Microsoft couldn’t have asked for a better launch title than Bungie’s Halo. The rookie on the console market immediately received the confidence of gamers worldwide. Well, they didn’t get mine though. You should know that, at the time being, I was a huge PS2 fanboy. One-liners such as: PS2 is da best, were kept wisely behind but I still was rather skeptic about the arrival of a new kid on the console block. The reason was actually purely financial: my piggy bank wasn’t filled enough. When I finally had enough “green” to buy Microsoft’s Xbox, all my wrongful prejudices fell in the water. Halo was a great game and a sequel would be more than welcome.
The arrival of such a sequel goes hand in hand with the usual media attention. A release party should be the ideal introduction and so the Halo 2 launch party was born in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. A trendy D.J mixing the coolest dance tracks accompanied by two percussionists, just to give it that extra danceable flavor, and a Master of Ceremony who sewed everything together in bad English and perfect French, oh and stealing the show was of course the multiplayer game in which everyone could participate. It was nice, but not very impressive. The headache the day after thankfully didn’t come and was replaced by a more interesting task, namely to write the Halo 2 review. I know, being a reviewer can be hard sometimes.
One achievement we can congratulate Bungie with is the fact that they managed to keep the storyline secret. My curiosity grew more and more and the high expectations blew through the roof. Keeping things secret is also a hype in such a way that it increases people’s expectations, so the question is: can they meet those high demands? In a way yes, but for the most part, no! They are emphasizing more on the Covenant this time around. Where you were happily shooting around with the Marines in the original Halo, you will now get the control of a Covenant leader. The feeling I got when I first played with the Covenant was similar to the feeling that rose when I played with the feminine Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The desire to play with Master Chief or Solid Snake grew bigger and bigger. The Covenant however isn’t a big wussy like his royal gayness Raiden, but still…I longed for Master Chief! The resemblances with the original story get pretty obvious when you have to battle the slimy and pretty irritating Flood again. Thank god that the Labyrinth level has a lot more variation than last time, because I really hated that part in the original Halo.
Story-wise it isn’t as revolutionary as you might expect and it will even disappoint a few of you. A twist here and there but mainly the same deal all over again and I’m not sure if it’s me or Halo but the story line never manages to really draw my attention. During a mission I’m haven’t got the faintest idea what to do, except when I press Start and I get a glimpse of the mission objectives. Running around like a madman and shooting everything on your path is still possible. Is that a bad thing? Of course not; why change a winning strategy?
Talking about strategy, Halo 2 expects you to use a more strategic approach. The lack of a health bar makes you totally reliable on the energy meter forcing you to hide more. The energy meter fills a lot faster this time around but you’ll still have to regain your strengths now and then and preferably out of the range of enemy fire. The dual-wielding (a gun in each hand) also brings some strategy along. You can’t throw any grenades or switch weapons without having to throw one of the two dual-wielded weapons away. This will confront you with the choice: am I a real hero, blasting his way through enemy territory while dual-wielding or am I a coward, throwing grenades from a huge distance?
The weapons in Halo 2 have seen a similar evolution as the storyline. The assault rifle of the Marines has been replaced by the smaller submachine gun and the pistol’s zoom ability has been cut. To compensate this there’s a new gun with a one-time zoom function and you’ll now be able to lock on to certain targets with the bazooka. There are also a few changes in the weaponry of the Covenant with the most important one being the energy sword. You might know it from the original Halo where only the bad guys were able to use it. To refresh your memory: they killed you in one slash! Well, the good news is that you can too in Halo 2. There is however a “but” linked to it. The energy meter of the sword depletes rather quickly forcing you to switch with a less effective weapon.
The part that touched me the most during the original Halo was, without a doubt, the addition of vehicles. Bungie would be pretty stupid if they left them out and not to make you even nervous: they kept them in the game! Hey, they even cleaned them up a bit and threw in a couple of new ones to play with, aren’t they just the sweetest? The adjustments aren’t really mind blowing but still a nice addition. The Warthog is now able to do powerslides, making tighter turns possible. The Covenant vehicles are all equiped with an afterburner and the Banshee has the ability to do loops and barrel rolls, which is a good and spectacular way to dodge enemy bullets. The Warthog and the Ghost are still the leading ladies of the pack (not sure if they’re feminine though) and the new ones have a slightly smaller role. The coolest addition this year is the ability to take over vehicles. By jumping on the vehicle and slapping the driver, or even throwing a couple of sticky grenades at him, you will gain access to his vehicle. This makes for some rather impressive gameplay moments and it looks cool too. Be careful though, because thanks to the new physics engine, the vehicles can be damaged severely making it impossible to operate them again.
Halo 2 without a multiplayer wouldn’t make any sense of course. Bungie really pushed it to the limit. The online offer they serve us with is truly magnificent and the best we’ve ever seen on Xbox Live. You can play with 16 players at once and I can safely say that this console-shooter can keep up with the better, not to say best, FPS-work we’re used to on a PC.
The biggest difference with that last one is that you can go at it in two different ways in Halo 2: the first option gives you the choice of the kind of match you want to play (one-on-one, objective based, team skirmish or deathmatch etc.) and Xbox Live will automatically generate the best fitting match. Say bye bye to those huge lists of servers, the search for a good ping or the right configurations. This has its major advantages and the system works really well but you’ll still have moments with a bit of lag or it may take a while until the Xbox has found a proper game. If you want to configure more yourself you can chose for the second option. This will give you the opportunity to built your own party from your friends list, choose a map yourself, set the game up (endless possibilities) and start a closed game only meant for people from your own party. Aside from that you can choose to play with some friends and participate in open games.
As if that isn’t enough you can also create your own clan in Halo 2. Pick your outfit, name, logo, colors etc, invite a couple of friends and start a clan match with up to 8 vs. 8 gamers. The settings, start up and playing runs pretty smooth, thanks to the built-in voice-over-ip-system in which you jell at everyone in your surrounding (also your enemies) or only at your teammates, wherever they may be. A cool, but tricky feature is the ability of enemies to listen in to your conversations when they’re really close. This can however get pretty chaotic and muddle up your tactics during clan games in smaller maps.
The game statistics are also something to be impressed with. Everything, from the amount of shots you’ve fired to your medals, kills and the number of times you’ve captured a flag is being saved. The saved data will all be calculated which results in a global ranking per level and game-type so that you can see how good you did in comparison to the rest of the pack. Bungie sets a pretty good standard and we can only hope that other developers will follow this path on all consoles.
The possibilities are endless as you can tell and everyone will find something they like. The clan-support is a new feature on the consoles and thanks to the further support and truly never ending statistics on bungie.net you can check every shot you took as well as the overall progress of each clan match. Without the occasional lag, annoying kids that think they have to act tough on the voice-system and the teething troubles here and there, the multiplayer is easily the best one we’ve ever seen on an Xbox. Arcade shooter fans as well as the hardcore competitive pc-gamers will have a long and huge bone to nibble on and it lengthens the lasting appeal with a factor 10!
The original Halo was already a cutie to look at and it made numerous gamers slobber like a horny rabbit but what Bungie did here is, without a doubt, the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever seen on an Xbox. The new physics engine, which I mentioned earlier, boosts the detail level a bit and the dynamic lighting, which we popping up in most games these days, is truly stunning. The outdoor locations and urban environments are even more breathtaking than last year’s beaches. But sadly they are soon replaced by the more futuristic indoor locations, which look rather nice nonetheless. The fans of the soundtrack of the original Halo can do a happy dance because the male choir is back again with the help of a couple overdriven guitars. Every decibel gets through the speakers in full Dolby Digital glory making every gunshot, footstep and dropping bomb sound like we’re used to.
Bungie has tried to make a U-turn with the Halo story but they’ve only partially succeeded in this. The twists and surprises are nice but the resemblance with the original story keep turning up making in not as revolutionary as we might expect. The gameplay however is still very addictive and the sporadic, memorable moments give the game a bigger replay value. Where the single player may be a little disappointing, the multiplayer totally makes up for it. Halo 2 is easily the best shooter on Xbox and a recommendation for everyone, with or without Xbox Live.