Review by Rottenwood

"With A Little Marketing, This Game Could Be A Hit"

(I don't use the X-Box Live service - nothing against the service itself; I just don't do much on-line gaming - and as such, cannot comment on Halo 2's multiplayer options. From what I've heard, the multiplayer content is fabulous, so my score might be a bit higher if I had access to it.)

I was one of the few gamers who wasn't especially fond of the original Halo, and I've caught various amounts of flak for that. While I respected the game's solid action and terrific presentation, I thought it lacked personality, and I found the game to be grindingly repetitious in certain areas. Despite my obscure criticisms, though, the game went on to sell eighty gazillion copies, and thus a blockbuster sequel was inevitable. After years of hype, Halo 2 has landed, and I must admit, I'm impressed. While the game lacks a solid ending and doesn't show any real gameplay evolution from the original, it has a much bigger dose of charm than its predecessor. I doubt many people will note 'increased soldier personality' as a major selling point of the game, but it sure worked on me. And even if you could care less about wacky dialogue, if you want a terrific-looking action game with a cinematic feel, Halo 2 will certainly fill that need for you.

Halo 2 takes place right after the original ends. Even though the wily Master Chief and his holographic sidekick Cortana took out Halo (a big-ass ring of intergalactic death), that pesky little Monitor managed to sneak off while the madness ensued. And wouldn't you know it? There's another Halo, right around the corner and all ready to blow up half the galaxy. Add in the plasma-fueled antics of the 'evil' Covenant, and the stage is set for another bloody romp through the cosmos.

One of the game's big changes is that you'll step out of the Master Chief's shoes now and then, to play as one of the Covenant. With this in mind, the Covenant get a lot more story of their own, and they're no longer just a bunch of evil aliens with bizarre skin tones. They'll still try to kill you, of course, but at least they have specific motives this time. And that has to count for something. In many ways, the Covenant sections of the game are more interesting, as their interspecies holy war is a bit more intriguing than the usual save-the-world antics of Master Chief and company.

The gameplay is basically the same as the original Halo, with a few minor additions. There are new weapons, of course, including the highly enjoyable energy sword (or whatever it's called), and dependable human guns like an SMG and a modified battle rifle. There are a few others as well, which I'd hate to spoil here. One of my beefs with the original Halo was the uninspired weapon selection, and that problem has been remedied here quite well, with more exotic fare with which to shoot critters with. The two grenade types are back as well, and the adhesive plasma grenades are still wildly entertaining - just stick 'em to a bad guy, and watch him run around like a madman as he awaits an explosive death. Some enemies will also run at you kamikaze-style when you stick a grenade to them, which can be both exciting and frustrating. Remember, kids: don't play with high explosives. In any event, the sword is easily the best new weapon, adding some fast and potent short-range combat to the Halo repertoire.

And of course, Halo just wouldn't be Halo without the vehicular madness. The much-beloved Warthog and Scorpion are back, along with those flying purple deathtraps that we just can't get enough of. The land vehicles are destructible now, so you can't be quite as reckless behind the wheel as you once were. (At least, not for very long.) This caused me a bit of annoyance, as I lost my Warthog halfway through the highway tunnel level, and I had to hoof it the rest of the way. Your soldier allies will hop onto the turret and side seats as always, to both help you kill aliens and to criticize your driving. Hearing a trooper call out "shotgun!" before nabbing the side seat is a terrific touch.

In fact, Halo 2's best new feature is the much-improved soldier A.I. and voice-acting. In the first Halo, the troopers were basically generic grunts who got killed all too easily. They had a few good lines, but were essentially cannon fodder or walking ammunition refills. This isn't the case here in Halo 2, as the soldiers fight pretty darn well, and can back you up quite solidly. Better yet, many of them are voiced by Hollywood actors, who bring a lot of personality to the table. I actually stopped advancing for a bit just to hear my soldiers share a funny argument, made all the funnier since they were played by comedian David Cross, and the red-haired chick from That 70's Show. Two random celebrities as rifle-toting grunts = high entertainment value. Julie Benz, an engaging villainess from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is surprisingly well-cast as Miranda Keyes, the spunky daughter of Commander Keyes from the original Halo. And of course, the voices of Master Chief, Cortana, and that pesky Monitor are as well-played as ever. Special mention must go to the aforementioned David Cross, and Michelle Rodriguez, both of whom provide a truckload of inspired dialogue to the table. The fact that these two successful actors (and others) would play regular troopers in this game is a testament to Halo's popularity, without a doubt. Rodriguez provides her soldier with her trademark mix of flirty fun and gung-ho toughness, while Cross is going strictly for laughs, and he succeeds quite admirably. I'm sure that some will argue that Cross' jokiness undermines the seriousness of the action and conflict, but in my eyes, it made the game a lot more fun. I actually found myself protecting their respective soldiers carefully, so they'd be with me for as long as possible. Very few games can make minor characters endearing, and Halo 2 does just that.

I'd also like to comment on the shielding system for a bit. As in the original Halo, you don't have the usual mix of armor and health. You have an energy field that can absorb some damage, but after that goes down, you can only take a few more shots before you die. However, your energy field will recharge if you stop taking fire for a short while. This system encourages a more enjoyable kind of first-person shooter action, since you can take SOME damage at no permanent loss to yourself, as long as you find safe cover periodically. This allows you to be a bit more hell-for-leather and trigger-happy, and that's a good thing indeed.

The artificial intelligence of the enemy is as solid as ever. Enemies with rechargeable shielding systems - much like your own - will often try to retreat when their shield is shot down, and they'll wait to recharge before heading back into the fray. It's nice to play a shooter where the enemies aren't any more eager to die than I am. And the cowardly little Covenant grunts are as amusing as ever, especially when they run off with their arms flailing, screaming like banshees. Some new enemies, such as flying bug-like critters and the neat-looking Honor Guards, help to keep things fresh. I still maintain that the Covenant alien designs are not especially inspired, but hey, that's just me. (As a concession, I will admit to enjoying Cortana's new haircut. Very chic.)

While I'm not normally a fan of the sequelitis syndrome that gaming suffers from, Halo 2 handles the situation well. When you're the Master Chief, you'll hear your allies cheer you on and celebrate your kills, and generally let you know that they're honored to be fighting with a legendary hero. It's a great touch, and it fills you with a sense of pride for your past accomplishments. (Assuming, of course, you personally beat the original Halo.) The Monitor's inevitable entrance is handled with the right amount of anticipation and menace; in fact, everyone in the room with me gave a little cheer as his off-key humming hit the speakers. Making a fun villain out of a little flying robo-ball is no small feat.

You won't be especially surprised to hear that Halo 2 looks freakin' fantastic. Incredibly detailed characters, gorgeous backgrounds, impressive explosions... it's all here. In fact, there's an underwater sequence where the Chief rides around in little elevators - and it's basically just an excuse for you to relax and enjoy how amazing the game looks. Sure, Bungie is showing off... but they've got it, so why not flaunt it? If you need a casual reminder as to how impressive video game technology has become, this will certainly fit that bill nicely. Just awesome.

And yet, the game's audio package might be even better. The music in Halo 2 is fantastic, switching moods on the fly and yet never becoming grating or getting in the way. Many of the melodies are flat-out gorgeous, giving the game a sense of majesty even as you drive a jeep over some poor alien's head. In terms of overall presentation, Halo 2 has very few equals - it's a fabulous example of a big budget used well.

I'm not going to get into the game's disappointing quasi-ending - I'm sure many other people would be happy to tell you ALL about it - but it definitely sticks out as a fairly big stain on Halo 2's name. I'm not normally very picky about storylines and endings when it comes to video games, but in a title like Halo 2 where they're aiming for a very cinematic feel, you have to bring the goods when it comes to a conclusion. Come to think of it, the ending of the original Halo wasn't very satisfying, either. Maybe Bungie just can't bear to see their games end. Who the heck knows?

I still maintain that the Halo series isn't the be-all and end-all of first person shooting, but Halo 2 is a marked improvement over the original in many areas, and is a quite enjoyable action title. It doesn't have a ton of replayability like the true greats, but it'll definitely satisfy your craving for carnage, and it's chock full of high-quality eye and ear candy. Halo 3 is as inevitable as the tides, and that's not such a bad thing - Master Chief and Cortana make for a unique and enjoyable pairing, after all. But I'd like to see Bungie really craft a really good story for it, with some gameplay evolution and a truly satisfying conclusion. A grand-slam Halo game is definitely within reach, and that's more than I would have guessed a few years ago.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 01/03/05

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