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Written by Charles Husemann on 11/15/2004 for Xbox  
More On: HALO 2
You can check out Charlie's opinion of the game here

Writing reviews for games as hyped as Halo 2 is always hard; do you rate it against the hype or against all of the other games in its class? If you believed all of the hype behind Halo 2 you would almost expect the game to do clean your house and help you make money on the stock market. The reality of it is that the game will live up to most of the expectations gamers have for the sequel.

The job of any sequel is to expand on the success of the first and add something new to the franchise. Halo 2. From the new single player campaign, to the new weapons (and ways to weild those weapons), to the new multiplayer over Xbox Live, Halo 2 delivers a solid gaming experience but it’s not with a few quirks.

The single player portion of the game is about the same quality as the first game if not marginally better. In order to discuss this I’m going to have to talk about some plot points which may be construed as spoilers so you may want to skip to the next page of the review to avoid reading details about the plot.

The game picks up almost immediately after the end of the first game. Master Chief has returned to Earth and while he’s receiving some well deserved medals the Covenant attacks. Meanwhile the Elite who lead the forces against Master Chief in the first game is labeled a heretic, branded, and then in an interesting twist, promoted to the Covenant Arbiter, a Covenant special forces role where he is sent to “solve” problems for the Covenant leadership. Interestingly enough you will play as both characters though out the game, switching to the other character after each level of the game. The only difference between the two is that the Arbiter has a stealth shield that he can activate to sneak around (or behind) enemies.

Everyone remembers the Silent Cartographer mission from the first game and I’m happy to say that the new game has a few signature moments as well. I really dug the assault on the Scarab tank towards the end of the first level but there are some other nice missions within the game (your first fight against the monster sentinels in the game was enjoyable as well). Bungie did a nice job of crafting an interesting plot that compels you to finish the single player side of the game. The plot allows you to learn a little more about the Covenant and the religious value of the Halo rings. While the game expands the Halo universe a bit the plot isn’t exactly going to surprise a lot of people. The game does re-use some of the plot mechanisms from the first game so there are times when you’ll figure out things before they happen (*cough*the Flood *cough*). The single player experience does drag in a few places but it didn’t feel like the end of Doom 3 where it became a drag to continue slogging through the end of the game.

The single player side is a bit on the short side (you’re looking at about 10 hours or so) but like the first it’s something you might want to go through multiple times at the different difficulty levels. Why? Because Bungie has created an exceedingly cinematic experience for gamers and you’ll probably miss a thing or two the first time though. There’s a real sense of being in a larger conflict in portions of the game but there are times when you do feel like the only one taking on the covenant. Bungie also does a great job of interlacing humor into the game and which provides a nice stress reliever after wiping out the Covenant hoards. Cortana and the Sergeant from the first game get some great lines in and your squad mates are worth keeping around to hear them back and forth.One of the big new features in the game is the ability for Master Chief to go John Woo and wield two weapons at once. You can only do it with certain weapons but it’s a lot of fun and you can tell that Bungie put a lot of thought into how to make it work without making it too powerful. While wielding two weapons (dual plasma rifles is a personal favorite with plasma rifle/SMG combo right behind it) you can’t throw grenades or execute melee attacks. Firing each weapon is done by clicking the thumb trigger on the side of the weapon you want to fire. While you can simply hold down both triggers while aiming, craftier players will alternate between weapons in order to keep a field of fire on your enemy. This allows you to have one weapon going while the other is reloading (although how Master Chief can reload a pistol with one hand is beyond me). Dual plasmas are fun since you if you time it right you can have one overheat and reset while the other one is still firing. I’m sure as the game is out there many a strategy guide will be written, detailing the intricacies of dual wielding.

Speaking of weapons, Bungie has overhauled most of the weapons in the game and you can tell a lot of thought went into each and every one of them. The generic battle rifle from the first game is gone and has been replaced with the SMG and the Battle Rifle. The SMG is a fast shooting, dual wield capable, machine gun that that is a lot like the machine gun from the first game. The Battle Rifle though is a near perfect weapon and is by far the best weapon in the game. The rifle can be zoomed and fires a three round burst. This makes it perfect for damaging enemies at a distance and at close range (you can take out Grunts in one burst which makes it fun when you face a group of the little bastards). I almost wish there had been a toggle to go to a single shot mode but the gun really works as is.

The sniper rifle and rocket launcher from the first game made the move to the sequel without any changes while the shotgun and pistol have been tuned down a bit. The Covenant get a plethora of new weapons, the Covenant Carbine is a single shot version of the Battle Rifle, and the new Beam rifle is the equivalent of the human sniper rifle.

The Covenant do get two new unique weapons, the Brute Shot and the Energy Sword. The Brute Shot is a grenade launcher that allows you two fire shots around corners and over obstacles. The real fun though is in the new Energy Sword which allows you to slice and dice your opponents. When you get within a certain range of your enemies the crosshairs turn read and you can perform a charge/lunge move that will kill most enemies in one shot. There’s a nice visceral feel to slashing your way through a couple of elites or one of your co-editors on the site. Bungie has done an amazing job of balancing the weapons in the game and giving gamers the tools to kill things in new and innovative ways.

Speaking of killing things, the great vehicle play from the first game is back and Bungie has tweaked the vehicles a bit for the sequel. The humans get a new version of the Warthog, instead of a machine gun (or rocket launcher from the PC version) gamers will get to try out a recoilless rifle (good against vehicles, not so much against clusters of troops). The Covenant though gets a pair of new vehicles. The first is the Spectre which is basically a Covenant warthog. It seats two passengers up front with a cannon on turret in the back. The second is the Shadow a troop carrier which makes a limited appearance early on in the game (and is not available in multiplayer). The rest of the vehicles (Ghost, Wraith, Banshee, and the Scorpion tank) are all bank providing you with more fun ways to deal death to your enemies.

Bungie has made the vehicles a little more interesting by allowing you to hijack occupied vehicles. It is tricky to do and you have to time it just right but once you get the hang of it, it makes multiplayer a lot more entertaining (there really didn’t seem to be many opportunities to do it in the single player portion of the game). The graphics in the game are a step up from the first game but it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary. . This isn’t a bad thing as Halo was and is one of the best looking games ever released on the Xbox. But given the hype around the game I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of a WOW factor. Admittedly I’ve been a little spoiled by Doom 3 and Far Cry on the PC side but the graphics in the game get the job done and aren’t much of a distraction from the game play..

One big quirk about the graphics is the drawing distance in parts of the game. There were a more than a few cases where I noticed the level of detailing “popping” on objects in the game as I got closer or farther away from them. This is especially noticeable several of the early cinematics and that’s something I really wouldn’t expect to see in a cut-scene. It’s nice that Bungie is using the engine to do the cinematics but they should be near perfect. I also experience some weird LOD issues in other parts of the game but it wasn’t as noticeable as it was in the cinematics. I never really noticed a drop in the frame rate, even during areas with a lot of enemies on screen at one time and two guns blazing.

It also looks like Bungie didn’t do a lot of testing their game on HDTV’s as there are a lot of reports of people having the left side of the screen cut off.

Another new feature in Halo 2 is that you damage individual parts of the vehicles. This was in the first game to a bit but Halo 2 takes it to the next level by allowing you to blow the wheels off of Warthogs and remove the “wings” of a Ghost. It’s another little touch in a game but it really doesn’t impact the gameplay.

While the graphics are about the same, another area where the game carries on a great tradition is in the audio. Everything is perfect from the voice work to the sounds of the weapons. Everything sounds like it should sound (or would sound if it really existed) and it really helps to draw you into the game. The voice acting is especially good and Bungie has done a great job of using the VO work to enhance the cinematic feel of the game.

The soundtrack is also excellent and well used through out the game although some of the heavy metal stuff in portions of the game did grate on me a little bit. The main theme music is perfect, with enough of a military feel to put you in the right mood. The audio and sound track people at Bungie have set a new standard in how audio can be used in a game.

Beyond the dual wielding the game play in Halo 2 the other major gameplay change is the elimination of the health bar from the game. Bungie has reduced it to just the shield bar and it’s a pretty good change. You don’t have to worry about hunting for health and it makes the game a little easier to play as you just retreat when you need to re-charge your shields.

With the exception of using the left trigger to fire the second weapon the controls are a exactly the same as they were in the first game. This again is a good thing as the Halo control scheme has practically become an industry standard for console FPS games. I still wonder why the D-pad is underused in the default configuration but overall you really don’t want to screw with perfection.The meat and potatoes of the Halo experience is the multiplayer experience and this is where the game will impress and frustrate gamers. Halo 2 supports all of the Xbox Live 3.0 goodies. Clans and stat tracking are all there. Bungie takes the stats to the Nth degree though as once you’ve registered with them you can get your stats via RSS feeds or in their Game tracker software. This allows you to see exactly where you were killed, by whom and with what weapon. The level of detail is insane and really adds to the multiplayer experience. Registering with the game also allows you Bungie to rank you by how you perform in the game. This is another nice feature but it comes with a price and that’s multiplayer accessibility.

If you have a lot of Halo 2 playing buddies you’re going to be in good shape as you can setup a game and invite all of your friends in to play. If you don’t have a lot of friends then you’ll be forced to use the Optimatch service provided by the game. You basically set the kind of game you are looking for and then the service tries to hook you up with other gamers who are looking for the same kind of game. In order to preserve the sanctity of the rankings you can actually browse by game type or map which is frustrating as hell if you are looking to play one type of game play on a particular map. This process is not quick and you’ll spend a good 3-4 minutes waiting to get into a game that may only last 5-10 minutes. I was able to get through most of a Sunday paper between games and that’s just kind of lame.

While I can see a need for people to prevent people from dominating one map in CTF or Assault it’s another thing to not provide a way for people who don’t want to be ranked to quickly hook up and play a quick game of Oddball or CTF on their favorite map. I just want to get in and out of the game as I don’t always have a lot of free time to play during the week. Hopefully this is something that Bungie will fix over Live because when I wasn’t getting my head handed to me by John and Charlie it felt like I was always waiting to get into a game.

If you do want to play with your friends you can create a party and then invite your friends to join. This will allow you to traverse multiple games while keep you together with your buddies. It’s a decent feature but it doesn’t really overcome the lack of a type of server browser.

Overall I enjoyed the game and while it didn’t live up to all of the hype I think Halo 2 is the new standard bearer for the Xbox. It’s not a game for everyone but it’s a game that most people will enjoy.
Easily one of the best console FPS games out. If you liked the first Halo you’ll love all of the cool new features Bungie has put into the new game but if you didn’t like the first one you’re probably not to find anything new to sway your opinion of the game.

Rating: 8.9 Class Leading

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

About Author

Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom. I was a Microsoft Xbox MVP from 2009 to 2014.  I currently own stock in Microsoft, AMD, and nVidia.

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