It took two years after the release of Xbox Live to break one million subscribers, and just last week the counter ticked over another million in half the time. It’s an impressive testament to Microsoft’s growing stake in the industry. And more than that, it’s a tribute to the pull-power of Microsoft’s biggest franchise.
No one would deny that the Halo series has become Xbox’s proverbial ‘ace up its sleeve’. The original Halo blended tight controls, a satisfying story and exciting multiplayer to pull in the masses to Microsoft’s new console at launch. And on November 9th 2004, the release of its sequel, Halo 2, now fitted with Xbox Live functionality, seems to have brought similar success to Microsoft’s online gaming service.
With over five million copies sold worldwide, and a lively online community, it’s hard to blame Microsoft for trying to ride the wave. Whipped back to work, developers Bungie have cooked up an expansion pack designed to keep those new Halo fans coming back for more.
Introducing the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack, a multiplayer add-on for Halo 2 set at a value price. The disc features every Auto-update released over Xbox Live, nine brand-spanking new maps and a few DVD extras. All of which, except for the DVD extras, can be downloaded over Xbox Live.
The nine new maps are the meat and potatoes of the package, and if you’re a fan of Halo 2’s multiplayer this is where you should be listening. There are several things that quickly become apparent about the new maps. Firstly, many of the maps have a particular mode that suits them best. Turf, a small-sized city block was designed best for Territories. Relic, a large sandy island with a gigantic base in the centre plays fantastic for 1 Flag Capture the Flag. Sanctuary, a medium-sized map set in the Forerunner ruins works a treat for slayer. And Containment, a gigantic snow-covered trench is perfect for Multi-flag Capture the Flag with an emphasis on large-scale vehicle action.
The second thing noticeable is that several of the new maps are small in size, comfortably fitting 2-4 players in an obvious nod to offline Halo fans. Warlock and Elongation, remakes of Halo 1’s Wizard and Longest respectively, are humble symmetrical maps that become overly chaotic with more than 8 players.
It’s no secret that Bungie scaled-down and cut out several of the multiplayer maps originally intended for Halo 2’s November 9th release. With a much more relaxed development schedule, Bungie has been able to polish the new maps to a sparkle. Backwash, a small map set in the eerie swamps of Delta Halo is shrouded in thick fog, encouraging hide and seek tactics. Terminal, one of the largest new maps, is set in an asymmetrical metropolis, its focal point the two bullet-trains that scream down the centre tracks at random intervals, killing anyone in their path. Gemini, formally the spiritual home of the prophets, is a beautiful alien chamber complete with sliding doors, multiple teleports and a large gnarled tree in the centre.
Aesthetically, the new maps look just as good as we’ve come to expect from Halo 2, and the detail rarely fails to satisfy. Backwash’s fog effect doesn’t simply obscure visibility, flashes of gunfire and explosions can be seen across the map, the plasma sword slices through the mist, and if you look closely you’ll see a monitor hovering around the map’s perimeter. The old twisted tree in the centre of Gemini contrasts beautifully with the purple alien walls of the Covenant lair. The opposite side of Sanctuary’s dry crumbling ruins is wet and organic, with waterfalls and vegetation scattered on the stone surfaces. If you look out the air-tight windows of Elongation you’ll be treated to a spectacular view of Earth from thousands of kilometres up.
After the maps, the disc includes all three auto-updates released in the last few months that were mandatory downloads for all Halo 2 Xbox Live players. The patches mostly fix cheats and glitches that could be exploited in multiplayer, but the first update tweaks the force of grenades and the damage of melee attacks to create a more entertaining experience.
If you’re an Xbox Live player however, the DVD extras are the only part of this package that you can’t download online. Those who pick up the Map Pack will get a behind-the-scenes making of the nine new maps and an animated Halo 2 side-story short. That’s it. The animated short, ‘Another Day at the Beach’ is an impressive cutscene that’s over before it even begins. The documentary is far more worthwhile, but again, you’re unlikely to watch it more than once.
All in all the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack is a strong package that will appeal to fans of Halo 2’s multiplayer. If you still play Halo 2 regularly over Xbox Live the purchase, whether online or picking up this disc, is going to be an easy decision. All the maps are well-balanced and make excellent additions to matchmaking over Xbox Live, several offering improved experiences for underrated modes like Territories. For those without Live, you’ll be pleased with many of the smaller new maps that are perfect for offline fragfests with friends.