Review by ZFS

"Master Chief has touched down. His mission? Sell millions of copies in hours."

The day is November 9th, 2004. The time is 12:00 AM. Where were you at? Me? I was sitting in line at my local game store waiting for it to pull out the first copy of the Halo 2 Collector's Edition. November 9th is widely regarded as one of the biggest days in video game, and entertainment history, as it marked the release of Halo 2. Microsoft was holding parties in Time Square, 1.5 million people across the United States were standing in line waiting anxiously for their copy. The big question is this: Did the game live up to the hype surrounding it? It lived up to it and then some.

When you first pop the disc into your Xbox you'll be met with a variety of different screens labeling Microsoft Game Studios, the Xbox load up screen, etc. but nothing will prepare you for Bungie's introduction. Why? It sets the tone perfectly for just how kick ass this game is going to be. The electric guitar starts to bust out the rock type Halo theme and it just starts the beginning of many days you will never leave your room. While on the subject of guitar, rock, and music let me point out and say that Halo 2 has one of the best soundtracks ever created in a video game. There are a wide variety of different songs that will kick in at different points in the game right before a large fight or some epic moment -- and let me tell you, there are many of them. For example, in one of the initial levels on earth you'll be fighting a large Scarab as you cross a bridge. Once you get to certain spot a loud guitar playing a rock version of the Halo theme will get you setup for the Covenant ass you are about to kick. This is just one of many examples of how influential the music is to the overall game package. The variety of fast-paced songs to a more slow and brooding type of music will be upon you with each different level you play. It really is the definition of the word -- soundtrack.

One of the newest additions to Halo 2 is also the ability to play as a Covenant Elite named the "Arbiter." This really adds a whole new dynamic to the game because you are now able to see what goes on when you aren't blasting away the Covenant. Despite how this may sound, Bungie did an excellent job of correctly carrying this out. You can start off playing a few of Master Chief's missions, but once you get to a certain part in the storyline it will switch over the Covenant portion of the story. At this point you'd be playing as the Arbiter in one of his many missions he'll be sent on.

Another new addition to the game is the ability to dual-wield weaponry. That's right; you are now able to combine a SMG and a Plasma Rifle. This makes choosing your weapons a lot more strategic than it was before -- especially since there is no overpowered Pistol to get in the way. During your game time you'll find that some weapons have better combinations than others and what weapons will give you distinct advantages over others. It may not sound like the greatest innovation in the world, and it really isn't, but just having that option of using a Covenant weapon or a Human weapon makes thinks a lot more interesting than before. Dual-wielding aside, the weapon selection in general for Halo 2 is actually quite balanced in comparison to Halo: Combat Evolved. For those who don't know, in the original Halo the only weapon you ever needed was the Pistol. It was incredibly broken an unbalanced, but thankfully, Bungie was able to tone down weapons to create more of a "rock-paper-scissors" deal. One of your weapons may overpower another, but someone is bound to have a weapon that outdoes yours. Overall, it is very nice.

Okay, I'm sure you've seen those old 70's and 80's movies, correct? You know the ones with the horrible Technicolor? Well, think of those as the original Halo and think of a HD movie as Halo 2. What am I getting at, you ask? The graphics. Halo 2 is such a serious upgrade over the original Halo that it is almost jaw dropping. Master Chief has gotten a complete upgrade with a new suit and everything. The details put into him get right down to the scratches from battle on his armor and if that wasn't enough Bungie also got with the times and allowed you to see your legs and feet when you jump. That may not sound like something big, but just adding that big more of realism in not just seeing a shadow when you jump goes a long way. Speaking of which, the lighting effects are beautiful. During some of the missions you'll run into many dark places where the light will just bounce right off a wall and create an almost photorealistic scene. It really does just immerse you in the environment completely. There are few games I've ran into that really just put you into an area and make you go, "Wow, this place is huge," but Halo 2 manages to do it wonderfully. Many of the environments are just so massive that it gives you this feeling that you're just one small soldier on a planet. The first Halo really didn't give you this feeling and if you've played it, this would be a colossal upgrade. All in all, I'd really say the improvement in graphical power from Halo to Halo 2 is just exponential. Everything looks cleaner, crisper, and the environments are just so immersive. It's an absolute dream of a game to see.

Now, one of the best things about the Halo series in general is that it features a gripping story. Yes, yes I know FPS' are not supposed have stories that grab you as you play, but Halo is just one of these. Fortunately, Halo 2 leaves off right where the first ended. A sole Elite is being blamed for not stopping Master Chief at Reach from blowing up that first Halo ring. The Prophets tell him he's to be left out from the "Journey." As it turns out this character will prove to be more than what the Prophets asked for. Back on the human side of things, Master Chief is just getting his new suit and being awarded a medal for his bravery and courage at Reach -- this happens to be at the earth's defense unit. It isn't to long after that the Covenant has sent troops to earth and it's up to Master Chief to step up as the world's hero and last stand. His mission? Finish this fight. As you go along you'll notice more complexities to the story and even more twists and turns along the way. I was thoroughly impressed by how deep the story got. For those people who love to have stories in their game there is no doubt you'll fall in love with Halo 2.

To branch off of the story, Halo 2's campaign is also excellent. It features roughly 15 missions that will take you 15-20 hours to fully complete. You'll get to explore a wide variety of different areas such as the High Charity, Mombassa, and Waterworks. Each of these different missions you'll have a few objectives that you are required to complete. You might be sent to kill a specific person or just reach a certain location to report Intel to your other comrades. One of the coolest moments in the campaign is when you are playing on the Covenant side as the Arbiter. Reinforcements have just arrived at small based in a dark and snowy environment. There are a couple of Plasma Turrets around, and a few of you against a mass swarm of enemies. You need to defend this outpost as if it was something of a "last stand." Enemies are swarming from all sides and your friends are fighting and dying beside you. It's moments like these in Halo 2 that just really make you enjoy every moment you play. This is one of the many times you'll run into a situation where you just feel a rush of pride after coming out of a tight fight. Another good thing about the campaign is how the "save," or "checkpoint," is carried out. Like most FPS games in this era, if you are somehow killed throughout the course of a mission you'll be warped back to the last "Checkpoint." For a campaign with so many risks, this really makes everything so much easier on the person playing. After every major fight, or encounter, you'll quickly see a little flash saying "Checkpoint. . . done," and it's virtually non-existent on slowing down the game. You'll notice a small drop in frame rate when this happens, but it's nothing that hinders the game play.

While the campaign is great, the real meat of Halo 2 revolves around the superb multiplayer. In this you'll compete in a bunch of different levels with such options as Slayer (your basic deathwatch), Team Slayer, Capture the Flag, Assault (plant the bomb in the opposing team's base), etc. You can either play with each other on a team or just go in an all out free-for-all. The customization of it is just so deep. You can set the starting weapons, the amount of kills, the different turrets or power-ups on the field, and even create your own special setup and save it as a game type. Bungie really went in-depth to create the best console FPS multiplayer experience you'll find. You have control over everything imaginable in the setup of the multiplayer match. With this ability it makes it so that the matches you'll play never end up becoming stale or repetitive like some shooters may fall prone too. One of the coolest options, though, is the just to have "Swords." The biggest and newest weapon to hit the Halo universe is the Covenant Energy Sword. Why? It's a one hit kill when the reticule glows red. This makes matches with friends do one thing: become chaotic. Imagine playing through a dark, purple area with closer quarters; you jump from a high point and come flying from the air and slice a friend from above and quickly spin around to take out another unsuspecting victim. You'll receive an "assassination" award and just get a rush of adrenaline as you've done all of that in a matter of 30 seconds. It's a great feeling and having your friend right there just adds to the excitement of the game.

Now, the best has come for last: Xbox Live. That is right people; Halo 2 is Xbox Live compatible. You may be asking yourself, "How exactly is it online," to answer the question its perfection. Once you get signed in and create an Xbox Live gamer tag you'll be thrown into what's called a "Pre-game lobby." In here, you have the ability to create your own match, invite friends, create a clan, or go into an option called "Optimatch." This will basically allow you to choose what game type you want to be thrown into and it'll connect you and seven other players into a random game within the game type. If you wanted to play a game with seven other people on Slayer you could choose the option and let it do the work for you. It's very simplistic and connects you to a game so quickly that there is hardly any downtime to speak of. As soon as you pick what you want, roughly a minute later you're in the game shooting down a bunch of random people you may or may not know. Being able to use the headset while doing all of this is also awesome. In team matches, such as Capture the Flag, using a headset to communicate will be vital to the success of your team. You could tell your team to look out for the sniper above the sea wall in Zanzibar or make note to them that you have the flag and need cover quickly. It really adds to the enjoyment factor of the game. Being able to communicate with these people is just a blast because they are there for the same purpose as you: to have fun kicking ass.

The neatest thing, aside from actually playing the game, is the deep stat tracking system. Every time you complete a match your stats are transferred directly to Bungie for them to post on their website. This is single handedly the deepest stat tracking in a game ever -- even eclipsing the one prior Unreal Tournament 2004 tracking. You can see maps of where you died, who killed you, and what weapon they used to do the deed. It's just crazy how deep this system goes. Furthermore, there is also an assorted amount of "experience" you'll gain per match. Every time you do well in a particular match your level might increase. This doesn't really affect your overall game so much as it shows how good you've progressed. Initially, you'll rise in level as long as you place decently, but as you start working your way up it'll force you to start placing in at 1st to increase. It's more reflective of skill than anything. All in all, if you are purchasing Halo 2 and don't Xbox Live make sure to go out of your way to spend the extra cash to buy a subscription. If you never play any other mode, playing on Xbox Live will satisfy you until Halo 3.

At the end of the day what is there to say about Halo 2? It's fantastic. If there were ever a game to live up to the hype surrounding it this would be the game. The story is deep and complex enough to hold you through the campaign while the multiplayer will keep you coming back for, literally, years after you first buy the game. It's not only the best FPS of all-time, but in my opinion it is clearly one of the best games of all-time. If you were thinking, "Hey, maybe I'll get an Xbox," do yourself a favor and make sure Halo 2 is the game you purchase to go along with it. You will not be disappointed in the slightest.

Remember: November 9th, where were you?

Hail to the Chief!

Final Score: 9.0

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/06/04, Updated 05/30/06

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