Review by bluberry

"Ladies like armor plating."

I never cared for Rainbow Six. While the idea of leading your own personal squad through an unrelenting series of skirmishes was right up my alley, Ubi Soft's acclaimed series focused far too much on nitty-gritty details and meticulous planning for my twitch-happy taste. That's probably why I loved the original Halo so much; having a bunch of Marines backing up your bloody rampages was enthralling, and the minimal amount of control you had over their behavior kept the game from becoming a festival of micromanagement. Sure, the devious enemies helped speed things along, as did the seamlessly implemented vehicles that broke up the admittedly wearying levels, but it was really the legions of soldiers assisting you, though, that made Halo the classic it is. Bungie sure as hell knew it, too, as saying that Halo 2 capitalizes on that component of its predecessor is like saying that Prince is awesome: a gross understatement.

Make no mistake about it, well-armed infantry fight by your side far more often in this sequel to the smash-hit launch game, and both their tactics and sharpshooting are leagues better than in previous outings. I was amazed at how well they attempt to surround, flank, and generally stick it to the mean old aliens. Even sharper is their proficiency with vehicles; having one of them drive the jeep while you man the turret was simply unheard of in the last game, but becomes a common event in this follow-up. Surprisingly, though, the most striking feature that your warriors possess is the unrivaled level of personality each and every one of them exudes. They'll make observations about the skirmishes going on around them, taunt their nemeses both before and after slaughtering them, express their fear in current situations, and even try to socialize with the imposing hulk of emerald armor otherwise known as the Master Chief. There's no assembly line of Marines, but rather an entire corps of individuals that you'll actually begin to "know" throughout your battles.

In fact, fighting with a group of your buddies becomes so engrossing that you'll often forget how downright [excrement]ty portions of the game can be without them. Sadly, so did Bungie. Stages such as an ancient research station, which an alien heretic has chosen to make his headquarters due to the thick orange gas clouds concealing it, are of the same design school as the original's Library: the same two damn rooms over and over, without vehicles to break up the monotony. Plus, these abhorrent stages have a tendency to not give you many allies with which to fight, further entrenching themselves in repetition. It's just you, a bunch of corridors, and your enemies. Kind of like Quake II, except sucky. Also, locales such as the expansive, chaotic tundras of the Quarantine Zone lack a sense of direction or progress, which often results in confusion and frustration. Whatever happened to the last game's liberal employment of navigation markers?

Outside of two or three rotten missions, though, the game is nothing but manly action. One of the earlier levels pits you and a half-dozen soldiers against alien infantry and snipers in the outskirts of a beige metropolis ravaged by war. Urban skirmishes amidst the electric wires, decrepit parks and crumbling hotels are plentiful for the first half of the stage, while the latter half forces you to commandeer a small battalion of tanks and jeeps in order to plow your way through the beaches and tunnels leading to the heart of the city. It isn't one of those games that just has one or two good levels either. Whether you're negotiating the gondolas and subaqueous tunnels that crisscross throughout a breathtakingly calm lake, battling your way through a Covenant city while opposing alien factions carry out assaults on one another, or repelling a series of boarding parties from both inside and outside the enormous Cairo space station, Halo 2 almost never lets up on the action.

Fortunately, the mostly impressive stage design is backed up by a wide range of opposing forces, ranging from the tall, shielded Elites that fight clad in their trademark blue armor to the gorilla-esque Brutes whose grenade launchers make the last third of the game a pain in the ass. They also happen to be some of the smartest bastards to ever grace an FPS; the Covenant are always attempting new methods of outflanking, outgunning, and generally outdoing your efforts. It's tough not to be impressed when one of them distracts your attention so that his buddy can sneak up from behind and cut you to ribbons with his sparkling energy sword. They also interact well with their surroundings; I vividly remember the time one of the hulking Hunters smashed aside the purple crate I was cowering behind... right before beating my skull in. Even the dwarfish Grunts act accordingly, fiercely assisting their squad leader's assaults and noisily dispersing upon his death.

You might occasionally stop your offensive, though, if only to soak in the epic soundtrack. The masterful (if sporadic) compositions never fail to excite, and range from a hard rock song cued during an enormous skirmish in a purple alien mausoleum to a mysterious, low-key drum beat that accompanies the beachhead assault of your final mission. Equally thrilling is Halo 2's story, one that takes some unexpected turns and factors heavily into the campaign without making things an interactive movie a la Metal Gear Solid. The only truly bad part is the abrupt ending; the unwarranted cliffhanger leaves a bad taste in your mouth in place of anything resembling closure. Luckily, you won't just relegate the game to your bookshelf after smashing through it once. The exponentially more difficult (and rewarding) Legendary mode will entertain for eons, as taking on even the smallest pack of wimps on this brutal skill setting requires a perfectly planned and expertly executed strategy.

Even if you manage to polish that off, you'll come back time and time again for the excellent multiplayer, especially the astounding co-op mode. I don't even need to tell you how much more fun Halo 2 is when you've got your best friend fighting the good fight alongside you. Plain old deathmatch is also present, and certainly a much more balanced mode than the original's. No single weapon, whether it be the uniquely satisfying shotgun or the decidedly foreign plasma rifle, stands far above the others like the first game's overpowered, scoped pistol did. Well, maybe the energy sword, but who the hell would use a sword in an FPS? The vehicles, like the triumphantly powerful tanks and the highly maneuverable alien fighter planes, are also kept in check thanks to new abilities such as hopping onto them and bludgeoning their driver or planting a grenade inside their engine. Plus, there are tons of unique scenarios, from the always hectic capture the flag to the ever uneven king of the hill matches.

Undoubtedly the strongest part, though, are the perfectly fine-tuned maps. Thanks to their well laid out mix of corridors and open spaces, the melees never fail to create absolute chaos, even with the conspicuous absence of computer controlled "bots". The excellent online play keeps almost every game chock full of participants, even if the menu system is a bit convoluted. There's hardly ever a moment when grenades aren't flying all over the place like snowflakes in December, when the air isn't full of deadly sniper and machinegun fire, or when alien gliders aren't speeding all over the place with people trying their damnedest to give their riders the boot. There's an odd sort of order amidst the chaos, though, and an inexplicable joy that comes with Ramboing your way through the fields of doom and death, snagging the enemy's flag, and bolting it back to your own base. Obviously, swearing ensues.

Most importantly, though, this game deftly avoids the sequel trap that's been plaguing the industry for years. Metal Gear Solid 2 had an oddly paced story that ate up way too much of the overall experience, Devil May Cry 2 flushed away all the depth and nuance that made the original the classic it is, and Super Mario Sunshine sucked. Halo 2 suffers none of these problems, sporting both a legendary multiplayer mode and a solid single-player campaign marred only by a handful of horrible levels. The suitably beefed up graphics engine, stirring soundtrack, and engrossing (if abruptly ending) plot certainly don't hurt. Is it as perfect as the hype and/or flaming ninja chase comparisons would have you believe? No, but it's still a crapload of fun, which is really all that counts.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/16/04

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