Review by clarkisdark

"Halo, everybody!"

It was easy to hate the Xbox. Microsoft has already been at the end of many PC-related jokes for all their Windows mishaps and market monopolies. Their entrance into the video game industry was uncalled for in my mind, and I went so far as to say they were the least capable before the whole "console war" started. I wasn't reassured at all when I first put my hands around those big, bulky controllers. I'm an avid Nintendo fanboy on the side, evident by the fact that 60 of my 70 reviews are for Nintendo-based video games. It wasn't until a friend asked me to be on his team for a Halo 2 tournament that I began to really play and understand why the Xbox and its system-selling first-person shooter were such hot items. Halo-- is-- fun. The first Halo is nothing compared to this sequel, however. Believe the hype. This is everything you've wanted a first-person shooter to be.

Graphics:
The worlds of Halo are fully-realized and crammed with special, little nuances to make the experience more "alive." Detail is everywhere, and it isn't just about the fancy textures and models, either (though those certainly have their merit, as well). In fact, some models look a little blocky for a best-selling Xbox game, but that's beside the point. I remember one level that had a huge spaceship breaking apart in the sky. With tens of enemies running around on the ground, however, it was easy to miss seeing the spaceship overhead. The ship wasn't even the focus of that particular section, but it added a huge level of rich engrossment for those who did catch it.

The Xbox isn't all-powerful, though, which may be a disappointment to some of you. The framerate has some major hiccups at points, mostly in the co-op mode and four-player split-screen when things start getting out of control. It certainly doesn't lose any merit by it, though. This isn't a throwback to the clunky days of the Nintendo 64 shooters where good framerates were a novelty. Halo is still playable in excellent form, even with four people on one Xbox. I've played several system link games with all consoles full, and I've never been overly bothered by any slowdown. One section of the graphics which is a little deterring, however, is the rendering in the cutscenes. Objects come onto screen looking drab and blurred only to suddenly pop into detail seconds later. It's a strange and unfinished-looking effect.

Sound:
Halo 2's soundtrack is awesome. Part of what makes it great is its exclusivity. Music is not always playing. There are long stretches in levels when no music is present, then at key moments (like the entrance to a big battle), it kicks in. This works well not only to create a more intense mood (and the music is generally intense), it keeps you from getting unnecessarily annoyed. At first, I was disappointed to find that there was no music in the multiplayer maps. After playing deathmatches for over 100 hours, however, I see the lack of music is a good thing. It would get on my nerves, otherwise.

Most of the voice acting in this game is forgettable, save for Master Chief. The deep, gruff, near gurgling resonance makes it something you'd wish they had used more of; Master Chief doesn't say very much. This time through, the Oracle (the little robot from Halo 1) doesn't play as big of a part, so her robotic and glitchy voice is replaced by a more soothing female lead. The marines that frequently escort you on your missions tend to shout off ridiculous things, sometimes even making references to threats that no longer exist. The smaller of the Covenant are also quite chatty with their high-pitched, cartoony voices. This felt out of place at first, but it works and is usually fairly amusing.

Gameplay:
If you thought Halo 1 was great, put it away. Halo 2 is three times better. First, Halo 2 eliminates the health bar, relying solely on the overshield. This method is much more favorable, cutting down on wasted med kit searches and giving everyone equal footing in the multiplayer mode. It can be a little irritating to have someone run and hide so their shield can regenerate, but considering you can do the same, it balances the game a lot better. Halo 2 also does something which should have been done a long time ago: duel wielding. Bigger and better weapons, like the shotgun and rocket launcher, can't be held with another gun, but the basic weaponry can be mixed and matched to create lethal combinations. Every weapon is useful, and some weapons work better to counter other weapons. The pistol is a little weaker in this game, but paired with something else, it's dangerous. The assault rifle only fires in short bursts this time, making it seem like a useless weapon. Yet I've played against people who can use the assault rifle with dastardly results. The new energy sword, a weapon allowing you to lunge and kill people in one swift maneuver, feels like a cheap inclusion, but it leaves its carrier completely vulnerable to long-range attacks. Only the rocket launcher could be considered totally unfair, but with its limited supply of rockets, it's usually a short spree.

Halo 2 also corrects the horrible campaign design of the first. The levels in Halo 1 started to seem like the same room was repeated several times in a row. This repetition grew incredibly boring. Halo 2 veers back to this formula in some situations, but this flows a lot better and makes the levels feel more real. These levels are also rather large, taking anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to beat (with plenty of checkpoints along the way, of course). With this massive scope, however, comes the ability to get lost easily. I only made it through as I did, because I was playing with somebody who had beaten the game already. On my own, I probably would have had a very difficult time. Another change from 1 to 2 is that you don't always play as Master Chief. This time around, the story unfolds from two perspectives, and you will find yourself frequently playing as a Covenant. These switches are interesting, but after I've been blasting at the Covenant for a few hours, I tend to forget when they are suddenly my teammates, and I kill them by accident.

Controls:
People inevitably like to compare console shooters to PC shooters. They are not the same, however. As far as console first-person shooters go, Halo's controls are perfect. I'd been limiting myself to Timesplitters for years prior to this, so the slower feel threw me off, but it still works brilliantly. Sniping has never been this much fun. The ability to jump, throw two kinds of grenades (sticky and regular), hop into vehicles, and melee people with your gun are so useful, every other FPS is now copying it. After playing Halo, there is no need to play the competition, because they are all trying to be like this.

Frustration:
Halo tends to bring out the worst in people. My roommate is such an easy-going person, but when he plays me in Halo, he utters strings of expletives I never thought possible. The trouble with being new to Halo is that most everyone else you play will already have 600 hours of experience. I feel sorry for people who get upset over a video game, though. I've played too many people who take it way too seriously. As for the campaign, if you tackle it in co-op, it's really easy on Normal. By yourself, it's more gripping and intense but twice as hard (funny how that works out). The higher difficulty settings are even worse. Fortunately, what makes Halo frustrating is only its challenge-- not stupid design problems or glitches.

Lasting Appeal:
There is a reason why I'd been playing Halo for months before I finally went through the campaign mode. It's pure genius. I can't even play Timesplitters anymore, because Halo is the epitome of multiplayer first-person shooting. The weapon system, minus some very compact levels, is perfectly balanced, and the inclusion of vehicles on larger maps makes for some hilariously hectic bouts. I enjoy the majority of Halo 2's maps, except for one level which is too large for any less than eight players. The rest of them are clever in execution and offer many fun places for spontaneous run-ins or sniping hideouts. These are definitely better than Halo 1, and new maps are constantly becoming available, whether through official "map packs" or special downloads.

Not only is the deathmatch (and all its many modes, which I haven't even touched yet) simply well-designed, it offers more than just the standard (and soon to be substandard) four-player split-screen. This supports up to 16. System linking is fantastic. I really think greater LAN support could have saved the Gamecube, because it's done wonders for the Xbox. You may argue that people don't really carry their Xboxes to their friends' houses, but it's true. They do! And I must say, six-player deathmatches on two TVs rank among the most enjoyable video game experiences I've ever had. I haven't had this much fun with a video game since Mario Kart 64. There is a certain pleasure to sniping my friend and hearing him pound the couch upstairs that never gets old. If, of course, you don't have friends, Halo 2 now takes advantage of Xbox Live. One thing you should be forewarned about, though, is that, if you use the headset, you can expect plenty of foul language and threats from the other players.

Overall:
I feel like all I've done is write a 2,000 word pitch for Halo 2. Short of a few minimal and easily excusable problems, I have nothing but good things to say about this game. The Nintendo side of me is by now screaming, "You traitor!" It's not being a traitor, though. This is why you buy an Xbox. Then you buy a Gamecube for Metroid, Zelda, and Mario and a PS2 so it can break. Microsoft and Bungi have delivered a game that will last for years to come as one of the most intense, frantic, hilarious, and fun first-person shooters. Halo tournaments are everywhere, and my apartment complex has turned into a daily Halo party. The word "halo" cannot be taken seriously anymore; churches will have to remove it from their vocabulary entirely. Halo as a game has become general lingo. Everybody talks about it. Everybody knows the terminology, from Warthog to "camping." This is a part of life. Get in on the action.

Points:
+ Engrossing detail
+ Smart gameplay balance
+ Perfect control
+ Full-blown co-op
+ Brilliant multiplayer

Score: 10/10


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 09/26/05, Updated 10/07/05


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