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Halo 2

Developer: Bungie Software | Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Players: 1 to 16 Player Game | Release Date: 11/09/04 | Genre: FPS

Halo: the name alone is enough to send chills down the spines of gamers everywhere. Bungie's monumental Xbox launch title blazed up the sales charts and never looked back; not even at the hot blonde sitting pretty in the number 6 slot. Halo redefined what gamers expect from a first person shooter with its epic storyline, unique inventory which allowed for just two weapons, unparalleled enemy AI, and characters that were instant hits with players. The game's multiplayer only added to an already fantastic package and three years later is still ruling the roost.

Here we are, November 9th 2004 has come and gone, and with it the release of what is arguably this generation's most anticipated game: Halo 2. Now that we've had some time to take this game for a spin, it's time to get down and dirty and find out just how good it is.

Halo 2 is a great game; the moment you start playing you realize that it feels familiar and yet that it is distinctly its own game. Halo fanatics shouldn't have a hard time picking this game up and playing, but mastering it may take some practice. The gameplay is largely unchanged from the first game; your goal is still to shoot butt-ugly aliens with powerful weapons and yes, you can still only carry two guns at any given time. The difference is that this time there are quite a few new weapons in the game and the new ability to dual wield weapons. Certain weapons can be paired with others as you hold one in the right hand, and one in the left. Bigger guns cannot be dual wielded, but guns such as the smg and covenant plasma rifle can yield great results using this method. Another note on dual wielding is that you lose the ability to throw grenades when holding up two guns simultaneously. Pressing the Y button or B button will drop the gun in your left hand, allowing you to throw �nades again.

Halo 2's single player campaign is much more chaotic than the original game's. The worlds you visit are in a state of total war and the action is all around. This leads to some very exciting moments of gameplay where you feel as though you really are in the middle of a galactic struggle for survival. As in the original Halo, groups of marines will at times fight beside you. Luckily, this time around their AI has been radically improved and they actually make for very competent support in the large scale battles.

The enemy AI has also been upgraded; they will hunt in groups and take some seriously evasive action if under heavy fire. The Elites are especially impressive as they will jump on top of obstacles, take a few shots, and duck down again for cover. The jackals have become rather adept with sniper rifles, and the grunts�well, okay they're still the ultimate cannon fodder. New enemies, such as the Brutes and the flying insect aliens present new challenges that must be overcome and add some variety to the Covenant line up.

As you play, you'll no doubt take note of the destructible environment objects and the tweaks made to the physics system. It's still a blast to throw a grenade and watch the bodies fly. Also, the insane vehicle physics are back for the most part, although they do seem to have been dumbed down just a tad. You'll also find that the vehicles are now destructible themselves which means you can't have quite as much fun in them as you used to. In Halo 2 when a vehicle blows up, you don't want to be anywhere near it as the damage is huge.

The game's campaign mode also weaves an intricate scifi tale and adds on to the story behind the original Halo. Bungie has chosen an interesting manner in which to tell this new tale, and undoubtedly it becomes one of the biggest surprises about the game. To say any more about the plot would ruin it for players, so we'll just leave it at that and let them discover things on their own.

The game does offer other modes of play. For instance, just as in the original, you and a friend can play through the story mode cooperatively on a split screen setup. Then there are the real multiplayer aspects: System Link and Xbox Live. System Link play is just as it was with the first game; you can hook up multiple Xbox systems and have up to sixteen players playing in a LAN game. This is still a blast, as it is always fun to play with buddies, but because Halo 2 makes use of Xbox Live, you can always find someone to play with.

The Xbox Live multiplayer is where the game really shines and sets itself apart from the first Halo. The gametypes you can play are countless as Bungie has a ton of game variables you can change to your liking. Online you can choose from several different general gametypes such as: Rumble Pit; a free for all match against other players, Head to Head; play one on one against another player, Team Skirmish; play a team game with up to 7 other players, Big Team Battle; play a team game with up to 15 other players, Minor Clan Match; play another clan in a small team battle, Major Clan Match; participate in a large scale clan battle. These are just the game setups that you can play, throw in all the maps, gametypes (slayer, ctf, etc), and other rules and you've got literally thousands of variations on the games you can play.

Halo 2's Xbox Live mode also keeps track of an impressive number of statistics, including any special medals you earn in combat. Your results are available via Bungie.net at any point in time and detail everything down to each individual game you have played in. Another interesting thing about this mode of play is that you begin with an initial rank of 1. As you play you gain experience points, much as you would in an RPG, and you effectively �level up� as you win more matches. The online service uses your ranking to pair you up with players of approximately the same skill level so that your matches are always intense and exciting. Clans are also ranked in much the same manner. However, from time to time you may just wish to play, without worrying about rank, luckily you can do that as well.

The level design on the multiplayer maps is top notch and makes for some great games. Plus, vehicles can now be found in more levels, including the banshee which was in Halo's campaign mode, but noticeably absent from the multiplayer. Redesigned versions of Halo classic maps Battle Creek (now Beaver Creek) and Blood Gulch (now Coagulation) have been thrown in for good measure and still represent two of the best.

Another area where Halo 2 shines is audio. Quite simply, the audio for this game is unrivaled. The voices and sound effects are great, but what really takes the cake is the beautiful musical scores scattered throughout the game. The music very much goes against what you normally hear in a first person shooter, and that is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a downright wonderful thing. You've got to hear these tracks to believe them; the audio alone is worth the fifty dollar price tag.

With all that's been said about this game you'd think that it is nigh perfect; and truth be told, it is a fantastic game, but (there's always a but) it does have some noticeable problems. Starting with the campaign mode, the cut scenes are choppy as low res textures are dumped and hi res ones are brought in. Unfortunately, this is very noticeable, and I can only assume that Bungie had to release the game before they really wanted to in order to hit this holiday season. A �popping in� effect is also noticeable during regular gameplay for the gamer with a keen eye for bugs. Also, there is one segment in the game where it is possible to fall completely through the floor geometry, and it is possible to get stuck in various locations throughout the world. These glaring glitches add further validity to the argument that the game was released a bit earlier than the developers would have liked.

On the multiplayer side of things there are almost no problems to speak of. In fact, the main gripe with this isn't the gameplay at all, it's the willy nilly interface you must navigate to play. You can setup what kind of battle you want (head to head, team battle) and then go to quickmatch and the game will find a match for you. Finding matches can take quite awhile and the matches themselves last relatively short. Once the game is done, you are taken back and must search again for a new match. I would love to know how you setup a game with specific levels and types of play for Xbox live, but I have yet to figure this out even after 45 minutes of looking through all the options. The best I could do was start my own game which was pointless as the game began and I was the only player in it. It would seem that most other players are having the same problem as it is one of the things discussed the most in pregame lobby areas.

How this interface and system managed to pass through to the final version is beyond me; it is one of the most counter-intuitive interfaces I have ever messed with. I am certain that there must be a way to search for a particular level or gametype you want to play, but how one goes about doing so is quite beyond me. It seems that almost every game is 1 flag ctf at HeadLong, and while it is fun, I would like to play something else at some point. Hopefully some updates will become available through Xbox Live in order to clean this stuff up.

That said, problems and all, Halo 2 is a great game and is definitely worthy of your time and money. The multiplayer is second to none and will keep you up for days at a time and keep you away from that pesky job thing you have going for you. Is it better than Halo? Honestly, this gamer doesn't think so. The multiplayer aspect is better with more options and Xbox Live, but the single player campaign is significantly less fun and even though Halo was rushed, it was overall a more polished and full experience. It is apparent that whatever made Halo an instant classic is missing from Halo 2, but even so Halo 2 IS a fantastic game and I highly recommend that you go out and get yourself a copy as soon as you can; if you own an Xbox, this is one game that you shouldn't miss.

By Ryan Schaefer - 11/11/04
ESRB Details: Blood and Gore, Language, Violence
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Screenshots for Halo 2

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