Editor’s Note: Halo 2 was released on the Xbox on November 9, 2004. Thus, I will be treating this review as if I am reviewing it in 2004. All comments are made in regards to the standards of that time period, as I don’t believe it is fair to review an older game in comparison to the standards of today unless I am doing so in retrospect.
Halo: Combat Evolved for the Xbox is one of the greatest First Person Shooters ever created and is perhaps the best launch title a system could ever hope to receive this side of Super Mario 64. Many believe that without this one game, the Xbox brand would not exist as it does today. It demonstrated that the First Person Shooter genre could be done, incredibly well at that, on consoles. College dormitories and apartments across the nation were host to countless Halo LAN parties because Halo is, without question, one of the best multiplayer experiences you’ll find on a console even after all this time. That alone is quite an impressive pedigree to live up to. While Halo 2 isn’t without its faults and does fall short in some areas, there’s no doubt that this is an excellent sequel.
The story picks up a short while after the conclusion of the first Halo. The Master Chief has returned home to Earth and is to be congratulated for his heroic efforts on the Halo ring but first, he is introduced to the new MJOLNIR Mark VI armor and is instructed to take it through its paces. This introduces new players to the basics of Halo 2’s control scheme and series veterans to one of the newly implemented changes to the first Halo’s design, the shielding system.
You no longer have to worry about tending to your health bar in the middle of your skirmishes, because it’s gone. To compensate, your trusty recharging shield fills up much quicker when depleted, lessening the time spent behind cover after depleting your shield. Once your shield is depleted, you don’t instantly go down upon taking another hit and can take a small amount of damage before keeling over. Naturally, this makes the combat less tactical by allowing for more running and gunning but I highly doubt the majority of Halo fans will dislike the change.
As the introductory testing is completed, the story really begins to unfold but this time; the story doesn’t begin with the Master Chief. After the destruction of Halo, An unnamed but high ranking Covenant Elite is seen being admonished before what appears to a judiciary council of Prophets a newly introduced race in Halo 2 which appear to be running the show. This shows us a side of the Covenant we haven’t seen before. No longer a group of faceless aliens, this, albeit brief view from the “other side” shows that we aren’t all that different. You soon learn, as the story progresses, that the Covenant is mired in sociopolitical unrest and that there are major shake-ups occurring within their society. This presents them in somewhat of a humanistic light, almost making you sympathetic for the aliens who’ve spent the entirety of the previous game mercilessly slaughtering any humans they could find.
While this is happening, the Master Chief is escorted to a gathering aboard the Cairo station, in which he is congratulated for his heroic efforts on Halo. This sharp contrast, showing the Master Chief commended while the Elite is admonished for his acts of heresy is but a small glimpse at the storyline’s overall theme. The time for celebration for the Master Chief is cut short by a sudden Covenant attack, and it’s time to get back into the fight.
Halo 2’s basic gameplay mechanics are largely similar to its predecessor but since Halo CE was such an amazing game, this is not a bad thing in the least. Halo 2 still boasts what is perhaps the best control schemes ever created for an FPS, feeling as tight and responsive as ever. It doesn’t take long before playing Halo 2 feels like second nature, even with new additions to the gameplay balance and dynamics (more on these later). Gameplay flows remarkably fluidly because of this and there is very little disconnect between the gamer and the game itself, also adding to the level of immersion the game creates.
There are many new additions to both the UNSC and Covenant armories and several tweaks have been made to returning weapons to help the balance. New weapons include the Battle Rifle, a replacement to Halo’s Assault Rifle with a much longer range due to its included scope and three round burst. Other new introductions include the Covenant Carbine (the Covenant’s semi-automatic answer to the Battle Rifle) the Beam Rifle and the new, dual-wieldable, SMG which brings me to the next big facet of gameplay introduced in Halo 2, dual wielding.
The concept of picking up a second weapon to double your firepower certainly isn’t new, having appeared countless times in older shooters such as Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark but the dual wielding mechanic in Halo 2 is arguably implemented better than many games before it. In the past, the second weapon was fired simultaneously with the first as you pulled the trigger but in Halo 2, thanks to the Xbox controller’s twin analog triggers, the two weapons are fired independently. However, as you gain the extra firepower, you lose the ability to throw grenades until you drop the second weapon and when you melee, you instantly drop the second weapon. All things considered, the dual wielding mechanics are in fact very balanced and despite altering basic gameplay quite considerably, fit in perfectly, as if they were there from the start.
The single player campaign is largely similar to Halo, which is a very good thing. Halo 2 subscribes to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy here, which means it’s still very fun to play through. Unfortunately, since it remains quite similar to its predecessor, it also inherits many of its flaws. Repetitive level designs aren’t as common here but sometimes you can find yourself lost in the larger, more open levels, wandering about aimlessly until you stumble upon the path to your next objective or group of enemies to kill. There are a few missions throughout the campaign that will certainly give you flashbacks to Halo such as a Library level and, yes, another Halo.
The biggest change to the way the campaign is handled is the introduction of the Arbiter, the Covenant Elite that is seen being disciplined in the beginning of the game. The campaign alternates between playing as the Master Chief and as the Arbiter, two very different paths which show off two different sides of the war. On one side, you see humanity’s desperate struggle against the Covenant through the eyes of the Master Chief and on the other, you see the beginnings of a Civil War within the Covenant through the eyes of one of their own.
While this is a rather refreshing change of pace as it pertains to the storyline, unfortunately, many of the Arbiter’s levels were plain not fun to play on, at least not in the same way that the Master Chief’s were even though the two play practically the same way. In many instances, I found myself practically begging for my time with the Arbiter to be over and to get back to fragging aliens as the Master Chief. It’s really a shame too because the Arbiter, as a character, is fleshed out in ways that the Master Chief never was and likely never will be. He isn’t just some faceless super soldier with a vendetta against all things alien, he’s a character who has been disgraced and is fighting now for redemption in the eyes of the Covenant and his Elite brethren.
The Covenant has grown in ranks between Halo and Halo 2. The aforementioned Prophets mainly appear in cinematics, operating behind the scenes. The small, insect-like Drones are, by far, the most annoying enemy in the game. These annoying little buggers speedily flit about, pelting you with Plasma Pistol or Needler rounds. They usually attack in large groups so taking them down is often an exercise in frustration, even though they can’t take much damage before dying. Put simply, I was not pleased every time I heard the familiar buzzing, alerting me to their presence.
The most common of the new enemies that you’ll encounter are undoubtedly the large, ape-like Brutes. True to their name, they are very brutal fighters. After taking a certain amount of damage, they commonly drop their weapons and charge straight for you, attempting to beat you to death with their bare hands. Their melee charges are especially deadly on the higher difficulties but are typically easy to avoid by merely sidestepping out of the way, all the while emptying a clip into them. The Brutes aren’t the brainiest of foes, or the most difficult to take down. The problem with them is they commonly come off as little more than damage sponges, capable of taking a great deal of punishment, while simultaneously remaining easy to deal said punishment to.
Plot and pacing are some of Halo’s strong suits, doing what many shooters have failed to do; adding a reason for all the shooting. Halo stood out among many shooters of its day because it was one of the few with a decently deep and engrossing storyline. Well, this is one area where Halo 2 misses the bar set by its predecessor. Its continuation of the Halo storyline isn’t bad by any means, quite the contrary. The plot advances well but it’s somewhat of a disappointment compared to that of the original Halo.
Easily the most disappointing aspect of Halo 2’s story is its ending. Just when you feel like you’re about to hit the ground running into yet another exciting mission, you run straight into one of gaming’s biggest and most poorly handled cliffhangers. Without warning, the game is over, the credits roll and you’re left holding the controller, mouth hanging agape and wondering what the hell just happened. Halo 2’s ending will undoubtedly leave you begging for more.
Even though the campaign grinds to a screeching halt all too quickly, there’s still a healthy multiplayer component here. As mentioned before, due to Halo’s massive multiplayer customization options, System link support for 16 players and impressive suite of unique and well designed multiplayer maps, it was revered among many first person shooter fans. Halo 2 is certainly no slouch in that department, carrying over even more customization options, a great selection of maps and one thing Halo fans have been waiting for since Halo launched…online play.
Halo 2 is, by far, the deepest and most widely accessible online game you’ll find on the Xbox. Its feature-set shames those of the majority of online shooters offering almost limitless customizability in terms of weaponry, game modes, styles of play and much, much more. Halo: Combat Evolved was a very balanced and exciting shooter to play in system link matches and even in local deathmatches but Halo 2’s added online play takes things to new heights. Online, things are mostly smooth and relatively free of lag under most conditions.
Bungie has implemented a matchmaking system that allows you to hop into many playlists with your buddies and/or up to three additional players on the same console and matches you up with other like-minded individuals. While many will inevitably lament the lack of a true server browser, the matchmaking system works very well. It’s also worth noting that groups of up to 16 friends can meet up and host their own private games. These are the games that allow Halo 2’s incredibly deep and varied customization options to shine their brightest and the types of game modes you can create is truly limited only by your imagination.
Unfortunately, Halo 2’s online services have been discontinued as part of Microsoft’s decision to shut down all Xbox Live services for the original Xbox but live on in the PC version of Halo 2 and in spirit through its successor, Halo 3. – Ed.
Halo 2 is a visual tour de force for the Xbox, showcasing some of the most gorgeous graphics you’ll ever see pumped out of the Xbox’s hardware. The game runs at a mostly solid 30 frames per second and carries on without many hitches. Despite all of the envelope pushing, Halo 2 does suffer a bit from a few unsightly graphical glitches. Due to Bungie’s decision to put an end to loading times, there are many instances in which scenes will begin without all of the necessary graphical assets in place, which will fade into existence a few seconds after you’ve already begun. This can be rather jarring but eventually, you get used to it.
Halo: Combat Evolved was a landmark launch title for the Xbox and did what few shooters before it had ever done and that’s make first person shooters work on consoles in a manner akin to their PC brethren complete with a gripping single player campaign and an excellent suite of multiplayer modes. Halo 2, on the other hand, is hardly as groundbreaking as its predecessor and doesn’t have the same impact as the original. Halo 2 is undoubtedly a very enjoyable game but it lacks the spark of the original. It doesn’t have the benefit of launching in a time when good console first person shooters were hard to come by and as much as Halo has revolutionized the genre on consoles, Halo 2 is far less revolutionary (except in terms of online play) and more evolutionary, taking the established Halo: CE formula and augmenting it with some sweeping but mostly minor changes. For the most part, Bungie succeeds in changing the formula enough to make it entertaining on the second time but in many ways, the “sophomore slump” is evident here.
Nonetheless, Halo 2 is a very entertaining and high quality follow up to the stellar Halo: Combat Evolved. While there are some missteps throughout the campaign including the “meh” Arbiter stages and the all-too-abrupt ending, it is still genuinely fun to play through. Online play is the biggest addition to the game and succeeds in making Halo 2 one of the most fully featured, cohesive and exciting online games you’ll play on the Xbox (or any other system for that matter) and sets one hell of a precedent for future online games. To say Halo 2’s suite of online options is the benchmark for Xbox Live would be the understatement of the year and Halo 2 is much richer because of it and will continue to live on long after the single player campaign is complete. If you’re a fan of first person shooters and you own an Xbox, there’s no reason not to give this game a try.