Pros: engaging campaign mode, many online game modes, good AI
Cons: online setup, maps too symetrical, not PC FPS quality, introduces nothing new to the genre
Console first person shooters (or FPSes) have always paled in comparison to their PC counterparts. This is mostly because the PC was always on the cutting edge of graphical speed and beauty. In addition, the console never adopted the mouse as the preferred movement tool. The mouse allowed you to make quick movements and aim your reticule more precisely. Finally, PC FPSes like Halflife and Quake allowed you to make customizations like intelligent computer deathmatch players called bots and new maps which allowed the game to thrive well beyond the first few months it was released. So when I first played Golden Eye for the N64 I was vastly under whelmed. I felt that Quake and Duke Nukem 3D brought more to the table.
I have to admit that I never played the original Halo. I heard the hype for its sequel Halo 2, but also thought back to Golden Eye. Is Halo 2 the Golden Eye of its generation? Will its shortcomings be highlighted by the lack of evolution Halflife 2 will most likely enjoy? What gives me hope is that the Xbox does have a hard drive which allows for additional content. However, freedom for community development hasn't been an area that Microsoft has historically been a champion of either.
You again are Master Chief, super soldier. As soon as you receive your medals for your work in the previous installment of the game, the Covenant attacks Earth directly. So it's back to war as there is no rest for the weary. Meanwhile, the leader of the Covenant in the previous installment is punished for his failure to repel Master Chief and his forces, and the subsequent destruction of the Covenant's precious Halo, a ring-shaped planet that serves as a religious icon for the Covenant. The storyline follows this dual view point all throughout, even to the point where you control this former Covenant leader (who I will now refer to as the Arbiter for lack of a better term). The story takes many different twists and turns, and eventually leaves you with a nifty cliffhanger at the end. Regarding the cliffhanger, I am not put off by it because I think of it this way. I don't think the game was so bad that the story was the most redeemable portion. Regardless of whether there's a cliffhanger or not, I'll probably be getting Halo 3. That and I doubt that there are many Halo 2 owners out there who were going to make this game their last Halo installment only to feel compelled to get the next one solely because of the lack of a conclusion to the story. The fact that many people are upset at the cliffhanger is a sign that it has a solid story.
The gameplay isn't original, but it is very fun. Like most FPSes, you pick up weapons; shoot waves of enemies, as you negotiate your way through each level. Along the way you can operate vehicles in a third person view, if you need more fire power. Also in many cases you have squad members who work to cut down opposing forces.
The weaponry is pretty balanced, but not terribly innovative. Each side has pretty much the same types of weapons: a weak side arm, a sub machine gun (or plasma rifle), a long range rifle with a 2x scope, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher type weapon, and grenades. There are some other weapons more unique to each side like the Covenant's energy sword and fuel rod gun. Certain weapons can also be duel-wielded. However duel wielding weapons will not allow you to use grenades.
There are certain vehicles that can be piloted as well. There are two different Warthogs that can be used, where the noticeable difference is the type of gun mounted in the back. The marine forces also have a Scorpion Tank that has a heavy cannon and machine gun mounting. The Covenant has three different vehicles as well. There's a light ground vehicle called the Ghost, a Banshee that has heavier weaponry, light armor, and the ability to fly at high altitudes. Finally there's the Wraith, which acts as a heavy assault vehicle in the same vein as the Scorpion Tank. If you get knocked out of your vehicle, you have the option of overturning it. There's also the new gameplay element of hijacking a vehicle, but that is difficult and hard to accomplish when the vehicle is moving at a high rate of speed.
The AI of your enemies and CPU controlled teammates is pretty good. The higher the difficulty level, the more adept the enemy is in noticing you and your buddies. Each side takes on its own personality, whether it's duck and cover, run and gun, or swarm with no mercy. When a third race, named the Flood, become involved in the game's campaign, Halo begins to resemble a game of StarCraft in terms of dynamics. Overall the AI is pretty decent, but your teammates' AI is less adept at higher difficulty levels.
One of the highlights of the original Halo is its multiplayer aspect. In the original Halo, you could play against your friends either in a split screen environment or through a system link cable. Halo 2 takes the multiplayer fun online. Like many multiplayer FPSes, it's fun, however Halo 2 is not terribly innovative and the online interface isn't very good.
Offline, you and a friend can play through the campaign via a split screen view on your TV. However you and up to 16 friends can compete in any one of the 7 preset multiplayer game types on the Halo 2's 11 different maps. The types of multiplayer games include: Slayer (deathmatch), King of the Hill, Oddball, Juggernaut, Capture the Flag, Assault, and Territories. Each game type can be further customized. For example you can control what types of weapons are allowed, or more detailed customization like whether the hill location in King of the Hill randomly changes, and other different dynamics. Many of the games focus on team play, but all the games are fun in their own respect.
The online component gets a little hairy. Online features many of the same online features you would expect from Xbox Live. You can communicate with people on your friends list, invite them into a game, and even into a clan. In addition, you can download additional content like patches and anything else that Bungie decides to post. Also there are rankings based on your online performance. Clan rankings are also kept and posted on Bungie.net. What I was particularly miffed about is the lack of interaction outside of the actual in-game action. There aren't really any lobbies to meet new people. The way you join into a game other than via a party invite to your friends is either through a quick match or Optimatch. The quick match will put you into any game waiting for people to join. This could be on any map, using any game type, with any type of configuration. The Optimatch will put you on the waiting list for a game of a specific type using a specific map. Surprisingly both modes do not take too long to fill out given the large online population. Most of the Optimatch games are filled in by people who jumped into the Quickmatch mode. Each game type is queued up and players are assigned in priority. The first few days the game came out, it could take a good 10 minutes to fill out even a Quick match. Now it only takes a few seconds, especially during peak hours of play.
The online gaming experience is decent. I haven't seen people who have hacked the game yet. Also, so far I haven't seen anyone using extremely cheesy tactics that exploit a weakness in the game balance. However, I wouldn't count on this being the case for much longer. I have faith that Bungie will respond swiftly to hacks and cheats with online patches, but Blizzard has been doing that for years to little avail. My biggest issue in the online mode is the team games aren't as good as with friends. Many times when you're paired with strangers on the internet, you have a collection of lone wolves looking to win the game on their own. It's often hard to reason with them to the point of it being useless. Finding a community to join is probably the best way of doing this. If you can find between 20-30 people in a community to play team games with, this experience is enhanced even more.
The graphics are pretty decent, but like the rest of the game, aren't cutting edge. Graphically, Halo 2 has nothing on Doom 3 or Halflife 2. It looks great for a console game, and implements the Xbox hardware nicely. Cutscenes look fantastic and epic. The gameplay graphics are very well constructed. The layout looks a little blocky at times especially with buildings and cityscapes. However draw distances are incredible, especially after just playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I have yet to see the game suffer from slowdowns, even despite the various combatants on a given screen. Some battles seem to feature 20+ soldiers on the screen at once, yet the graphics are hardly inhibited by this. Player models are also pretty decent. Faces are pretty defined along with other body parts. Still despite all this, Halo 2 doesn't quite have the level of detail that many PC FPSes have. This is mostly due to the limited hardware that the Xbox has to work with.
The sound is pretty good, though it too has its shortcomings. The sound effects are decent. Covenant weapons have a futuristic sound to them; where as marine weaponry has a more modern gunfire sound. Coupled together it creates a very realistic sounding war zone. During the battles you can also hear the taunts of your enemies and allies towards each other. Even your teammates will commend you when you make a nice kill to help them out. Frequently they give you too much credit as you'll frequently hear, "move out of the way, Master Chief is here to show you how it's done." I also find it weird that the Covenant taunts you in English even though they are an alien race. The voice acting in the cutscenes is a little over the top, but to the point of it being hilarious. Master Chief's dialog is representative of someone who oozes testosterone. Like that of an action movie hero, he has quite a few one liners that are delivered in a serious manner. That is, he's not another Duke Nukem. If you like a good action movie, you'll definitely enjoy the game's vocal dialog.
The controls are as good as they're going to get for a console FPS with a few notable awkward configurations. The right and left analog sticks are your primary movement controls. They allow you to look up and down, strafe, and move forward and backwards. The right trigger is for your primary weapon and the left trigger acts as your secondary weapon. The face buttons act as more utility controls like reloading, switching and/or dropping weapons, melee attacks, jumping, and other manual activities. Overall it's a good layout. However the biggest shortcoming as I have alluded to earlier is the lack of a mouse like controller for speed and accuracy.
The vehicle controls are another matter. The movement of the vehicles is very clunky given that the steering is controlled by the left analog stick and the throttle is controlled by the right analog stick. I would have preferred to use the left analog stick for movement where the A button is used for the accelerator and the B button is used for the brake. After all there's no need to jump or melee attack when you're driving a vehicle.
The replay value is almost solely in its multiplayer mode. There are so many different games to play it will last for many hours so long as you have a few friends or a good broadband internet connection. The single player game is pretty engaging. The higher the difficulty level, the more challenge the game presents to you. Still, what prevents this game from excelling is its lack of features that other PC FPS games enjoy. For instance there are no intelligent computer AI bots that you can put into a multiplayer game to round out the experience. Fans cannot submit maps to play online with; instead you're stuck with the same 11 maps until/if Bungie decides to post additional maps online. The original Halflife lived on for years because of a free Counter Strike add-on developed by fans of the series. Halo 2 just doesn't allow that type of support. It's still a fun game, but it doesn't quite bridge the gap between console and PC FPSes.