It was kind of an odd move for Microsoft to bring Halo 2 to the PC. The first game did OK on the PC but given the number of high quality first person shooters available on the PC it was up against some stiff competition. It was a slightly odder move to make a three and a half year old game a Vista exclusive. The answer to both questions seems to be that Microsoft was looking to bring the best selling Xbox game to the PC and decided to use it as a test bed for a host of new technology (which is why it requires Vista).
The first new technology is Microsoft's new Tray and Play software which allows you to start playing the game as soon as you put the disc in the tray. While you are playing it installs the rest of the game in the background. The system works well in theory but I had issues with it because Halo 2 for Vista requires the PC version Xbox Live to be installed before you can play the game and since I didn't have it installed already I was held up a bit while it installed. Given that Microsoft is delaying the release of the game to work on install issues I'm hoping this will be fixed in the final retail version of the game. One nice feature of the game is that once you install and activate the game you no longer need to keep the disc in the drive.
The PC Live software is the other new piece of software that's being unveiled in Halo 2 Vista. The integration allows you to log in Microsoft's Live gaming service and it's wealth of benefits like achievements, friends lists, messaging, and allows you to play games against against foul mouthed teenagers online. Of course you have to upgrade to Microsoft's gold service in order to get the matchmaking and online play which costs $60 for a year of service. Those who already own an existing Gold account on their Xbox 360 will be able to re-use it on the PC which is a nice touch.
The service does provide exactly the same great service that Microsoft has been providing Xbox users since 2002. Of course most PC gamers have had access to tools like this for years through services like Xfire and Gamespy but it is nice to have a centralized service. To bring up the Live service menu you just press the Home button and then go about your business. The integration with Halo 2 is solid and it's very easy to setup multiplayer matches and check your achievements.
Speaking of achievements, Halo 2 for Vista is the first Halo to features achievements and they folks at Bungie actually did a decent job with the achievements. There's a good distribution between single and multiplayer achievements. There's the standard achievement for completing each level and for winning the game but I do wonder why you get 100 points for finishing the game and only 50 each for completing the game on heroic or legendary. It would be nice to get more points for completing the game on the harder difficulties but maybe that's just me. The rest of the achievements are actually pretty well thought out and include things like sticking someone with a grenade, killing someone on a hot streak, and killing those who have completed the game on Legendary status.
Other than Tray and Play, Live Integration, and the included level builder the game is exactly the same game that players got on the console had. You et the same single player campaign and the same multiplayer experience. That's not a bad thing, not by far as Halo 2 features a fantastic, engrossing single player campaign. It's not overly long and should take most people between eight and ten hours to complete on the normal difficultly. Of course once you complete the game on normal there are the Heroic and Legendary difficulty if you've got the time and inclination to play through it again. Of course playing through it again doesn't make the cliff hanger ending any easier to take but it does a good job of setting up the third game which will be on shelves later this year.
The game has gotten a graphical update in the move to the PC but it still doesn't look as good as most PC FPS games. Even compared with Half-Life 2(which released at the same time as the original Halo 2) the graphics are a bit lacking. Even though the graphics aren't the best I did experience some frame rate drop on occasion. I was running the game at 1680X1050 with all of the graphical options turned up but I was still curious as to why a nearly 3 year old game dropped frames when running on a GeForce 8800 GTS. The slowdowns were few and far between but still a bit of a concern.
All of the great sounds from the Halo games are present. Bungie has some of the best audio guys in the business and I'm happy to say that everything is as I remembered it. Weapon sounds are meaty and insanely well done. What's great about the weapons is that you can always tell who's fighting who just by listening to the battle from a distance. The game's score is excellent but I really don't have to tell you that as the score has become iconic since the game's release and it's the only game soundtrack that I actually listen to on a regular basis.
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