Review by smansell927

"In a word, fantastic."

Well, I'm a little late to this party, given that Halo 3 has already come out, but I finally got around to finishing Halo 2. Now this was a ride! Halo 2 proves why the Halo series is so beloved by its fans, and why it sets the standard for game quality in the industry.

Critics frequently point out the Halo series' lack of innovation, but this charge misses the point. True, there is almost nothing in any of the Halo games that was not first in some other first-person shooter series. The big gameplay additions to Halo 2 (dual weapon wielding, hijacking vehicles, and online multiplayer) certainly had been done before. What distinguishes Halo 2, though, is the exceptional level of polish on all of the disparate elements that make the game as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Nearly every first-person shooter on consoles has the same basic control scheme (due in no small part to the success of the original Halo); in no other game do the controls feel as responsive and natural. Most shooters have variants of the same weapon classes (pistols, machine guns, sniper rifles, melee weapons), but in Halo they are so well balanced that you will find yourself using all of them during the course of the game depending on the situation and the types of enemies you are facing. The two-gun maximum carrying capacity lends an element of strategy: do I take a bigger gun for which I have less ammunition (like a rocket launcher or Brute shot), or do I take smaller guns with more ammo but less stopping power if I run into a Hunter or group of Brutes? Every element in the game seems perfectly planned out, which makes for a fresh and constantly fun and exciting experience.

Let me start with the story, which is the skeleton upon which the remainder of the game hangs. What Halo 2's story lacks in subtlety (being a grand space opera and all), it makes up for in excitement and great characters. As Master Chief, you are charged with saving humanity from the aggression of several alien races. In the original Halo, most of the game was spent fighting against one of the alien factions (the Covenant), with another faction (the Flood) appearing late in the game. In Halo 2, things get a little more complicated. The war between the Covenant and the Flood becomes even more intense, diverting some of the Covenant's attention away from humanity. Indeed, fissures begin to emerge within the Covenant itself (which is composed of several alien races), and alliances shift late in the game. Former enemies become allies, and former allies become enemies. Much of this is the result of the introduction of a new Covenant race, the Brutes, who are gorilla-like creatures with powerful Machiavellian tendencies. The Brutes have their sights set upon becoming the dominant race in the Covenant coalition, and are trying to replace the Elites, a reptilian race that comprised much of the enemy force in the original Halo. All of this leads to a cliffhanger ending that, while heavily criticized at the time, makes sense within the framework of the story and sets the stage perfectly for Halo 3.

The characters in the game are especially well-done, if not necessarily well-rounded. Master Chief is, of course, as cool as any other video game character created to date. His constant companion, the artificial intelligence construct Cortana, provides a strong female lead, even if “female” is not a technically correct term for a hologram. The uber-space marine Sergeant Johnson provides plenty of comic relief with his over-the-top macho remarks. Even the basic enemies and non-player characters are well done. Each of the alien races has its own distinctive personality, from the amusing but cowardly Grunts who run away when the odds are against them, to the malevolent Brutes, who charge at you when wounded. The AI-controlled marines with whom you often fight alongside will frequently deliver great one-liners.

However, the real star of the Halo 2 show is The Arbiter, an Elite commander who is punished by the Covenant hierarchy for his failures in the war against the humans. He is given the opportunity to atone for his failures by becoming an Arbiter. Arbiters are appointed by the Covevant leaders to perform important but incredibly dangerous missions. It is impossible to discuss Halo 2 adequately without discussing The Arbiter, because, in a twist reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 2, you end up playing at least a third of the game as The Arbiter. The Arbiter is no Raiden, though – he is a soldier driven by a sense of honor to do what is best for his people, and he will quickly earn your respect. I found myself engrossed in The Arbiter's story, and anxious to see what happened to him next. On the practical side, he controls nearly identically to Master Chief, except that his battle suit can distort light for short bursts, allowing him to become invisible. Theoretically, this allows for stealth kills, but I never used the feature much.

Graphically, Halo 2 is definitely a solid title. The art design is fantastic, with colorful outdoor environments and great character design. Especially noteworthy is how well the characters animate. The frame rate is smooth as silk, yet another sign of the great polish that went into the game. Although later Xbox games pushed the technical envelope a little further, with fancier textures and lighting, there is no way anyone can say that Halo 2 is not a good-looking game.

The music and sound effects are even more polished. The soundtrack is flat-out phenomenal. From the rousing main theme to the orchestral performances that play during the levels, every piece of music complements the game and is enjoyable to hear. The voice acting is top-notch, with not a weak performance in the bunch. In fact, the level of quality matches or exceeds that found in major Hollywood animated features. The sound effects are also exceptional. Each gun sounds different but appropriate, and explosions will rock your home theater system.

Halo 2 is simply a must-play for every gamer. It is one of the five best games of the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era, along with Resident Evil 4, Final Fantasy X, and a couple of others. This is the definitive console first-person shooter experience.

Graphics: 9/10 – Silky-smooth framerate and great art direction.
Sound: 10/10 – Amazing soundtrack, excellent voice-acting to go with it.
Story: 8/10 – Very well-done for a first-person shooter.
Gameplay: 10/10 – Perfect controls that set the standard for console first-person shooters, with intelligent enemies who put up a great fight. You will have fun throughout.
Overall: 10/10 – In a word, fantastic.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 02/15/08

Game Release: Halo 2 (US, 11/09/04)

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