Halo 2, the long-awaited sequel to one of the most widely praised, most influential first-person shooters ever created, has a very tough act to follow. Fortunately, it's built on a foundation that's as strong as they come. The game's success was preordained--publisher Microsoft tallied more than 1.5 million Halo 2 preorders in the weeks leading up to the game's release, which demonstrates just how confident Halo's fans are in the sequel's quality. But how is it, really? The good news is, the sequel to the Xbox's defining action game is an absolutely superb, fully featured game, boasting an excellent presentation, a highly replayable campaign, and the greatest, most complete online multiplayer component in a console shooter yet. A surprisingly disappointing story and a fairly short single-player portion are noticeable shortcomings, but there's just so much breadth of content in Halo 2, and the action itself is so outstanding, that there can be no denying its quality. Overall, it's one of the very best action games available.
It's good to see you, Master Chief.
There are several reasons why the original Halo ranks up there with a very small number of other first-person shooters as one of the definitive games in the genre. For one thing, Halo succeeded at establishing a cohesive, memorable, and original science-fiction universe. For another, the Master Chief, Halo's cybernetic protagonist, made a great hero. A fearless, enigmatic man, the Chief could succeed where pure flesh-and-blood humans could not, and guiding him to victory against the alien menace known as the Covenant, as well as the parasitic creatures called the Flood, made for a gripping story and an intense and satisfying gameplay experience.
Halo's gameplay was amazing in that it seamlessly integrated top-notch first-person shooting with incredibly fun third-person vehicular sequences and outstanding friendly and enemy artificial intelligence. The game's subtle innovations--the tactical consequences of such things as having recharging energy shields, being able to carry only a couple of weapons at a time, the ability to throw powerful grenades in between shots, and the option of dishing out fierce melee attacks--also did a lot to differentiate Halo from other shooters, and proceeded to influence subsequent games. Halo's multiple, well-balanced difficulty settings, two-player cooperative campaign option, and assorted multiplayer modes also ensured that the game had tons of lasting appeal. All these factors contributed to the game's well-deserved success, and they're all back in Halo 2. For the most part, the sequel takes an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to its gameplay--everything that you loved about Halo's action is back in full effect here. At the same time, the handful of new additions in Halo 2 are well thought out and well implemented, enriching the gameplay and making it seem fresh but still familiar.
Everything that you maybe didn't love about Halo is pretty much back, too. Let's face it: Halo was an incredible game, but some aspects of it were relatively weak. Most notably, many players felt that the game's occasionally repetitive level designs undermined the action, such as when the Master Chief squared off against the Flood in the infamous Library level. Also, though the game's visuals were terrific in the heat of battle, Halo's cinematic cutscenes using the game's 3D engine left a lot to be desired--they looked decidedly rough when compared with the rest of the game. These shortcomings rear their heads again in Halo 2, at least during the game's campaign. Some of the in-engine cutscenes are kind of ugly, though they're much better than those of the original. Meanwhile, the action itself is as dynamic and intense as ever, to the point where it can be tons of fun to replay the same sequence over and over, since you'll find that the friendly and enemy forces you'll be battling with will never act quite the same way twice. However, Halo 2's campaign--though it features a number of memorable, spectacular set pieces--frequently boils down to straight-up run-and-gun corridor crawls, one after another.
Halo 2 plays much like its three-year-old predecessor, and the gameplay's just as fun and intense as ever. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
All your attention tends to get concentrated on the action itself, partly because the action is just so good but also because there's often little of interest in the game's environments. The level design is quite striking at times--you'll find yourself stopping just to gaze at the architecture--but it's occasionally monotonous enough to be confusing. You'll sometimes wander aimlessly for a few minutes, unable to tell which way is forward and which way is backward, until you happen upon the next signs of enemy resistance. Basically, the campaign is still a linear series of shootouts, some of which are open-ended enough to afford you the ability to choose from multiple weapons or vehicles, and some of which are more rigid. If the Flood levels of Halo didn't bother you, then you probably won't mind the similar sequences in Halo 2. If you don't fondly recall those bits of the first game, though, you might find yourself frustrated that Halo 2 follows a similar formula.
Even the content of Halo 2's campaign isn't significantly different from that of the first game. Prepare to take on many of the same foes in many of the same types of situations and locales. Of course, the game does take you into some new territory and pits you against some new threats (such as some hard-to-hit flying enemies and an enormous spiderlike Covenant battle tank), and sure enough, these sequences turn out to be some of the best bits of the campaign. Early on, for instance, you'll be defending Earth itself from a Covenant assault, rampaging through the war-torn streets on foot, at the wheel (or the mounted turret) of a Warthog 4x4, or in the belly of a devastating Scorpion battle tank. All this is thrilling. Yet while it's hard to imagine a better setup for Halo 2's action than putting the fate of Earth's defense in your hands, the game turns out to have other intentions, and rather suddenly changes gears after just a few hours.
Halo 2 gives up some of its focus from a storytelling standpoint, which becomes especially apparent once you finish the campaign. A great deal of attention is paid this time around not to the humans struggling for survival, but to the Covenant and what turns out to be a major political upheaval within their ranks. You spent the first game indiscriminately killing these fiends--yet now you're expected to be sympathetic to them and their hatred for humankind. To the game's credit, all this adds some newfound complexity to the story (even the collector's edition version of the game's manual is written from the Covenant perspective), and the plot itself is executed quite well. Still, chances are you'll wish that the game spent less time telling you about the Covenant and more time telling you about the Master Chief, his trusty AI companion Cortana, and, well, the fate of Earth.
Halo 2's campaign is a blast to play, but is ultimately disappointing. Fortunately, the rest of the game is a blast to play, period.
As previously suggested, easily the worst part about the story is the way it ends, insofar as it doesn't. You'll run into this game's cliff-hanger ending like a compact car into a brick wall, and you'll certainly be left aching for more. Cliff-hanger endings are not necessarily a bad thing--some of the most successful film franchises in history (Star Wars and Back to the Future, to name just two) have relied on cliff-hangers to sustain their audiences' feverish excitement over time. The difference is, those cliff-hanger endings arrived in the context of storylines that at least offered some resolution or catharsis, whereas there's little satisfaction to be found in the ending here, and there's no telling when the next Halo game will come around to potentially wrap things up. There's a good chance you'll feel emotionally betrayed by the story, and it certainly doesn't help that the campaign, at the default difficulty, is going to take an average player less than 10 hours from start to finish. Many excited Halo fans will quickly blow through it in a day, or even a single sitting. Yes, the actual gameplay of Halo's single-player campaign is a blast. But the campaign also winds up being the most disappointing part of the game--probably the only disappointing part. Fortunately, Halo 2 more than makes up for these shortfalls in other ways.
From a technical standpoint, Halo 2's campaign features some significant improvements on the original. Some of the battles are on a noticeably grander scale, with many more vehicles and enemies mixed in for chaotic, breathtaking results. Much like the original, Halo 2 features some pitched battles involving more than two opposing factions, and it's great to be able to either lie low and watch the fur fly, or take advantage of the situation. Halo 2 also offers a virtually seamless gameplay experience, with only occasional split-second pauses in the action to divide up miles and miles of combat zones. Saving and loading is also handled extremely well, in that it's done automatically. Intermittent checkpoints punctuate the action, and you'll start back at these should you die or quit playing for a while--you never need to manually save your progress. Furthermore, the enemy AI is as impressive as ever, fighting with nearly the same unpredictability as a human opponent. The AI has a few weaknesses, especially when it's in the driver's seat of a vehicle, where it has trouble steering around obstacles, but it's still interesting and fun to fight both with and against.
Halo 2 plays very similarly to the original, but there are some key differences. Your jump is higher and floatier this time, and you don't suffer damage from falling anymore. There's no longer a health meter to worry about, which might sound like a pretty severe change, but it simply means that, unlike in the original game, you never need to concern yourself with finding health packs. It's just you and your recharging energy shields, which again give the game its tactical pacing--a slightly faster pacing than before, actually, since your shields recharge more quickly than in Halo. You can run and gun for a while, but when your shields are depleted, it's time for a hasty retreat behind cover. You can withstand a few light hits after your shields are drained, but that's it.
It's now possible to dual-wield some weapons--the smaller, one-handed ones. This isn't exactly an original feature, but Halo 2 implements it very well, both in single-player and multiplayer. When you're dual-wielding, you can independently fire both weapons using the left and right shoulder buttons. This leads to double the stopping power, makes some previously underpowered weapons (such as the needler) quite potent when used in tandem, and creates the potential for some inventive weapon combinations. On the other hand, while dual-wielding, you cannot throw your frag grenades or plasma grenades (which any Halo player knows are extremely useful), and you cannot execute melee attacks without automatically dropping the off-hand weapon in the process. So, dual-wielding doesn't dominate the game; it has its place, and it's an interesting addition to the game's tactics.
Halo's memorable vehicles make a triumphant return in the sequel.
Halo 2 also sports a few vehicles not seen in the original, but the first game's vehicles get most of the attention. Fortunately, they've all been freshened up a bit. The Warthog can now powerslide for even tighter turns than it was capable of before. The Ghost, which you'll remember as the Covenant's one-man attack hoverbike, is probably the most fun-to-drive vehicle in the game now, thanks to the addition of an afterburner that makes it superfast and very deadly as a battering ram (the Ghost's plasma cannons are disabled while boosting, though). The Banshee, the Covenant's hang-glider-style flying vehicle, can now perform barrel rolls and loop-de-loops, and it also has an afterburner-style boost. It has a powerful main cannon that you'll get to use in the single-player portion of the game, but in multiplayer it's limited to its rapid-fire plasma guns.
Also, all the vehicles in Halo 2 now noticeably sustain damage when struck, but this effect is mostly cosmetic. It looks really terrific, to be sure--location-specific damage means you'll see the vehicles get shot apart piece by piece, depending on how you hit them. However, even if you're piloting a burning husk of a vehicle that seems held together by duct tape, chewing gum, and hope, it won't blow up unless your shield meter is depleted and you're killed as per usual. This seems counterintuitive, but then again, not having to worry about your vehicle's health independently of your own certainly doesn't hurt the game. And besides, if your opponent is sporting a shinier ride than you are, you can try to take what isn't yours.
The ability to hijack vehicles is probably the single greatest addition to Halo 2's play mechanics. It's done by simply pressing the X button when you're in the proper position, but getting into position can be tricky when you're face-to-face with a vehicle bristling with deadly weapons. Still, should you flank a vehicle and execute the command, you'll see yourself "remove" the opponent from the driver's seat and replace him. The particulars of the act depend on the vehicle (for instance, you'll actually have to bash open the hatches of the game's tanks and flush the crew out with grenades before taking control), but the bottom line is it's possible to turn the tables on a heavily armed opponent. This can lead to some incredibly satisfying unscripted moments in both the single-player and multiplayer portions of the game, such as when you jump up and grab onto a low-flying Banshee and fling its pilot into a bottomless pit, or when you jack a Ghost and make crushing its former owner your first order of business.
Most of Halo's weapons return in the sequel, and are joined by a number of brand-new human and Covenant guns.