Review by Kobold Warrior

"The cat's pajamas ain't got nothin on this"

A Prelude

For the longest time, Goldeneye epitomized first person shooter perfection for the home consoles. Its single player experience was second to none due to brilliant, multifaceted gameplay, superb level design and some wickedly challenging AI. Anchored by the magnificent single player was a robust multiplayer mode that allowed four players to square off with a wide variety of different weapons, across 11 wonderfully varied levels (who could ever forget hiding in the bathroom stalls in the Facility?). For years, every FPS to come down the pipe, even Rare's own Perfect Dark, compared rather unfavorably to Goldeneye and the Bond game remained on its golden pedestal, raised far above the Red Factions, TimeSplitters' and Medal of Honors of the world.

Then November of 2001 rolled around, and Microsoft launched the Xbox - the company's first foray into the world of console videogaming. With the release of the Xbox came Halo: Combat Evolved - a promising FPS that Microsoft (the publisher) boasted would knock the socks off anyone who gave it a try. However, the game's development team, Bungie, was relatively untested, so it wasn't clear whether Microsoft's claims were truly accurate or just empty promises aimed at bolstering sales. Of course, once people actually wrapped their hands around an Xbox controller and gave Halo a go, socks weren't just knocked off, but vaporized into piles of smoking ash. Halo was quickly regarded as the best console FPS yet, and subsequently sold enough copies to be ranked as the eighth highest selling videogame of all time (according to the NPD Group).

With millions of people playing Halo almost religiously, be it during weekend LAN sessions, online via GameSpy Arcade or just another quick run through the single-player campaign on Legendary, the hype build-up for Halo 2 began early and gained momentum at an exponential rate. It became so massive, in fact, that one wondered if the game's November 9 release date would trigger global rioting, widespread earthquakes, solar burnout or some other horrifying cataclysmic event. Fortunately, the 9th came and passed with nary a glitch (besides a mysterious illness that struck employees everywhere), and now people are merrily playing Halo 2 in the comfort of their homes all across the globe.

Inevitably, the question must be asked -- was the wait worth it? Did the most hyped videogame in the history of the industry smash everyone's expectations and tear a hole through the space-time continuum due to its blinding brilliance? Well, that's a tough one to call. In truth, the hype surrounding Halo 2 seemed too inflated, too ponderously gargantuan for any game to slay, no matter how exceptional. After all, Halo 2 is still just a game. It won't go to work for you, give you sexual favors, help with your finances or act as a shoulder to cry on, but what it will do is provide you with one of the absolute best videogame experiences ever conceived. Let's dig in, shall we?

The Covenant Strikes Back

Halo 2 places you back in the role of the Master Chief - a biologically, genetically and technically enhanced Spartan super solider who can single-handedly turn the tide of any battle, no matter how bleak the outlook. Naturally, the Master Chief returns with an upgraded version of his Mjolnir battle armor - now dubbed the Mark VI and capable of recharging at a much faster rate. The story begins on the Cairo, a massive, MAC gun-equipped space station orbiting Earth, where the Chief is attending an award ceremony with a few familiar faces. Before the ceremony can finish, however, a Covenant fleet exits from slipspace nearby and begins assaulting the Cairo. In an ode to the original Halo, your job is to grab the first weapon you can find and help the marines defend the station from the Covenant onslaught.

Right from the first level, it is obvious that Halo 2 is improved over its predecessor in just about every way imaginable. The Master Chief can now dual wield smaller, one-handed weapons, swap guns with nearby allies without having to kill them, jump higher, and use "binocular vision" to achieve a 2x zoom regardless of the current weapon equipped. Gun balance has also been tweaked to eliminate problems from the original game - the Needler now fires much faster projectiles, the new BR55 Rifle actually behaves like a real rifle and the pistol has been stripped of its overpowering zoom capability. Both enemy and ally artificial intelligence have also been smartened up considerably, as combatants will now throw grenades to tactically flush out the opposition, jump on top of obstacles to get a better shot and perform premeditated pincer maneuvers to devastating effect.

As you play through the Campaign mode, literally hundreds of new, significant enhancements will become apparent - far too many to list here, lest this review turn into a tedious laundry list. The important thing to know is that each new vehicle, weapon, enemy and gameplay addition is not just the result of Bungie lazily attempting to pad out Halo 2's catalog of new features, but extremely well-thought out inclusions that seamlessly blend in with the original Halo's successful formula, while enhancing the quality of the experience as a whole.

The story arc of Halo 2 is far grander than it was in the original game, filled with numerous twists and revelations that will inevitably keep fans up late, chattering on internet forums about the various implications involved. The Campaign mode, which can still be played in two-player split-screen co-op, is a whopping 15 levels long (compared to Halo's 9) and will have players traversing through massive, gorgeously designed environments which feature almost none of the cut-and-pasting seen in the original. Bungie went through great lengths to keep the single player under wraps to preserve the integrity of the game's storyline, so I, unlike certain other reviewers out there, won't let the cat out of the bag here.

I would like to comment, though, on the hubbub surrounding the game's supposed "terrible" ending. Think of the original Halo as the movie Star Wars: A New Hope. The plot, despite only focusing on a smaller piece of the overall puzzle, advances in a way so that we feel like a complete story has been told, with the protagonist coming out victorious and the bad guys being obliterated by a massive explosion. Now, compare Halo 2 with The Empire Strikes Back. We are given far deeper insight into the minds of the bad guys and the storyline doesn't feel quite as complete without the subsequent episode. But, does that change the fact that Empire is largely considered the best Star Wars movie ever? Does it negate the brilliant plot advancements, character development and other triumphs included therein? Of course not. If the worst thing you can say about a game is that it left you wanting even more play time, then that's not really a negative, but the ultimate compliment.

Like a Plasma Grenade, I'm Stuck on You

Halo 2's Campaign mode is a luminous experience and testament of Bungie's rare talent for mixing gorgeous cinematics with captivating and fun gameplay segments, but it also serves as the concrete foundation for the game's multiplayer, making simple deathmatches, team skirmishes and CTF games that much more engaging. Unlike its predecessor, Halo 2 has complete Xbox Live functionality across all multiplayer game modes (except co-op) to go along with the traditional system link and split-screen methods. Naturally, all of the general gameplay enhancements like dual-wielding and vehicle jacking improve the multiplayer experience significantly, and the 12 new multiplayer maps (one of which is a remake of the beloved Blood Gulch) are all excellent, but the game's robust matchmaking and stat tracking features are the real stars of the show.

Matchmaking in the game is driven by a level system that's not unlike what you might find in an RPG - you gain more experience for overcoming higher leveled players and less experience for trouncing lesser ones. Likewise, when you lose matches you are stripped of experience - the amount lost depending on the levels of those who defeated you. Much thought was put into the matchmaking implementation online, so there really is no way to cheat your way to higher levels, which is more than you can say for a majority of Xbox Live games currently available.

Stat tracking is also remarkable, because by linking your GamerTag to an MSN .NET Passport account, you can literally browse through stats on every single game you or your clan (yes, the game features full clan support) has ever played online via www.bungie.net. And I'm not just talking about perusing kills, deaths, shot percentage and medals earned (though you can check all of those if you wish), but having the option to look at map layout pictures and study diagrams showing where exactly you were killed, by whom, what weapon was used and more. Likewise, you can check all kills you made, or see similar diagrams for every other player who participated in the game. This is revolutionary stuff and one of the many reasons Halo 2 stands as the best multiplayer experience currently available.

Relinquishing the Crown, Yet Not...

The original Halo was a triumphant visual masterpiece that was never really unquestionably relieved of its title as the Best Looking Console Videogame Ever. That is, until now. With Halo 2, Bungie has shown again that only they know how to make the Xbox hardware do the impossible - to display the kind of massive, detailed environments previously only seen on high-end PCs, with nary a hitch in framerate. Extensive use of normal-mapping has been used to great effect, allowing surfaces to look accurately rough and irregular in all manners of different lighting, and draw-distances seem to have been pushed back even farther than before. Textures have been optimized to look the best from medium distances (where you'll be most likely to notice them), meaning they often don't look as sharp as they did in Halo when viewed up-close, but with the bevy of graphical upgrades assaulting your retinas, this is more than easy to accept.

All of the character models in the game have also been drastically improved. Humans now feature highly detailed faces that can realistically portray wide ranges of emotion and the Master Chief himself has been given convincing rivets, dents and marks that make him look like the battle-hardened warrior that he really is. The Chief has also been given a stunning new visor that actually reflects, in real time, the environment around him. On the Covenant side of things, old foes like the Grunts, Jackals, Hunters and Elites all look absolutely brilliant with their new coats of paint and hundreds of additional animations, as do new adversaries like the lumbering Brutes and nimble Drones. The Havok physics engine has also been implemented to amazing effect, as headshots now send enemies lurching backwards and bodies will tumble and react realistically according to the environment.

The only real negative thing I can say about Halo 2 is a relatively minor quibble concerning the game's presentation. Every so often during cutscenes, the view will quickly shift to a different location or angle and the game's textures fail to load in time. So, the scene may change and suddenly you'll be staring at a blank gray background with a few primitive character models walking. Then, a split second later some more detailed texturing will fill in, followed again by the final textures. Each time this happens it's a jarring experience and sucks you right out of the game, no matter how compelling the story may have been at that particular moment. Thankfully, this only happens sporadically and most of the cutscenes in the game are perfectly fine, but it's still disappointing to see this type of blemish show up in a game as visually polished as Halo 2.

The Best Marty Since McFly

The Bungie staff openly admits that composer Marty O'Donnell is one of the most important contributors to the team, with his amazing ability to create music that can make any particular segment of the game 10x better. And, no matter how beautifully implemented the score was in the original Halo, O'Donnell's work for the sequel completely blows it away. Halo 2's soundtrack elicits a much wider range of human emotions, whether it's through heavenly choirs, militaristic beats, aggressive guitar riffs or just minimalist use of ambiance. Steve Vai's work on the guitar is especially notable when it kicks in during several pitched battle segments, though you probably won't even notice it until the carnage has long since passed and the adrenaline levels in your system have returned back to normal.

Halo had approximately 5,000 lines of dialogue, but once again its successor trumps it decisively by boosting the number to well over 20,000. Professional actors like Orlando Jones, Michelle Rodriguez, Keith David, Michael Wincott, Ron Pearlman and many others all put in great performances that suit their individual characters perfectly, and help make the game's voice work arguably the best in the business. Naturally, Halo 2 takes advantage of Dolby 5.1 and does so in a way that will have you instinctively ducking your head as Plasma Rifle blasts and Particle Beam shots go whizzing by on screen. If you are still experiencing your games with a stereo set-up (or, god forbid, mono), do yourself a favor and upgrade to 5.1 before playing Halo 2. You'll thank me later.

The Great Journey Awaits

In a year that has brought such extraordinary titles as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Half-Life 2, the Master Chief still stands head and shoulders above the competition. Bungie took all of the core elements that made the first Halo a classic, removed the unwanted repetition and improved every other aspect of the game and, by so doing, created a second modern day masterpiece. To own an Xbox and not own Halo 2 would be something akin to having owned a Nintendo 64, but never purchased Super Mario 64 -- plenty of people have been dragged out into the street and flogged for much less than that. To put it simply, Halo 2 is a triumph in every way imaginable and needs to be experienced by anyone who has ever wrapped their hands around a game controller.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 11/29/04


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