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The biggest game release in the history of videogames creates a highly entertaining if a little predictable experience...
â??Itâ??s Halo on fire, going 130mph through a hospital zone, being chased by helicopters and ninjasâ?¦and the ninjas are on fire too,â? is how Jason Jones, Director of Bungie Studios described Halo 2 back in 2002.
Since then, the hype and anticipation surrounding the release of Halo 2 has built up to the extent that every little snippet of information that has been painstakingly released by Bungie over the years, such as the handful of screenshots, theatrical trailers and weekly updates, have been poured over and scrutinized by fans across the globe. Weâ??ve had three years to prepare for what has been promised to be a game that pushes the capabilities of the Xbox to limit, and hopefully marks an equally as memorable parting to the format as its predecessor did of launching it.
Halo: Combat Evolved was THE game to have on Xbox when it was initially released back in 2001. With its amazing gameplay and plot, coupled with superb graphics and soundtrack, Halo captured the imagination of gamers around the world as we followed the Master Chiefâ??s fight against the Covenant and the Flood. Itâ??s success continued to the extent that it took close to 48 weeks before Microsoft would reduce the price and release it on the Platinum range. Even though the game sometimes suffered from going over the same ground at times, fans became very ardent supporters, even partisan at times, especially when continued reports of â??Halo killersâ? were apparently being readied for release on the PlayStation2 â?“ but nothing could really come close to Halo.
The game succeeded by melding high-speed shooting action, the likes of which would shame even the most action-fuelled Sci-Fi movie, with a storyline that captured the imagination of players the world over. With Halo, Bungie had virtually saved Microsoftâ??s fledgling console from the precipice that SEGAâ??s Dreamcast would eventually fall into; and not only that, but also creating a protagonist that was so iconic, that he has now become the personification of Xbox, much in the same way that SEGA had Sonic and Nintendo has Mario. Halo was a game that was tailor-made for the Western market, and whilst it proved to be as potent as adrenaline to the heart of Western gamers, it typifies why the behemoth from Richmond has largely failed in Japan.
It did however have its flaws, with the mere mention of â??Libraryâ? sending anyone but the most obsessive Halo fanatic running for the hills. It was as if Bungie felt that the level was so good, who could possibly fail to enjoy running through it againâ?¦?
The build up to the launch of Halo 2 has developed over the past few months into a hype-rolling extravaganza usually reserved for the very best that Hollywood has to offer â?“ thereâ??s never been anything quite like it in the videogames industry. Naturally the marketing might of Microsoft has played its part, however nothing can be taken away from the legacy its predecessor laid before it and the strong following it amassed. The hype even attracted its own infamous Alternative-Reality-Game on ilovebees.com, which has acted as a further catalyst for fanboys to dissect information and speculate about the plot to one of the most eagerly awaited sequels since Empire Strikes Back hit the cinemas back in 1980.
For weeks a seemingly endless narrative on the site seemed to provide what appeared to be a prologue to the possible events in the game; it suckered in both Halo and ARG fanatics alike, and even broke into the attention of the masses for a short period. Featuring a counter that incremented week by week closer to Bungieâ??s magical number of 777, it was at the exact moment that 777 struck and precious little happened that you had to just snap out of the Halo Hype Machine and just look forward to what would be a great Sci-Fi shooter, fuelled by concentrate action, subtle nuances and a highly enjoyable natural extension of the multiplayer â?“ in this respect Bungie delivers, however we certainly werenâ??t expecting it to feel so similarâ?¦
Bungie have certainly approached Halo 2 with the philosophy of â??If it ainâ??t broke, donâ??t fix it,â? nowhere is this exhibited with more prominence then a quick quip from Cortina, â??Granted itâ??s not the most original ideaâ?â?¦
Taking the foundations of the original game, Halo 2 builds upon it by increasing the ferocious and epic battle sequences, developing the cinematics to an extent close to what the best of Hollywood has to offer, chucking in a handful of new ideas and a final tweaking of some of the finer details. Weâ??ll go through most of these tweaks a little later on, but suffice to say that whilst the changes and additions made do create a more rounded game, they arenâ??t exactly groundbreaking â?“ and the emphasis that Bungie has placed on the Live! capabilities of Halo 2 are more than familiar.
Beginning shortly after the events of Halo, on one of the many orbital platforms that encircle Earth in the middle of the 26th century, the Master Chief is being decorated for his outstanding bravery. This somewhat lengthy, but brilliant prologue to Halo 2 describes the running duality between the Chief and the Leader of the Covenant Forces on Halo, who failed in his task to eradicate all of the humans on the disk world. Whilst the Chief is being congratulated and adulated by his crew, the Covenant commander is punished for heresy and exiled from his community. For the first time, we are being told the story not only from the point of the Chief and the humans but from Covenant forces too. This has allowed Bungie to expand the overall Halo universe, although whether or not the narrative is strong enough is debatable and something only time will tell â?“ history hasnâ??t been too favourable to this type of decision in the past however.
Thankfully Halo 2 starts at a million miles an hour; within the first few stages youâ??ve got to grips with a variety of new weapons, dealt death to hundreds of Covenant troops and taken one or two Warthogs for a spin, not to mention the re-vamped Scorpion tank â?“ all of them introduced just in time for one of the Halo 2 â??surprisesâ? to take place â?“ not that weâ??re going to talk about that.
Like its predecessor, Halo 2 is an altogether linear experience; removing the plot, the game comes down to little more than a series of incessant, relentless battles that leave your eyes almost popping from just how much is going on within the game. There is rarely more than a single way through a level, itâ??s a case of gun, gun, gun everywhere thankfully; although later levels may have you puzzled as to whether youâ??re back-tracing over places youâ??ve already been before. Although nothing within Halo 2 drops close to the laborious mess that was the â??Libraryâ? stage within its predecessor, it does continue the â??how long is a piece of string?â?? approach to a handful of missions that upset some particularly memorable moments.
Above all itâ??s the early stages within the game that manage to excite with sheer vibrancy, variety and just completely insane levels of action. Despite some massive confrontations that are highly memorable, itâ??s the finer touches that we particularly enjoyed, such as the sound muffling during scenes set in space. Sadly although the game promises something to remember early on, later stages feel strangely familiarâ?¦
In a year that has seen more than its fair share of FPS releases from Doom 3 to Men of Valor (not to mention The Chronicles of Riddick), 2004 has also been the year of the â??Weak Weaponâ?? - feeling, for the most part, light and under-powered. This charge however cannot be laid at the door of Halo 2, which has enough firepower and action to blow up the universe â?“ not to mention your Home Entertainment set-upâ?¦
The one detail that has kept Halo fans across the world drooling over is the prospect of dual-wielding weapons, and despite our initial reservations, has to be one of the more exciting additions that Bungie have made to the game. Whereas the mere prospect of dual-weapons is hardly new, Halo 2 incorporates them in such a way to completely re-invent the concept. Granting each weapon individually to each shoulder button, players lose the ability to throw grenades and melee attacks for an altogether more deadly combination of firepower. Despite being so damn fun just to use, the myriad of tactical possibilities makes it much more then simply a cosmetic addition and should prove to be the deciding force in Xbox Live! multiplayer â?“ Halo 2 takes the sheer genius weapon design of its predecessor to new heights.
There are a handful of new weapons for each species, whilst a number have gone through a few changes. The incorporation of the Energy Sword has been a nice touch, although itâ??s slightly over-powered balance does make ploughing through the enemy a little too easy â?“ you canâ??t knock how impressive it looks howeverâ?¦ The Master Chiefâ??s health and shield system has been changed somewhat from his previous escapade, with just the shield replacing the need for both. This ensures the completely unnecessary med-kits have been removed from the game, and helps to notch up the overall tempo of the game.
As well as the weapons, old favourites such as the Warthog and Ghost make their re-appearance albeit with a couple of new touches such as tighter handling for the fun-fuelled Warthog and the Ghostâ??s rolling, vertical evasive manoeuvre. There are a handful of new additions, particularly on the Covenants side, however we were expecting more. During production, Bungie made great claims of adding at the very least, a quad-bike like Warthog codenamed â??Mongooseâ?. Sadly, as Bungie freely admit on the â??Making ofâ? DVD that accompanies the game in the Limited Edition, it was abandoned during development for physics reasons. Weâ??re also informed of several other contraptions (including the mythical flamethrower) that were in development, as well as a variety of new Covenant species, but all were dropped for various reasons.
Another new addition, although nowhere near to the quality of â??dual-wieldingâ? is the ability to hi-jack vehicles. This throws up a few opportunities particularly in multiplayer, and having to beat in the panel, before chucking in a grenade to destroy the larger units is satisfying â?“ at first. The problem is that it can be quite hard with the faster units and youâ??ll often find yourself knocked to the ground when trying to mount a Ghost or something similar; despite impressing at first, we hardly found ourselves using this feature later in the game.
Despite physics being blamed for the omission of the Mongoose, we have no complaints whatsoever to its use within the game. Itâ??s no overstatement to say that the use of the Havok physics engine within videogames has been taken to new heights; never have we seen objects in a game move around under the heavy bombardment of fire with such conviction and realism. Objects donâ??t fly around the place as though attached by elastic, but actually appear to have weight â?“ the same can be levied to the way the game handles the multiple of bodies that pile up on each stage. Itâ??s one of the primary reasons why certain parts of Halo 2 are so impressive; when youâ??ve just finished belting out your last bullet from an SMG and chucked in your last frag grenade, to watch every object and body blow into the sky and emerge victorious, is an experience seldom touched in this particular genre.
Visually the game is a striking masterpiece, although once again, nowhere near to the impact that the original had upon your first glance. Particularly the earlier stages set on Earth represent a pleasant change, depicting a futuristic world on the brink of disaster with distinction. However titles such as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, have risen the bar when it comes to visual feats on this format, and the effect is slightly unfavourable to Halo 2. Thankfully the overall cut-scene quality has improved which along with the overall direction provides much of the allure to begin with â?“ however sadly once again the appeal begins to wane a little too early.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Halo 2 is the return of Marty Oâ??Donnell and Michael Salvatori, to pen a musical soundtrack on a level beyond anything else in this industry, putting one or two movie compositions to shame. Not to be overshadowed, the sound effects are equally as impressive with a strong and solid feeling to every single shot and explosion, whilst the number of lines for marines and those funny little Covenant guys has been increased significantly. Its blend of hauntingly ambient moments and high tempo crescendos, overlaid upon the deafening effects, finishes the overall assault on your senses by Halo 2 exceptional presentation.
In our bouts throughout the single-player and various multiplayer modes weâ??ve never noticed a moment of slowdown, which ensures the four-player splitscreen will keep those without Live!, entertained far longer then the single-player campaign.
One word of caution for Halo fanatics that have been counting down the years, play this game on Heroic or Legendary, as itâ??s way too easy to finish the game in one quick sitting â?“ particularly if youâ??re playing in Co-Op. Sadly despite not being able to play Co-Op online or via System-Link, Halo 2 on Live! manages to provide an entirely entertaining experience and will do for months to come, however again we might question the lack of any real innovation.
The Xbox Live! features of Halo 2 for the most, offer gamers the opportunity to play the types of network games that PC gamers have been enjoying for years, although admittedly it is on a scale thatâ??s virtually untouched. There is a certain variety in the games but at the end of the day, Halo 2 was marketed as having very strong, almost revolutionary Live! enabled gameplay, and whilst it is fun, intense and entertaining, it seems weâ??ll have to wait awhile before the huge battle confrontations between Humans and the Covenant akin to the Battlefield series become possible â?“ although Iâ??m a dropship commander when they do. Having said that, there are scant quality FPS options on Live! and there can be no denying its enjoyment and overall quality â?“ we just kind of wished for more, thatâ??s all.
The online side is up to the usual high standards of Xbox Live!, and a welcoming return after the recent complexities associated with FIFA 2005 and Burnout 3: Takedown. You can easily search for players of a given skill or invite your friends to games (and thankfully chat to them in the lobby), with hosts able to amend every facet from a selection of 11 maps, rules, scores, time limits, primary/secondary weapons and vehicles â?“ this is where Halo 2 really does come into its own, and we can foresee a countless number of battles taking place around the globe over the coming months.
There are 7 options to take when you play Halo 2 on Live!, and they are all part of what is called the â??Matchmaking Playlistâ?. They include:
Rumble Pit: Challenges you and up to 7 others to battle it out in Slayer Mode in a valiant battle to the death. Generally they seem to be the most ferocious and you can expect to be slaughtered constantly throughout the matches.
Team Skirmish: Halo 2 variation of Capture the Flag, where teams take it in turns to be offensive or defensive.
Head-to-Head: This is one-on-one Deathmatch, and is perhaps the more suspense filled option although not advised on larger maps.
Big Team Battles: One of the most attractive features of the Live! options on Halo 2 are the BTB matches. It allows up to 16 players to fight it out with objectives akin to the Unreal Tournament series, whether they may be CTF games or some of the other Objectives available to the Host player.
The two Clanmatch options essentially utilise the Big Team Battle and Team Skirmish game types. These are heavily group-based with players competing in either teams of 3-4 or 6-8, clans are able to battle it out for death or glory!
There were countless rumours about the Clan set-up before the release of Halo 2, such as whether you could design your own clan logos or not. Sadly, these are not an option in the game, and gamers are restricted to a selection of motifs that can then be changed to a number of various colours and layouts. It may not be everything it could, however the prospect of leagues and tournaments, not to mention Bungie severely punishing cheating with detrimental changes to a players performance, should ensure Halo 2 becomes the landmark title for Xbox Live!
Finally, there is the option to play in the Training Ground. These are unranked arenas and allow gamers to play with guests â?“ they are not allowed to participate in ranked tournaments, which is a real shame, especially when games like fellow Microsoft Games Studio alumni, Project Gotham Racing 2 allows guests to raceâ?¦
We can’t fault the sheer relentless action and perfectly crafted gameplay of Halo 2, however we did find our interest waning slightly once the experience got a little too familiar and particularly left its initial location in the Single-Player campaign.
As we’ve said it begins at a frantic pace and those early stages are particularly brilliant, however it’s over all too soon and the cliffhanger climax is likely to infuriate as many as those who begin counting down the days until Halo 3.
The multiplayer aspects certainly add to the Xbox Live! catalogue and deserves to become the pinnacle of the online service, although Pariah looks likely to turn a few heads. From the level designs to its dense level of customisation, you can tell it’s been a subject of great thought; chuck in the frenzied, solid action of Halo multiplayer and its enough to look past the fact there’s little of anything groundbreaking here… The War on Earth is coming...