Review by midwinter

"Halo Be Thy Name"

November 9th, 2004 was a day that shall long be remembered. Not because many of us were mysteriously absent from our usual duties, nor due to the fact that our women folk were almost unanimously told to shut up the hell up and give us some space for a few hours. No, while all that and more most certainly did in fact occur, the 9th of November is sure to be remembered for just one thing... Halo 2. For it was on this day that one of the most eagerly anticipated sequels in the history of gaming received a hype building near-simultaneous world wide release. America, Japan, Australia and Europe. No matter where you called home, chances dictated that you were knee deep in an all out frag frenzy of quasi-biblical proportions. Yes, November 9th, 2004 was a very special day for Xbox fans everywhere... where were you when lightning struck twice?

Halo be thy name...

Picking up from where the original Halo left off, Halo 2 swiftly kicks things into gear by examining the galaxy wide repercussions felt at the destruction of the first ring world. Intelligently written with a level of professionalism rarely seen in games today, the often witty narrative is sure to keep players enthralled right throughout its 10 hour plus lifespan. Of special note however is the way Halo 2 seemingly toys with the expectations of its target audience, almost to maddening degrees. For running parallel to the time players spend in the hot seat as the Master Chief is the story of a disgraced Covenant Elite, a one time general now given the death sentence of Arbiter: selected by the Prophets to secure the future of their "Great Journey" and slay the terrible "Earth Demon" once and for all. And though the action constantly alternates between the two characters, both story arcs have been handled in such a way as to be 100% mindful of the player's currently shocked state of mind.

Finding yourself in the presence of Bungie's latest masterpiece however can be a rather humbling experience. To be sure, it's a divine moment of truth soaked in 3 years of desire and expectation. And there you are, face to face with the very stuff of legend. Halo 2... it's here... BAH GAWD IT'S FINALLY HERE! As this far reaching sense of awe slowly begins to fade, players may be surprised by the general low level buzz of disappointment that eventually begins to take hold. I mean, yeah, Halo 2 is here and there's a tangible sense of excitement in the air, yet... life goes on. It hasn't changed the world, it hasn't reinvented the wheel, and if anything, you girlfriend/wife/life partner is hating your hobby just that little bit more. Damn, what's up with that? It's not that Halo 2 is bad, it's more a matter of how can a single game possibly hope to live up to the level of hype that's surrounded it these past few years. Simply put then, it can't.

For initially at least, Halo 2 feels much like its predecessor once did, a point clearly not helped by the similarities both games exhibit in their opening few minutes. Defend the Pillar of Autumn, defend the orbital platform. Is this deja-vu I'm feeling or have I been here before? Having set foot on terra firma however, it suddenly becomes abundantly clear that every hyperbolic statement you've ever read about Halo 2 was right on the money. The Covenant's invasion of Earth is where it's at, and many of the added play mechanics just go to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Want to wield two weapons at once? No problems Chief, you're going to enjoy the power! While we're at it though, how about a handful of new guns as well? Each and every one a finely tuned weapon of mass destruction. Oh yeah, now you're feeling it. Stay frosty Spartans, we're going in hot.

It's with all the impact of a rocket propelled frag grenade to the face then that Halo 2's Earth based and subsequent other worldly campaigns manage to hit home. With bigger set pieces, larger conflicts, and an improved enemy AI that has "kiss my shiny Covenant arse" written all over it, Halo 2 is what every good sequel should be: super sized and powered up. Look on in disbelief as the computer controlled enemy forces react instinctively and realistically to your presence, then run for the hills as you find yourself outflanked and inevitably out gunned. And though you may like to think yourself a quick thinking individual, given the opportunity Halo 2's expanded line-up of nasties are more than capable of jamming their extra terrestrial boots straight up your posterior.

Through it all however, there's one unifying fact that binds. Halo 2 is immensely fun. The pure unbridled joy experienced when partaking in its sweet love is to your social life as cheese wrapped bacon sandwiches are to your heart: utterly addictive though ultimately quite unhealthy. To play Halo 2 is to love it, and nowhere is this sensibility more clearly evident than online and surrounded by a bunch of your closest pals. For as engaging as the single player campaign is, even the greatness displayed there pales in comparison to the excellent Xbox Live support. Genre standard multiplayer modes, Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and Capture the Flag, as well as a range of Halo classics are now fully playable online. A small fact that's sure to have long time Halo veterans grinning from ear to ear.

Further sweetening the deal is a wide range of play support services that generally make the player's experience that much more enjoyable. From the ingeniously designed auto match making service that severely reduces lag, to voice messaging, stat tracking and full clan support, this is a package that's as well rounded as it is complete. And coming from someone who was until recently quite jaded with the whole online scene, I'm simply yumming Halo 2 up! Yes, this is the most addictive thing since sliced crack. Those with compulsive personalities can consider themselves warned...

When you do find yourself thrown right smack bang into the thick of things though, please spare a moment to thank Bungie for Halo 2's smooth as buttered silk controls. For nowhere has a home console FPS felt so right, so natural, so perfect, than right here on the S-type controller. And if by chance you're hard to impress, there's always the option to remap the buttons in such a way as to suit all tastes. See, everybody wins. The Warthog's overly sensitive steering has been re-tuned to make driving easier, ghosts are slightly more responsive, and please, don't get me started on the joys of hijacking an enemy controlled vehicle. For something so inherently dangerous as standing in front of a rapidly moving assault craft, the risk of instant death has been nicely offset by the move's sheer ease of function.

Which thankfully means you'll have all the time in the world to enjoy Halo 2's lush visuals. High resolution textures abound as players are drawn into a game world that on the home console front at least, is second to none. Lavish and rich, these environments improve upon those found in Combat Evolved by offering up a hugely improved level of variety. The dusty rubble strewn streets of New Mombasa, a Covenant prison facility, or the vibrant green vistas of a recently discovered second ring world. Where ever you may be, the eye candy barometer is sure to be riding high while the masterful soundtrack capitalizes on the action. Energetic, thoughtful, and brash, these tracks are sure to live with players long after Halo 2 has been surpassed by the next big thing. And yes, you'll be buying this soundtrack sooner rather than later.

So is it 2004's Xbox Game of the Year 2004?

If you need to ask then I'd hazard a guess and say that you've yet to partake in the Halo 2 experience. Constantly thrilling, the challenge factor has been subtly balanced to welcome players from all walks of life. Then without even noticing, Halo 2's difficulty will slowly begin to amp itself up until it's taken on almost genocidal-like qualities. Yes, this is a game that's ready, willing, and more than able to render your social life a screaming bloody mess of freshly pureed meat and bone. How could you possibly go wrong? With full Xbox Live support, a 10 hour plus campaign and a story that knows how to both shock and entertain, you can consider this the safest bet around. Game of the Year? Most certainly so. Best FPS to grace the Xbox? Only time will tell. For now however, welcome to the war my friends. Your services are sure to be appreciated....

Pros
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* Halo 2 ramps up the story thanks to some intelligent dialogue and witty writing
* Players should learn to expect the unexpected
* A fresh range of new Earth/Covenant weapons gives us something new to play with
* The controls remain as tight and responsive as ever
* Beefed up enemy AI increases the challenge ten fold
* Bigger, better, more involving set pieces and action sequences
* Outstanding Xbox Live support
* The revamped graphics engine pushes the Xbox hard, can you hear it screaming yet?
* The remixed soundtrack will serve as the perfect fire for your galaxy wide campaign against the Covenant
* A strong contender for Xbox Game of the Year

Cons
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* The opening few chapters are highly reminiscent of the original Halo
* Honestly speaking, some may not appreciate Halo 2's surprise ending
* During cinema sequences, some textures can be a little slow to load


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 11/16/04, Updated 03/02/05


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