Sunday, August 7, 2011

Xbox review: Halo 2

One month after the events of the original Halo, the Elite in charge of of the forces that pursued the Pillar of Autumn from Reach to Alpha Halo is brought before the High Council and the Prophets - the leaders of the Covenant. He is questioned as to why he was not able to prevent the destruction of the ring, and though he tries to explain that containing the Flood became his highest priority, the council claims his actions were that of heresy. The Elite is then carried away to be branded. While he expects to be executed, the Prophets inform him that - despite what the council might demand - his fate ultimately rests with them. The Prophets then provide him with an alternative - become the Arbiter, the hand of the Prophets, and seek out those who would defy the Covenant's grand design; those who do not believe in the Great Journey.

Meanwhile, Cairo Station is in orbit above Earth, and on it Master Chief and Sgt. Johnson are the recipients of medals for their actions at Alpha Halo. Miranda Keyes, the daughter of Captain Jacob Keyes, is granted a medal on behalf of her father. Cortana informs Lord Hood that she is picking up faint signals further out in the Solar System, which prompts Master Chief and Johnson to action. Not long after, Covenant boarding vessels begin latching on to nearby MAC platforms and blowing them up from the inside in order to clear a path for the Covenant cruisers to land on Earth. Master Chief then proceeds to seek out the bomb that has been planted in Cairo Station, then heads planetside to aid in repelling the Covenant.

This setup might seem a bit strange at first, as the original Halo was told only from the perspective of Master Chief and the UNSC Marines. But after the first few missions it becomes apparent that Master Chief's story is not the only one being told, as players are granted control of the Arbiter. The controls for the two are almost identical, though Master Chief is given a flashlight while the Arbiter uses active camouflage, as well as the obvious differences in UNSC and Covenant weaponry. This works brilliantly - not only for the gameplay which keeps players on their toes as they alter between fighting the Covenant forces as Master Chief and confronting both Flood and Forerunner sentinels as the Arbiter, but also for the story. No longer is the Covenant a conglomerate of aliens seeking the same end - their social structure, their religious faith in Forerunner technology; all of this is explored in detail, adding greater depth to the entire Halo story and allowing players to better understand and relate to the two factions.

Grunts, Jackals, Hunters, and Elites all make their return and not only receive improvements in their physical appearances, but also in their reactions to players. The same can be said for the Flood - their grotesque appearance and disturbing cries, combined with greater agility and smarter responses makes the parasite even creepier than in the original Halo. As for the newcomers to the Covenant forces, the ape-like Brutes react in a similar fashion to the Elites, though they will charge at players as a last resort. Drones do not appear as frequently as any of the other Covenant species, but they do present a much different challenge - their health is minimal, but they attack in swarms of a dozen or more at a time as they dart around to evade fire.

Dual-wielding is now made possible, and players can mix and match any of the smaller wepons they wish in both campaign and multiplayer. Larger weapons are exempt from this, so no dual-wielding of shotguns, battle rifles, rocket launchers, snipers , or carbines is allowed. When you're playing as Master Chief and you're deep in Covenant-controlled territory with only a clip or two left in your SMG, the ability to pick up a needler and a plasma rifle will be appreciated (the same can be said for the Arbiter in the midst of fighting the Flood).

During cutscenes, there are some objects that will 'bump-in' a second or two after the rest of the scene has rendered itself. It's a minor annoyance at worst, though, and thankfully does not occur with objects or scenery in the midst of a level. That aside, the game looks graphically gorgeous for a 2004 release. It certainly aims for a more realistic look, but doesn't lose sight of Halo's signature art style, which is carried over in the design of vehicles, weaponry, and the Covenant forces. While there are certainly some memorable tunes from the rest of the games in the series, the soundtrack to Halo 2 is phenomenal throughout. It takes the iconic soundtrack of the first game and improves upon it with soaring tunes to match the epic scale of Delta Halo's environments, dark and mechanical sounds layered over narrow Flood-infested passages, and echoes that are both majestic and alien filling the halls of High Charity.

Players can tackle each mission of the campaign alone or with a friend via splitscreen co-op. Multiplayer makes a triumphant return, allowing for system link or online play for up to sixteen people per match. The maps included on the disk present a great variety of small, medium, and large combat zones. Some, like Midship and Ivory Tower, present players with the option of close-quarters combat or ranged rifle shootouts. Others like Waterworks and Coagulation focus on vehicular combat, while Zanzibar and Headlong provide a balance of all of the aforementioned.

Players can also choose either a Spartan or an Elite character model for use in multiplayer. In-game, they basically control the same, though the height and position of the Elite's head may prove a make-or-break deal for SWAT and Sniper matches. Players can customize their multiplayer counterpart with two colors and an emblem, and designate one of a handful of preset control schemes.

Some might criticize the game's cliffhanger conclusion, but there's no denying how effective the storytelling in Halo 2 is. The online play, though discontinued as of 2010, was not only some of the most enjoyable on the original Xbox, but was also arguably the most influential for the generation. While Bungie did not start online gaming, they made a big push and almost single-handedly got the ball rolling on this new frontier for console gamers. Given both the technology and time constraints Bungie was working with, there are some imperfections with Halo 2. But taking into account everything it did correctly, it's arguably the best title in the entire series.

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

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