Okay. I get it. Everyone loves Halo 2. It’s like THE Halo game. It’s one of those games universally praised by almost everyone who has experienced it. The launch of this game was like a cultural event in of itself. But to be quite frank, I feel as though I need to be up front with you about this from the very start of the review… I don’t like Halo 2. All I ask is that, before I am burned at the stake for voicing this, you hear me out.
First and foremost… The shooting feels off. I don’t know what it is, but somehow everything feels infinitely more floaty in this game than in Combat Evolved. When enemies die it doesn’t feel like you killed them, but rather like they fell over because is was written in the script that they had to in order for the level to progress.
Now I had criticised Combat Evolved for being a little too easy once you got into the flow of things, but isn’t that sort of the point? To become more familiar with the game, so that harder obstacles can be overcome? It may have happened too soon in Combat Evolved, given how long the game was, but at least it happened. By contrast, Halo 2 seems to do all it can to be more difficult, but only in the most frustrating ways that it can. For example, while enemies still retain their exaggerated strengths and weakness from combat evolved, most of the enemies don’t feel well rounded in this game despite the fact they’re the same as what we saw in the first one. Primarily they feel slightly more resistant to damage, but I’m unsure whether that is because some of the weapons like the debuffed magnum or the newly introduced SMG are essentially useless on anything above easy difficulty, or because health readjustments have been made. The reason it’s hard to tell is because, while the aforementioned weapons I would classify as borderline useless to the sandbox, others like the Battle Rifle feel so essential to so many combat arenas and locations that opting to play without them is something you’d only ever feel the need to do if you were challenging yourself to play without picking them up. Perhaps in response to the lack of midrange weapons in Combat Evolved, Halo 2 introduces weapons like the Battle Rifle to compensate for that while debuffing the pistol from the previous game. But this achieves nothing considering how optimally the game plays simply by having one of the new midrange weapons in your inventory. And because most of the weapons are hit-scan, the game feels incredibly easy as a result while using them.
Speaking of difficulty… What doesn’t help is that no difficulty on this game feels fine tuned. Easy is… Well, it’s TOO easy. Normal feels like heroic on Combat Evolved, and Legendary was obviously unfinished – There is no way the developers wanted the game to launch with a difficulty setting that allowed enemies to spawn kill you before your reticule even loaded on the screen. These balancing problems combined with the floaty shooting, lack of feedback from damage dealt and what might either be buffed enemies or some of the useless weapons make for gameplay that is simply unfun.
But I think the cherry on top of why I cannot enjoy this game is the fact that it exasperates my biggest gripe with Combat Evolved; It’s god damn length. But to fully understand why the length of this game is such a big problem, you first have to understand the story it is trying to tell:
Master Chief takes a backseat on this one. He has some misadventures defending Earth from the Covenant and finding another Halo ring before eventually doing something notable towards the end where he assassinates a Covenant leader and goes to their mothership, High Charity, where he… ends the story exactly where he begins by going back to Earth’s defence for a cliff hanger ending. Okay Chief doesn’t do a lot in this one. The story is mostly about the Arbiter, who is probably one of Halo’s most notable and interesting characters. He starts as a devout follower of the religious Covenant, enforcing their holy will upon the lesser race of humanity, and slowly learns of the lies and propaganda told by his superiors, eventually developing his own sense of free will and beliefs about what he’s been told. By the end of the story he’s fighting alongside his fellow elites in a civil war against the other Covenant races. It’s a more complex and character driven story than what we saw in Combat Evolved, but one that is equally competent. It showcased that a first person shooter could be more about making things go boom, and stopping the baddies from making things go boom. And that, I appreciate. But good as the writing is, what I don’t appreciate is how the story is told.
Like Combat Evolved, every level in this game is painstakingly long to the point of near boredom by the midgame. But what somewhat saved Combat Evolved was the fact that, by the end of every level, you felt as though you had progressed the story a great deal. The same cannot be said for Halo 2. For instance, you defend Earth throughout the first three proper levels of the game, each one very long, full of wave defence sections, only for you to abandon the defence of Earth at the end of the third mission in an event that destroys the entire city you just spent 2-3 hours defending. You learn one piece of useful information across all three levels, which is that the Covenant fleet attacking Earth is suspiciously small and that the Prophet leading the fleet probably made an oopsie. So why wasn’t this cut down? Why is there 2-3 hours of investment in this city’s defence only for it to be largely wiped away when a single mission could have sufficed? Who knows? Then we get introduced to playing as the Arbiter. Across two of the game’s longest missions he has one goal: Kill some guy we’ve never met before. Okay. Since you’re introducing the player to playing as a different character than the one they’ve come to know and love, I can see why you would want two levels, rather than one, to serve as this introduction. But at least give us something to do throughout the first one? We do nothing in it other than find out we can go invisible for all of 10 seconds, and then shoot things for 45 minutes until the second level begins and the actual plot starts to take place. We’re supposed to be hunting this heretic but no progress is made into the second of the two levels from a narrative perspective.
The whole game is essentially this: Padding. And unlike in Combat Evolved, it doesn’t feel like the developers accidently misjudged how long the game should have been. It feels as though they intentionally went out of their way to prolong the rate at which is takes the player to learn more things about the story. Of course this isn’t the case, but is sure as hell feels like it. And given that the entire first two missions of this game are essentially cutscenes labelled as missions, thus compelling the player to look to the story as something they should want to uncover, it is absolutely terrible design to drag the story out in such a way. But don’t worry, because they’ve mixed things up by having the entire first half of this game take place in brown corridors, as opposed to grey corridors, before returning to the status quo for the latter half of the game.
Okay, that was a slight exaggeration. Though there is still an awfully abundant amount of dull corridor fighting in this game, it does offer a much larger variety of set pieces and combat scenarios than it’s predecessor, which is a much welcome addition to the game. And even when there are dull corridor fights, it feels as though they transition into open areas much more frequently or at least nearby to arenas that aren’t copy/pasted like in Combat Evolved. Speaking of open areas, unlike in Combat Evolved there is actually now cover to hide behind when you enter a large arena. Not so much that the game becomes a cover shooter (unless you’re playing on Legendary), but enough that you can have respite after intense engagements.
And while we’re talking about some of the things I liked about Halo 2, we might as well keep doing so in the spirit of being fair. The weapon variety in this game is pretty good. In Combat Evolved you had one mid range weapon, one long range weapon in the whole game. Everything else, with the exception of the rocket launcher, geared you towards close combat. In Halo 2, there are a variety of new weapons that encourage the player to fight the enemies however they want. Of course, all enemies have different weaknesses, but the simple addition of the Beam Rifle, Battle Rifle and SMG allow the player more options when fighting at long, medium and short range. As I said at the start, I don’t think all of these weapons are properly balanced or hold an equal place in the sandbox, but they do give the player more options to switch between these various styles of play if they can get their hands on their desired gear.
And who can forget the music? Simply put, it’s incredible. The game knows when to sound heroic and when to reel it in and be subtle. Lesser games (*cough* Halo 5 *cough*) would have non-stop blockbuster beats pumping down your ear to keep you from losing interest in the gameplay and story, but Halo 2 shows confidence in it’s writing by allowing it’s cutscenes to play with the support of much more reserved tracks accompanied by and atmospheric ambience. Alas, I do hold one controversial opinion about the music in this game; While I adore the quieter moments and atmospheric parts of the soundtrack, I find that the over-the-top electric guitar stuff to be too fast paced. Because, despite Halo 2 being a faster paced game than Combat Evolved, the speed of the gameplay and the speed of the music still almost never match up. God forbid you take a wrong turn on a massive vehicle section and play a game of “where the hell was I supposed to be going” while somebody roars down your ear with a guitar. Even when action is happening, there are only a select few moments when the intensity of the music matches the intensity of the combat. It’s not that this music is bad – it’s actually fantastic – but I don’t feel like it at all is appropriate for the pace of the game, especially considering how subdued the rest of the score is.
And sure, while I criticises the way the story is drawn out and told, it in of itself is a good one. However, I wholeheartedly believe the best way to experience it is to watch one of those YouTube videos that complies all of the cutscenes in a single movie, lest you have to suffer playing through the mission “Quarantine Zone”, where if you lose your vehicle on a difficulty above normal, you may as well restart the level, or from a check point, because you’ll either die to the 200,000 enemy vehicles on the map or die of boredom after walking the length of the ludicrously sized level.
Nevertheless the things I like about this game I can summarise in a few sentences, while I find myself able to go on at length about the stuff I didn’t enjoy. And it is for that reason that I, once again, cannot recommend Halo 2. But you all know what’s coming next…
I can recommend Halo 2 if you play it with a friend! Slap on some skulls to amplify the gameplay and enjoy skipping entire levels by grenade jumping from the spawn to the exit. It’s hella fun with a buddy, and easily enhances how much you can enjoy the game before it, like Combat Evolved, becomes repetitive.
Once again, play this game on the original graphics if you are going to be playing the anniversary edition. Otherwise everything will be over saturated and generic looking, with a bunch of shiny textures slapped on things for the sake of them being there. In fact I feel like the remaster of this game might, in some ways, be worse than Combat Evolved’s since parts of the environment’s geometry seem to change between playing on the original and remastered settings. If you’re playing on the remastered version and some weird invisible wall is blocking your bullets from hitting an enemy, try switching to the original graphics to see if the geometry is different and shielding the enemy from sight. 100% of the time, this will be the case. I don’t know why the developers felt the need to alter some of the meaningless geometry, but they did and it actively deteriorates the gameplay experience since it feeds the player inaccurate line’s of sight and opportunities.
This time around the entire soundtrack has been remastered as well. It’s okay. About the same quality overall as the original soundtrack, with one or two stand out tracks, but it’s not very innovative.
In all honesty what you should do is play this game on the original graphics settings and then switch to the remastered ones once a cut scene starts, just to admire what skilled CGI artists can do with the right equipment.