After the success of Halo it was only a matter of time before Microsoft and Bungie released a sequel. The wait was infuriating! Catching glimpses and news in gaming mags just made me more impatient. Thankfully with a 2004 release it wasn’t really that long and boy did it deliver. Before getting stuck in it’s worth noting that a sequel is unusual in shooters as most successfully franchises like Call of Duty don’t have any continuing storyline which is more often seen in action RPG’s like Mass Effect, making Halo a unique oddity.
Unsurprisingly Halo 2 was never going to deviate too far from the “golden trinity” of it’s predecessor but it did make a few noticeable improvements to the formula. Most notably was the addition of dual wielding at the expense of grenades and mêlée attacks. Like the two weapon restrictions introduced with Halo: Combat Evolved this meant that players had to think strategically about there load out based on enemies and terrain. My personal favourite combination has always been the plasma rifle and SMG which helps bring down shields while also having a good balance of ammo. Duel wield was the most obvious omissions from the original so it was a really welcomed addition and unsurprisingly has become a mainstay of the franchise since.
Earth bound and duel wielding the Master Chief in Halo 2
The second major addition was the ability to hijack enemy vehicles. Not only did this open up a new range of tactics in campaign to deal with wraths but it was also a great feature for multiplayer. I no longer even need a shotgun to take out a ghost, I’ll just kill them with their own. One other element here that probably goes unnoticed is the increased vulnerability of vehicles especially the Scorpion which meant that players needed to act quickly to preserve their asset rather then laughing at the army of Ghosts providing a futile light show.
Of course Halo 2 also introduces new enemies, weapons and vehicles all of which have an impact on overall game play. Whether it is the Semi Automatic Battle Rifle or the Carbine the introduction of these mid-ranged weapons definitely had an impact on my load out. I always try to have at least one since they compensate for the rarity of a Sniper Rifle and are easier to use in close quarters. At the same time what might initially seem like just an expansion of the Covenant and a means of adding variety to game play, the introduction of the Brutes, ended up being a key plot point that impacts the rest of the saga.
This is where Halo 2 really distinguishes itself from the original as it introduces online multiplayer via Xbox Live for the first time. Hardly the first online shooter experience one of the games largest developments was the revolutionised playlist method of match making. This combined with a skill matching system meant players could quickly find games and weren’t put off by long wait times. Matches themselves used a variety of regular formats like slayer, king of the Hill and capture the flag but online play adds that little extra difficulty as you can’t see your opponents screen. This coupled with the style of Halo’s game play meant that matches are often very intense especially on smaller maps with grenades flying everywhere. Considering this I’m not surprised that Halo 2 remained the most popular game on Xbox live until the release of Gears of War in 2006.
Storyline & Setting:
A sequel was always going to challenge developers to build on the original while trying to broaden the Halo universe in a way that engaged fans. Towards this end the game introduces us to the Arbiter, the Covenant commander embarrassed by the Master Chief’s destruction of halo. These alternating missions does make it easy to include more detail about the Covenant’s hierarchy and beliefs which are central to the overall plot as it explains their fascination with the rings. Playing as the Arbiter is jarring at first as the first stage seems to jump backwards from the Master Chiefs defence of earth.
This improves once the Covenant fleet arrives at the newly discovered Halo ring just in time to witnesses the Master Chief’s defeat of the Prophet Regret. ‘The Library’ in Halo 2 brings back a few memories but the overall design demonstrates that developers have learnt from the original as the stage is far less repetitive and offers more variety of game play. Experiencing the conflict from both sides does raise an interesting problem, what happens when the two protagonists meet?
Like the original, Halo 2 solves the problem by tipping the Halo universe on its head. The introduction of the Gravemind refutes any previously held beliefs about the Flood as a simply unintelligent parasite and is the catalyst for a temporary alliance. Stemming from this and the Prophets betrayal the outbreak of civil war between the Elites and the rest of the Covenant sets up the games climax and the progression of the plot for Halo 3.
Unfortunately, these plot twists does mean the campaign has an unfinished cliff-hanger which left me really unsatisfied the first time I clocked it on heroic back in 2004. Combined with the length this made me just wanting more. Not necessarily a bad strategy for developers already working on the a third title but it does noticeable detract from the overall experience especially when back then I was primarily a solo gamer.
A quick mention goes to the audio team which also didn’t rest on their achievements as the addition of electric guitar to the main theme worked wonders. Anytime the action is a bout to kick up a notch the heavier theme kicks into gear and helps getting the adrenaline pumping. In fact since Halo 2 the iconic riff always comes to mind when I think of the Halo series rather then the earlier version.
Halo 2 delivers everything I expect from a sequel with improved game play and a broadening of the Halo universe. Additionally, Bungie showed their willingness to continue to innovative with the introduction of online multiplayer which has become the centre piece of the Halo franchise since. The only real criticism I have of Halo 2 is the length and conclusion of the campaign but after a few years and the ability to jump straight into Halo 3 I’ve gotten over the sour taste.
Game play: 9.5/10
Check out my look at Halo: Combat Evolved or stay tuned over the next few days for my take on Halo 3.