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Game Profile
GENRE: First Person Shooter
PLAYERS:   1-16
November 09, 2004

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More in this Series
 Written by Troy Matsumiya  on November 15, 2004

Review: Part 1: We regret being alien bastards, we regret coming to Earth?

The verdicts are finally in on Halo 2, but it's going to take a bit of reading to get to them. In this two-part review, the Xbox Target editors all weigh in with their feelings on the most anticipated game this generation. Today we'll have Troy and Glenn's thoughts, and tomorrow will feature Leigh and yours truly -me. Each editor's individual scores will follow their text, and tomorrow, we'll have a final tally, and the official Gaming Target Halo 2 score. Onto the reviews?

Troy Matsumiya
So was it worth the wait?

Absolutely ? but with a few caveats.

Halo 2 is a very fun game, and for the most part, really does live up to the outrageous hype built up over the past three years. Single player is frantic and exciting, and multiplayer is an outright blast. It is definitely worth your money, so if you don't already have it, get it.

That said, it is by no means perfect. For example, as gorgeous as the graphics are, there is a lot of weird pop-in and draw-in both in-game and especially in cutscenes. The graphical glitches are similar to what happens when you run a PC game on underpowered hardware, so when Bungie says they are pushing the Xbox to its limits, you can believe it.

The single player campaign is surprisingly short (about 10-15 hours worth) with a lot of surprises ? some pleasant, some plain bizarre. The thrilling story is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the ending stinks; it's as if they forgot to put in the last level after the final cutscene. None of the game's questions were resolved and you're left wondering, ?That's it?? So despite Bungie's comments to the contrary, there will be a Halo 3, if not to finish the story than for the hundred million dollars they're guaranteed to make.

The single player campaign is more of an evolution than a revolution, so don't expect anything radically different. The new weapons and vehicles are very cool, and vehicle combat has been considerably increased to comprise (in my estimation) at least 20 percent of the game. Like Grand Theft Auto, you can hijack any vehicle, but be careful as the enemy AI can hijack it right back.

Vehicles are now destructible and show some very cool cosmetic damage. Since actual vehicle damage is tied to your armor, it will only explode if your armor wears down to zero ? so feel free to climb into that smoking wreck. I spent a good part of one level driving a pathetic looking Ghost that had its wings, body panels and rear-end missing, yet it worked to deadly perfection.

The levels look beautiful, but the confusing design flaws of the original have unfortunately returned. Many hallways and rooms are perfectly symmetrical with few unique features that you can use as navigation points, and there is no map or compass for you to reference either. As a result, it is easy to get turned around and lost, so expect to spend a lot of frustrating minutes trying to figure out where the hell you're supposed to go. Exacerbating the problem is that many sections are very dark ? as in Doom 3 ?I can't see crap!? dark. You have a flashlight, but it's practically useless; not only is it dim, but it often blinks out after only a few seconds, forcing you to keep flicking it on while trying to fight and avoid falling off ledges. You'd think that with all of that fancy Spartan technology they could afford night vision goggles.

The AI is also very disappointing. Elites are thankfully easier to kill, but this is due in part to their seemingly reduced dodging skills. Even worse is the AI of your computer-controlled teammates; they will often try to shoot through walls (and even you) rather than move to a better position. The AI can also drive vehicles, but you will wish they couldn't; the AI never goes where it should ? which often put you in bad situations ? and they have rammed and killed me several times. The AI isn't as bad as Star Wars Battlefront, but it's disconcertingly close.

Luckily, you can avoid the sub-standard AI by hopping onto multiplayer to enjoy Halo 2's true beauty. Simply put, if you don't have Xbox Live, try to scrape up the money to get it; or at the very least, buy extra controllers so you can play with three friends offline. Better yet, do both and all four of you can play on Xbox Live on a single account. After all, playing against the computer is one thing, but going head-to-head with up to 15 other people in customized gametypes is simply too fun to be legal. Online games are fast and brutal with a lot of jumping (which I also don't like; the jumps feel too slow and floaty?), drawing comparisons to Unreal Championship. First-timers will feel overwhelmed, but after some practice they'll be all smiles. I've sneaked up behind sleazy snipers and cracked them over the head; I've run over hapless victims trying to plant a rocket in my ?Hog; I've run all alone with the enemy flag, my heart pounding for what seemed like hours as I sweated in fearful anticipation of gunfire in my back, to score and win a long, hard-fought match. This is what multiplayer is all about and on this front, Halo 2 delivers exquisitely.

On Xbox Live, lag is no better or worse than any other game, but there are some flaky communication issues where people keep cutting in and out. And the push-to-talk feature for private team communications is a joke, especially in such a fast paced game. The default setting is proximity based (anyone nearby can hear you, including the opposition) but this needs to be reversed with private team chat as the default. Hopefully Bungie can fix this in a patch.

So yes, Halo 2 was definitely worth the wait, but its flaws (and there are many) keep it from getting a perfect score. Single player is fun, but arguably not the best on the Xbox; multiplayer, on the other hand, is definitely the best the big black box can offer. Bring on Halo 3!

Final Score: 9.6
Visuals: 9.5
Audio: 9.5
Gameplay: 9.0
Features: 10.0
Replay: 10.0

Glenn Wigmore
How do you follow up on a game that defined the launch of a platform, created a huge user base, and that remained rabidly popular for years after its release? Well, apparently it's quite simple for Bungie Studios as they have crafted a game that easily reaches a similar level of quality as its predecessor and provides an experience that will last players, especially those with Xbox Live, quite some time.

What made the first Halo so appealing was the quality and almost organic nature that the single-player campaign possessed. It was an experience that truly lent itself to multiple replays, in particular with the aid of a friend with its highly enjoyable co-op mode. It always seemed like you could find something new and different every time you went off exploring the levels. The AI was impressive (on legendary, in particular) and kept the battles fresh and challenging without ever making you pull your hair out too much. Of course, the campaign did have its flaws. While the experience was quite enjoyable, it wasn't that long so you could expect to be done in about 15 hours or even 10 if you had played through before. Additionally, level design did get somewhat repetitive in the later stages (Bungie has stated that they were rushed and had to crank out a few more levels for the game's launch), but this never was that big of a deal because of the brilliant AI, and the fact that the storyline could be used to explain away some of the repetition.

With this sequel, the campaign is actually at about the same level of quality as the original, with some differences and minor hiccups along the way. You are again following the story of the Master Chief, a cyborg in Earth's military who destroyed the original ?Halo? that was contested by the Covenant ? the current alien threat to the humans. Master Chief has raced back to Earth after destroying Halo, but soon Earth is under siege from the Covenant and he must once again work with his computer AI counterpart Cortana and stop the immediate threat. However, it should be noted that there are many twists and turns throughout the story, and even some storytelling perspective shifts that were not present in the original game. Whether these work or not might be in the eye of the beholder, but I feel the storyline provides a solid ?space opera' feel that reaches to an even grander scope than the first game. Also, I feel that the Halo franchise is in the middle of its timeline, much the way that the Lord of the Rings films were after second installment so I will reserve judgment until the entire story arc is clear. Often times, films or books will make a lot more sense and be much more cohesive once everything is clear. As is, there should be some mystery and intrigue with how the story is being told, what hasn't been told, and so on. To this end, I think Halo and Halo 2 have succeeded.

I've said that the campaign plays at a similar level of quality to the original, and this is true, but for slightly different reasons. While this campaign doesn't have some of the ?WOW? factor that the first game had, the experience of playing it seems much more consistent and doesn't have some of the flaws that the first game had. Vehicle piloting/shooting is now a much bigger part of the game and this is a welcome addition, as many of the best moments in the original involved driving around in a warthog or piloting a banshee. The vehicles are now destructible which adds a great deal of realism to the pitched battles that you will encounter and also provides some desperation, as you will often have to escape on a nearly unusable ghost with its engine hanging out. Weapons are also pumped a bit more this time around, with the human weapons having a little more military-esque feel and the covenant weapons seeming much more fleshed out. The human rocket launcher now has ?target tracking? and this is especially useful for taking out larger vehicles. The best additions on the covenant side include the energy sword, which devastates as a melee weapon, and the covenant carbine, which serves as a nice counterpoint to the human battle rifle and SMG. Everything just seems very streamlined and efficient when playing through the campaign. While the material won't completely blow you away (like the first game might have), the experience is just so damn solid and consistent that you have to respect it and enjoy it as a second part of the story that is Halo.

Where Halo 2 breaks through, though, is the multiplayer. Not only do you have the co-op campaign, split-screen and system link options of the first game, but you have Xbox Live support that is now here and boy is it ready to play. I can say, without question, this is the best XBL experience I have had to date. The sheer absence of lag from almost all of the games I have played is quite amazing, to be sure. Online games truly feel like they're being played over a LAN ? yeah, it's that smooth. The amount of effort that went into making this happen is easily evident, as Bungie has optimized the experience so that it is painless, mindless, and most of all, seamless.

Essentially, the online game works as a ?party system? where you can stay in your own private game for the whole session, wherever you go or whatever you play. This means that people that have not contributed to the Xbox Live community might have trouble finding games, as this game is truly built around community and clans. Speaking of clans, they are now a large part of the Halo universe, as you can have up to 100 members and play ?matchmaking? games against other clans on Halo 2's many game types.

The stat tracking used in-game, as well as on, is absolutely amazing. You can see shots fired, accuracy, who killed who, medals won, etc. You can also see a ?Game Viewer? on Bungie's site, which shows you ?satellite? photos of every game you played and where you killed people, where you were killed, etc. ? it's really quite mind-blowing how much detail went into this, and is still going into it as we speak.

It really can't be said enough how well the game plays online. The destructible vehicles make the game so much more realistic and provide modes such as Capture the Flag with an added sense of urgency when you are trying to invade a base and make off with the flag. In fact, cruising around in a warthog on one of the new maps, Zanzibar, with fellow GT staffer Nick Doukas was most amusing, as we repeatedly blasted the oncoming red team as they tried to assault our rolling deathmobile. I think we flipped the warthog a few times, but managed to land on our feet? er, wheels? and kept up the fight. Also, as I stated in an earlier piece, the ability to ?jack? a vehicle from an opponent is just too entertaining for words. Moments like these are what make Halo 2, specifically Halo 2 on XBL, so great.

Technically, the game is very solid visually. ?Normal mapping,? particle effects and solid use of lighting make the game very atmospheric, whether you're on a distant covenant installment or a ravaged Earth city. However, there are some pop-up and resolution changes on some textures and the lighting isn't quite what was promised initially. All in all though, the visual presentation easily matches, and in some cases exceeds, the original game. The audio is extremely good, much like the original, and includes some amazing music that provides the right amount of atmosphere and intrigue to each locale. Voice acting is solid across the board, with Keith David (The Thing, Spawn on HBO) being a welcome choice as ?The Arbiter.? Sound effects are pitch-perfect as well, with guns packing solid punch and vehicles sounding great when they whiz along or get destroyed.

The overall package of Halo 2 is really quite impressive. The people at Bungie addressed many of the shortcomings of the first game and cranked up the action a whole lot for this sequel. While this did create a few new hitches and complaints, the overall value and quality of this game really shines through. And if there is one reason to get Xbox Live, I think it just arrived ? see you online.

What you have with Halo 2 is a technically excellent title that follows up the great campaign of the original with an entertaining second installment, and also adds an amazing XBox Live experience that is the best the service has yet to offer.

Final Score: 9.5
Visuals: 9.0
Audio: 10.0
Gameplay: 9.5
Features: 10.0
Replay: 10.0

Bottom Line
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our review, and the final score, tomorrow here at Gaming Target.

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