Halo 2 is the best online multiplayer game I have ever played. The game levels are beautiful, the matches are easy to join, friends are simple to find, and the cacophony of voices screaming during combat is unparalleled, Oh, and the single-player campaign isn’t bad either.
Return to the Extraordinary
As in the original Halo, players take on the role of Master Chief, a cybernetic super-soldier serving on the front lines of humanities war with alien religious zealots called the Covenant. The game opens with Master Chief’s return to Earth, but after a short — but intense — battle there, he returns to the stars in a series of adventures that echo the original game as he and a small band of humans visit yet another ringworld.
Some of these echoes are significant. For example, there are levels in this game that replicate those in Halo — like those in the Library — but they been radically scaled up into environments that you can — and do — get lost in. Prior to the release, the folks at Bungie pitched these massive environments as a way of offering players multiple paths to accomplishing the same goal. But it doesn’t feel open ended — it feels confusing as hell. There are several times in the game where I didn’t have a clue where I was, why I was there, or what I was supposed to do next. Cryptic messages from my cyber sidekick Catana didn’t help, and the mission objectives were infuriatingly obscure. The game desperately needed the waypoints found in the first game.
Now don’t get me wrong — I don’t want my hand held through the entire game, nor do I need a punch of pointers constantly pushing me along the right path. But the occasional breadcrumb would have been nice.
The single-player campaign isn’t all about Master Chief though — players also assume the persona of one of the Covenant’s Elite guards, specifically the “general” who was responsible for the alien expedition to the first Halo ring, and who is blamed for its destruction. While playing this character — called the Arbiter — you get an inside look at the Covenant hierarchy and get caught up in a conspiracy by the ” Brutes” to overthrow the “Elites” and assume their role as bodyguards to the Covenant’s ruling Prophets.
I enjoyed this unexpected divergence form the human storyline, since it gave us much more insight into the Covenant and its motivations. However, I wish they’d handled it a little differently; all of the alien sects within the Covenant end up speaking English, which might be easier on the voice actors, but which makes everything seem more mundane. I’d rather have seen one sect — say the Elites — speaking English while the others conversed in their own tongues, perhaps only switching to English when they needed to convey something important.
I thought it might have just been me, since I’d been playing Halo on its toughest “legendary” setting, but after talking with other gamers it seems that Halo 2’s “normal” setting is just too easy. While some scenes require several attempts, it’s all too easy to run through the game without encountering any heavy resistance. Hell, after playing through on “normal” I’d begun to think that all of Bungie’s talk about an improved AI was just so much hype. Then I tried the game on the “Tough” level, and found it really coming into its own. Suddenly, my opponents were using strategy, and I could no longer easily fight my way from scene to scene. I tried jumping to legendary, but it puts Halo’s “legendary” to shame; after a scene or two I gave up and returned to “tough” to improve my skills.
As should be no surprise by now, Halo 2 ends with a cliffhanger, and leaves a huge number of questions dangling along with the plot. This infuriated some fans, and while I would have preferred a more self-contained story, the cliffhanger doesn’t bother me. But then again, I’m a big fan of Alias.
Overall, I did find the Halo 2 story to be lacking. I think the biggest drawback is the loss of a sense of exploration. In the original Halo, you touched down on a world unlike any other, and found yourself having to repel two very different enemies while coming to grips with the scale of the ringworld. This time around, the game is much more cinematic, and the return to the ringworld seems like something that was obligatory — as though the designers felt they had to return to a ringworld in order for Halo to work. To a certain extent, that’s true, but I wish this new ringworld had been more radically different from the old one, instead of seeming so, well, familiar.
The original Halo was a fantastic multiplayer game, even if you could only play it over a local network. If they’d wanted to, Bungie could have simply re-released Halo with Xbox Live capabilities, and people would probably have gun almost as nuts as they did for the full sequel. Fortunately, they didn’t do that. Instead, they gave us Halo 2 with all its wondrous online multiplayer capabilities.
Halo 2 requires use of Microsoft’s “Xbox Live” service, which costs $70 and needs a high-speed internet connection (DSL or cable modem). Once you sign on, you are able to instantly jump into games with people around the globe through one of several different game types, including Rumble Pit (free-for-all, player-vs-player games), Team Skirmish (teams of four players competing against on another), One-on-One (individual combat between two players), and Big Team Battle (teams of up to eight players fighting against one another). Players can talk to one another using the standard Xbox Live headset.
Within these broad categories are numerous subtypes. For example, “Rumble Pit” features mostly standard “Slayer” games (kill everyone, the one with the most kills wins”) but throws in the occasional “King of the ]Hill” (control one area for a certain amount of time) and “Oddball” (hold a ball for a certain amount of time). Likewise, the various Team games incorporate the old favorite “Capture the Flag” (steal the other team’s flag and return it to your base) as well as “Territories” (race to secure three areas on the map, and then hold them for longer than the enemy team) and “Assault” (sneak a bomb into an enemy base and plant it).
By default, this “matchmaking” mode matches players up with each other based on their skill level (tracked from game to game) and connection speeds. If you find players you like — or if you already know of others playing Halo 2 — you can make them “Friends” and then either played Halo 2‘s canned game variations, or create your own custom ones. Want to the ball carrier in “Oddball” to be invisible? Want the flag carrier to be able to drive a vehicle? Want everyone controlling a hill to have Overshields? It’s all doable through Halo 2 custom games menu.
There are a few flaws to online play. The inability to set team-specific variations (i.e. I want everyone on the Green team to be invisible, and everyone on Red to have overshields) isn’t a big deal, but when you get heavy into variants, it becomes a frustrating drawback. Also, not all the maps from Halo made it over to the sequel, and I particularly miss “Hang ‘Em High” map. Bungie says additional maps will be released, but I wish they’d hurry up their schedule.
The single biggest flaw though, has nothing to do with Bungie’s execution of online play, and everything to do with the people playing it. To be blunt, there are a hell of a lot of assholes running around Halo 2’s quickmatch games. They’re obnoxious, they’re rude, and in most cases, they’re also still in primary or secondary school. For kids, this probably isn’t a big deal (though parents should certainly be aware of what they’re offspring might be hearing … or saying). But for adults who just want to play a good game with solid people, well, it can get annoying fast.
The only way to deal with is to find a good group of online Friends to game with, which can be a slow process if you’re just picking and choosing from the ranks of the people you meet through quickmatch. Fortunately, sites like GeezerGamers.com (read Nuketown’s review of the site) provide people like me with a place to link up.
Halo 2 isn’t a perfect game, but then again, neither was Halo. I didn’t have quite as much fun playing through its campaign mode, but to be honest, it was probably impossible for a sequel to equal the sense of wonder and awe I felt playing the original game. The campaign story was decent enough though, and I certainly enjoyed playing it. Where Halo 2 excels though, is its online play. It’s fiendishly addictive, particularly when you’ve got a good group of friends to play with.
- Halo 2
- Bungie / Microsoft
- Buy it from Amazon