doctor_kaz's Halo 2 (PC) review

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Symbolic of the disaster that was Windows Vista

The Halo series has achieved legendary status on the XBox, and with good reason. The first game is probably the finest console shooter ever made. It featured an unparalleled combination of weapon balance, enemy AI, great use of vehicles, and an unforgettable soundtrack. It also featured an excellent regenerating shields mechanic that was so successful that it has become a popular feature emulated by many other shooters. A port of Halo came to the PC in 2003, and even though the port seemed sloppy, it was still an enjoyable experience, despite poor frame rates and repetitive level design.

Halo 2 came out for the XBox in 2004, and almost three years later, it arived on the PC. In that time, PC gamers played UT2004, Half-Life 2, Doom 3, F.E.A.R., S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Battlefield 2. These games featured terrific graphics, controls, and/or gameplay depth. The standards for a PC shooter increased substantially, but you’ll be sorry to find that the quality for Halo 2 didn't. It is an outdated game with a few major flaws, like badly outdated graphics. Fortunately, the underlying gameplay mechanics are already so good that the game still can be enjoyable. If this game had been available on XP for a budget price, it would be an excellent choice. However, this game was a full-priced Vista exclusive. It was $10 more than S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at release, a game that is superior in a lot of ways. It was a game that you are supposed to upgrade your PC for. Microsoft's choice to make this game a "killer app" for Vista is pretty much representative of the cluelessnes displayed by the company with that failed operating system.

If you are upgrading your computer to take advantage of new technology, then what is one feature that you expect, perhaps more than any other? Graphics. If you are going to spend money on your computer for a new game, it should look great. Halo 2 doesn’t look great. It doesn’t even look good. It doesn’t even look mediocre. It looks bad. Halo 2 is a very ugly game. It is the ugliest game that I have seen on the PC in a long time. The engine was built for old hardware, and it was filled with mediocre artwork. Environments are boringly crafted with minimal detail, square shapes, and flat surfaces everywhere, and it is all textured with a low detail, blurry-looking covering. Enemies and NPC’s are have low polygon counts, like something out of the year 2001 and special effects like explosion are archaic and unimpressive. The only part of this game that looks good is the Master Chief – as long as the camera is about ten feet away. Ports from the original X-Box tend to look worse than native PC games, but Halo 2 looks bad, even for an X-Box port. I can think of at least a dozen games developed for last generation consoles that look far better than this one (e.g. Fable, Jade Empire, the Prince of Persia series).

The better part of Halo 2’s presentation is the audio. The weapon sounds have been upgraded since the first game -- especially the sub-machine gun, which sounds as powerful as it should. The voice acting and writing are generally pretty good. However, there is one major disappointment with the audio – the soundtrack. The first game had an unforgettable and spectacular soundtrack that added an element of drama to all of the game’s major action sequences. Halo 2’s soundtrack falls completely flat and it doesn’t include any memorable tracks. The sound bites from fellow Marines and the Covenant aren’t as entertaining this time around either, and all of the Elites speak English. They sound rather dumb doing this.

Ultimately gameplay should trump presentation, and you’ll be happy to konw that it is still in great shape. Halo had some excellent gameplay mechanics, so what you would expect from a sequel is that same core, but with a few refinements. In this regard, Halo 2 delivers. The AI is still very impressive, especially in close quarters. There are a couple of great new weapons that round out your arsenal. The battle rifle is like a good all-purpose weapon with medium range sniper capability, and the energy sword is an extremely powerful one-shot kill weapon that makes you deadly up close. The energy sword, especially, is a ton of fun to use, since now you have a defense against those annoying Covenant Elites when they get close to you. The game also still only gives you two weapons slots, but it does allow for dual-wielding of small weapons. You are going to need this ability, because Halo 2 is harder than the first game. Your shields don’t seem to take as much damage, and you no longer have a health bar. Once your shields are gone, you die almost immediately. As if that weren’t enough, the Flood are much faster and smarter in this game. They use more weapons and later, they use vehicles and turrets. Veterans of the first game will still have trouble on the higher difficulty levels. Ultimately, the Halo series has some of the best firefights in the genre. Unscripted, tactical battles can turn an otherwise mediocre game into a good one. The enemy AI, the regenerating shields, the superb weapon balance, the seamless integration of vehicles – they all combine to create some unforgettable action that never plays out the same way twice. If a battle is too hard, you can always approach it in an entirely different way. As with Serious Sam and F.E.A.R., the game can remain fun even without a lot of variety in the level design.

Insanely repetitive level design was the Achilles Heel of the first game. It has been improved for Halo 2, although it’s still not a strength. The hour long sequences through copy-and-paste empty rooms and hallways have been cut down substantially. A higher percentage of Halo 2 involves battling with vehicles and teammates, and the game changes the scenery and the set-ups much more often. The levels are still rather featureless and empty though, and by the end of the game you’ll be tired of seeing the same grey ramps and purple blocks over and over again.

It doesn’t help the game that Halo 2’s story is pretty much worthless. The game alternates back and forth between the human and Convenant perspective. By about halfway through the game, the story is a convoluted mess that makes little sense. When you get to the end and kill the game’s big villain(?), the game just sort of ends. The single player campaign is kind of a standard length 10-12 hour adventure without any satisfying narrative.

In 2006, Microsoft announced a renewed focus on PC gaming and a revival in the platform. As a Vista exclusive, Halo 2 seems to have been chosen to spearhead this Renaissance. This decision shows a stunning lack of insight into the standards that PC gamers had in 2007 for gameplay and graphics, and that is why Halo 2 was a failure as this lead game. It’s a decent FPS and a functional port, but seeing has how Halo 3 never came to the PC, this version wasn't even worth playing if you don't own an XBox 360.

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