the Junkyard: Halo 2 Post-Release Review

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Halo 2 Post-Release Review
Halo 2 Post-Release Review
Posted by: Jake 'ev98' Billo on Sat Dec 11th, 2004 at 3:21 PM
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Genre: First-Person Shooter
PublisherMicrosoft Game Studios
Release Date: 11-09-2004

Warning: While this review avoids all significant "spoilers" in Halo 2, it still may contain some information that readers may consider to be storyline development or reveal certain events or characters in the game. Take this into consideration before you continue reading.

If Halo had a level of pre-release hype that "you'd have to go back to Daikatana to match", Halo 2 is nowhere in the same league. Indeed, as was evidenced by first day sales of 2.4 million copies, worth $125 million US, Halo 2 spilled into the mainstream media and can be definitively considered to be the Xbox console's prestige title. Again, the question on gamers' minds was: Does the game live up to its incredibly high expectations? That question, after spending some time with Halo 2, should become: What were those incredibly high expectations, anyway?

Bungie had been incredibly secretive about Halo 2's campaign mode ever since E3 2003, when they showed a demonstration of "Earth City", a level set in New Mombasa, Africa. The general premise was that the Covenant had found Earth and were now completely demolishing the city, as they had been known to do. The game looked and sounded incredible, and had all the elements that made the original game great, combined with dozens of other enhancements. Halo 2 was supposed to be a "sure winner".

The handheld camcorder footage taken in the demo theater at that point completely captured the jovial and amazed reactions of the crowd. When Master Chief first dual-wielded the submachine guns, it was an incredibly electric reaction. It was something that the official trailers later on, despite their pristine quality, lacked. The final version of the game still delivers on many of Bungie's promises, but lacks the same electricity, and is not the same as the product that was expected in 2003.

It will come as a surprise to some people that the demonstration showed at E3, while incredibly action-packed and quite polished, is not present in the final game. The Brute boarding scene; the highway chase cinematic, and the "Bet you can't stick it" sequence have all been modified - or removed - to reflect a larger battle with a Scarab (a giant mechanical tank that is terrorizing the city) and its pilots. Some of the edge and the "bad-assedness" from the entire New Mombasa scenario have been eroded.

There are fifteen Campaign levels in the game (as online press notes), although several of them are directly blended into one another. The design makes it difficult to tell when one level ends and another begins, but this serves to immerse the player into the complex story. Another two levels are merely cinematics or training. Thus, the game truthfully contains about ten to twelve distinct levels, if going by the typical definition set by the original Halo, and the difficulty settings available (Easy, Normal, Heroic and Legendary) have been slightly tweaked. Legendary is now much more difficult, and suggestions that it can take up to thirty hours to successfully complete are not exaggerated. In addition, Legendary packs a nasty addition when co-operative mode is selected: when one player dies, the game resets to the previous checkpoint.

Unfortunately, the flow of uninterrupted levels is slightly marred by the presence of "normal mapping", a complicated graphical technique used in recent games. Normal mapping allows an incredibly high level of detail to be displayed in-game, but at the expense of a slight delay to view the "finished product". During cinematics and after accessing menus, Halo 2 must re-map the final level of detail. Gamers know this phenomenon as "pop-in" – due to the way it causes the highest level of detail, such as facial features or armor plating, to appear in full quality slightly after the scene has started. Object pop-in is slightly distracting, but appears to be more of a limitation of the Xbox console's amount of memory and GPU power than due to Halo 2's code.

Before Second Level of Mapping
After Second Level of Mapping
These images demonstrate the stark contrast between an object that appears initially in cinematics; and an object that has been fully bump mapped. Thankfully, the initial version of the Master Chief only appears on the screen for less than a second; but the effect of "pop-in" appears comparatively unprofessional to the rest of the game.

The beginning of the campaign starts with a cinematic of a broken, charred Halo, then switches viewpoints to an Elite being forced to explain his failure to safeguard the mythical ring. As the beginning of the Halo 2 campaign unfolds, it's noteworthy that a similar sequence of events happens as in Halo: the orbital MAC gun (Pillar of Autumn) is under attack by Covenant forces and Master Chief must defend the station (ship) before needing to escape. After crash landing on Earth (Halo), the order of business is defending and reuniting with human comrades.

This pattern does not hold true after Earth, though. As the story of the game unfolds, the player is taken to new, exotic and spooky locales. One scene in particular, later in the game, is extremely reminiscent of Doom 3 – dark corridors sparingly lit with red, with monsters lying in wait for careless visitors. Yet the feeling evoked fails to match the same degree of intensity as waiting on an elevator in Halo's "343 Guilty Spark", with Covenant blood smeared all over the wall.

There are definitely truly incredible moments in Halo 2's Campaign, especially with respect to plot details; some seem to only sink in fully after the game is completely over. Unfortunately, if the ending of Halo hinted at a possible sequel for the story, the blatant cliffhanger ending of Halo 2 provides zero conclusion. It's about as subtle as being slammed into a brick wall. The game seems complete in the number of levels and amount of gameplay it provides, but the conclusion of the game is definitely not a conclusion to the storyline that has been meticulously created.

Truthfully, the gameplay enhancements Bungie has added to Halo 2 are fun, neat additions to the game, and raise the amount of action significantly from the original. The sheer size and scale of the Campaign levels dwarf many of the larger levels from the original, including "Assault on the Control Room". There's also much less repetition between levels; most have distinct designs with different features. The game's plot serves to continue the existing story that was laid out in the Halo novels; and Halo 2 does that well – fans will be able to discuss the new twists and character development for quite a while.

Xbox Live has been vindicated with the release of Halo 2. Not only have gamers logged over 28 million cumulative hours playing online, but it implements nearly all possible online features: clans, matchmaking, and a "Party System" that makes sticking with gaming buddies act and feel completely natural.

Xbox Live 3.0 (codenamed Tsunami) is featured heavily in Halo 2. You can send voice and text messages to other players, and perform nearly all Live functions (such as adding Friends with the onscreen keyboard) from within the game. In addition, no matter where you are in the game's menus – even in Campaign mode - it's possible to access your Friends, Clan and Recent Players list by pressing the Y button. This means that players in Campaign mode are able to use the "Xbox Live Aware" feature of the game, and jump into a Multiplayer match within seconds.

New features included for Halo 2's multiplayer specifically are new maps – including revisions of two original battlegrounds, Blood Gulch (now called Coagulation) and Battle Creek, which resurfaces with its original development name of Beaver Creek. There are also new gametypes to choose from: Assault, where points are gained planting a bomb in the opposing team's base; and Territories, in which specific chokepoints on the map accumulate time – the team to reach the preset time first wins.

Not only are the new gametypes and maps enjoyable to play, but Xbox Live ensures that they're utilized to their full extent. Joining a Matchmaking session selects a map and setting from Bungie's Matchmaking Playlists, which includes gametypes guaranteed to be most compatible with a given map.

An option that might not get much publicity is the Handicap setting. By pressing the Start button, any player can opt to give themselves a handicap, ensuring that lesser skilled players in the game don't have too difficult of an introduction to the Halo 2 multiplayer universe. Controller settings are also available from within the game's menu, for quick adjustments to your player on the fly.

While Halo 2's Multiplayer is technically excellent and is incredibly fun, there are some awkward user interface issues when setting up Split Screen or System Link (LAN) games. Having a player "sign in", or select a profile, occupies the entire screen and disallows input from other controllers. Gamers taking a long time to select their profile will likely be the subject of abuse from other players on the same console.

In addition, the controller port number no longer determines the position of a player's viewport – the order in which the players sign in do. That is, the first player to sign in looks at the top left; player two will get the top right; the third player uses the bottom left and the final player will receive the bottom right of the display. During a testing situation, it was necessary to call out the positions – then ask the individual to sign in - so that gamers could jockey for placement around the television. While the new account selection "box" is a much more efficient way to locate a player profile, it's odd why the box was not shrunk to the size of a player viewport.

Halo 2's User Interface
Mock-Up User Interface
These example images demonstrate the issues with Halo 2's user interface for signing players in and out of the game. A single player is effectively given control of the action on a screen, causing System Link games to take longer to set up than in Halo: Combat Evolved.

Halo 2's User Interface
Mock-Up User Interface
The same problem is apparent with the user interface for signing players out from the game. In addition, the player last to sign out is given complete control of the Halo 2 menu system. In many System Link games, the last player to sign out will often be someone who should not be entrusted with navigation.

Rating for Halo 2
It's unbelievably hard to simply give a numerical rating for Halo 2. In no way does a mere number capture the essence of the game, and the amount of effort put into it. Especially when Halo: Combat Evolved has been out for several years, it is unfair to pass judgement when opinions and reviews to this point have all resulted from a fraction of the time spent on the original. A game such as Halo PC probably would not receive the same 9.3 review score that was originally given if reviewed today. So why the choice, then, of a 9.4?

As in my Halo PC review, all games initiate at a "perfect" 10/10 score and lose points based on drawbacks found while reviewing the game.

Cinematics: -0.2 points for the normal mapping "pop-in" effect. While unavoidable due to several factors, its final effect detracts from the seamless cinematics that Bungie strived so much to attain in Halo: Combat Evolved - where cinematics and gameplay would look nearly identical.

Gameplay: -0.2 points due to certain battles that take place. In order to avoid revealing story details, the mere presence of "bosses" at points in Halo 2 are a drastic departure from Halo: Combat Evolved. In the original Halo, each enemy had a specific set of skills and could be defeated in several different ways. It was disappointing to suddenly face an enemy significantly more powerful than the Master Chief, with many supernatural abilities.

User Interface: -0.1 point for the awkward way in which multiple players must sign in and out from System Link, Split Screen and Xbox Live games.

Campaign Ending: -0.1. The end of Halo 2 feels premature, if not taunting to gamers. Completing Halo: Combat Evolved provided some conclusion - Halo was destroyed, and Master Chief had accomplished his immediate goal of saving all sentient life. Even though there were still many unanswered questions at the end of the original game, it was a satisfactory ending. The same cannot be said for Halo 2 - even though it was mentioned that the ending of Halo 2 is an intentional cliffhanger.

Fin: Final Thoughts:
Halo 2 remains technically superior to that in Halo: Combat Evolved. Whether technical superiority makes for a better game is an extremely personal issue for gamers. In any event, the initial reactions of reviewers giving near-perfect scores to Halo 2 were, to honestly say, expected. It has only been in the last week or two that dedicated fans are willing to admit that Halo 2 does have shortcomings, and that they are much larger than at first expected. It's up to individuals to decide what their expectations truthfully were – and are now, after playing the game.

Limited Edition purchasers should definitely watch the documentary DVD included with their shiny metal case. It provides a frank look at what development of a game can sometimes be, and helps to shed light on some features that were unable to make the cut. The video explains that there were two differently focused periods of development: before E3 2003; and after the exposition was over, when Bungie realized the work they had for Halo 2 was merely a demonstration and not a complete game. This initiated the period of frenzied retooling and a changed attitude towards development.

Some fans were expecting the potential features that had been discussed with the press – the company went into radio silence about Campaign mode last year, in the interest of keeping the story under wraps. Bungie remaining silent about game development before completion is nothing new. With all the possibilities Halo 2 could have been, it's also arguable that announcing these possibilities, and then only officially retracting them several weeks before release is slightly misleading. This situation could be likened to not being fully forthright with buyers about exactly what they're purchasing. To all causes, in the public eye, the game still fulfills Bungie's vision for the sequel. This also appears to be the primary reason enthusiasts feel as if they've been expecting something that Halo 2 is not.

Regardless, whether one considers Halo 2 to be over-hyped and over-marketed, or the Holy Grail of video game sequels, it's still a game that deserves much more than a passing glance.

Related Links: Related Links: References
Thanks to the following individuals, sites and organizations for creating reviews, critiques or articles dealing with Halo 2. Some provided inspiration for this review; others simply were just good perspectives to read. Please note that some of these links may point to game plot information and/or spoilers.

Thanks also goes to Sebastian "MrFluffyPants" Shepherd for aiding with images and the initial ideas for the article; and the entire Junkyard staff for suggesting edits, technical information and their support. Please feel free to leave your comments on this review!

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