Well, I won't tiptoe around the issue. This game is good. This game is very good. Is it something that's going to force me into changing religions, asking my fiancee to paint herself Cortana purple, or naming my firstborn children "Master" and "Chief"? Uh, no. And because it's not the life-shaping experience a lot of people were looking for, it's naturally going to be called a slight disappointment. Which is a shame, because... like I said, this is an outstanding game.
If you didn't like the way the first Halo played, you won't like the direction the sequel's gone, either. It's a natural progression from its predecessor, familiar enough to enable returning players to launch themselves right into the melee without missing more than a beat or two, but giving enough to appeal to gamers who didn't get a chance to try out the original. Throughout the first level, instructions and button assignments flash onto the screen from time to time if it looks like you're lost or out of sorts, and you're almost immediately given a chance to test out the new "dual wielding" weapon configuration, one of the game's biggest selling points. By sacrificing their ability to throw grenades, players can hold a set of single-handed weapons (sorry gang, no dual rocket launchers, sniper rifles or energy swords) and effectively double their firepower. This feels a little awkward at first, especially when firing an automatic weapon in one hand and a single-shot pistol in the other, but quickly becomes almost second nature and fits right in alongside the gameplay mechanics and available actions that were carried over. The longer you play, the more you'll start to understand which firearm combinations produce the best results and which are all but useless.
Unlike the original, where most of your adventures were one-man assaults against insurmountable odds, a good portion of Halo 2's action takes place alongside friendly troops who surprised me by actually serving a purpose beyond "human shield." These guys honestly know how to fight with the enemy and steer the game's various vehicles without abandoning you in a firefight, and while they still aren't quite on the same level as the Master Chief, it's nice to have a little intelligence by your side all the same. They'll tug at your conscience, screaming for help when they realize they're alone and outnumbered, boost your morale by immediately recognizing you and treating you as a celebrity, and lighten the mood by telling an off-color joke or two. Interestingly enough, a lot of the faceless grunts are even given little hints of personality, variances of speech and attitude that help to pull back that pesky veil of anonymity. You're sure to hear a repeated phrase from time to time, but the non-essential characters are far from the identical twins that populated the world of the original. Members of your platoon speak with various accents, from Australian to Spanish to Midwestern US, and little touches like that tell a superb story in and of themselves. It no longer feels like a tale of "World Saved by United States Soldiers," which gives the story an extra bit of dramatic realism. If the Covenant invasion were to happen tomorrow, the human resistance wouldn't be filled with brown-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned, middle-aged white males and nothing more. Humans from every corner of the globe would be fighting together, regardless of race, age and gender. Or, at least, I'd hope they would be.
The four difficulty levels have distanced themselves from one another a little bit in this installment, with "Easy" feeling quite a bit easier than in the first title and "Legendary" presenting an almost unthinkably difficult experience. I slowly made my way through about half of the first Halo on the "Legendary" setting before reaching a standstill, losing interest and focusing almost exclusively on the multiplayer aspect... in Halo 2, I made it about halfway through the first level. Even on "Heroic," the second-hardest of the four difficulties, you'll run into countless moments where all hope appears to be lost. In particular, I can remember a boss fight halfway through the game where you were dropped, unceremoniously, right in front of a trifecta of enemy lasers with little to no chance for survival. I must've fallen two dozen times before I developed even the most rudimentary of strategies, and even then my eventual victory had a lot more to do with incredible luck, wild grenade-flinging and the chance location of a few boxes than anything else. Make no mistake, this is not an easy game at any level. If you venture out with the intention of challenging yourself, you will be challenged. You will die often. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
One thing that especially caught me off-guard with this release was tits story, and the great strides it had taken from its forefather. I remember reading somewhere during the game's development that Bungie was taking every measure possible to ensure that this "top secret" plot wouldn't be leaked to the public... and truthfully I scoffed, recalling the passable at best storytelling of the original. I liked a lot of things about the first part of this story, (I thought the Halo ring itself was an outstanding idea, as was the revelation that it was, in actuality, an enormous weapon) but a vast majority of it was fightin' for fightin's sake with no real motivations tossed your way beyond "Hey, those freaky alien guys are shooting at you. Go get 'em." In the sequel, not only has the storytelling been vastly improved, but the backstory has been fleshed out beyond anything I ever could've expected. While the first Halo embraced a sort of black or white, us vs. them theme of good and evil, the second moves dramatically into a world populated with shades of grey, of uncertainty and of realism.
Rather than depicting the Covenant warriors as brainless monsters who oppose you only because they love to kill, this chapter paints a great deal of the picture from the enemy's perspective. The Covenant's interest in the Halo rings is spiritual at the core... they're raised with the belief that these mythical planet-rings will lead them to redemption, and when the Master Chief destroyed the Halo in the first game, it was on par with an alien arriving on Earth at the very moment of the second coming of Christ, spitting in his face and then shooting him dead before he could utter a word. It was a deep, emotional insult, regardless of how innocent and self-defensive it felt to players the first time around, and makes the enemy's ferocity and unwillingness to die a lot more understandable this time around. There are moments where you almost feel sorry for killing these guys, as their motivations make a lot of sense, but as the story unfolds the moral attachment your enemies maintain to these Halo rings is thrown into question.
The subjects that this game covers from start to finish are staggering; the frequency of political corruption, the basis and fallibility of religion, the necessity and motivations of war, the existence of sentient life elsewhere in the universe... it seems like the writers were almost inviting a lot of heavy-handed, boring, long-winded monologues, but the story's pace is quite manageable and no event seems out of place or forced. The characters deal with the situations as they present themselves, adjust their position as new facts come to light and begin to question their own motivations and beliefs when something staggeringly important goes down. In this sense, Halo 2 is on par with a really, really good action / adventure / sci-fi movie. The big explosions and fight scenes happen at just the right moments, the weighty conversations don't take the player out of the story, and the cutscenes only serve to motivate you in the hours of gameplay that immediately follow. To overuse a cliched phrase, Halo 2's story blew me away. My only major complaint was the brutal cliffhanger the game chose to end on, which leaves the player without the slightest sense of accomplishment and feeling a bit ripped off. It was so strangely placed, caught me so off guard, that I was still clutching my controller, waiting for the cutscene to end and the action to resume, when the credits began to roll. I used this comparison in a post to the Project Wonderboy message boards immediately after completing the game for the first time, and can't really think of a better way to put it; "The Empire Strikes Back ended with the knowledge that there'd be a Return of the Jedi in the back of everybody's mind, but that doesn't keep 'Empire' from working as a great standalone film on its own." The way Halo 2 wraps up would be like "Empire" rolling the credits as Luke dangles from the catwalk in Cloud City, just before Vader tells him "I am your father." Sure, it's the emotional high of the film, the climax of everything that came before, but it's also severly lacking in closure and a bit of a let-down.
The visual aspect of this game is a great triumph for the most part, really emphasizing the Xbox's strengths as a graphical powerhouse and delivering a product that would be technically impossible on the PS2. The creatively dynamic lighting isn't quite as impressive as it was in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, but the way that lighting affects the various textures in and around the field of battle more than makes up for it. The Master Chief, all of his comrades, Cortana, the commanders, they all look worlds better than in the first Halo, even in its visually-tightened PC incarnation, and the dramatic improvements that have been made in the environments, objects and surrounding textures raise the bar even further. Warthogs and Ghosts are no longer impervious to gunfire, and slowly begin to show the signs of continued use before bursting into flames or sparks of electricity. Particle effects are out of this world, with everything from giant boulders to tiny pebbles sailing into the air (and possibly crushing an enemy, if luck is on your side) when a rocket explodes nearby. Motion-capture is flawless, with particular attention paid to the Covenant Elites and Brutes. Despite their obviously inhuman body-types, they never seem uncomfortable or awkward in the way they move. They walk exactly as you'd expect an alien creature to move... almost unconsciously and relaxed, not like an actor trying to stumble around in some kind of clunky suit. It's great to see how far the game has come as far as graphics are concerned, considering that was one of my biggest qualms with the original.
My sole problem with the graphics department is the decision that was made to live-render every single cutscene, from start to finish. I understand the motivations behind this decision, to deliver the knockout blow that would settle any questions about the Box's visual superiority once and for all, but the end result is more like a weak jab to the solar plexus. The Xbox has notable difficulty with these scenes at times, especially at their very beginnings, as textures will drop out entirely for a few moments before blinking back on again. It's really strange to watch two soldiers exchange a conversation in all of their digitally-rendered glory, blink your eyes, and have the soldiers magically transformed into a festively-colored pair of boxes continuing that very same conversation. It's not quite like watching a cutscene on the Atari 2600, but it's not quite like watching a cutscene on Final Fantasy X, either. Textures will occasionally do something similar in the middle of gameplay, but such instances are few and far between, and seem to have more to do with returning to action following a lengthy visit to the pause screen than a problem with the console itself. Otherwise, the dramatic cutaways are magnificently composed, almost better than what we're getting out of Hollywood these days.
I never had a problem with the audio in the first title, and actually considered it to be among the best at the time of its release, but the sequel managed to find areas for improvement even in that department. While Dolby Digital surround sound was available in the first, it pales in comparison to the completely immersive audio experience of its sequel. You can still hear which direction a rocket's coming from with your back turned, for all the good it'll do, but you can also pinpoint the location of a sniper based on the noise his scope makes and the crunches of his feet against the rocky terrain. The voice acting has been taken to the next level, even including a few celebrity guest-appearances, and the influx of talent seems to have inspired everyone from the culture-manipulating prophets to the meaningless grunts who seem to serve no purpose beyond dying a grisly death. I've really only experienced one game with voice acting that even came close to what you get with Halo 2... and that was in my favorite game of all time, the original Metal Gear Solid. And, keeping that comparison in mind, the symphonic score of the new Halo wipes the floor with that of MGS. The composition, effectively pairing a full orchestra with a hard rock / metal lead guitar, seems awkward in print but is a baffling success in context. It retains the credibility and drama of an epic war film, while also introducing the futuristic, almost mechanical setting of the game itself, not to mention its target market. I've never even contemplated purchasing the full score to a video game in CD format, but Halo 2 changed my way of thinking.
And, finally, there's the multiplayer mode(s), the real deal-breaker for many players, myself included. If it's any indication as to the game's addictive online quality, I wasn't able to finish a review for several months thanks to the amount of time I've spent playing this thing over the internet. Easily one of the greatest strengths of the first game was its unbelievable multiplayer modes, and their uncanny ability to bring people together for hours and hours at a time, huddled around the same TV with the common goal of unloading on one another. And, while the in-person multiplayer has taken a few small steps backward with this release (why does it wait for everyone to load the map? You're all on the same machine... you're probably all going to load it at the same time) the online component makes up for it in spades. Surprisingly, the sense of community that made the original so special has been effectively transferred to the online mode of its sequel, thanks to the use of Xbox Live's headsets, an easy, effective clan-building utility, an unheralded level-based matchmaking system and the understatedly simple means of inviting friends to join you in-game.
I don't think I've ever been so completely enveloped in an online experience as I am at the moment with Halo 2. The original Unreal Tournament, itself among my favorite shooters of all time, gobbled up something like a year of my life, back in the early nils. It was directly responsible for my roommate's failure at higher education. So... yeah, it was pretty addictive. Thing is, it doesn't even come close to what Halo 2 is offering. There really is something for everyone in these online modes; whether you prefer to go the loner route, (blasting your way to victory in a wild free-for-all firefest) the strategic route, (working together with your teammates to accomplish a task, effectively outmaneuvering your opponents) or the chaotic route (working together with your teammates to KILL EVERYTHING THAT MOVES). I've been really impressed with Bungie's willingness to stay on top of things, occasionally shaking up the selection of maps and objectives that are randomly chosen with each game, as well as their vigorous hunt for cheaters (of which, unfortunately, there are many at the moment). They've been one of the most proactive development teams I've ever seen for an online-centric console title, and it's really helped an already-gorgeous game to shine even brighter. Online play in Halo 2 is the new standard to which the multiplayer aspect of all forthcoming first person shooters will be held.
In my review of the original Halo, I claimed it was "worth buying an Xbox over," and it remains to this day one of the two highest-rated games I've ever scored... it, along with Goldeneye on the N64, scored a near-perfect 9.8. If the first was worth buying an Xbox all by its lonesome, its successor is worth buying both an Xbox and a subscription to Xbox Live over. It's improved upon nearly every single area I had issues with in the original, it's taken the existing storyline and expanded upon it to undeniable success and it's delivered one of the deepest, most habit-forming online multiplayer modes I've ever seen. Halo 2 is the sequel all games should strive to deliver, retaining the best aspects of its predecessor while giving fans a whole new set of possibilities to master in the wait for the next chapter. The only things holding this back from a perfect score are the abrupt ending and a few rough patches in the graphical terrain. As is, this is still the best game I've reviewed to date. If you own an Xbox and haven't picked it up yet, you must be punishing yourself for something.
Overall Score: 9.9