Review by honestgamer

"It's good, sure, but you're missing out if you don't have Xbox Live..."

Late last night, after my wife went to bed, I drove down to the local game shop where I had paid for my copy of Halo 2. Though I never really played through much of the first one at all, I'd been on Xbox Live enough to know that missing this game would be like owning a Nintendo system without liking Mario. So I stood in line 70 minutes, mostly on the sidewalk in the cold while some guy yelled at his dog in German, and I wondered why in the world I was so excited to be there. Sure, I wasn't the one walking around in the Master Chief outfit (though someone was), but I still couldn't help but feel that tingle of anticipation. Or maybe it was just the 40-degree temperature. Either way, the delight I felt when I finally clutched my copy of the game in hand and walked back to my car was remarkable.

Now, you may wonder why I bothered to describe the scene as I did above. The answer is simple: there's no way to separate Halo 2 from the hype machine Microsoft had working since almost the day the original was released. We've been told how this game will blow our minds, if not by the teams at Washington then by journalists and anxious gamers throughout the United States and beyond. And now that it's finally here, how does Halo 2 hold up? Does it live up to the insurmountable hype, or is it a disaster of epic proportions? Actually, neither extreme applies. It's just a really, really good game.

The main reason to like the game so much is its online component. However, it just seems wrong to describe that first. After all, many people who buy this game don't yet have Xbox Live, and they never may. For such people, there remains the absolutely sterling one-player experience.

As was the case in the first game, you start out riding a battleship through the outer reaches of space. This is not a story that takes place in the present. Rather, it unfolds more than five hundred years in the future. You are Master Chief, a warrior coming home to a celebration after your success over the alien menace that plagues the galaxy (for more on this, see the original Halo). After you get a feel for the simple controls, which have not changed since the first game, you'll accompany a superior as an elevated train takes you on a short tour of the station. Here, you are free to look around as the digitized voice drones on about typical sci-fi nonsense. Immediately, I was surprised by how much better the graphics are this time around. It's fun to watch the station, as things happen all around you. Edge over to the window, for example, and you can look down onto a tree-lined platform below as men perform their mundane tasks. Elsewhere, vessels move throughout a docking bay. And of course, there's your superior to look at, complete with a detailed and believable face.

But Halo 2 isn't about leisurely strolls around nice environments, and an attacking alien force makes that abundantly clear just a few minutes into the game. Suddenly, it's back to business as usual as you're navigating cramped corridors and blasting alien scum. Only this time around, they're smarter than I remember them being before. They make excellent use of short walls or force shields, waiting until a barrage of fire ends before flashing into view with a flurry of reciprocal shots. They'll follow you, too, which becomes a frustration if you have taken a lot of damage and need time to recover your shields. As a result of this increased alien threat, you have to plan your progression more carefully or else you'll wind up mincemeat.

You also need to plan your shots. Though this might seem obvious, I don't remember it being such a pain the last time around as it is now. Aliens take numerous shots before they fall to your assault, and they're not always simple to hit. Miss many times and you'll find your chamber clicking just when you most need some offensive force. Though this is somewhat alleviated by your ability to carry two guns at once, one in either hand, it seems like one of those guns you'll have in your possession is always the nearly-worthless plasma gun, which seems hardly to tickle your target unless you've charged the shot. I can't count the number of times I found myself with that cursed bit of metal as my only defense as enemies swarmed around me like flies on honey.

Thankfully, there are plenty of checkpoints. They occur with enough frequency that it's hardly frustrating even when Master Chief does bite the dust, simply because you know that a lot of backtracking won't be required to get back to where you screwed up most recently. There are two reasons this is good. First, you don't have to waste quite as much time blasting inconsequential enemies and hoarding your ammunition. Secondly, the areas at times look so similar that you might become lost if forced to navigate the same tunnels or passages so many times.

Of course, not every stage is precisely the same. There are long stretches where you don't just dash around on foot. Instead, you get to ride vehicles. The Warthog is back, complete with turret. You also get to joy ride in a tank or a hovercar of sorts, and each of these controls differently from the next. Though it's true that such diversions are fun in their own right, the main reason I was thankful for them was the fact that they have unlimited ammunition. It feels good to fire shots at will without worrying about exhausting the otherwise finite supply of bullets. Not only that, but they also can sustain more damage from enemy rockets, lasers or other projectiles.

So, you have the same run-and-gun setup that worked so well in the first Halo, and you have the addition of a few new vehicles. Is that the only change? Of course not. The story this time is much deeper. You'll witness the plight of a lizard-like alien who failed to stop you in the first game. Called before the council, he is sentenced to a terrible death for his critical failure. However, after he is hauled away, he soon finds himself on the pleasant end of a proposition that will spare his life. A few politicians wish for him to stop an insurgent prophet. It just so happens that Master Chief and friends are looking for that same individual. As the game progresses and the paths intertwine… well, I don't want to spoil anything. The good people at Bungie would eat me for breakfast.

Speaking of breakfast, you may well find yourself missing that and other meals if you let yourself play Halo 2 online even once. Though it was almost 2 in the morning when I got my disc home and gave it a spin in my Xbox, I soon found myself unable to resist the charm that is the online battle arena. Game after game, I told myself “Just one more round and then I'm definitely going to bed.” Then I played a few rounds more, until a few hours had passed in what felt like no time at all.

To play a game, you first choose whether or not you want to search for members of your clan (you can have tons of people in your clan if you so choose) or just find a general game. Since I don't have any clans, I decided to just try my hand at what the game calls a ‘Quick Match.' After a timer counts down, it looks for the closest possible match to any settings you specify, and then there's another timer while you wait for enough people to join that the game can begin. As many as eight people can play in a match at once, and when I played I noticed that it wasn't long before a given game filled with the maximum number of bodies.

Once everyone is ready to go, there's more waiting and people can talk in the lobby as names and player levels appear. Then you wait yet again, and it's off to the battle. The whole process takes about a minute a round, which is disappointing but perhaps understandable when you consider how many people are no doubt anxious to swap bullets.

When the game begins proper, which for me it did perfectly in all cases but one, you're thrust into the middle of a typical shooter scenario. Your copy of Master Chief drops toward the ground and you're off running to collect ammunition and armor and weapons, just like that. As I dashed around the environments, it seemed to me that there was always a ready supply of firepower, not just because of the areas where such things were spawned but because anyone who falls in combat leaves his goods scattered about his corpse.

Considering my lack of experience with the first title, it should come as no surprise that I was typically the worst player involved. As other people hopped wildly about, propelling themselves higher with grenade blasts or sniping me from distant towers, I struggled just to adjust to the concept of carrying two weapons at once. Yet no matter how overwhelmed the amount of on-screen activity had me, the game itself seemed to have no such problems. From what I saw, things moved silky-smooth. Smoke filled the air as grenades detonated and missiles slammed into walls around me. Ahead, two players engaged in a firefight that left one lifeless as the other limped away only to fly ten feet into the air after colliding with the wrong side of a rocket. It's all a joy to watch, except you can't relax for even a minute or someone may assassinate you from behind with a one-hit kill, or from a tower with a sniper rifle.

Like I said, I consider the online component the game's best moment. Sure, the single-player game is better than ever. I enjoyed riding around in all the vehicles, watching the space opera unfold, or at times just staring at the amazing architecture and beautiful water effects. Without Xbox Live, though, this is just another first-person shooter. Pick it up today by all means, regardless. Just know that the real fun can be had only online. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I feel the urge to feed some more online opponents a bullet buffet.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/09/04

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