So, Halo 2? One of the biggest releases of the year and possibly one of the most important titles for any gaming platform ever.
The hope of millions of Xbox gamers rests on the shoulders of Bungie’s opus. So no pressure then.
With the sequel to the hugely popular Halo: Combat Evolved Bungie has worked for the past two years to create something that not only surpasses the original, but redefines what gamers expect from the FPS.
What has Bungie improved upon since Halo? Well the first thing you’ll notice is the graphical overhaul. Gone is the slightly over used purple and grey colour scheme, say hello to Mr Bump-map and his friend Mrs Shiny. These are near enough the best graphics you are ever likely to see this generation; everything has been lovingly crafted, the architecture is indeed as good as ever, far surpassing the original; bump maps are here in abundance, on every character, tree and hill; and the amount of polygons, particle effects and stuff going on all at once is very impressive.
But it doesn’t take long for cracks to appear. From the very first cut-scene there are an unnerving amount of glitchy texture maps, where a character suddenly pops from blandness to a super bump-mapped edition. Nothing major, but for a game that prides itself on an immersive story it’s something that shouldn’t really happen. There are also a lot of problems with repetitive geometry, something that plagued the first Halo. Before, I had put that down to the measly eight months Microsoft gave them to redesign the original game for the Xbox, but even with extra time and manpower available to them this time around Bungie have once again seemingly resorted to cut-and-paste tactics to lengthen levels. Many sections would have benefited from being shorter and in the long run had far more impact.
Gameplay-wise it’s all rather similar to the original, the same tactical warfare shooty goodness we’ve come to love, the major difference is the ability to wield two death-dealing mega weapons. Now one of my favourite elements from the first game was being able to shoot with one trigger and let fly a grenade with the other; it provided so many opportunities for on-the-fly tactic forming and was pretty funny to watch as you gun down a group of Flood enemies and release a grenade into the pack at the same time. After reading about the dual weapons proposed for this sequel I really couldn’t wait to try it out, the scope for greater strategy was mouth watering — but in practice?
Well, lets just say I reverted to the old gun-in-right-hand-grenade-in-the-other way I was used to. It’s quite cool when you have twin SMGs on the go but when you dual-wield simple plasma pistols it just doesn’t feel right somehow, especially when one suddenly runs out of ammo and you find yourself lobbing a plasma grenade at a fast approaching Elite by mistake, causing instant death to both of you — it’s something that could work and will no doubt be a huge point of discussion for the multiplayer, but it does feel like it requires some tweaking.
Elsewhere, Bungie have tinkered with their winning formula in the form of extra weapons, improved AI, more vehicles and new enemies. Some work really well (such as being able to hop on a passing Ghost and nick it) and others actually detract from the experience (the weapon set doesn’t feel as balanced as before), but the brilliance of the original is mainly intact.
Also worth a mention is the sound, the score here is brilliant, both of high quality and extremely moving in places. If you have surround sound the experience is quite amazing.
Finally, while repetitive, the architecture of the levels is nothing short of stunning, levels trail off into the distance and are all physical geometry, not a single pre-rendered backdrop to be seen. You could easily lose a lot of health just staring at your surroundings.
Now on to the multiplayer, which seems to have been the main thing Bungie has concentrated on. Halo had one of the best multiplayer setups in any game — everything from level design to weapon balance, it just felt so right. I’m very happy to say that Halo 2’s is far superior. The new weapons actually fit better in multiplayer than single play, the level design is fantastic with many easily rivaling Blood Gulch from the original, and there is a faster more frenzied experience on offer here. Of course if you liked the slightly more tactical focused multiplayer from Halo you may be initially disappointed as this time around the speed of the game is closer to Unreal Tournament, but after a few games you’ll be fragging away without a care in the world.
The only apparent issues with the multiplayer aren’t really Bungie’s fault. Firstly, for those of you without Xbox Live, get ready to miss out on half the mulitplayer experience. Secondly, and this is something Bungie really should have included, is bots. It has been argued that this would detract from the whole experience, but I say at least give us the choice. Halo 2’s AI has been lauded as the best ever created for a videogame, but after seeing countless enemies and allies aimlessly running into doors/walls/each other, even on Legendary, I beg to differ.
If Bungie is so proud of its realistic thought pattern coding why not give it the ultimate test and include it in deathmatch competition? For those with no access to Live or those unfortunate enough to have no friends available it would have been a godsend.
So apart from jumping on Xbox Live or rallying together some buddies, Halo 2’s campaign is somewhat lacking, having completed it in two days, would it have killed Bungie to maybe include some Perfect Dark style challenge modes to add a bit of lifespan? Simple capture-the-flag or king-of-the-hill challenges would suffice. Ofcourse, if you have friends and Live, the game will give you many many hours of gameplay with its wide variety of options.
Despite my personal disappointment with the campaign, I really can’t recommend it enough.
Don’t let my negativity spoil your perception of this game, technically there is no equal — and if you enjoyed Halo there’s more than enough to satisfy you here. If you have an Xbox you should get this. If you don’t have an Xbox then try and get one as cheap as possible and seriously consider getting this, especially if you have the capacity to get online and have a bunch of friends willing to take part in multiplayer goodness. Above all else the multiplayer is the real hook here and when you have bait as good as that you may not be able to resist snapping it up.