Review by AceWombat04

"A great game, but with different priorites than Halo had."

Introduction to Halo 2: Halo 2 is the sequel to the highly popular first person shooter that helped launch Microsoft's Xbox console, Halo. The game is a high quality first person shooter, above par compared to most in it's genre. Halo 2 features a robust plot, good voice acting, a large variety of weapons and vehicles, as well as the same intuitive and versatile control scheme the original Halo was famous for. The game takes place over the span of fifteen unique levels, including a variety of different environments with differing terrain features and weather, and will ultimately take players to no less than three different worlds before all is said and done. This review, like any other, while I feel it is quite objective, is also based on personal opinion. I recommend playing the game for yourself before you reach a verdict. Make your decisions accordingly...

Graphics: I rate Halo 2's graphics at a score of 9.

Character animations are fluid and diverse, and are perfectly tailored to changing situations on the fly. Character models are highly detailed, and feature a depth and texture which is almost tactile. While not as quasi-photorealistic as recent offerings on PC like Doom 3, the engine utilizes "real mapping" and other techniques to excellent effect for a console game. Vehicles realistically take location-specific damage, and will eventually be destroyed, but only if the player's shield is also completely depleted.

Environments seem to lack the crisp sharpness of the original Halo, and can at times feel "plastic," as can the weapons. The silky metallic sheen of Halo has been replaced with the occasionally "fake" feeling sheen of contoured maps on character models, and this shortcoming extends to some weapons as well. Environmental features such as rocks and trees, while more intricately designed, also often appear less resolved and more washed out.

All that having been said, the increase in intricacy and the improvements to the character models make for a more visceral and varied experience from battle to battle. The framerate is always smooth, and any slowdown is negligible even in the heat of battle. Weapon effects have seen the fewest changes, with only minor enhancements to resolution or color, all of are for the better in my opinion.

Interface: I rate the interface at a score of 8.

The same default controls featured in Halo return for the sequel. Other schemes can be selected, but for the most part, manipulating your character is a nearly identical experience to that of the first game. You are now capable of jumping higher, and across greater distances. The health bar has been eliminated, in lieu of a faster recharging shield. Once your shield falls entirely, you can endure very few hits before dying. Your shield recharges much more quickly than in the first game, and after a far, far shorter wait. This change disturbed me initially, as I'm sure it did (and will) others. However, it ultimately made the pace of Halo 2 quicker than it's predecessor, while simultaneously eliminating the need for powerups. It also forces you to be more skilled in your use of cover and stealth.

It is now possible, and surprisingly easy, to steal an enemy's vehicle from them, by holding down the X button (in the default control scheme) as they approach. This applies to all vehicles, and is great fun. From quickly commandeering a covenant's Ghost, to tossing grenades inside a Wraith tank before taking it's helm, this new feature is not only extremely well executed, but it is remarkably intuitive and fun almost immediately.

It is now possible to wield two weapons at once. This only applies to weapons which can be held in a single hand. The rocket launcher, for instance, cannot be duel wielded. While not a groundbreaking feature by any means, it is a welcome and expected addition.

There are a host of new weapons and vehicles in Halo 2, most of them covenant. The most noticeable is the covenant energy sword which was the bane of our existence in the original game. It can be used like any other melee weapon, or can "fired" using the R button (in the default control scheme) to eviscerate most enemies with a single hit. This is especially effective against a certain returning foe I shall not reveal here. Other familiar weapons have undergone upgrades (or downgrades, for balancing reasons). Some weapons feature more realistic recoil, forcing the player to maintain a firm command of their aim. Rockets can now lock on to targets, which is both impressive and quite useful. The needler seems to be a much more effective weapon than it was in the first game, as well.

There are several new vehicles in Halo 2, which I will leave to the player to discover on his or her own. Recurring vehicles can now perform additional functions. Banshees can also now perform loops and barrel rolls to avoid fire. This is done by holding the A button (in the default control scheme) and pressing up, down, left, or right on the control stick. This is extremely effective in the avoidance of hostile fire, especially when engaging ground targets. Ghosts can move at rapid speeds when the L button is held (in the default control scheme), forfeiting the ability to fire their cannons while doing so, to become lethal missiles, steamrolling enemies mercilessly.

There are a few flaws with noting in the interface. Melee attacks do not always work, even if they connect, if enemies are in the middle of certain animations it seems (especially when lunging at you for their own melee attack). This is rare, and does not seriously detract from gameplay. It is however frustrating at times to perfectly execute a melee attack, only to it fail. The scorpion tank moves at a far slower pace, which can at times feel tedious. It's power has not diminished however, and it is as effective as ever on the battlefield. Lastly, the warthog controls much more tightly this time around, which takes a bit of getting used to. It's ability to emergency break allows it to make tighter turns now however, and with experience, these changes make for a more precise driving experience.

Combat and AI: I rate the game's combat and AI at a score of 8.

Battles are fierce and frenetic. The use of vehicles is encouraged, and often required, but is enjoyable and unique in most instances. Enemy and ally AI is perhaps the best I have ever seen in a game. While not perfect in it's complexity or infallibility, it is as good as I think it possibly can be on current hardware, while still featuring amazing capabilities such as being able to accurately drive on it's own. Being driven expertly (at times better than I myself could) while pumping enemies full of lead or rockets from the rear turret of a warthog (this can be achieved with most other vehicles as well!) is an amazing experience. Drivers rarely get hung up on obstacles, and when an area has been cleared of enemies, will even move on to the next area. The precision and efficacy of this capability has left me deeply impressed.

The reason this part of the review only scored an 8, is because I view AI and combat as being intertwined. One serves to enhance the other. One becomes irrelevant and unenjoyable without the other. The AI in Halo 2 is extremely impressive, when one takes it's capabilities (and not only the intelligence of the enemies) into account. However (and this is the least subjective and the most personal part of this review) the nature of the battles in Halo 2 seemed to have a different focus than in the original Halo.

In Halo battles were large, often in large outdoor areas with lots of spots for cover, perches from which to snipe, and which presented ample opportunities for creative tactical thought on the fly. You could hole up and snipe at enemies; grab a vehicle and go wild; run and gun; stealthily take out sleeping enemies from behind; you could get creative and bypass certain methods in favor of others. In Halo 2, while the capabilities for this are still in place (and have even been expanded upon), the battles just don't feel as tactical or freeform to me.

There are no huge open areas. There are fairly large, flat areas with structures in them, but nothing like the first outdoor areas in Halo. When vehicles are present, it is almost always required that you make use of them lest you become fodder for the enemies already inhabiting vehicles of their own. Battles are faster paced, less methodical, and more linear than in Halo. When fighting, I constantly felt pushed down a specific path, with limited tactical options at my disposal, because the fear of quick death was ever present, and the environments, while at times large and exquisitely detailed, were always more claustrophobic feeling than in Halo. A greater number of tactical options become apparent upon gaining experience on repeated playings, but the fact remains that the abundance of enemies combined with the less expansive environments which focus more on aesthetic variety than tactical variety, makes for a somewhat confined set of scenarios.

Furthermore, most battles have some "gimmick" to them. While definitely impressive and fun (infact, some of the events I call gimmicks are some of the most impressive I have ever seen in a game), they create a sense of being driven toward a certain objective at all times, without much time to explore, think creatively, or strategize. Halo featured level objectives, but I never felt like I couldn't explore the space I was in to find tactics that suited me, or that I hadn't tried before. In Halo 2, the gimmick events and the sheer number and frequency of enemies within less tactical or sizable environments combine to prevent this, or distract me from it, almost every step of the way. I much prefer different tactics over different gimmicks, and larger battlefields with more options over larger enemies with more aesthetics.

As stated, that is all just personal opinion. You are encouraged to reach your own, based on your preferences.

Plot and storytelling: I rate Halo 2's plot and storytelling at a score of 7.

It would have been an 8. Let me explain why it isn't (atleast not for me). Halo successfully blended engaging action with an engaging story. The story was threadbare, granted, but the environments were a part of the story; the mystery. It had mystique. It felt as if it had a past. Cortana's comments moved the plot along for the most part. Having read the three novels, and listened to the "ilovebees.com" story arc, I feel I have a good idea of the Halo series's storytelling potential.

In Halo 2, the storytelling technique used is clearly more articulate and cinematic than in Halo. Cutscenes feature excellent voice acting, excellent use of dialogue, and reveal much about the culture of the covenant. I won't spoil the story, which is infact quite gripping if you pay close attention to things said and events going on around you as you play. There are a few things that made me rate this aspect of the game so low, however.

Part of this is due to the game's marketing campaign. We were led to believe that the covenant have discovered earth (which they have...technically...) and were ready to invade humanity's home, thus initiating a battle for it's survival. Instead, we spend only two levels near or on earth itself, and the threat posed is, atleast for the time being, not so great. Then it's off to another ancient alien construct. (I'm being vague intentionally to avoid spoiling the story, which despite shortcomings, is still more than worth discovering for yourself).

The major reason for my low plot and storytelling score however, is more fundamental than this. Stylistic choices can be overlooked, as can controversial plot points and twists. Lack of respect for a player's efforts in a videogame however, are not. Videogames are becoming increasingly cinematic, to be sure. However, they are not films. They are an interactive medium, which thrives when the player feels as though they are exerting some control over a course of events, with real results throughout the game, but in particular at the end. In this, Halo 2 fails. The game ends in a cliffhanger, little or nothing is revealed about the origins of the halo devices, and the fate of earth and those living on it remains a complete mystery.

It wouldn't be so bad if there were atleast some resolution of some problem we had worked on throughout the game; some sense of accomplishment, before a cliffhanger of a separate but related nature. Instead however, one is left with a sense that nothing has been done, and that we haven't won anything at all. The game simply feels incomplete in this respect, and I personally feel this is a disservice to all those who invested time in finishing the game.

Rest assured however, that apart from the intentional marketing misdirection and the disrespectful ending to an otherwise amazing game, the plot devices and storytelling at work in Halo 2 are both top notch. The story is worthy; it's conclusion (or rather, the lack thereof!) simply isn't.

Audio: I rate the game's audio at a score of 9

The only thing preventing me from giving this facet of Halo 2 a 10 is the knowledge that no game is 100& perfect in any respect, even if I might feel it is perfect for myself. The music is simply beautiful, at times perfectly matching the action, and at others moving and solemn. Voice acting is excellent. Ambient sound effects lend an air of kinetic, organic reality to the environments of the game, and help to flesh out the Halo 2 universe. Weapons sound as one would expect. Every footstep, strike, grind of metal against stone, and explosion sounds spot on. The audio in Halo 2 truly shines. The only shortcoming is that some people might not be pleased initially with the slight changes to some weapon sounds. One becomes accustomed to them in time, however.

Overall: I rate Halo 2 at a score of 9

Halo 2 is a truly great game, and a worthy sequel to Halo. However, it's focus and the priorities Bungie has in place are not the same as those of the first game. Tactical creativity, subtlety, and potential have taken somewhat of a backseat to plot, action, excitement, and aesthetic flare. The lack of plot resolution and the abruptness with which the story breaks (I say breaks for it fails to end...) after slogging through what are extremely long and at times difficult levels, is extremely disappointing.

All of this having been said however, the rudimentary changes for the better outweigh (mostly) it's shortcomings with sheer fun and exhilaration. I highly recommend Halo 2, but I also recommend caution to Halo fans desiring a game in the same spirit as the first. Halo 2 is not that. It is it's own game, with it's own set of priorities. But it is still an amazing game.

Conclusion:

In summary, Halo 2 is both delightful and an improvement over Halo, yet it is still occasionally disappointing.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/11/04


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