Summary: Halo 2 - game of the century? Of the decade? Of the year? Month? Week? Day? No, not even game of the moment, according to Brett. He's played it, finished it, and reviewed it. Read on for the verdict.
It’s a Mystery to Me
There are a lot of things in life that I just don’t get. The appeal of gangsta rap. Security moms who voted for Bush. SUVs. And, of course, the spork.
Now you can add Halo 2 to the above list. The Xbox shooter is currently being praised to the videogaming gods as the new next-best thing. And I just don’t see it. To me, the Bungie game is just a faded copy of a story-based PC shooter, which does almost everything in a forgettable manner. Intermixed human and alien storylines make the plot nearly incomprehensible. Missions blandly lead you through one ambush point after another. Use of vehicles and gun turrets add a little zest, although these sequences are canned and gimmicky. Level architecture is simplistic, with nearly every level consisting of narrow corridors and featureless rooms.
In short, I don’t get what all the fuss is about. At least the first Halo could be acclaimed as being an honest-to-goodness innovative console shooter, thanks to recharging energy shields, weapon and ammo limitations, and a melee option that wasn’t suicidal. The sequel is just more of the same, but with extra blah.
Plot in Halo 2 is a major letdown in comparison with the story traced by its predecessor. Master Chief and his AI pal Cortana are back for more battles with the insidious alien Covenant and the mutated Flood, but the tale is complicated through the look at both sides of the story. Cutscenes flash back and forth between the glassy-helmeted, enigmatic (aren’t all cyborgs?) Master Chief and his struggles against a Covenant invasion of Earth, and the trials and tribulations of the Covenant Elite being blamed for the Halo disaster seen in the first game. The culmination of this divided focus are missions, beginning around a third of the way through the game, where you play on the Covenant side and discover some interesting facts about the war with humanity.
Telling the story in this way sounds a lot more interesting than it actually plays out. Shifting the focus away from Master Chief makes it hard to get into the conflict and empathize with humanity, to feel like you’re getting involved in some grand space-opera crusade, as in the first game. More than half of the cutscenes deal with the aliens, even during the Master Chief missions, skewing everything so much that the story breaks down. I found it very hard to follow what was going on, and while it all pretty much came together in the end, I shouldn’t have had to scratch my head so much in a game where I did nothing but shoot stuff. Also, the campaign ends abruptly around the 10-hour mark with an unsatisfactory ending that feels more like content was chopped off than it does a real cliffhanger. Only the impressive voice-acting from recognizable actors like Laura Prepon (That 70s Show) and David Cross (Arrested Development) and music—an outstanding collection of everything from Trance-like techno with spooky choral odes to crunchy hard-rock guitar—work perfectly at moving the story along.
No Trail of Breadcrumbs Required
Missions aren’t as hard to follow. Bungie has laid out every level in the game along linear lines. You trace a single route along narrow corridors and chambers, stopping only for lengthy ambush points in larger rooms and open spaces. Little is imaginative. Aside from the opening level, where Master Chief battles the Covenant on board Cairo Station in Earth orbit, everything is dreary. No matter if I was going through the ruins of an Earth city, rooting out entrenched alien opposition on a bridge, chasing heretics with the Covenant, or battling the massive boss at the close of the game, everything was strictly shooter by the numbers.
For me, the biggest problem was repetition. Most levels were straightforward crawls through hallways and rooms that all looked the same. Bungie didn’t do much to differentiate the different areas in the game. Many corridors were virtually unadorned, and rooms lacked cohesion and common sense. All areas were lifeless. I never got any sense of a greater purpose for these rooms, never could imagine that they were home to anything but a videogame. That’s unacceptable in a day where Half-Life 2 and yes, even DOOM III, are creating environments that both seem realistic (bitch about the Mars base all you want, but it sure seemed like a living and breathing facility where real people really worked) and are highly effective arenas for shooteriffic gunplay.
Lack of color is another sore point. Almost everything is washed over with pale blues and grays that further make all of the levels blur together. Vibrant colors are so few and far between—all I can remember is that one of the Covenant missions featured control panels in bright hues—that when they did show up I oohed and aahed like it was the Fourth of July. Textures also presented a problem, especially during cutscenes. A scene would occasionally begin with a decidedly low-res texture on a wall or Master Chief’s shiny armor, then suddenly switch to the proper high-res version. At least the character models and weapons are quite good, thanks to a lot of detail.
Shooting and Snoozing
Level design and architecture also combine to make for some truly uneventful combat. As in Halo, the enemy AI in Halo 2 is reasonably impressive, with foes that know when to retreat, when to charge, and even when to try and flank you. But the bland environments cause trouble because there aren’t many features for enemies to take advantage of. Battles always play out in the same fashion. A baddie spots you. Said baddie opens fire. Then it takes cover behind the nearest box or box-like object. Every room is like a stereotypical shooter warehouse level, with cubes scattered around for cover. So while fights can be gripping and intense, they are also repetitive and artificial. Battle mechanics just don’t vary. Also, the pace is rather slow on Normal difficulty. Presumably, this is to compensate for the gamepad controls, which are much clumsier than the PC standard mouse and keyboard. Still, it makes the action a little too ponderous, and ensures that you are always aware of the deficiencies of the controller.
Save checkpoints might actually be the biggest contributing factor to the intensity of firefights, as there just aren’t enough of them. In the first couple of levels, Halo 2 automatically saves your progress practically every couple of feet. But these save points soon become fewer and farther between. They also seem somewhat erratic. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Certain areas—such as the long, long bridge in “Ladies Like Armor Plating”—forced me to do a lot of backtracking the first couple of times through, sending me all the way back to the start of the section, but later started giving me checkpoints much further along. Feature? Bug? Who knows?
Unless you’re a really skilled FPSer with a gamepad, the frustration factor is crazy high. There are mouse-and-keyboard combos available for the Xbox, although there isn’t anything here that you won’t find in a PC shooter. So it doesn’t make much sense to go through the trouble and expense, unless you’re a serious Halo fanboy.
Men at work
Walk and gun
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