Review by grasu

"Halo 2 comes to us to answer our greatest question: Whatever happend to Killzone?"

Halo 2 is here! And assuming you haven't waited outside a store at 12:00AM to buy the game, you might want to take note of this review. Halo 2 improves on just about everything that was a problem in Halo: it fixes the pace, furnishes more weapons, more enemies, and offers more level variety. Too bad that it still keeps the overall air of boredom that dominated the first game and introduces nothing interesting to the formula of "Shoot first, ask questions later" and "Shoot everything that moves, and if it doesn't, shoot it twice".

Graphically Halo 2 is a marvel of technology. Plugging Halo 2 into a 1080i HDTV is an orgasmic achievement for the visual senses: Halo 2 looks amazing. Shining surfaces abound, stupendous lighting fills the screen with its gleam and lush embracing heat, amazing explosions scorch the earth leaving patches of ashes on walls and floors, detailed characters die, run and fight along side and against you and there is a graphical clarity unseen in a console game before it.

The environments are brimming with detail. The foliage moves into the gentle breeze of the summer nuclear-blast, sun shines in your weapons' sights, weapons animate with unseen fluidity and fire with an array of lights, explosions and ejected cartridges, grenades explode in a multitude of colors and gases and the whole screen is filled with the sheer beauty of the conflict at hand. The battlegrounds of Halo 2 look truly spectacular, but feature no moving parts and less variety than a Uwe Boll movie.

Character models don't lag far behind environments and onscreen action. Some of the most amazing models are those of the Brutes and the Covenant Elites; they're absolutely amazing. For the lack of anything better to do and, in case you absolutely must get killed, approach one of these mighty beasts and you will even see their teeth and their silvery tongues. Character animation, while decent, could use some improvement as the squirming of your dieing team mates and enemies seems a little bit forceful. What is more concerning however is the odd lack of true rag doll physics: Rag doll effects are not totally absent but they are severely underplayed (pun not intended).

Havok physics complement the imagery, although 95% of the objects in most levels are both immovable and indestructible, which is a shame. However, in the levels that objects can be destroyed and moved, this effect is achieved with great success and the accompanying sounds, as well as the graphical shock is very appropriate.

The only real problems with the graphics are the bugs: Disappearing textures, ghosting, slowdown (which becomes unbearable in split-screen multiplayer), and a myriad of big and small bugs take away from Halo 2's graphics and hinder an otherwise graphically competent game.

Halo 2's sound is not easily described in many words; not because it's bad, but because it's really hard to define “godlike”. The music is inspiring, the dialogue makes you feel right at home and the sound effects pack a satisfying punch.

The music is a divine delight, with a crescendo of opera quality tenors, amazing orchestral pieces that are perfectly placed and play exactly at the appropriate times, and thumping tribal beats that accompany the action on screen and achieve a stupendous effect. Furthermore, Halo 2 might feature, bar none, the best voice acting in an FPS game, ever. The voice acting is absolutely amazing and it seems that there is an infinity of channels through which voices are directed at the player, for I have never had ANY of these voices superimpose over each other. The dialogue is also a strike of genius. It's well made, funny, witty and entertaining. Never over the top and never boring, it's what in-game dialogue should be.

The sound effects are equally impressive. Starting from the clarity of the voice chat on Xbox live which allows for the “sweet” joy of listening to prepubescent boys and immature 20-something guys swear like a bunch of drunken sailors in crystal clear quality and continuing with the satisfyingly rich ra-ta-ta-tat of the machine guns or the chirping of the crickets in some level, these amazing sound effects accompany the action like in few video games.

But as there is no rose without thorns, Halo 2 also has its thorns: While there are only 2 thorns on Halo's rose, they're placed in the most inconvenient places: Multiplayer and gameplay. Needless to say that Halo 2 supersedes any console FPS game in both of these areas, but who is comparing Halo 2 with Killzone?!

Sarcasm aside, the Halo series' biggest draws is definitely the story. Bluntly put however, the story in Halo was weak and overrated, but compared to Halo 2's story it's like a Shakespearean play. This so-called “epic” has no twists that are either a) not taken out of tired cliches, b) surprising. Halo 2 doesn't end in a cliffhanger, it ends in disgrace; it doesn't have surprising twists or truly great characters, it's just a bunch of mundane sci-fi refuse. Worse yet though, to spite fans further Halo 2 suffers from the MGS2-syndrome, it switches characters on many-a-occasion throughout the course of the campaign.

That's not to say however that Halo 2 is as bad as its story. In fact Halo 2 brings much to the franchise in terms of pacing: Gameplay has been sped up, weapons are more powerful, dual wielding guns adds a ton of enjoyment to a pretty stale system and offers players a much greater killing power than before and levels, while boring, are much better structured. And while Halo 2 might be devoid of truly cool new mechanics, thanks to its new pace it does many things right.

In addition to the better pace Halo 2 brings new weapons to the “party”. These new instruments of death fit the futuristic bill perfectly and create a much wider selection of sniper rifles, assault rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers. Better yet these weapons are stronger, more powerful and can actually kill something every now and then if properly aimed. Needless to say they come in handy when dealing with the new monsters and beasties that Bungine has spawned up.

And speaking of monsters the Covenant have been powered up with the introduction of Brutes, mammoth creatures that are strong, well armed and VERY deadly and an abundance of Banshees and Ghosts which will, more often than not, step on both your nerves and your ego. Old creatures from the previous game also make a reappearance featuring either new armoring (in the case of the Covenant Elites) or small touchups and redesigns. As expected a whole new slew of power-ups are also present ranging from extra shields and even invisibility.

Halo 2 also features a few new vehicles such as tanks and artillery which pretty much fit the bill as far as destruction and mayhem go and driving around in one of these babies makes for some of the best levels in the whole game. Of course all the old vehicles return. Hogs, Ghosts, Banshees and other walking instruments of destruction are all back unaltered.

If only an FPS would be a shopping list, in that case Halo 2 might've been one of the best FPSes ever made. However, it's not, and there's many compelling reasons for why this is not so. Let's begin with the AI however, since it's a piece of heavenly delight: The enemy AI in this game is genius, pure and simple. It cannot only spot you at some 3-6 kilometers distance but it has ungodly aim and it uses tactics better than anything I've had the experience of seeing before. This makes Halo 2 very challenging, which should please gamers looking for a hard FPS. The problem is unfortunately that the AI is not the reason why Halo 2 is hard. Despite Halo 2's genius AI, Bungie saw it fit to LITERALLY spawn enemies out of monster closets. Enemies appear everywhere, and this gets both irritating and boring really quickly, and it completely undermines the AI transforming Halo 2 into a shooting gallery.

In addition to the spawning there's a batch of other issues which, instead of making the game genuinely hard, just make it genuinely annoying. First, the monsters are extremely repetitive: It seems the Covenant is running a clone factory as there are just a handful of new designs and the horrible half-smart and 3-times-as-strong Flood returns, this time, enhanced. The Flood levels had me pulling my hair out in frustration – and this was on the normal difficulty. Better yet, thanks to claustrophobic environments you'll find yourself repeating the same section of a level 20-30 times due to a combination of poorly placed checkpoints and the all encompassing shield which cannot be recharged ANYWHERE as most levels tend to not have any cover to hide behind… at all.
In the levels where you play as the other character (the Flood levels, mostly) this combination of claustrophobia, bad shields and massive monster spawning becomes downright infuriating.

And now back to a favorite subject among Halo aficionados: The levels. Bungie really needs to hire new level designers since the levels in Halo 2 put me to sleep. If you were among those who were hysterical about Doom 3's levels, then stay far away from Halo 2 – while not as mundane and offensive, the design of the actual battlegrounds makes me want to barf, here's an example: In one of the final levels of the game the same section must've been cut and pasted at least 5 to the point where the whole level was composed of 3 sequences, cut and pasted ad nauseum. What's more though is that, even from a gameplay perspective, these levels are totally horrendous: There isn't enough cover for players to hide behind and recharge their shields, there aren't any alternate pathways, there are huge amounts of backtracking to be done, etc. One thing does ameliorate things a little bit and that's the variety of tile sets, which is much greater than in the original Halo. Just don't expect anything original or out of the ordinary.

All of this might be passable if only Halo 2's battles wouldn't look like shooting galleries. Bungie must have been under the influence of strong drugs when they FORCED players to clear out area by area, ala Serious Sam, while fighting against marvelous AI in a game with a “story” and scripted events. What's worse is that these “area clearings” take anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes and are constant throughout the game. And while for the first 4-5 hours this is fun it quickly becomes tedious and by the end, with all the frustration and artificial difficulty, it gets downright boring: During the final levels, as I was being assaulted by endless amounts of all kinds of baddies I had to attempt clearing the same room RE-style 20 times just to finish ONE measly sequence. This way most battles become boring.

Halo 2 saves its self miraculously however with a few formidable battles that make this game truly stand out from the crop of console FPSes. One such battle involves dropping from a platform onto a moving tank and stopping it in order to stop an impending attack on a major city. Perfectly accompanied by music, screams, gun shots, reloads and superb graphics this is, by far, the best part of Halo 2; too bad that for every one of these parts you have to suffer through 2 or 3 shooting galleries.

Controls will always be a problem with FPS games and Halo 2 admirably tries to solve this, it still leaves much to be desired. In the single player portion of the game can be easily tackled with the controller in hand, thanks due in part to the great design of the S Controller, when it comes to quick turns and dead zones, it's just impossible for a controller to match the precision of a mouse. In multiplayer this is not really that much of a problem, as enemies don't constantly jump at you but the lack of definite accuracy lends itself to some major changes in gameplay: Shotguns and close range weapons becoming wholly preferred to other weapons that require more delicate aim and control.

On to the multiplayer, which for a console game is great, so the comparisons with Killzone should abound for the rule of the console multiplayer kingdom. Jokes aside, Halo 2 suffers from two big problems in its online component: lag and controls.

The control problem doesn't deal as much with the actual control as it does with adapting: It's nearly impossible for an inexperienced player with a controller (i.e. a PC FPS gamer) to keep up with people who have played with controllers all their lives. Now, it may seem preposterous to downgrade a game due to the follies of a certain group, but we're talking about experienced FPS players that might not have problems handling other games with a mouse and keyboard but are unable to do so because Halo 2 is not mouse/KB compatible.

Lag is the second big problem that plagues Halo 2 and it rears its ugly head only in situations where many players are involved. This makes Big Team Battles nearly impossible to play without lag: That's utterly idiotic when we're only talking about 16 players. No server in the world, especially not one that is paid for by both the money from selling the game AND by a separate fee should succumb to this minimal pressure.

A myriad of other problems abound. From weapon imbalances, which make every small map, a run for the shotgun, sword, or RPG to the fact that sometimes 16 players just isn't enough to play the Halo 2's huge, sprawling maps. Another odd problem deals with server selection: Why the hell can't I join a game in progress? Better yet, why can't I just see a list of games in progress or waiting for players to join? Or, why can't I just keep a server running with the same map and the same people for as long as I want? Halo 2 does have a ton of useless features (such as 200 ways to organize your buddy list) but apparently it's unable to provide full, 24/7 servers running the same map. It's like we're back in the Stone Age! Finally there is also Xbox Live which, besides the fact that it apparently has as much bandwith as a cheap DSL line, is plagued by 13-year-olds who swear like drunken sailors, imbeciles and people who take games way to seriously.

Not everything is bad however and kudos must be given where they are due: Halo 2 has so many game settings and game types that it will leave you stunned. No game that I've ever seen has this many settings – that includes PC games which have been ding the online thing for decades now. One can play everything from assault (bombing the other party's base), regular deathmatch, team deathmatch, and others to Hog War (a game type where players can only kill using Hogs, Halo 2's main vehicle).

One publisher quoted that Halo 2 is "a total overload for the senses". That may be too much to say but it's certain that Halo 2 is an improved game. The original was plagued by horribly slow gunfights, tons of framerate dips and no online support - Bungie has solved all of those problems.

Now if they could only balance the game out and stop with the shooting galleries we would really have an A+ FPS game able to compete with the best the PC has to offer.

Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 10/10
Gameplay: 7/10
Multiplayer 6/10
Overall: 8/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 01/03/05, Updated 02/06/06

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