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Hello, GIO, thanks for clicking. You are reading the second of six reviews I will be doing on the "Halo" series, covering the original Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach, and then finally Halo 4. I will be excluding Halo Wars and the Anniversary Edition of Combat Evolved from this series for various reasons, but if these are met with decent reception I will surely add them in upon request.
Please note since that most of these games are years old, these reviews may have spoilers. If you haven't played the Halo games before, I strongly recommend you play them before reading these reviews. I will be writing under the assumption that the readers have played the games.
If you haven't read my Halo: Combat Evolved review yet, I recommend you do so now by clicking the link.
Halo 2 was released on November 9, 2004, when I was in the 5th grade. Even though I was only ten years old at the time, I remember being extremely excited for it. Much to my jealousy, a few of my other ten year old peers sported Halo 2 shirts around the playground. I recall gathering around and talking about the new features we would hear of, often from Game Informer magazine, such as the ability to play as an Elite.
It is easy to say that Halo 2 was among the most anticipated games of its era. The promise of cutting edge graphics, intense online multiplayer, and a continuation of Master Chief's story was more than enough to get players on the edge of their seats. Upon its release, it was met with critical praise and, like its predecessor, broke sales records. The Xbox had already given given gamers enough reason to own it and Halo 2 only solidified that fact.
Halo 2's campaign takes massive strides from Combat Evolved, building off of the success of its predecessor. New guns, vastly improved visuals, and a much deeper story all come together to create Halo 2's eight hour campaign. While Combat Evolved focused entirely on Master Chief and his plight against the Halo rings and the Covenant, Halo 2 drastically changes this formula.
One of the biggest takeaways from Halo 2 was that it created personalities for the Covenant. One of my biggest critiques of the original Halo was that it set the Covenant up as mindless drones acting as fodder for Chief's bullets. This time around, we got to experience the Covenant life as the Arbiter, a shunned former commander who failed to stop Chief during the first Halo event. As it turns out, the Covenant are an extremely religious group, governed by three supreme leaders known as the Prophets. Nice touches like seeing Jackal's in cages and Grunt's having to stand on each other's shoulder's in order to see various precedings emphasizes the hierarchy of the Covenant, resulting in their having much more depth in this installment.
We find that the Covenant view Halo as a religious artifact and believe that the rings will lead them to their salvation through a process known as the "Great Journey", which entails the activation of all of the Halo rings. Given our prior knowledge of the immense power the rings possess, it's clear what Master Chief's mission is.
Master Chief's and the Arbiter's missions converge after they meet with the "Gravemind", the apparent leader of the Flood. He sends them both off to different locations in an attempt to stop the Prophets from activating the rings and subsequently killing off all of the Flood, humans, and Covenant. Just before the Gravemind sequence, it's made clear that the Prophets don't trust the Elites and order a mass genocide of their species. The remaining Elites, along with different factions of Grunts, Jackals, and Hunters, form an alliance against the remaining Covenant, led by the Brutes, an ape-like species the Prophets had chosen to replace the Elites.
Compared to Combat Evolved, which never really found its footing, Halo 2 manages to be paced much more skillfully. We are given certain premises, such as the Covenant's religious obsession with Halo and Master Chief's mission to stop the Covenant, and the game expands on those arcs. I find that the much more coherent story is a welcome change from the first game. One might argue that Bungie's attempts at utilizing a more traditional storytelling regime fails to take any risks, but I welcome it as opposed to Combat Evolved's relatively janky story.
The campaign itself is rather lengthy, especially for a first person shooter. If I were to estimate, I would say it features the longest campaign of any of the games in the core series. However, whereas Combat Evolved rarely slowed down, Halo 2 is plagued by a number of dull moments. The game often plods along, forcing the player to traverse mass distances on foot or in vehicles, occasionally taking out an enemy or two. These sequences are neither fun nor relevant to the story, leaving me with the feeling that they were tacked on simply as a means to extend the final game time.
It's well-known that Bungie was a bit rushed to complete this game which may result in most of the tacked on sequences, but it is most apparent in the ending - or rather lack of one. After a final boss battle in which the Arbiter kills Tartarus, we are left with Master Chief proclaiming that he is "Finishing this fight". And that's it. No final mission where Chief fights off an armada of Covenant, no cutscene that shows any evidence of Chief finishing any fights. Instead we are left with a shoddy excuse of a cliffhanger at the end of an otherwise well-paced story.
It's worth noting that many of the cutscenes in Halo 2 are absolutely breathtaking. An early cutscene involves the Master Chief "escorting" a gigantic spiked bomb off of the ship. The cinematography and choreography in this moment is absolutely stunning. The in-game visuals manage to hold up very well to this day. The plethora of particles, animations, and varied environments always keep the game looking fresh and alive.
The diametric gameplay between the Arbiter and Master Chief is very well-done. I remember hearing initial complaints about playing as someone other than the Master Chief - I myself taken aback at the time - but my qualms were quelled after playing a few missions in the Arbiter's shoes. His brooding character and interesting story, in addition to his new gameplay mechanics such as active camouflage being assigned to a button, make him a worthy addition as a protagonist for this game.
Halo 2 also introduces an assortment of new guns into the mix. Most of the original weapons have returned for this entry with many slightly altered. One of the most notable additions was dual-wielding. Players are given the chance to hold two weapons at once and can mix them up as they choose. Replacing the Assault Rifle is the duel wield-able SMG while the new Battle Rifle replaces the overpowered pistol from Combat Evolved. The previously seen Energy Sword and Fuel Rod Gun are also usable weapons this time around. In addition, the Beam Rifle, Covenant Carbine, Brute Shot, and Sentinel Beam make their first appearance.
Combat is largely unchanged from Combat Evolved, resulting in a fun experience overall. The new enemy types coupled with the new guns add more flavor to the experience. Combat Evolved featured an abundance of interesting locales and Halo 2 doesn't falter in that respect. It's worth noting that I felt as though the color palette for Halo 2 was a bit greyer than its predecessor, but the areas still look great and are generally pleasing to the eyes.
Halo 2 features a large cast of very different characters with varying ambitions. New characters such as the Prophets, Tartarus, and Miranda Keyes, in addition to returning favorites such as Sergeant Johnson and Cortana, are welcome aspects to the story. However, the biggest inclusion this time around is clearly the Arbiter. It's evident that Bungie wanted to create a face for the Covenant and, given the circumstances, this was the best way to do it.
The Arbiter's character provides some much needed sympathy to the husk that was the Covenant. At the beginning of the game, he and Master Chief are clearly bitter enemies. The Arbiter's mission was to kill him during the events of Combat Evolved. His failure results in his status as the Arbiter. Of course, we didn't want Master Chief to die in Combat Evolved, but it's a fascinating perspective to feel sympathy for his would-be killer.
Master Chief's character undergoes a few changes as well. In addition to his new now-iconic Mark VI armor, he features a much more expanded dialogue and personality depth. His relationship with Cortana starts to unveil in this game as well which, for better or for worse, becomes a core part of the Halo story.
The multiplayer on Combat Evolved was so primitive that I didn't feel the need to mention it in my review of the game. I, of course, played it a great deal when I was younger and can recall fantastic memories of playing the game with friends, but given the lack of online features, it didn't really feel particularly impactful or revolutionary, compared to other games in the same era. The same cannot be said about Halo 2. The formula that Halo 2 was built upon would eventually become the standard for nearly every first person shooter game to date.
Xbox Live was a bitter ghost town before the arrival of Halo 2. Online play from consoles was more or less unheard of with naught coming from any of the major console developers. But post-release, Halo 2 managed to lure in thousands of subscribers with the promise of addictive and satisfying gameplay. Needless to say, it managed to hit those notes and more.
Halo 2 rounds off at a total of 25 maps, more so than Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, most of which are memorable to play and feature varied and well-designed locales. The maps range from tiny, isometric stations to enormous battle zones. Most maps focus on non-vehicular combat, but many feature an assortment of vehicles which add an extra bit of variety to the gameplay.
It can be said without qualification that Halo 2 set the pace for future multiplayer games. Without it, I doubt we would see the likes of multiplayer that we see today. While the games have clearly evolved substantially, their roots are held high thanks in part by Halo 2.
Halo 2 is one of the best experiences on Xbox. Combat Evolved was already a fantastic game and this sequel managed to build upon those successes and then some. The more mature storyline, new weapons, and fantastic online multiplayer complete what can easily be considered a father-figure of modern first person shooters. Small gripes, such as the occasionally padding campaign and relatively dull color scheme, are hardly a detriment to what is an otherwise enormously satisfying experience to play.
As always, thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, check out my blog here on Game Informer to read more of my work. I appreciate any criticisms, compliments, or any other comments you might leave.