Halo 2... Perhaps the most anticipated game of all time, due in large part to being the sequel to the highly acclaimed and hugely followed original First Person Shooter for the Xbox. Having it's roots grow from a game which is thought of so highly you'd expect Halo 2 to have a hard time living up to the glory; fortunately it plays like Bungie had no pressure whatsoever, this game excels at everything Halo did and excels further at everything it adds to the fray. With the most comprehensive Live component seen on the Xbox, a superb single-player campaign and some of the most beautiful visuals you will ever see on the Box this is everything fans could ever hope for.
Halo is regarded as one of the greatest first person shooters ever and as one the greatest games ever made with good reason, Halo brought a fantastic and believable storyline set in an original science fiction universe which you fought through as the protagonist Master Chief, the embodiment of heroism. A man with no fear and no doubts who would ultimately face off with two almighty enemy forces in the form of the Alien Covenant and the parasitic Flood. With intense action being strung together by a cohesive storyline Halo became a memorable and satisfying gaming experience.
Everything you loved about Halo is back in full force in Halo 2. The seamless integration of vehicular combat and first person shooting fused together by excellent enemy and friendly artificial intelligence, the recharge shields which forced tactical coverage from enemy fire, melee attacks and the realistic ability to hold only two weapons at a time are all back. With everything good about Halo, Bungie made sure Halo 2 would deliver the same but with an extra punch, in terms of gameplay it is still very similar but that extra punch definitely hit it home.
You'll be hard pressed to find another shooter with the amount of cut scenes and dialogue to drive an intricate and powerful storyline that Halo 2 has. Bungie has put a surprisingly large amount of effort into the 15,000+ lines of dialogue and beautifully composed cut scenes. Some of the games greatest lines come from battle sequences when your allies yell out at their enemies with some gung-ho quips which deserve a genuine laugh or two.
I've mentioned the storyline several times now; this is because Bungie have done such a fantastic job with it. It's a large and complex tale with countless pages of back-story but never once does it get in the way of the game and fun, in fact, should you chose to switch off your brain and switch on your killer instinct you'll still be able to have fun. The game opens with Master Chief being rewarded for the events which transpired in Halo and on the flipside you'll see the Covenant's commander of the failed defence on Halo receiving his 'punishment'. Celebrations and executions are quickly put to rest as the Covenant cross the line and invade earth. With a storyline so rich and full of twists I must stop there and let you be personally blown away by the surprises.
The original game set you off as one character going through a train of chronological events until the ultimate conclusion, in Halo 2 you'll switch between two characters (the other shall remain anonymous until you see him/her yourself) whose plots intertwine but sometimes happen at different points in time. The story is told clearly enough to avoid confusion but as you reach the cliff-hanger climax you will find yourself confused. It's odd for Bungie to leave us on this note seeing as how the next game in the Halo series could be another 3 years away, and the cliff-hanger is one which I could see being tied up in another three levels or so. My fingers are crossed that Microsoft and Bungie have secretly planned a Halo 2 Volume 2 in the same vein as Kill Bill and Matrix Revolutions to release early to mid next year. One thing is for sure however, and that is Halo 3 or Halo 2 Volume 2 is going to be the most intense Halo in the series so far.
In terms of gameplay Halo 2 has at least one up on all aspects of the original. Running low on ammo on the battlefield or finding yourself equipped with the most inappropriate weaponry for a given situation is something which is bound to happen to you, in such a case you can actually walk up to an ally and trade weapons with them. Again you are able to request your friendly AI exit their passenger seat from their vehicle so you can take their place, but additionally now the AI can actually drive vehicles as well and do so quite well. But no doubt the best and most entertaining new vehicle mechanic is the ability to 'jack' enemy vehicles. By simply pressing the X buton at the right time you can jump aboard a Ghost, Banshee or even a Wraith (wait until you see this beast) and either simply kick the passenger out or throw in a grenade for good measure to outright murder them, then if you so choose board the vehicle for control. Vehicles now have a secondary explosion so using a downed vehicle for cover isn't always a good idea but can be a great tactical tool when the initial explosion hurtles a Banshee into enemy territory only to explode again. Master Chief also has a few new additions to his suit; he is equipped with binoculars which are very handy for spotting snipers and seeing further away but aren't really necessary to use. Also, your Mjolnir Mark VI Armour now recharges more quickly but it no longer has shields so you will definitely be ducking for cover quite frequently. Also gone are the health and shield kits found in the original Halo.
There was a lot of unnecessary backtracking in Halo, thankfully Bungie listened to the fan's concerns and removed any trace of backtracking whatsoever. Instead you'll find yourself being plunged into a wide array of different scenarios in vastly different locations. You'll begin aboard an ally space-cruiser, then find yourself on earth for a few levels and then be rocketed into snowy, forested and industrial areas all in different regions of the universe. The levels themselves look vastly different and also offer multiple ways of overcoming them with its open areas and multiple vehicle and weapon combinations. Playing the game again can be done in such a unique manner that every time you play it'll feel like you're playing the level for the first time again.
One of the greatest things about Halo was how the game kept on flowing without any pace changing loading screens, Halo 2 follows suit by only having one load time at the beginning of each level leaving you, the gamer, more time and freedom to enamour yourself in the rich 3D worlds around you. Frame rate is an issue barely worth mentioning, the game only hitches ever so slightly when there is complete chaos and even then you'll hardly notice it. During a co-op match I had with a friend we encountered several enemy Wraith's shooting us with the Plasma rockets while we returned fire in the same manner, all the while dozens of enemies around jumped and fired at us amongst a beautifully rendered backdrop, only for a mere second did the frame rate drop a little. Considering also that playing in co-op can be twice the overhead on your Xbox a small dip in frame rate is quite an impressive feat. The only time you'll come across noticeable drops are when the game auto-saves at a checkpoints, just as the original did, but because this happens on neutral and safe ground it doesn't affect gameplay at all.
Ever since E3 2003, when we first got to see a glimpse of Halo 2's dual wielding weapon system everyone has been going crazy wanting to try it out. Though not exactly original, having seen the same invention in classic FPS titles like Rise of the Triad and the original GoldenEye, Halo 2 manages to flesh out the idea into a flawless feat of balanced and exciting gameplay. By simply pressing X to pick up a single weapon and then Y to get another you are instantly ready for some dual-wielding action. Whether you hold a Magnum and a Needler or an SMG and a Plasma Pistol you're set for some fun, all the dual-wielding weapons are one handed only, so any dreams of holding two shotguns must be put to rest. To balance the advantage of double fire power, weilding two weapons will disable your ability to throw grenades and firing both at the same time causes a drop in accuracy. It's actually quite remarkable how balanced this system is and even more so how memorable it can be in both single player and multiplayer environments.
The weapons roster has been updated and revamped and for all intents and purposes refined into a new machine. This is done due in large part to the ability to pick up the Plasma Sword, the dreaded weapon the Elite wielded in the original Halo. Melee weapons in first-person shooters usually scream suicide but the raw power of the sword exudes makes it a weapon that someone holding a rocket launcher will want to run from. With the sword you can take swings at enemies using the B button or lock onto the target momentarily and lunge at them for a fatal deathblow (stronger enemies will need a couple of these to be downed). Having the choice to shower bullets from afar or reign plasma terror up close really makes the battle unique. Due to the ferocity of the sword it requires a balance which comes in the form of an energy meter which will deplete over time in use.
Though not completely overhauled the AI bares some nice improvements and a number of realistic touch ups. Enemies and allies alike will duck for cover, fall back when overwhelmed, drive vehicles accurately and automatically engage hostile targets by any means necessary (including sniping).
You should be able to complete the single player component of the game within 8 to 10 hours so the multiple difficulty settings including Halo's legendary 'Legendary' mode and the excellent co-operative play boost the campaigns life a decent amount. Quite frankly, playing the game through in co-op mode is a completely different experience than going it alone. You'll find yourself and a friend shouting when an enemy is on your tail or to stand clear of a grenade you're about to throw. The visceral thrill of teaming up with a buddy is extraordinary and it's highly unfortunate more games don't take advantage of this excellent feature which Halo 2 implements so well. The difficulty levels range from Easy, Normal, Heroic and Legendary, each one obviously more difficult than the last but by a noticeable standard. In Legendary mode you'll face a horde of enemies with pin-point precision, you may break a few controllers along the way but once the dust has settled and shells have fallen you really do get a sense of accomplishment. Once you complete a level you can at any point go back and replay it again at any difficulty level you so choose in either single player or co-op mode.
Halo 2, like its predecessor, supports 16 player multiplayer action via system link of up to four Xbox's. Since this isn't exactly very practical we now have the Live Component which allows gamers to play each other over the live network in one of the most comprehensive online setups ever and by far the best on Xbox Live right now. Even stacked up to the veteran platform of online games Halo 2 online is better than most PC games. This is due to the game's Optimatch system which will in a matter of seconds throw you into a game once you've told your Xbox what kind of match you're after. On no one occasion did I have to wait for more than 10 seconds to start blasting my Needler at some unsuspecting foe from a foreign land.
The maps you'll find in Halo 2 Multiplayer are superb. You've still got your typical capture the flag and death match games but the arenas you play them in is what makes them feel new. By now you have probably heard of the Capture the Flag map Zanzibar, this stands as one of the greatest CTF maps to be seen in multiplayer and is a current favourite online. More maps are reportedly planned for download via Live soon too thus extending the already huge online play life of the game.
Graphically speaking this game is up there with the best. The PC has its Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, the Xbox has its Halo 2 and Chronicles of Riddick. Like Riddick, Halo 2 sports a range of normal mapping effects which make static environments breathe an impressive life. You'll find believable shadows and gorgeous particle effects at every corner. This game is a wonder to behold on all accounts and it's actually a little embarrassing putting it side by side with Halo to see just how good the graphics have become. Obviously there are still faults to be had, during the cut scenes some texture resolutions will noticeably 'pop' meaning they'll shift from low-res to hi-res as they come closer to the camera. This is the same for some models too, fortunately it doesn't happen all the time and being in a cut scene it won't take away from the gameplay nevertheless it can prove to be intrusive. What makes this problem all the more odd is that it won't happen on the battlefield, or at least in any sort of noticeable manner.
If there ever was a perfect reason to hook your Xbox up to a decent sound system Halo 2 is it. Fully supporting the system's Dolby 5.1 features you will find yourself ducking your head for cover as you hear the plasma blast fly by or a Warthog get blasted high above you. The layers of the sounds of war are incredibly intense and really provoke the feeling of being caught in the midst of the onslaught. Voice work has also been taken with extra concern. No matter whose voice you're listening to be it an ally on the field or Master Chief himself you can tell a lot of time was spent perfecting the art. But the greatest portion of Halo 2's sound comes in its score. Marty O'Donnell has proven once again that despite being a full-on action game you don't need to have a cliched heavy metal soundtrack. The angelic choirs and the use of a full orchestra truly make the experience feel extraordinarily epic. In all honesty, if the score had been handled differently the game would've lost a lot of its impact. This is one game-score you'll want to purchase on CD when it's made available.