Review by MSuskie

"Ignore the praise, ignore the abuse."

There are few things more controversial in the videogame world than the Halo franchise. The original debuted with the Xbox in 2001 and went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. Despite the obvious flaws underneath the surface, it's not hard to see why it was so loved. The (most) terrific level design and pacing, intelligent AI, enjoyable vehicle sections and a multiplayer mode for up to sixteen players turned the game into one of the best-selling and most popular games of all time. As such, the obvious arrival of the sequel, merely titled Halo 2, was full of anticipation. Developer Bungie hyped up the game like nothing else, and the game received such ridiculous coverage from the press that it became perhaps one of the most highly anticipated games of all time. When the game's release date drew nearer, people expected it to rock their world. Did it?

It somewhat feels to me as if there's really no point in writing this review other than to correct my (admittedly fanboyish) original review, when I gave the game a 10/10 and said it was perhaps the best game on Xbox, as just about everyone already has their opinion on Halo 2 without me. That's because I, like everyone else, was pulled in by the hype and didn't quite have the time to realize the game's flaws. Halo 2 is not perfect, nor is it the elusive Second Coming that everyone was expecting it to be. But it's still a great game if you can look past that. In fact, in some ways, Halo 2 is both the most overrated and underrated game of all time. The title is far too overrated by the press, as it received too many perfect scores, even from websites that never give out perfect scores (1UP, I'm talking to you idiots). But the game is underrated by everyone else. Spend some time at the GameFAQs message boards and you'll discover that a good number of people hate the game (many of them, I'd guess, have never even played it).

The ending of the original Halo left with a great conclusion and a bit of a cliffhanger, with room for a sequel in case the game took off (and it did, obviously). If you'll remember, Master Chief used the Pillar of Autumn's reactor to blow a hole in Halo, causing the entire ring to be broken into pieces, while he and Cortana set off toward home to warn everyone else of Covenant attacks. Halo 2 picks up around when the first game left off, with Master Chief recently having arrived at Cairo Station (one of many space stations in orbit around Earth) with Cortana and Sergeant Johnson, who somehow made it off of Halo in one piece (god knows how). Within the time it took to get back to Earth, the Covenant seems to have been able to locate Earth and assemble an armada large and powerful enough to give the forces of Earth a bit of a challenge. And, quite typically, our little Master Chief is put back to work.

The story is actually pretty decent, despite the fact that it's also got one of the worst endings ever (it's okay to have a cliffhanger, but you've got to resolve SOMETHING). There's the usual amount of various little twists and turns along the way, one of which I'll share with you in a moment. All cutscenes run using the in-game engine, but you'd barely notice, as Halo 2 is one of the best-looking games ever made to this day – the character models look fantastic (Master Chief looks so much better than in the first game), and the animation is perfect. My only gripe – and this is a big one – is how most cutscenes have this irritating “after-load” that comes damn close to ruining the cinematic appeal of the game. To cut down on load times, Bungie created the story scenes in the game so they would actually load while the scene is in place. This means that textures sometimes won't appear until after they should, giving Halo 2's cinematics the look of… well, a game. As I said, this was done to cut back on load times, but I would have gladly taken longer loading screens in favor of a more polished presentation.

Many of Halo 2's earliest moments are also some of its best, as you're plunked right into battle and the first few action-packed missions really nail the feeling of constantly, deadening warfare that occasionally played a part in propelling the original. After fighting your way through numerous Covenant forces on Cairo Station, the Chief is sent to locate a bomb on the station that's been planted there by the sneaky aliens. Your battle then continues on the surface of the planet, where you're taken to the same African city that was shown in the amazing E3 video presentation. The game launches you from gunfight to gunfight with at times amazing fluidity, and the story picks up in midair with a force that rarely lets up or skips a beat.

But then again, if you've played Halo, you've pretty much already played Halo 2. The game's controls are nearly identical, with a few new additions for the game's much-hyped vehicle jacking and dual-wielding. That's not to say control is bad – in fact, Halo was one of the best-playing console FPSs ever and for the sequel to simply stick with that basic control scheme is a relatively smart move. It does, unfortunately, give the game a heavy “rehash factor” that plays a major role in why the game was such a letdown for so many fans (by the way, I love this game and would by no means say it was a major letdown to myself). You've still got one trigger for firing your weapon, and one trigger for throwing grenades. Actions and reloading are still performed with the X button, although all of the actions in the game are now handled by holding down the X button instead of tapping it, which helps to distinguish actions and simple reloading. So other than a few changes it's largely the same, and feels good and natural for the most part.

But just because it plays extremely similarly to the original doesn't mean it's a stinker. In fact, considering the success and quality of the original, making Halo 2 enormously similar to the first would seem like a good move. Anyone who played the original knows (or, at least, should know) what made that game so good to begin with. It was the game's (mostly) brilliant pacing and (to some extent) outstanding level design that gave a tired genre a whole new look. But if you read my Halo review, you know that the game was actually a combination of two games, with the first half of Halo making up some of the most fun I've ever had with a game and the second half being a dull, repetitive journey through the same rooms and corridors over and over again. When Halo 2 was on the radar, I was, above everything else, truly and genuinely hoping that the game would not reach the same fate as its predecessor. Although I liked Halo, I was hoping that Halo 2 would be a great game the whole way through instead of being a terrific half-a-game.

This is, perhaps, the one area in which Halo 2 really excels and feels vastly superior to the first. And “vastly superior” meaning that I've probably already spent more time with this one than the first simply because I enjoyed it more. I played through my favorite levels in Halo numerous times, but stayed away from replaying the (mostly) tedious second half. Halo 2 is more consistently good. Although I did say that the earlier levels on Earth made up some of the game's more exciting moments, there was never necessarily a high point or a low point in the game, as Halo 2 never rises or lowers itself in terms of quality. Halo's excellence was uneven, as the game was fantastic one moment and mediocre the next. And although Halo's best moments (i.e., the first half of the game) were probably more enjoyable than Halo 2's best, I would have to say that Halo 2 is ultimately the better game, simply because it's always a fun ride.

Halo 2's mechanics haven't necessarily been fine-tuned because they were never bad to begin with (if it ain't broke…). Instead, everything is simply bigger. There are more weapons and more vehicles, and quite frankly I believe that, because of this, the number of ways to handle each given situation is somewhat increased. Although the selection of weapons still isn't entirely original, each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses that can be balanced to your advantage. Rapid-firing guns such as the submachine gun or the needler can mow down quick but weak enemies, sniper weapons (such as the old sniper rifle or new particle beam gun) can be used to take down enemies from a distance, while energy-based plasma guns can destroy enemy shields, and close-range weapons (like the shotgun or the awesome new plasma sword) can take out punks from up close. You now have the option to dual-wield any two one-handed weapons at once, and although this isn't a new idea, it's fun to try different weapon combos.

Vehicles (one of the most talked-about aspects of the first game) are here and bigger than ever. All of the old vehicles are here, and the Warthog now comes in two varieties, with one sporting the usual machine gun and the other equipped with a GAUSS anti-aircraft canon. There are, beyond this, no new human vehicles, but there are a few welcome additions in the Covenant garage. Wraith tanks, which showed up in the first game but weren't playable, are now available to their fullest in Halo 2. There's also a very Warthog-esque four-person Covenant hovercraft called the Spectre. Aside from the additions, I must say that the placement of the vehicles as a whole is much more balanced. I thought the Warthog, however fun to drive, got too much attention in the first game. Here, all of the vehicles get their chance to shine. The Scorpion tank, for example, got only one pitiful moment in Halo, but in Halo 2, it gets much more screen time. Also, in multiple-person vehicles, your AI-controlled teammates can now hop into the driver's seat while you sit back and pop heads with the turret in the back. It's nice to be able to sit back and enjoy some almost rail shooter-style action while your partner takes care of the movement. The driving AI isn't perfect, but that's nothing a sequel can't fix.

Another interesting addition to the game was the much-talked-about ability to board (in other words, hijack) an enemy vehicle. This was first demonstrated in the E3 demo, when the good Chief suddenly hopped onto a cruising Ghost, kicked out the driver, and took the seat. Boarding can be done on any vehicle – even Banshees, if they're close enough. Sometimes, it's a matter of simply running up to a slow-moving vehicle powered by an enemy and holding X to hitch a ride. In other instances, it's not so easy. For example, when you want to board a moving Wraith, you've got to get up to its hood and jump on, and then continuously bash the hatch open with the melee button until it pops off. Then, you've got to either continue using your melee attack to kill the driver, or hit the left trigger to throw a grenade in. With multi-passenger vehicles, you have to knock each person off, which takes time and skill. And on top of that, enemies will try to jack your ride as well, so it works on both ends.

One of the more interesting elements in the single-player campaign comes in the form of a story element that slightly changes the face of the gameplay itself. Some would say I'm ruining a portion of the plot in saying this. But given the number of people who have played this game, and the number of people who have talked about the plot twist in their reviews here on GameFAQs, I believe that the statute of limitations has expired on Halo 2 spoilers (speaking of which, Darth Revan? that's you!). About three or four missions into the game, you'll delve into the story of the Covenant Elite called the Arbiter, who led the failed attack against the humans in the first game. In about half of Halo 2's mission, you play as the Arbiter, commanding a battalion of Elites against “heretics” who (correctly) believe that Halo is not sacred object of ritual but in fact a terrible weapon. Controlling the Arbiter is a gameplay twist that not everyone liked (Raiden was a lot worse, people), but I liked it because it gave us a compassionate look at the other side of the war and also provided players with the ability to cloak oneself briefly, which helps for stealth.

And finally, we come to the most integral aspect of Halo 2 (well, at least to most people): Its multiplayer mode. This is probably the one thing that's keeping Halo 2 up today – in fact, it's so popular it even inspired the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack which can either be downloaded or bought for twenty bucks. Although it's standard FPS multiplayer fare in many ways, it's fine-tuned to create one of Xbox's greatest multiplayer assets – which, given the quality and success of Microsoft's Xbox Live online service, is no small feat. I, unfortunately, do not have Xbox Live, nor do I plan to get it, but I've had more than enough fun with its offline multiplayer modes. Though nothing incredibly innovative or groundbreaking, it's an outstanding mode that keeps up with and at times outshines the title's already terrific single-player campaign.

Although it's hard to go into too much detail over the multiplayer, I'll give you an example by explaining one of my favorite levels and game variants. The level is Zanzibar, and the variant is CTF (which stands for Capture the Flag for those of you who don't speak nerd). In a two-team CTF mode on Zanzibar, there is a single flag planted in a small building located on a beach. One team must protect this flag, while another must infiltrate the base, capture it, and bring it back to their starting. The attacking team starts on the sandy beach, outside of the fortress walls, with several weapon choices and some vehicles including a Warthog and a Ghost. The defending team starts inside the building and has its own selection of weapons, including a limitless-ammo turret and a valuable rocket launcher, complete with a lock-on feature for taking out enemy vehicles. As the attacking team makes their way inside, they've got to take out the defensive ledges, park their vehicles, fight their way through and run the flag back to their base point, all within two minutes. It's insane, and the many levels and game variants complement this perfect balance.

Pros

+ The sequel to one of the best Xbox games.
+ A (consistently) terrific single-player campaign.
+ Excellent story with some novel twists and turns.
+ Terrific graphics propel said story.
+ Good balance concerning both weapons and vehicles.
+ Outstanding multiplayer mode is the reason for the game's popularity.
+ Gameplay quirks (dual wielding, vehicle jacking, etc.) work well.
+ Top-notch voice acting, including Ron Perlman and David Cross.
+ Another knockout musical score.
+ Widescreen! Kinda…

Cons

- Generally very overhyped and overrated.
- An already notoriously bad cliffhanger ending.
- Presentational issues (load times, glitchy cutscenes, etc.).
- Overly linear and somewhat rehashed-feeling.
- The AI kind of sucks at driving.
- Not COMPLETE widescreen…

Overall: 9/10

Call me crazy, but I actually like Halo 2, thank you very much. It's not a perfect game (or close enough to warrant the 10/10 score I originally gave it), but it is much better than the majority of fans (and all Xbox-haters) will lead you to believe. Then again, it's not worth the hype Bungie gave it or the ridiculously over-the-top praise it scored from the media. Nevertheless, Halo 2 is a terrific ride in a variety of ways. The single-player campaign has a compelling story (screw the ending) as well as some terrific level design and intelligent AI, and the multiplayer mode is full of variety (especially now that Multiplayer Map Pack is out) and will keep you coming for quite some time. As an online, offline or solo experience, Halo 2 shines like few other Xbox games, and therefore earns my seal of approval, a nine out of ten, and a hearty recommendation to anyone who can accept that this isn't the best thing ever.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 06/24/05, Updated 09/12/05


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