Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Review: Halo 2 (XBox)
Posted by Shocker :: 9:40 AM

Okay, so here's the scene. I am the Master Chief (Yes I am), and I've got a battle rifle - a burst action assault rifle that shoots in 3-round bursts and has a short range scope on it. I'm facing Jackal snipers on the tops of 10 and 20 story buildings, grenade-lobbing Grunts and several classes of Elites all trying to make a name for themselves on the ground. Around me lays an Earth-city in ruins, wrecked from savage urban warfare. Chunks of cars, Pelican transport vehicles and Covenant supply boxes litter the streets. Not to mention all the dead Marines.

This is the scenario that Halo 2 puts the Master Chief into routinely. And while a casual analysis of the game would lead one to write it off as just-another-First-Person-Shooter, one must still weigh that Halo defined the standard for the console FPS in this gen, and that Halo 2 improves upon is predecessor in almost every way. Since Ariel already covered the features in Halo 1 last week, I won't repeat them. Rather I'd like to take the main points of his analysis and cover the all new features introduced in this version.

One of the most significant gameplay changes is the removal of the lifebar. In Halo, your armor provided a shield that could absorb damage until it was gone. This shield would regenerate if you took cover without being hit for a few seconds. However, should the Chief continue to take damage, his lifebar would begin to go down to zero. This damage he took could only be recovered by a health pack, which were somewhat sparsely scattered throughout Halo's vast world. In the sequel, however, there is no lifebar. Rather, you are limited to a shield only, and the Master Chief can take small amounts of damage beyond the shield, but loss of a shield is the immediate point at which one should run for cover. The amount of damage the Chief can take depends upon the difficulty.

Another thing Halo vets will immediately recognize is the revamped weapons. Nearly every weapon in the game has been altered or replaced in pursuit of better balance. The Assault Rifle of Halo 1 is replaced by a Submachine Gun (60 rounds) and a Battle Rifle mentioned above. Aside from the pull of the SMG (which was not a factor in Halo 1), it's standard and familiar fare. The Battle Rifle is one of those weapons whose use changes depending on the difficulty one is playing on: in Normal and even Heroic, its somewhat slow rate of fire and close-range weakness doesn't really allow the player to take full advantage of it when they're able to charge at the enemies. On Legendary, when standoffs are the standard, the 2x scope and burst fire modes will become your closest companion. The handgun has been somewhat downgraded from its godly Halo 1 status: it does a little less damage and lacks a scope, so pulling off those precision headshots will take more practice. The shotgun and sniper rifle don't see any real changes here, but the Missile launcher, in addition to reloading faster and doing more melee damage, can also track against vehicles (think Half-Life).

As far as Covenant weaponry, there is a plethora of new weapons. Because they were limited to essentially plasma rifles and plasma guns in the previous game, it's nice to see an expansion of their arsenal. Perhaps the most prolific addition is the plasma sword, bane of the Master Chief. In this game, you'll get several opportunities to hack and slash at enemies - and it's beautifully integrated into the multiplayer experience. Returning from the PC version of Halo is the Fuel Rod Cannon, very similar to the projectiles the Hunters throw. The Covenant get their very own sniper rifle here, as well as a Carbine, a fast-firing rifle-like weapon (similar to the radiation gun in Half-Life). The plasma gun and rifle return here as well. The plasma gun can now overheat on regular, rapid fire, but it trades this for the ability to knock down any kind of shielding when fully charged. The Needler is back, and supposedly better-than-ever (I never had a problem with it in Halo, personally). The plasma gun is relatively untouched, but a red version, a Brute plasma rifle, trades faster fire and slightly higher accuracy over long range for faster overheating. The Covenant gain yet another weapon in the form of a Brute Shot, which delivers bouncing grenades that do splash damage, and is very effective against light vehicles. Finally, while not a Covenant or Human weapon, the Master Chief will occasionally run across Sentinel Beams, which are basically the exact same thing Sentinels attacked the Chief with in Halo 1.

One can't talk about the weapons without mentioning the dual wielding aspects introduced in this game. While the game sticks to the formula of holding only two weapons, you can mix in a third weapon which can be dual-wielded with some of the primary weapons. This leads to some interesting and necessary combinations: dual wielded plasma guns, plasma gun/SMG, plasma rifle/SMG, dual SMGs, etc. Dual wielding a weapon doesn't impart any penalty to aim or accuracy not found on the weapon itself, but it does render the Master Chief unable to throw grenades. For some reason, when dual wielding, you can't even see the status of your grenades (how many of each you have), which would be useful to know, as sometimes you might want to drop your secondary weapon to start lobbing grenades if you're sure you have them. Depending on what you encounter, and what difficulty you're on, some of the combinations of weapons become a must, and while the plasma rifle is a good weapon, a single one pales in comparison to a pair of them. Unfortunately, I found that the interface for collecting and utilizing the dual weapons was a bit cumbersome. After 20+ hours of playtime, I am still not totally accustomed to it, and mostly because I just decided to forget about trying to figure it out about halfway through. While the weapon system in Halo 1 was perfectly balanced, fast and responsive, all but the most experienced will be second-guessing themselves as to whether they hit the button they intended to hit. I also felt this feature should have become integrated later into the game, as the difficulty and storyline ramped up. Because you can dual wield immediately in the single-player mode, the game loses a bit of balance early on as you're introduced into the Halo world, and changes it from being purely a feature into more of a gimmick.

The essential question here is are the new weapons more balanced? I don't know. I didn't really feel the weapons in Halo 1 were particularly unbalanced until I felt the terrible sting of the Pistol. I always felt the Plasma Gun matched up against the Rifle if you pressed the trigger fast enough (considering it didn't overheat, it would beat the rifle in a head-to-head, eventually). To be honest, a lot of the Covenant additions are stinkers. The carbine doesn't do enough damage to put down any serious threats and the Plasma Gun is only good for knocking down shields (this is very big in multiplayer and in Legendary, but most players won't use this). The Needler doesn't really seem that different, though the ability to dual wield it makes it extremely useful. While the Beam Rifle is a very powerful sniper rifle, it gives away the location of the sniper even more than the sniper rifle does. The plasma sword is a bit more balanced in the campaign mode than in multiplayer, as it has a battery limit imposed on it. I suppose on some level, the give and take inherent in most weapons is a good indicator of balance. The variety of options you have in combat- being able to mix up a plasma gun with a SMG to cover up the weaknesses of both are very good additions. Additionally, dual wielding adds in a skill aspect... using a Needler and a pistol at the same time requires that you remember to hold the trigger for the needler and pump the trigger for the pistol while keeping aim, etc. Some of the more powerful combinations need to be used in this way, so that there is a learning curve for using them in tandem.

The thing I look forward to most often when playing Halo is the opportunity to match up against the AI in the co-op mode. It was pretty much my introduction to the series and it suits the game very well. On the Normal difficulty, progressing through the game is almost simple. There are some challenges, but for a Halo vet, you won't be hung up on too many parts. The real challenge here is on Legendary. In the Easy, Normal and Heroic modes, when one partner dies, the other can get to a safe location to respawn his fallen comrade... not in Legendary. Now your survival depends on not only your own skill, but the skill of your partner. It's an interesting dynamic that can't be appreciated unless your partner is as good as you are. In fact, it is a testament to the friendship between Ariel and I that we didn't kill each other for our various goof-ups and deaths resulting in our having to start over.

But even in the non-cooperative campaign mode, skirmishes between you and the Covenant (especially the Covenant Elites) are extremely protracted and difficult. Each scenario forces you to figure out the best way to approach and neutralize the target with the limited resources you have. This is exactly the reason why weapons like the Needler and Plasma Gun are in the game: on Legendary, human weapons don't have the ability to knock down covenant shields in a reasonable amount of time. The various dual weapon mixes in the game force you to attempt to adapt your weaponry to the situation, or vice versa. If you have a needler and a SMG, you might try to take out an elite behind cover, because of the Needler's tracking ability. If you have a plasma gun and an SMG, you might try to charge the gun and rush a single elite, which may require creating some sort of diversion to separate him.

The downside, though, is similar to Halo 1. The levels where the game feels like a tactical battle sim are somewhat distanced. While the campaign mode here feels similar to Halo 1, it offers more pure gameplay experiences: levels where you're the ultrabadass in a Scorpion tank, or racing down freeways in a Ghost or dogfighting with Banshees. These are the kinds of levels that Halo 1 veterans practically begged for, because the potential to make a great level was always there. But there are other levels that drag on, and those are primarily the ones where you're not in open spaces or (spoiler) fighting the flood, who kind of bust up the game's steeze again. Additionally, Marines, who were promised to be able to flip over tables and hold thier own with Covenant battle parties don't. In fact, their biggest use stems from the fact that they will hold onto weapons you can trade with them. While I am glad they haven't gone the route of some games, with cumbersome and inadequate troop handling schemes, I am not happy with the way the Marines don't last here either.

What I will say about the story is that it is very well told. It doesn't get oppressively integrated into the game, nor does it bury you in cutscenes because it feels that it's earned enough credit with gamers to inundate them in the world (*coughMGS2cough*). The way the story plays out allows the player to learn about the world surrounding Halo without being mired in endless cutscenes or feeling distanced from the story. That ending, though... Find me someone who didn't go "Wait, what?" at the end of all that.

Music and graphics are greatly improved. The Master Chief's new armor model is extremely impressive, and the cutscenes, which use ingame graphics (at least, I believe this because there is some texture draw-in when playing in co-op) will make you wish there was a third person mode. The music, which I was a bit worried about (Steve Vai is not my favorite guitarist by a long shot) was actually really well done. As soon as it fired up, hearing that awesome riff in addition to the Bungie logo told me there would be an awesome gameplay experience; and though I hate to compare the two games, the way Halo 2 has you immediately jump into the game versus GTA: San Andreas's protracted silent loading screens are a way to get Dan into the game experience faster. The music indeed makes Halo 2 a nonstop experience, alternately punctuated by trippy space music, reflective, deep and almost sorrowful melodies and all-out-badass rock. The non-celebrity voice acting is superb. The Master Chief and Cortana continue to provide witty dialogue with one another, and despite being cannon fodder again, the Marines' chatter is interesting and fun. Some of the celebrities sound sedated, or a bit bored, but it doesn't take away too much (I think Michelle Rodriguez, who has prior voice acting experience, is the only voice actor who sticks around for mostly all of the game).

Finally, the multiplayer is fan-friggin-tastic. I've played 24 games by now, and I think that I'm enjoying this experience as much as any games of Quake 3: Arena that I've played, which was previously my favorite multiplayer deathmatch game. In fact, the awesomeness of the multiplayer kept me from finishing this review on Monday! The interface is a great cross between Quake 3: Arena and Unreal Tournament. Double-Kills, Killing Sprees and Headshots are called by the announcer, for instance. Weapons and vehicles litter several of the battlefields, allowing you to team up with people and run through the levels in your own way. The destructability of the vehicles keeps it from being unbalanced. Options here are 8-man deathmatches, 4 on 4 and 8 on 8 team deathmatches, Clan battles and one-on-one battles. This game sets a standard in allowing clans, creating logos and having you fight with friends. I would eventually like to see added options for 16 player deathmatch and additional maps, however.

Unlike most XBox Live games, though, the interface is a bit confusing at first. The goal of multiplayer is basically to reach the mythical level 50. You gain experience points for wins, and lose experience points for losses. As you get better and better, and higher in level, you are paired up with people in a similar level class to you. Necessarily, it can't be possible for you to join just any random level game. This leads to the Optimatch option trying to find the best game for you which can sometimes take a while. Unlike most online games, you don't have the option of immediately restarting the match after its over, or if you do, I haven't figured out how to make it work. I think this was possibly an oversight, but you do get used to immediately jumping out of the game and into the matchmaking process. Games are relatively lag free (this is another consideration in matchmaking). I didn't really experience any lag aside from 2 episodes I can vividly recall in my 24 games, and I'm comparing this to DOA Ultimate, which did lag out of the exact same connection.

So how does it rate? Well, is Halo 2 better than Halo 1? I think it is, ultimately. The stages, music, and multiplayer are all enhanced and a lot more fun than Halo 1. The multiplayer isn't hampered by ridiculous imbalance like with the Pistol, and the goal of trying to get to level 50, while likely a pipe dream to most players, is still something a lot of people will try. It's immediately more accessible than Splinter Cell, though I might have climbed the learning curve when I cut my teeth on PC first person shooters for the past few years. Because of the increased depth in Legendary, what was an easy 8-hour jaunt in Normal/Heroic will turn into a far, far longer adventure (Spent an hour and a half to get halfway through the first level alone on Legendary - and I'm good at the game, dammit). I'll break it down this way: If you don't have any friends, rent Halo 2. It'll be similar to Metal Gear Solid 1, a very great story and gameplay experience that ultimately isn't really very long, but doens't necessarily need to be. If you have some friends, buy it for the co-op experience and eventually work your way together through Legendary. If you've got some friends and XBox live, definitely get it and enjoy one of the most fun online multiplayer experiences out there. Halo 2 seems definitely worth the wait in any of those contexts, and I think in this case, a solid 9.5 rounds up to a

- Dan

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