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November 17, 2004 | Any remaining copies of Halo, the 2001 Xbox smash hit, might as well be chucked into a black hole at this point. Halo 2 is finally here — hyped so masterfully that 2.4 million fans blew their cash wads on the November 9 release date, adding up to a record-breaking $125-million in retail sales. As seasoned gaming veterans know, newer doesn't always equal better, and excessive marketing often hopes to gloss over a title's shortcomings. Is Halo 2 a bolder, more exciting game than the first, or has the broadest, most expensive ad campaign in gaming history merely infected us with a bad case of sequelitis?

Bungie Studios, developers of the Halo series, have over a decade of design experience behind them, starting (most notably) with the Marathon trilogy and the Myth series. Every major Bungie game, it seems, not only holds narrative in high regard, but weaves common themes and plot points across the spectrum of its series. Pointed connections between the Marathon and Halo universe, for example, were suggested by fan-sites well in advance of the original Halo's release. It was this sort of scrutiny and analysis that ran rampant during the unraveling of "I Love Bees," a web site and blog set up by Halo 2 marketers. Fan sleuths collaborated to reveal a series of fictional messages from the future-each a portion of a storyline set in the Halo universe. The "I Love Bees" promotional game ran concurrently with other, more mainstream marketing efforts such as the airing of Halo 2 trailers in movie theatres and appearances by a guy dressed as Halo's "Master Chief" in some of North America's largest cities. Sadly, real-life aliens are still nowhere to be found.

Halo 2's storyline isn't all that different from the original, and still involves a "Halo" construct-a world-sized ring that doubles as an alien superweapon. The first Halo was destroyed in Halo 1. In Halo 2, we've got to stop a new ringworld from setting off its galaxy-eating arsenal. As with the first title, there are three main races involved in the game's conflicts: The human marines, the alien Covenant (a humanoid species), and the alien Flood, which is an icky, sticky parasitic species that converts both humans and Covenant forces into zombie-like creatures. Diving into Halo 2, you'll not only reprise your role as the super-soldier Master Chief, but you'll have an opportunity to play a Covenant Arbiter, who is, except for being more talkative, as deadly a killing machine the Chief.

Halo 2's story becomes a tale of two warriors, starting with the uninteresting but familiar combination of Master Chief and his sidekick Cortana (who plays Tinkerbell to the Chief's Peter Pan), and branching off into the intriguing world of Covenant civil war. Each side's elite soldier must traverse a stunning variety of detailed environments, often commandeering vehicles during their adventures, and of course blasting the crap out of just about anything that moves. Overall, Bungie has again given us a good (if not convoluted) storyline, played out in scenes that rival the composition, action, and entertainment-value of some Hollywood productions. While the visuals are incredibly-impressive (if you can overlook some minor graphics-glitches), the dialog is a little irksome at times. Not only do all the aliens speak English, but the "mouth" of our Covenant Arbiter is shaped like a wide, lipless esophagus-realistically, the only sounds you'd hear coming out of that spongy maw would be akin to passing gas. The writing alternates between credible, deliberately-humourous, and forehead-slappingly embarrassing. Master Chief's few words are as cheesy as they come-great fodder for young comic-book lovers, but adult game players may be rolling their eyes on more than one occasion.

Halo 2, like its forbearer, is a "first-person shooter" game, putting the player into the shoes of the two main characters most of the time. The view changes to "third person" mode when controlling vehicles. Lastly, there are parts of the game we can't control-these are known as "cinematics," and serve as narrative filler between bouts of wholesale slaughter. The controls in Halo 2 follow a nearly identical format to the first title, and therefore there is no tutorial level to help out new players-Halo 2 makes the rightful assumption that if you've got an Xbox, you've at least seen the original Halo, if not played it until your fingers bled. Normally the first-person genre is better-suited to PC-based play, where a keyboard and mouse can provide optimal control. Halo (and now Halo 2) shows how a first-person shooter game on a console should be designed, due to a sensible button-layout and small flairs such as subtle (but not obtrusive) aim-assistance.

Halo 2 brings a few new items to the table in terms of game play. Master Chief's got a brand new armour suit, and with it comes a faster shield-recharge, making it a little easier on novice players. Returning players will be pleased to see that Halo 2's protagonists can fire two light weapons at once. This doesn't simply look cool-the second weapon temporarily replaces the use of grenades, so in order to chuck a sticky plasma bomb at an enemy, you'll have to keep one hand free. This introduces a degree of tactical freedom and provides more interesting game play. Vehicles are basically identical to the original game, but their drivers can be carjacked and thrown out on their asses.

Although some game levels require all enemies to be eliminated before allowing progression, most can be easily blitzed through. Given the scarcity of certain items, and the constant urging by other characters to make haste, it's a reasonable strategy to completing the game, which could take as little as twelve to fifteen hours if you run like hell, but much, much longer if you linger to exterminate every living creature on each level. Of course, there's unlimited replay value in the multiplayer aspect of Halo 2, which uses the standard Xbox Live platform in combination with Bungie's own detailed system of player-matching and ranking.

Back in the late 90s, Bungie's Myth series enjoyed a great deal of attention not only for its excellent multiplayer game play, but "Bungie Net," a well-executed leaderboard and stats-tracking system that has since had many imitators. Although Bungie has since abandoned the Myth series, they've brought back Bungie Net to Xbox Live. Bungie's system matches players of similar skill as well as give extra rewards to those who defeat higher-ranked players. It's an incredibly-detailed system, but all the number-crunching goes on out of sight of players. Stats include the last time a player logged in; number of games played and victories in each mode of play (Rumble Pit, Team Skirmish, Head to Head, etc.); even such trivial data as shots fired on a given level, expressed as total hits, hit percentage, and head shots. Halo 2 and Bungie Net also supports customized player groups (better known as "clans" in the shooter community) along with clan-based match-ups and ranking. Bungie's care and attention to detail in serving their community helped make its Myth series a huge success, and will doubtless do the same for Halo 2.

The original Halo was a rock-solid hit for the Xbox, selling well from 2001 up until relatively recently. While overhyped, Halo 2 delivers at least as good a single-player experience as the seminal Halo, and, like the original, stands head and shoulders above competing first-person shooter console games. Halo 2's biggest bang is in its multiplayer system, one which raises the bar for online console play, and will tough, if not impossible to beat until after the next-generation consoles are launched.


Tony Walsh is a Toronto-based freelance Jack of all Trades, practitioner of the Arts, avid gamer and renegade digital anthropologist. He keeps a near-daily journal at clickableculture.com but lives at secretlair.com.

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