Monday, November 8, 2004
Halo 1 sparked a revolution for console first-person shooters and changed the way friends play games together en masse. The game's legacy was a direct result of perfect control, engaging and emotional storytelling, vast and inspired architecture, intelligent and personable enemies, fun physics, a cool hero, musical genius usually reserved for the silver screen and an extremely addicting multiplayer component. To expect Halo 2 to trump such a case would be foolish.
Let me preface the review by saying that Halo 2 is a great game, especially compared to any other console first-person shooter. Also, no console game comes anywhere near the robust and amazing online support and fun that Bungie has achieved with Halo 2. But the single player campaign has some baffling flaws that keep it from the level of fun and polish that Halo 1 provided. (This is especially interesting considering Halo 1 was reportedly more of a rush job.) Bungie has stated over and over that most of its focus was on the single player campaign and that multiplayer hardly had more than four employees working on it at a time. The irony is that the multiplayer component is where you will have the most fun.
Immediately you'll feel right at home with the controls. It feels as tight as ever and still, to this day, no console first-person shooter has reproduced this accurate of control. In the first level you'll get to immediately experiment with the new dual-wielding feature. You can hold the Y button over a single-handed weapon and dual-wield two smaller weapons. You forsake your grenade throwing ability for this feature since the left trigger now becomes your left firing button. Bungie implemented this perfectly and works great with weapons like the needler (which now doesn't totally suck), plasma rifle, human pistol, plasma pistol and the new SMG (Sub-machine gun).
The second coming :: Lawrence gamers brace for the release of Halo 2, the most anticipated video game ever
The new weapons also provide a new and interesting balance to Halo 2. The new Battle Rifle has a 2x zoom and fires in three-round bursts. It feels great and is fairly powerful, especially in medium range. Although many believe this is the spiritual successor to the overpowered pistol from Halo 1, I found that the Covenant Carbine is a much better pistol replacement, for multiplayer anyway. It zooms, has a tight pattern, and can down an enemy in four shots in multiplayer.
Also new is the Covenant Beam rifle, my personal favorite sniping weapon. It's the Covenant answer to the human sniper rifle, but I found it to be much easier to shoot on the fly, scoring instant kill headshots. The Brute Shot is a grenade launcher that can deflect off of walls for some interesting strategic shots. It doesn't quite boast the power of a frag or plasma grenade but it gets the job done. The new rocket launcher can now heat-seek moving vehicles if you lock on. Cool.
Bungie hit gold with the Plasma Sword. Used only by Elites in the previous outing, now Master Chief may also wield this instant kill weapon. Get the reticule on a nearby opponent, and you can hold the trigger for a fast lunge that will baffle your newly dead opponent. Words can't explain how satisfying a sword kill feels. I guarantee that you will waste many hours on sword-only game types in multiplayer. It's that fun.
The other big new feature is vehicle boarding. You can hijack any moving vehicle by a perfectly timed press of the X button. For bigger vehicles like the Scorpion tank, you can board it, but then must choose to melee the pilot to death or plant a grenade in the cockpit to oust the enemy. This is yet another game-play element that Bungie implemented masterfully.
The hummer-esque Warthogs have a new e-brake that lets you control the swervy-wervy aspect that Halo 1's Warthog did every time you turned. Great addition. The Ghost can boost temporarily sacrificing firepower. Cool. Banshees can do barrel rolls now which are fun. However, the Banshee can no longer hover in a slight reverse, which was initially disappointing. I used to look down from above while holding my position in the air -- now the Banshee moves forward slowly on its own and pressing back on the left control stick makes the banshee free-fall. I have absolutely no idea what possessed Bungie to fix what wasn't broke.
A minor point of contention: the physics have changed. Some have called it "tighter." I call it "less fun." The warthogs don't get as much air. The blast radius and force of grenades and rockets don't have as satisfying of an impact on anything. It still rivals any physics system out there, but it is a perplexing step back from Halo 1.
The artificial intelligence has improved for the most part with the Covenant attacking in various patterns and taking cover. But even in greater difficulty settings, there are many instances where I throw grenades at any enemy's feet and it will just stand there and die. Also, their interest in killing you is limited to zones. If you leave an area, they won't follow you. This is the same as Halo, but we've seen greater advancement since then. (Far Cry, anyone?) On the flip side, there are moments of brilliance. Sticking a plasma grenade to some Covenant will cause them to go kamikaze and rush you, taking you down with them. Also, your marines are great shots. When I was about to die, my marines took down an Elite and two grunts while I hid. This is a vast improvement over Halo 1.
Sadly, the main game can be experienced in as short as seven hours because the enemies always let you get away and the game doesn't make you defeat a room full of enemies most of the time. This is a fault. Halo 1 wove a tight web of giving you purpose to defeat everything. Halo 2 throws a lot of frenzied situations your way in which there is an obvious escape route if you run or drive fast enough.
Also making the game a quick play: the 'Normal' difficulty setting is rather easy, even for non-Halo fans. The step up to 'Heroic' should be mandatory for seasoned Halo players and most gamers. The difficulty will keep your guns blazing attitude at bay, requiring more time out of your game play to diversify your attack. Even still, the game can be completed in 10-11 hours. Yeah, I am as shocked as you are.
Bungie has kept the main story of Halo 2 secret for a reason. It does pack some really cool and surprising twists. Halo 2 starts out with an Elite getting chastised by the Covenant council for letting Halo be destroyed by the "Demon" (our hero, Master Chief). After some direction from the hierarchical Prophets, the Brutes haul the failed Elite to his fate. Next, we see that the Covenant is right on top of Earth as you begin. The religious aliens board your ship and start to wreak havoc. Unfortunately, by this time, you are already exposed to the unpolished nature of the cinematics. Although wonderfully directed, many textures, walls and characters just pop in to frame as the scenes begin. It happens throughout the game. Considering how much Bungie wants us to care about the story and how many years Halo 2 has been in the oven, it's truly baffling to see this sort of distraction.
Elites, Grunts, Jackals and Hunters all return and preserve their distinct personalities. Elites now speak English, for the story's sake, I'm sure. Grunts are afraid when there is no leader and Jackals are a great shot, although weak without a shield. Hunters have grown about a foot and are more menacing. The new, insect-like Drones fly around and swarm you with their accurate shots. Shooting them out of the air is a satisfying sensation. The new gorilla-like Brutes take a lot to tame and are an absolute terror when they get close to you and essentially try to tackle you. These two new races don't have distinct personality like the Grunts or Elites, but do provide distinct challenges.
The story itself? Well, it's even more complex than Halo 1 but never matches the mystery, human tragedy element or emotional involvement that Halo 1 built. A lot happens that Halo fanatics will appreciate, but the only thing making you feel any sentiment is the beautiful swelling orchestra in the background, not the character development (or lack thereof). This is due to the ambitious nature of the story arc and the lack of time to tell it in. For a video game it might not be that big of a deal, but Halo 2's predecessor did do a better job.
So maybe you've heard the ending sucks. What you heard was true. It's not the content that sucks, necessarily, it's the fact that the last cinematic makes you think you are about to start another level, but the credits start to roll! No real resolution is experienced and the cliffhanger beats you over the head like a load of bricks. Not the intelligent subtlety of resolution mixed with continuation we experienced with Halo 1.
Graphics and sound
The graphics are a mixed bag. The architecture is still great and the landscapes are really good. However, many new areas look like Bungie jumped into the color palette pool head-first. There are a lot more colors used, but they don't result in a more realistic effect in some areas. It's like we've lost some of the rustic and ancient feel. Also missing are the detailed textures we've come to love from Halo 1. Walking close to rocks and walls no longer reveals a separate, seamlessly integrated texture. Some of it is blurry and sometimes the geometry reveals some stretched textures. Otherwise, the character design, weapon models and level designs are incredible and the Master Chief hasn't looked better.
Regardless, the lighting and shadowing effects are truly marvelous. Both in the single-player and multiplayer mode your eyes are treated to real-world behaviors which make the geometry seem real.
The music is sheer genius. Composer Marty O'Donnell has blended choral voices, orchestra, electronica and some Steve Vai guitar to perfection. His use of Incubus and Breaking Benjamin blends well, to my surprise. The soundscapes are moody and amazing. Aside from some tinny and puny new sound effects for covenant weapons and the human pistol (where is the subwoofer channel?), the audio design is a masterwork.
And there is an amazing amount of dialogue to experience along the way. Your marines and enemies hardly say the same thing twice. (Try switching your weak weapon with a better weapon held by a fellow marine. Funny stuff.)
The multiplayer factor is Halo 2's bread and butter. The eleven main maps (and one hidden one) all have a great sense of purpose for big and small groups. 'Slayer,' 'CTF,' 'King of the Hill' and 'Oddball' return with new and exciting variants. Race gets the axe for the new 'Territories' game type where you must control a number of different areas on the map to gain time. It's sort of a variant of 'King of the Hill.' Also, the new 'Assault' mode has you taking a bomb to the opposing team's base to plant and arm it, much like Counter Strike. It's essentially the same as the 'Assault' variant of 'CTF' except you have to wait about six to seven seconds for the bomb to arm once you are in the base.
Even though the game ships with a mere eleven maps, none of them are throwaways. They all are planned out really well. 'Coagulation' is the new, improved 'Blood Gulch.' 'Colossus' is a huge indoor map reminiscent of a bigger 'Prisoner' with more places to hide. Many of the new multiplayer maps have replaced ladders with air elevators. With no more falling damage, flying through the air on these elevators offers a new vertical element to multiplayer games. Some of the maps are asymmetrical as to recreate more natural environments and make sections of the map more recognizable by name for more strategic, competitive players.
More maps will come through download, too.
Co-op mode is back. You can enjoy ripping through the single player campaign through split-screen only. Also, if you don't have Xbox Live, you can hook up to 16 Xboxes and TV's for up to 16 player games.
The Xbox Live component is amazing. It truly will revolutionize the way console online games are played. The 'Optimatch' and 'Quickmatch' options throw you into scenarios with players of like skill. The deep and intense statistics tracking available on Bungie.net are attached to your Xbox Live Gamer tag. It keeps record of how you died, by what weapon, your average lifespan and a gaggle of other bits that you can view. This is put up against the thousands of other players so that you can be quickly matched with people of the same level. You can get better and move up the world rankings using this system.
There are unranked games if you just want to play custom games with friends using Live's seamless invitation element. Also there are major and minor clan matches. Get on Live with your clan and it will match you with a like clan so you can scrimmage to your heart's content.
Gone are the days where you merely look at a long list of servers, rolling the dice as to if the game will bee too easy or too hard. Even with a mere 300 players playing online before release, it only took me 10 games for the system to start matching me with people that actually gave me a challenge.
Xbox Live play is lag-less in combat. Unlike Halo PC, when you shoot someone in the head, that's actually what's happening. It's as good as system link. I noticed a bit of lag when vehicles were doing crazy physics type things, but nothing affecting total game play. I am amazed at the Live integration. You can see who killed you and where you were killed with a game viewing feature on Bungie.net. The updating is dynamic, so when you finish a game, the stats are already posted. I couldn't believe it the first time I saw it.
Halo 2 is a great package, obviously carried into greatness by the robust multiplayer component. The disappointment from single-player derives from the lack of length, graphical glitches and the "tweaked" physics engine, but understand that despite its flaws, it still proves to be one of the best single player experiences on a console...aside from Halo 1, of course.
First Play: B
Last Play: A
Overall: 90% A-