Review by Evil Dave

"An above-average game without XBox Live, but a superb game with it."

Halo began its life as a Mac-only release by the makers of the Myth series. Following some production delays and a takeover by Microsoft Corporation, the title became exclusive to the XBox, a newcomer to the console market that was looking for a ‘killer app' to sell systems. Several production delays later, the XBox and Halo debuted alongside each other on November 15, 2001.

Halo subsequently went on to sell millions of copies, and win Game of the Year awards from several major videogame publications. Its cinematic storyline, high-quality visual experience, and deeply satisfying multiplayer mode helped it become the XBox's number one selling game from the first day it was available.

Two years later, the inevitable sequel was first unveiled to the masses. Halo 2 promised more of everything: a more involved campaign, much-improved visuals, more intelligent A.I., deeper multiplayer, and online play. Seemingly everyone with an XBox waited with baited breath for the time they could play Bungie's newest masterpiece. Finally, on November 9, 2004, nearly three years to the day after the first Halo came out, Halo 2 settled onto store shelves, ready to be consumed by millions of XBox owners. Would the game live up to the expectations of those gamers? Read on:

Visuals:

The main menu lists all options in a perfectly clear and simple manner. Every play option is at the user's fingertips from the start, and the menu navigation is extremely streamlined as a result. The background visuals and eloquent typeface make any time spent in the menus painless.

In-game menus receive the same treatment as the main menu. They simply show the player all the options available, and the main pause menu in Campaign even serves as a checklist for objectives achieved and to be achieved. In all of the menus, every settings option that can be changed in the main menu can be changed during gameplay, which is a stroke of designer genius. This allows the player to bypass the main menu almost completely, which allows them to get right into the gameplay.

The HUD was simple, yet extremely effective in Halo, and in Halo 2 it has made the jump to being nearly flawless. You'll still have your radar, shield indicator, ammunition indicator, and grenades remaining indicators laid out on the corners of the screen. Now, though, they intrude even less on the view, and they are so simply designed that you will instantly recognize what they do. What's more, checking them never interferes with the gameplay; you'll glance at them, occasionally, but you won't need to spend any amount of time staring at them, or counting bullets. You'll be given some sort of visual reminder when you're low on anything, and so you'll never be bothered by having to constantly be checking your status.

The game features many non-interactive cutscenes that serve to further the story. These are all well choreographed, and the motion capture is top-notch. Unfortunately, these cutscenes use the in-game graphics engine, which means that they are not as high-quality as they could be (although they certainly don't look bad), and the lack of improved visuals during cutscenes hurts the overall quality of the visual package.

The in-game graphics have been greatly improved from those of Halo. Player models now feature much more detail, from the worn equipment down to the weapons. Little visual touches, such as the ability to see your legs move if you look down when you're running, are everywhere, and add to the overall quality of the visual experience. All of the vehicles and characters are animated flawlessly, and move exactly as you would expect them to. Vehicles show a particularly high level of quality, as they are now destroyable, and take damage somewhat realistically. Each level of the campaign features a separate environment, and they are sufficiently detailed and look beautiful, although they are mostly non-interactive, and get to be somewhat repetitive (especially towards the end of the game). Multiplayer maps are of an equal level of quality as those of Campaign mode. Graphical problems do pop up occasionally while playing, and although they happen infrequently, they do happen often enough to detract from the visual experience. These flaws are ones that never appeared in Halo, but have been a bane to many other games in the past: frame rate problems, texture rendering problems, and graphical clipping. Also, due to the impressive physics engine and rag doll animation system sported by the game, there will be occasional times when a player's corpse will fall through the floor, or a vehicle will become impossibly stuck on an object. Of course, these minor problems shouldn't take away from the game experience for players.

The problems that pop up in Halo 2's graphics, as well as the continued lack of a separate engine for cutscene graphics, represent a disappointing step back from the incredibly consistent work on the original Halo. Fortunately, the sheer magnitude of the improvements made will make you forget whatever problems you may occasionally encounter.

Score: 9/10

Sound:

The sound work in Halo was, arguably, the best in the current generation of videogames. It featured high-quality voiceovers, incredibly accurate sound effects, and a musical score that was both compelling and appropriately paced, and the overall effect was nothing short of amazing. Halo 2 follows up this effort with a superb one of its own, enhancing all of the things that made Halo's acoustics so wonderful, while adding its own identity as well.

The sound effects are immaculately done, in every area. With an expanded roster of weapons, there are many more sound effects to be heard, and each one sounds dead-on to what you would expect. Environmental sounds grow louder and softer as you come closer to them, and you'll hear them echoing a bit in cramped quarters. Explosions and other destructive events sound excellent, and will leave a bit of a ringing in your ears. All the vehicles make appropriate noises, and you'll actually be able to tell when a vehicle is on your tail because you can hear it. The sound effects lend an incredible level of immersion to the gameplay, and they improved it greatly as a result.

The voice work in Halo was handled by unknown actors. While this is normally a kiss of death for most games, Halo's character voices were done outstandingly well, and the storyline of the game became more compelling as a result of their performances. Halo 2 returns all of the actors from Halo, but supplements them with the voices of such well-regarded actors as Ron Perlman, Michelle Rodriguez, and Robert Davi, as well as the comedians David Cross and Orlando Jones. The combination of Halo's actors and these experienced newcomers brings the cast to life, and connects the player to the experiences of the characters. Of specific note is the banter between your friendly NPCs; there are tons of things these characters will say, but you will almost never hear the same thing twice.

The musical score of Halo was one of the best ever seen for a videogame. Every song would wax and wane with the action of the game, and the music was so good that it made you want to push onward with the game or stop to check your surroundings as a result of how it sounded. Halo 2 brings back the foundation of Halo's soundtrack, and adds plenty of new songs to the mix as well. The results are as good as the score of Halo, if not as original. Most of the songs are very appropriate for the gameplay that they correspond with, although there will likely be one that you dislike, since there are so many new ones.

Sound was the most incredible aspect of Halo, and Halo 2 lives up to its predecessor's legacy. It improves the sound in accordance with the gameplay, and refines what it had already mastered into a remarkable acoustic experience.

Score: 10/10

Gameplay:

Halo was renowned for its simple, yet incredibly addictive and enjoyable gameplay. Halo 2 captures that same essence, in both Campaign mode and multiplayer mode, and in the end feels like a natural extension of the series.

The controls in Halo 2 are the same as those in Halo, and this is a very good thing. Halo's controls are regarded as the blueprint for any first-person shooter that is to appear on the XBox, in part because of how easy they are to master, and how well they actually control when playing the game. Everything is just as responsive in Halo 2, and the new additions to the control scheme are a logical extension of the already-perfect setup. The controls are, as impossible as it is to believe, perfect, in every way.

The gameplay is what made Halo such a hit, and Halo 2 delivers in much the same way as its forerunner. You'll blast your way through enemies using a variety of weapons, including pistols, submachine guns, automatic rifles, shotguns, rocket launchers, grenades, and others. You're able to pick up any alien weapon that you see, and now there is an alien counterpart to everything the humans have. You'll also be able to use a melee attack using any weapon you have equipped, which is an instant kill when you catch and enemy in the back. New to Halo 2 is the ability to dual-wield smaller weapons, such as SMGs and pistols. You control each weapon separately with the left and right triggers, and while the ability to use double the firepower certainly makes you a much more formidable enemy, you lose the ability to toss grenades or melee attack when you have two guns in hand. This balances this addition out nicely. Another addition is the Covenant Energy Sword, which is a melee weapon only. It makes up for its lack of reach with a tremendous amount of power, and the ability to perform a lock-on one-hit kill. All in all, the weapons have received a significant boost from the new blood added in, and this makes the battles you'll engage in extremely rewarding.

Vehicles are an important part of Halo 2's gameplay as well, and the roster of these is as diverse as the roster of weapons. You'll still have series stalwarts such as the Warthog, Ghost, Banshee, and Scorpion, but you'll also get a couple new toys, the Wraith (a Covenant equivalent to the Scorpion) and the Spectre (an equivalent to the Warthog). Some of the older vehicles have been upgraded as well; a new type of Warthog that is now available has a weapon that fires rockets, rather than the minigun that was previously the sole weapon attached to the vehicle. The Covenant vehicles also feature a speed-boost feature, allowing the vehicle you're in to move extraordinarily fast, but without the ability to fire its weapons and with steering becoming more difficult. The vehicles are also completely destructible this time around, although (curiously) any occupied vehicle cannot be destroyed unless the person inside has their health lowered to zero as well. This aspect of vehicle use seems odd, but in practice it allows the user to not worry about their ride's health, and so it helps keep the game going without interruption.

The Campaign mode itself is probably the game's biggest disappointment. It (no doubt intentionally) plays out similarly to Halo, despite starting out drastically differently. In the end, the goal of the story mode is to go room-by-room, killing everything you encounter until you reach your goal. For a game that features control and gameplay as tight as this, and with enemy and friendly AI functioning at a near-human level, this is not a terrible fact, but it certainly is disappointing, given the improvement in the game in all areas, and the potential for so much more in those improvements. While you most certainly won't be turned off by Halo 2's Campaign mode, you'll probably feel a bit of deja vu, and may end up feeling that it could have been a lot better.

Fortunately for all those who have come to love Halo, the Campaign mode is not the only thing to play in this game. In fact, it now has been relegated to a sideline attraction, albeit a very highly regarded one. Multiplayer has been the backbone of Halo's attractiveness, and those lucky enough to get at least two XBoxes, two TVs, two copies of Halo, eight controllers, and eight willing friends together will attest to the unbelievable fun that playing against a lot of people can be. Halo 2 has the best multiplayer gaming you will ever find on a console; the controls, the visuals, the sounds, and the fact that you're competing with up to 15 other real people makes for a ridiculously fun experience.

Halo 2 is, without question, the best multiplayer console game available. It is solid in every aspect of its gameplay, and although its Campaign mode fails to achieve greatness, the sheer visceral fun of playing the game in multiplayer will make anyone forget that there even is a single-player mode.

Score: 9/10

Story:

A game such as Halo 2 could be mistakenly labeled multiplayer-centric by many people; after all, the multiplayer component clearly dwarfs the single-player experience in both the amount of time that will be spent playing it and the seeming amount of effort that went into creating it. This is not the case with Halo 2, though. This game is the latest chapter in a sci-fi world that has already had chapters told through books, a previous videogame, and even an internet viral marketing campaign. As many people were anticipating it for its storyline as for its multiplayer gameplay. Unfortunately, the plot in Halo 2 is a mixed bag, and may leave some players scratching their heads as it barrels along.

(A word of warning: while the major plot points will not be discussed here, there may be some minor spoilers in the following paragraph, and thus anyone intent on not finding anything out about the game's story before playing it should skip it, and move on to the paragraph starting with ‘The story certainly…')

The storyline begins with you, as the main character from Halo, Master Chief, saving a defense station orbiting the Earth from a Covenant attack. Following this, you end up taking the fight to the Earth's surface, where you'll meet up with an invading Covenant force and engage in multiple firefights. After this promising start, though, the story will head in a different direction. The focus switches (quite literally) to the perspective of the Covenant forces, and the story progresses on, portraying the intertwining efforts of the Covenant and the Human armies. Eventually, you'll head out into space again, and from here the story heads down a similar path as that of Halo. Unfortunately, the ending (or lack thereof) is clearly designed as a cliffhanger, and will leave you wanting to know more, but feeling angry that you can't get anything more.

The story certainly fits well into the Halo universe, and the choice of plot twists thrown at the player makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of confusing aspects to the story, though, and at times you'll be scratching you head at what's just happened. The ending is also a complete buzz kill, and while it certainly will generate buzz for the next Halo feature, it may also turn fans off to the series.

Halo's storyline mode will not disappoint you if you're an avid fan of the series; however, it may startle, confuse, and even anger those who aren't as rabid, and in the end this ends up being the most disappointing aspect of the game.

Score: 8/10

Features/Modes:

Multiplayer is the breadth of Halo 2's gameplay, and the array of options available to use are now completely online, thanks to XBox Live. Should you not have broadband internet, or if you are simply too cheap to supplement your XBox gaming with online play, the game also supports offline multiplayer between four players (via split-screen) on one XBox, or up to sixteen players via a network of up to four XBoxes. There is no support for AI-controlled bots in multiplayer (which is especially unfortunate because of the Campaign's CPU AI is so good), so if you want to play only the non-story mode, you'll need to bring real people along, or go online.

Halo 2's multiplayer refines and adds to the arsenal that was present in Halo. As usual, there are many ways to play. There are classic modes such as Deathmatch (named Slayer here), Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, and Assault, as well as Halo favorites Oddball (players or teams try to hold the ball for the longest amount of time possible), Juggernaut (one super-powerful player attempts to out kill and outlast all other players, whose sole job is to take him down), and the new Territories (control the most territories on the map for the longest time). Of course, Halo's multiplayer featured tons of customizability, and Halo 2 adds to this. For every game type, you can change options like weapons and vehicle availability to give a different scenario each time you play. There is also a wide array of maps to play on, and each one can support every game type (although not all support vehicles). There are so many combinations that, should you choose to, you can play a different game every time you play. Of course, some combinations are silly when put in practice, and you'll likely come across a game type that you feel very comfortable with, and will play more often than others. Just the fact that there are so many possibilities as amazing, though, and given the tremendous fun of the gameplay, this game has the potential to never get stale.

One last feature of note is that the Campaign mode can again be played cooperatively with two people on the same XBox. Disappointingly, it cannot be played cooperatively via system link or XBox Live, which is silly when given how deep the multiplayer portion of the game is. Luckily, so long as you have a friend handy to play it with (and you should), the Campaign mode is more fun when experienced with another person, and the co-op play raises the Campaign's value drastically.

The multiplayer aspect of the game is where its true charm lies, and it delivers in a big way in Halo 2. The lack of non-split-screen co-op play sticks out like a sore thumb, but it shouldn't detract from your experiences with the game.

Score: 9/10

Online Play:

XBox Live, Microsoft's all-encompassing XBox online play service, has consistently supplied players with an incredibly online gameplay experience. Halo 2 takes this level of quality a step further, bringing Halo gameplay online via an intuitive and seamless system of connecting with other players.

When playing online, you'll have access to all the multiplayer options available for the offline multiplayer. You can even play on Live with up to three players on one console, via split-screen play. The game's host can customize play options, and then launch the game. Should the host be disconnected, the game switches hosts on the fly, which allows everyone to remain in the same game without having to reconnect. This under-the-hood enhancement keeps the game flowing without major interruption constantly, and is one of the most intelligent features in an online game since they have become available.

Of course, Halo 2 supports the Friends List feature of XBox Live, allowing you to see if your friends are online, and if they're playing Halo 2, what they're playing. In another brilliant innovation, you can instantly join your friend's ‘party,' just by choosing to do so from the Friends menu. The party feature is the most useful one in Halo 2 online. It allows you to band together with a group of friends, and to never be separated from them during your time spent online. You can, as a party, play each other, or challenge other people, without ever having to search for each other. It's as simple as joining up and choosing ‘optimatch.'

Optimatch is implemented well in Halo 2 also. Rather than put you in a game based on your gameplay preferences, optimatch will pair players of similar skill levels (based on the game's deep ranking system) in a game type of the player's choosing. Choosing the optimatch feature puts you instantly in a game, and from there you can join a party, or just continue to play solo.

Halo 2 also features support for clans. Should you form a clan, you can recruit members, name other members of your clan to hierarchal positions, and can even compete in games against other clans. There is also a clan ranking system, so you can know where your clan stands in the Halo 2 world.

Other XBox Live features, such as voice chat and protection from cheaters, are present and as good as ever. In gameplay, you can choose to talk to your teammates only in team games by holding down the white button, or you can just talk normally to be heard be anyone in the vicinity. Cheating is also not present at all, and should not be as issue on Microsoft's secure servers. And, of course, stats are kept on your gameplay, and these can be viewed through Bungie.net, the website of the game's developer.

The whole experience runs very smoothly, with almost no lag at all to be seen. Between the automatic switching of hosts and the optimatch feature, you could, should you so choose, play for hours with only brief time between games, and no interruptions by lag or server boots.

XBox Live has long been the premier online gaming service for console games. Now, with Halo 2 added to its arsenal, it becomes one of the best online gaming services across all platforms. Anyone with XBox Live should play Halo 2 on it; anyone without XBox Live should get it to play Halo 2 on it.

Score: 10/10

Total Score:

Halo 2 will be a different experience for different people. Ultimately, this is not because of the way individuals may play it, or the way it was designed; it will be experienced differently solely based on whether or not the player has XBox Live. Make no mistake about it: without the XBox Live portion of the game, Halo 2 is merely an above-average first-person shooter. It is the addition of online play, via XBox Live, that makes Halo 2 an incredible addition to anyone's videogame library.

If you're looking to play a decent shooter with an interesting storyline and lots of visceral action, and are not concerned with multiplayer, then Halo 2 should be worth a rental. If you have plenty of friends, XBoxes, and controllers, then four copies of Halo 2 should be your next purchase. If you have XBox Live, there is no excuse for you to not own Halo 2, other than death or bankruptcy. Finally, if you do not fit into any of these categories, then you should look elsewhere for an enjoyable use of your time and money.

Score: 9/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/11/04, Updated 09/05/07

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


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