Review by Xboxlover2

"Halo 2: Combat Redefined."

By now, if you haven't heard of a little first-person shooter for the Xbox called Halo, I'd ask you "WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN FOR THE PAST 4 YEARS?!!" Seriously, Halo has become one of the most well-known video games of all time. Halo, hands down, is the game that made the Xbox and put Microsoft on the map as a serious threat to Sony and Nintendo. The game is a cultural and national phenomenon. The Halo series has grossed over $600 million and has even spawned a hit alternate reality game. You're probably wondering to yourselves, "Why is this series so amazing? What makes these games so damn good?" Well, read on to find out.

After the release of the critically-acclaimed Halo: Combat Evolved, everyone was 99.9% positive that Bungie would not miss out on the opportunity to go ahead with a sequel to the game. In 2003, Bungie formally announced plans for a sequel to the game and kept hungry fans at bay with a few teaser screenshots and a video that showcased the awesome graphical engine that the game would use. All was quiet on the front until summer 2004, when the Halo 2 hype exploded. Bungie set up an alternate reality game known as I Love Bees, gathering hundreds of thousands of people to try and find out as much as they could from some of the most vague clues ever. Suddenly, Halo 2 became the talk of the town. EVERYBODY wanted Halo 2 - gamers, celebrities, musicians, movie stars, probably even your own mother. The game was finally released after 3 years of anticipation in November 2004, selling 2.38 million units on its launch day, grossing a record $125 million.

As I did with my Halo review, I find it necessary to include a spoiler warning for anyone who has not yet played or beaten Halo 2. Read on at your own risk.

After successfully foiling the Covenant's attempts at using destroying mankind in the last game, Master Chief, hero of the last game, and Sergeant Johnson, one of the marines that aided Master Chief on his quest, along with the late Captain Keyes' daughter, Miranda, receive a decoration ceremony at the UNSC defense station Cairo. Meanwhile, an unknown gold Elite, apparently in charge of leading the Covenant to the Halo from the original game, is blamed for the mission's failure and is labeled as being a heretic. The three Covenant prophets send the Elite, who will we later know as The Arbiter, on a secret suicide mission, expecting him to die within a few hours.

Back on Cairo, a group of Covenant forces, led by the Prophet of Regret, board the station forcing Chief and Johnson to get back into action. Chief is victorious in defending the UNSC but is informed that the Covenant are now planning on destroying the Earth. Master Chief fights off the Covenant invaders, and will eventually end up having to journey to the Covenant home world, where the Arbiter is now on a mission to stop a mutiny from occurring in the Covenant ranks. The story in Halo 2 is much more deeper and complex than in the original game, so this time you'll actually have to pay attention to know what's going on. You will discover a whole new side to the Covenant thanks to the story, which seems to focus more on the Covenant and their civil struggle than the humans' fight for survival, putting a human-like face on the alien race.

This time around, you not only play as Master Chief on his quest to save the Earth and confront the Covenant in their homeland, you will also take up the role of the Arbiter. After playing as Chief for the first few levels, you will end up playing as the Arbiter on a mission to assassinate an Elite turned heretic. Shortly after, you will switch back to Master Chief and complete a few missions before going back to play as the Arbiter. This back and forth alternation happens repeatedly throughout the game, and since the missions of Master Chief and the Arbiter are going on simultaneously, towards the end, you'll notice the effects of one of your heroes' mission while playing as your other hero.

If you have played the original Halo, the gameplay will be absolutely nothing new. It is essentially the same game set in a new location with a few changes. The controls are generally the same, with dual analog control for movement and view. One of the first things you will notice, aside from the graphics which will be covered later, is that the HUD (Heads Up Display, a monitor that shows all of the vital information needed, such as health status, ammo supply, etc.) has received a minor facelift. Master Chief's battle suit has been upgraded and now uses a complete shielding defense system. Health packs are no longer a necessary feature as Master Chief's survival depends solely on his power shield, which recharges over time. Since health packs are now obsolete, you will no longer be seeing those around in this game.

As soon as the first level begins, you'll be introduced to two of the new weapons available in Halo 2 - the battle rifle and the SMG (Sub-Machine Gun). Halo 2 features a much more extensive weapons and vehicles supply. Bungie decided to give most of the UNSC-manufactured weapons a Covenant counterpart, making the weapons much more balanced. All of the weapons, aside from the assault rifle and the pistol from the original game return, with new weapons such as the carbine, the beam rifle (an energy beam version of the sniper rifle), the brute shot (a grenade launcher), the magnum, the sentinel beam, and the fuel rod cannon joining them. One of the most desired but unusable weapons from the original game, the energy (or plasma, as some like to call it) sword is now an available weapon and possibly the most popular weapon amongst Halo 2 fans. Many of these weapons, especially the brute shot and the energy sword, are very fun to use and you will be eager to test them out as you encounter them throughout the campaign mode.

The plasma and fragmentation grenades return, with the explosion effects receiving a new makeover, giving us much flashier explosions in exchange for some decreased power. All of the vehicles from the original game return as well, with two versions of the Warthog, the original Warthog and a Warthog that has a cannon that fires magnetic rods rather than a chain gun. A Covenant version of the warthog, the Spectre, has been added and is very useful in transporting your teammates. As with the energy sword, a previously unusable but very popular vehicle from the original game, the Covenant Wraith tank, a small but incredibly deadly tank that lobs large balls of plasma, is now accessible. Every vehicle in the game now has a damage bar (in both campaign and multiplayer) so you'll want to be extra careful when driving through very populated areas.

One of the most popular features in the game is the ability to dual-wield certain weapons. In the months prior to the release of Halo 2, many people were anxious about this, hyping up the feature as if it were the return of Jesus. When dual-wielding, you temporarily lose the ability to throw grenades, as the hand normally used to do that will be used to hold and fire your second weapon. Of course, this means you'll have to use dual-wielding strategically, as it would be a very nasty situation to end up low on ammo, surrounded by enemies. The weapons that have dual-wielding capabilities are all of the small weapons that Master Chief and the Arbiter can hold with one hand: the magnum, the SMG, the plasma pistol, the plasma rifle, and the needler in any combination that you find appropriate. If going against an Elite, an SMG + plasma rifle combination works best as you can use the plasma rifle to wear down the Elite's energy shield and then finish the Elite off with a hail of bullets. But the best thing about the feature is that it's incredibly customizable - you aren't restricted to linear mixes of weapons. Bungie gave a lot of freedom with the dual-wielding feature and I find it to be a very key and fun feature.

Bungie seems to have followed an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" train of thought when developing Halo 2. Every enemy, including all forms of the Flood which look even more creepy than before thanks to the amazing graphics, has returned for another battle with a few new foes being introduced. The brutes are basically a cross between an Elite, a Hunter, and a gorilla. They have the intelligence and speed of the Elites, the ungodly strength of the Hunter, and the furriness of gorillas. Thankfully, these enemies aren't as common as the Drones, huge flying insects that are very weak yet incredibly annoying.

One of the biggest issues with the original Halo was the fact that the levels in the second half of the game were just the levels from the first half, except played in reverse. Bungie has stated that this was due to time constraints, as they had to complete the development of the game in time for the launch of the Xbox. This time around, Bungie had a lot more time to put more effort and detail into every level and it really shows. You battle in a variety of different areas - you start out in space, at the Cairo station, then you move to Earth, then you go to the Covenant homeland (as the Arbiter), then you go to a new Halo (as Master Chief), and so on until the end of the game, where the paths of both characters intertwine in a culminating battle against the leader of the Covenant revolt, Tarturus. Each of the levels, especially Delta Halo and Regret, have been beautifully crafted. You can throw a grenade at a rock and watch it explode into pieces. You can spend days just in awe at how amazing everything looks. The new graphics engine really shows and the cutscenes, for the most part, look breathtaking. There are a few times when the cutscenes will have issues with texture pop-ups, which can really kill the mood, but that's forgivable when you consider how much detail is in the game.

The real draw of Halo 2, as with the original, is definitely the multiplayer. Gamers can now take their competitiveness online with Xbox Live, allowing players to test their skills and rank themselves amongst the best Halo players in the world. There is a brand new selection of maps to play on, however fan-favorites Battle Creek and Blood Gulch have returned. Even though the game came out over a year and a half ago, the online community is still incredibly active. Even if you don't have Xbox Live, you can still enjoy yourself off-line by getting a friend and playing through the campaign mode in co-op mode or getting two more friends to join you for a little two-on-two split screen. You'll have fun blowing and shooting each other up, exploring the maps, or just shooting at the interactive environment. Yes, you heard right; interactive environments. A few of the maps in the game feature things such as stalactites in underground caves and explosive boxes, adding a little more depth to the gameplay.

Halo 2 takes the crown from Halo as being the best first-person shooter available on the Xbox and one of the best Xbox games period. A few shortcomings prevent it from being near-perfection, but it's an excellent game nonetheless. It's everything that the original was plus more. If you loved the original, you will absolutely adore Halo 2. This is a must-have game that should be a mandatory purchase.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 04/17/06

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