first game, but you couldn't use them).

The weapons are pretty well balanced, so you won't find yourself picking one weapon and ignoring all of the other ones. Some weapons are more effective against the Flood, while others are effective against Covenant with energy shields, and so forth. Pretty much all weapons can kill all enemies, so there is a certain degree of flexibility for personal preference as well. Most human weapons have a Covenant equivalent that is slightly different; for example, the human rocket launcher is much more powerful and can lock onto certain targets, while the alien equivalent is weaker, but faster and holds more ammo.

All of the vehicles from Halo: Combat Evolved return, with a couple of newcomers as well. There's quite an assortment to choose from, including tanks, fliers, troop carriers, and more. You will be using them a lot throughout the game – even more than you did in the first game. In addition to the new vehicles, you can now control many of the vehicles that you couldn't before, including the Covanent tank. In the first game you could only drive the vehicles, while one of your allies took the gunner seat. However, in Halo 2 you can let one of the AI controlled soldiers drive while you handle the shooting.

You can in theory, anyway. There is the small matter of your teammates being stupid that makes it more trouble than it's worth. If you take the driver's seat, they tend to fire at the wrong enemies – preferring to shoot the ones that are just standing around instead of the ones that are running straight at you, wielding rocket launchers. If, on the other hand, you take the gunner's seat, they will drive directly into rocks, in such an erratic way that you can't hit anything, or crash the vehicle, causing it to flip over. For the most part, it's best to stick to the single-man vehicles like the Ghosts and tank.

Doing this will, however, showcase the other major flaw in the teammate AI: they aren't just stupid, but also incredibly reckless. They'll run you over, push you out of the way, and shoot you if you're too close to an enemy. This isn't a huge problem since there are very few instances where your side has more than one vehicle at a time.

Oddly enough, the AI problems only apply to your teammates when they are in vehicles. Characters (both enemy and ally) will respond to activity, jump out of the way of grenades, take cover, switch weapons, and generally do a pretty decent job of staying alive. Overall, the AI in Halo 2 is actually very impressive. Even the Flood, which are basically just zombies, are much more intelligent than they were in the first game.

Graphically speaking, Halo 2 is one of the best games on the Xbox. High polygon counts, very fine details on the textures, impressive water and fire effects; pretty much everything you could ask for. There are the occasional glitches, where a texture isn't displayed properly, or takes a moment to load. These are few and far between, however. They generally occur right after the system loads a new section of the map into memory, and only if you manage to get into the new section before it completely loads.

The audio is the same style and quality as Halo: Combat Evolved; generally low-key music tracks (or complete silence) when going through the levels and louder music with a faster tempo kicking in during key points and climatic battles. The soundtrack is very good, and if you liked the original, you'll probably like this one. The voice-overs, both during cut-scenes and in-game, are generally pretty interesting or amusing. You'll hear characters yell when hit, when they kill someone, in response to something you've done, etc. There's also background radio chatter and messages broadcast among the alien fleet. If nothing else, the audio makes the game much more immersive than it would be with just background music. Occasionally you'll wish your fellow marines would just shut the hell up. Occasionally you'll hit your fellow marine in the back of the head with your rifle just to make your wish come true.

Minor glitches and AI issues aside, Halo 2 is a great game, both in terms of the single-player campaign and the rather addictive multiplayer. If you enjoyed the first one, or just enjoy first-person shooters, you'll probably enjoy this game as well.

Campaign

By FPS standards, the story is quite good; which is to say that it's deeper than "bad guys appear. Go kill them". This isn't even a criticism of the genre, as action oriented games really shouldn't have an RPG style story. Halo 2's story is the proper balance between "telling a complex story" and "shutting the hell up and letting me play the damn game". The story, which is a continuation of Halo: Combat Evolved's, is told mostly through cut-scenes in-between levels, as well as a few smaller scenes in the levels. The story is told from two perspectives: Master Chief's and his fight against all Covenant and the Flood, and the Arbiter's (the disgraced Elite who lead the failed mission in the original game) and his fight against the Flood, Humanity, and a rival faction within the Covenant.

Disappointingly, there is almost no difference between the two playable characters in terms of abilities. Both use the same weapons, have the same shields, take and deal the same amount of damage, and so on. The only difference is that the Arbiter can turn invisible for short periods of time.

One of the biggest flaws in the original Halo was the – to put it mildly – repetitive level design. While much better, Halo 2 still suffers from entire sections of maps that are copy and pasted four or five times in a level. The sections are interesting, nice looking, and fairly well designed; they're just used way too many times. This isn't to say that every single level suffers from this problem (far from it), however it is noticeable and annoying when it does occur. Many of the levels, especially the outdoor ones, are amazing, and one of the final levels has some of the best atmosphere in recent [gaming] history.

The other issue is the game's ending. Not to spoil anything, but it is a cliffhanger. Having a cliffhanger ending isn't a flaw in of itself; in fact Bungie picked the perfect place to end the game. The problem is the presentation, specifically the way the last two levels are ordered (Master Chief's final level, then the Arbiter's final level, then the final movie, which focuses only on Master Chief). This causes the player to think that the ending movie is the start of a new level, rather than the end of the last one. All Bungie had to do was switch the last two levels and there wouldn't be a problem.

Multiplayer

Very similar to Halo: Combat Evolved‘s multiplayer, but with more options, new maps, and of course the additional weapons and gameplay changes that applied to the single player campaign. You have your standard deathmatch mode, plus a bunch of other modes including capture the flag and king of the hill. You can play as either Master Chief or the Arbiter (though these are just cosmetic changes – both the flashlight and active camouflage have been disabled). As before, multiplayer can be done either split-screen on the same TV, over the System-Link, or both for up to 16 players at a time.

The maps are significantly improved over the original game, however it is kind of disappointing that they didn't include all of the original maps, especially Sidewinder. A few of the maps do return, including the popular and awesome Blood Gulch. There are also quite a few new maps, from tiny to humongous. While everyone will prefer certain maps over others, it's safe to say that there are no bad maps. There just aren't enough of them for the people who play a lot. That said, if you have Xbox Live! you can download quite a few additional maps and a patch that attempts to fix some of the gameplay issues.

The gameplay update is a mixed bag. First, it fixed a large number of glitches that people were using to cheat. This isn't a big deal for people who play off-line multiplayer since a)people mostly cheat to boost their rankings, which you don't have off-line and, b)most of the glitches involved exploiting the network connect, and c)you can always just walk over a smack your friends if they cheat while playing off-line. For Xbox Live! users, it is a rather large problem. The cheating has lessened significantly and the game is not longer the mess that it was originally, thanks to bug fixes, Bungie's severe crackdown on cheaters, and the fact that by now most cheaters have moved on to other games. It's frustrating, but doesn't cripple the game since you can find enough honest players out there, especially if they're people you've "met" elsewhere online. Unfortunately, Bungie also decided to "fix" certain things that really didn't need fixing. Grenades, melee weapons, and single-wielded weapons (shotguns, battle rifles, etc) were made more powerful to stop people from dual-wielding smaller weapons. Great. Thanks. Why? An annoyance for those who were used to playing before the update and didn't have a problem with it, but for people who start with the patched version, this won't be an issue, as the game is still just as good; just different.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 01/14/08

Game Release: Halo 2 (US, 11/09/04)


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