Saturday, April 2, 2016

Halo 2 Anniversary Edition review

    Halo month continues with my review of the second of the series. I never owned an Xbox and didn't join the Silver Age of Gaming until my wife bought me an Xbox 360. Still, having enjoyed Halo: Combat Evolved, I was eager to start the next phase of my journey through the Master Chief collection. As with the original game, I'm playing the Anniversary Edition, which is basically the same game with better graphics and movie quality CGI cutscenes.

    Unlike the previous Halo, which did a fantastic job of showing rather than telling, this game has a good deal more exposition. It also has a thoroughly unnecessary introduction designed to tie the game into Halo 5: Guardians, which means they took time to animate and stick in a commercial for a game which is going to be obsolete well before this collection goes out of style.

The game opens up with a fantastically fun series of levels on an Earth space station.
    The premise of the game is it's a short time after the events of the first game. Master Chief is being rewarded for his destruction of the Covenant fleet, the Halo, and containing the Flood. Simultaneously, the fleet commander of the Covenant armada is being brought for stripping of his rank and torture. No sooner than Master Chief gets his medal, does a huge new Covenant armada arrives in orbit over Earth.

    While Master Chief struggles to save the Earth from destruction, the former commander is pulled out of prison to be made into the Arbiter. The Arbiter is a sort of suicide soldier who is allowed to regain his armor taking on the worst missions the Prophets of the Covenant can conceive of. These start with a group of heretics who contain information about the Halos not being the keys to godhood which the Covenant believe.

It's an old meme but come on: "Someone set us up the bomb!" "All your base are belong to us." They're just too perfect.
    As mentioned, Halo has a surprisingly deep story and world. It isn't just good for a shooter or a video game but good for a science fiction setting in general. The level of detail which goes into its writing is tremendous and only gets better here. Halo 2 fills in a lot of the gaps of the Covenant and humanizes them (for lack of a better term) to be a respectable enemy rather than just a series of walking targets. While a lot of this information is only available on the Terminals scattered throughout the game (and made specifically for the Xbox One version), it's like candy for a lore buff like myself.

    One area the game does fall down on, though, is the large maneuverable maps of the previous game are largely absent. The maps are still fairly large and you have maneuverability in them but there's a lot of tunnels, restricted fighting zones, and places where you have to fight to move onto the next level rather than simply run past it. Still, there's are many memorable set pieces throughout the storyline. Also, the combat is still immensely fun with it never less than joy to gun down Covenant forces.

The Arbiter is the main character for roughly half the missions.
    The ability to play the Arbiter was a surprise for many in the initial release but was something I found to be a welcome change from playing Master Chief. While they play largely identically, the Arbiter has a cloaking shield and has an entirely different feel in terms of storytelling. Keith David does a great job of evoking a honorable but misguided warrior who is slowly coming to realize he's nothing more than a pawn of the Prophets.

    Halo 2 is a lot more vehicle focused than Halo: Combat Evolved with the addition of tanks as well as more maps devoted to vehicular combat. I'm particularly fond of the Metropolis level, which ends in a ground battle that takes Master Chief onto a gigantic mechanical spider. As John Peters knows, anything is improved by the addition of a giant spider. I also was very fond of the section taking place on the Delta Halo ring which includes numerous ruined temples and flying platforms.

I enjoy Miranda Keyes and think she's an excellent replacement for her father.
    Characters Miranda Keyes, the Arbiter, the Prophet of Regret, and Lord Hood help round out the returning cast of Sergeant Johnson, Cortana, and Master Chief. We also get a new player personifying the flood in the Gravemind. Their personalities aren't particularly deep but they don't have to be as, like Star Wars, their archetypes allow you to feel in the blanks of their personalities without stopping to give them scenes devoted to expanding on their characters.

    There's a couple of more flaws which I need to address. First of all, in addition to the issue of the maps not allowing as much maneuverability or tactics, they change the overpowered pistols from the previous game into something almost useless. This is compensated for, partially, by the fact it can be dual-wielded now but I still disliked this strongly. 

    Then there's the ending.

 I think Cortana's redesign for this game is my favorite.
    In a very real way, the game simply stops at the climax of Act II. The game has Master Chief and the Arbiter come to a pair of shared realizations they have bigger enemies than each other. The villains both accomplish their shared goals and everything is set up for a big dramatic confrontation over the Earth, only for the game to immediately end. This is all resolved in Halo 3 but it's still an enormous cheat for those who expect their games to have some kind of resolution, trilogies or not.

    The map design for the game is also hit and miss. I've mentioned there's way too many corridors in this game and while there were plenty of them in Combat Evolved, they weren't the places you did your fighting. The best levels in the game, ironically, are the Arbiter's rather than Master Chief with New Mombasa being a huge disappointment while the Arbiter gets to fight a group of heretic Covenant on their equivalent of Cloud City.

You get to punch a Covenant Prophet to death. That is worth a great deal.
     Halo 2 is full of big huge cinematic moments. Whereas virtually everything in Combat Evolved took place in the game engine, Halo 2 has the pacing and style of a big budget action movie. While a few of these scenes drag on longer than they have to like the Arbiter being tortured by the Prophets, for the most part it's a change which works.  My only regret in the game is the cutscene where Master Chief delivers a planet-busting bomb to blow up the Covenant flagship really should have been a playable level.

    As before, the chief appeal of Halo 2 is it's just plain fun. Shooting the Covenant's minions is never boring and the addition of Brutes as bullet-sponge ape men provides another foe that's entertaining as all-get-out to take down. I'm not a person who can comment on multiplayer and, besides, most of the populace for such has long since moved on to more advanced games.

Warthogs, roll out!
     Really, the only low point in the game was the New Mombasa levels which felt more like Call of Duty than Halo with their firefight in the middle of a generic desert city. Likewise, the sections on the Delta Halo and Prophet's warship dragged on a bit too long when they should have been a bit more rapid. Even so, I had as much fun playing Halo 2 as I have had playing any more recent game and the updated graphics hold up compared to games produced for current hardware.

    In conclusion, Halo 2 is a great game but you probably didn't need me to tell you that. What you might need me to tell you is it's still worth picking up over a decade later. The update for the game is beautiful and the Master Chief Collection is underpriced if you ask me.


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