Campaign a Few Hours, Go Online a Few Years
To put it bluntly, it doesn't really look that much better than Halo 1. The lighting has improved, and vehicles are shinier, but for the most part it's the same. The character faces are still dull and clunky looking and the cutscenes are simply disappointing in some cases. The gradual change from low-res to high-res as you approach certain things doesn't go smoothly either. The environments though are beautiful, especially the outdoor ones and Master Chief himself has expectedly been improved in the graphics department. The special effects are good, the new destructable features are nice, and the game runs crisply even when a clusterfuck of people are on the screen. Luckily Halo 1 was a great looking game to begin with, so even though not much has changed, Halo 2 still looks quite good overall.
The gameplay houses most of the changes in Halo 2. Sure, the core of the gameplay is still the same, but at the same time alot has changed. On the plus side, you can now dual wield certain weapons, which adds a new layer of strategy to the game since you cannot throw grenades if carrying two weapons, nor can you melee attack. They've also done away with the healthpacks as Master Chief now relies solely on his recharging energy shields, which is great. One of the most enjoyable new additions is the ability to hijack people's vehicles with a well-timed press of X. The addition of a few new vehicle variations and new weapons, most notably the Covenant ones, adds to the gameplay as well. On the flip side, Master Chief jumping ability seems to have risen to Superman proportions as well as his ability to defy gravity with the newer floaty jumps. Not only are the jumps less realistic, you can now jump off a cliff and live to tell about it. Halo 2 features no falling damage what-so-ever, which to some may be a plus, but it removes more strategy than it adds. Luckily though, many of the new maps are designed with these new jump features in mind. Also, many of the weapons new and old seem to have a harsher recoil. It's already hard enough to be precise with a controller, but now you have to compensate for the rising reticle. It's something you get used to, but definitely not a welcome addition at first. At the end of the day though, my gripes don't really add up to much and Halo remains the best console FPS in terms of controls.
Halo 2 is a good enough reason to buy a 5.1 surround sound home theater, plain and simple. The sound of the various guns adds a lot of impact to the overall experience of the game in ways that most console shooters fail to convey. While I was afraid of the soundtrack going in, seeing that bands like Incubus and Hoobastank worked on it, the soundtrack is great. The music successfully ramps up and quiets down depending on the situation and completely sucks you in. I was also surprised by the amount of recognizable Hollywood voice talent Bungie acquired for the game. You will almost immediately recognize Ron Perlman, who is probably most well-known for Hellboy but has done countless voice-overs in games. The voice-overs as a whole are extremely well done and not just in the cutscenes but also during gameplay where fellow Marines will be shouting out to you and the enemy will constantly be taunting you with the lines like "Demon helmet make good backpack!" Yes, the Covenant refers to Master Chief as "The Demon." Overall it's just super high quality production value from the sound department.
The campaign mode will be beaten in 10 hours or less by Halo veterans and it's definitely not what you would expect in any sense. With the Covenant invading Earth, you'd think you'd get to know more about Earth and it's people as well as more about Master Chief, and to an extent you do, the game takes a drastic turn where you actually begin to feel sympathetic for the Covenant. It's strange, and unexpected, but acceptable until the end. Absolutely nothing is resolved. Sure, we all expect there to be a Halo 3, and something to be left to our imagination in order to fuel the hype for that, but Halo 2 just stops. What I'm saying is that it's abrupt in the sense that you will be fiending for more only to realize that it's already over.
But wait, Halo 2 is on Xbox Live. So you'll be complaining about the short campaign for a good 7 seconds before you hop online and forget about it. The problem is that Halo 2 is set up like no other Xbox Live game. You'd think with the amount of people playing this online that the Optimatch would find a game for you in a few seconds, not minutes. The wait to get into a game may actually end up being longer than the actual game depending on what mode you're looking for. That wouldn't be so bad if they didn't kick you out of the room after the round and force you to repeat the entire process to play another game. It's supremely annoying, but that couple minutes of gameplay sandwiched between waiting is a blast. The sheer amount of combinations of game types and customizable options is amazing. Slayer, CTF, KotH, and Oddball all return with various modifiers in addition to some new modes that feel slightly ripped off from other shooters. The game has about a dozen maps, but all of them are available for every mode. With comprehensive stat tracking, rankings, and clan support, Halo 2 is going to dominate Xbox Live for a while. It's just a shame that there's no co-op mission support.
Despite the changes and the fairly disappointing campaign, Halo 2 is still a blast to play online. The campaign is still primarily one scripted shootout after another. I could almost liken it to a $50 expansion pack, because that's basically what it is. I think Bungie got a little lost in the fact that they already had a masterpiece on their hands with the first game and decided to make it better they needed to be more like other shooters (with stuff like super jumps, beam weapons, onslaught-type modes, and more focus on vehicles). While many of the additions are good and some are not, the fact is that the original Halo was one-of-a-kind. Sure, there are other FPS's out there, but nothing could touch what Halo offered Xbox owners. It was a unique experience and Bungie seems to have lost sight of that by trying to be like everyone else. With that said, Halo 2 is still a great game. Is it the end-all-be-all of videogames? No. But it's one of the best this year, easy.
*** This review was written for Flamevault.com shortly after the release of the game. ***