| 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
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
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)
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.
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.
email for info