Halo 2

FBT is hyped to be back in Halo

Much to my surprise, I disliked Halo CE when I finally caught up with it. It just wasn’t the trailblazer I expected. It wasn’t age talking, it just wasn’t all that and seemed as if it was beloved because it was the Xbox launch title – there was nothing else to play. But that doesn’t mean I should dismiss the entire series. There’s enough Halo to go around, one of them has to be good. Halo 2, it’s your turn.

In Halo CE, the humans battled the Covenant for control of the mysterious Halo orbiting a planet which turned out to be a prison/super-weapon designed to keep The Flood, a parasite bent on universe-domination at bay. Having sent both packing, Master Chef is expecting some R&R when suddenly a Covenant ship attacks Earth and reveals another Halo ring. The chase is on to save Earth and shut down the Halo-thing before the Covenant activate it. And that’s not all! This time, we’re not just Master Chef, we’re Covenant lackey the Arbiter, who has been tasked with corralling antsy Covenant soldiers who rebelled after the first Halo reveal, and recovering the key to unlock the Halo.

Halo 2 is regarded as one of the best ever games. This was 2004, the year of Half-Life 2, GTA San Andreas, Far Cry and many others – now those still deserve to sit in best-of lists. But this? There’s a reason why Halo 2 is such a vaunted title. Multiplayer anyone?

Halo 2 was the biggest XBox online shooter until Gears of War two years later. It set the standard for online shooting, streamlined the process and refined matchmaking - it put Xbox Live firmly on the gaming map. It was hugely influential, the ultimate Killer App when it came to Online Multiplayer, totally changed the experience. That makes it legendary but doesn’t make it a great game - and multiplayer wasn’t Halo 2’s only contribution. There was another reason Halo 2 reached the giddy heights of ‘all-time great’ – hype.

Halo 2 marked the turning point of marketing games. Treated to the same tactics and budget of a major Cinema release, Halo 2 got cinema trailers (a first for video games), a hugely popular alternative reality game, midnight releases at the world’s biggest Toys R Us, product tie-ins, merch, a three-day release event; all hyping this was the ultimate in gaming. It whipped fans into a frenzy, was the definitive ‘cultural phenomenon’. Nowadays, every media release is a Cultural Phenom – almost to the point of parody, but Halo 2 did it first. And it worked. Halo 2 shifted over 2.5 million copies in a day – a record it held until GTA IV. It’s still in the top ten highest grossing entertainment releases, beating Hollywood records. Halo 2’s contribution to the gaming industry can’t be understated. But is it any good? Meh.

The first thing I notice is Cortana has gotten hotter. And sassier. You can see Bungie leaning into her as a spicy sidekick who’s developing her own personality, rather than the mission giver she was in the first. But Master Chef is unchanged, little more than another arm at the bottom of the screen. And he doesn’t really have a lot to sink his helmet into.

Shooting-wise Halo 2 is a step up, there’s more close-quarter fights and the locations look and feel a lot more epic. But it’s samey, nothing special compared to the other shooters of the era that had started to flex processor and graphics power into exhilarating level designs and experiences. It’s still just the same 3 or 4 kinds of Covenant in a linear push down corridors, and when you’re the Arbiter it’s exactly the same kind of firefight. The two don’t feel remarkably different. Arbiter has a cloak you can use but the environments aren’t much fun to sneak around, and often you need to kill everyone to unlock the next area so it’s more sneak-stab-shoot.

That’s assuming the enemies care. Even in the Anniversary edition the AI is wonky-as. A lot of the time they dramatically appear then go into screensaver mode, or fire at you through walls or run off in the wrong direction. I get that The Flood are zombified Covenant mostly, but even zombies are smarter than those half the time.

The opening cut-scene gives away the only interesting element – we’re sworn enemies but almost the first line out of Arbiter’s mouth is what great mates him and Master Chef become, which causes the story to drag – we know the guff about putting down humans and restoring the Covenant will be for nothing because he’ll throw in with them. Hurry up mate. The Arbiter levels just feel like padding rather than a lead into a massive boss fight with yourself where you chose which side is right, and it distracts you from the tension of saving earth when you’re doing the Covenant boss’ errands.

Another Halo disappointment. I’m surprised, again, I thought I was on to something with the Master Chef Collection, a ton of classic shooters ripe for discovery. It’s not the quantum leap that Half-Life 2 or GTA San Andreas were and still are. It feels stitched together and it’s hard to associate what we’re doing with what all those cut-scene folks are banging on about. I didn’t miss anything back in 2004, even in this shiny Anniversary Edition it feels like people played the hype not the game. I don’t see anything that makes it special. Painkiller was released in 2004 and that was more thrilling and imaginative than this. It is a solid shooter, but it’s not the all-time best shooter they claimed.

It’s ultimate contribution to gaming was the death of the single-player campaign. It has a complex plot with an alternative take on the villains – usually we just shoot them, here we understand them, and it is a solid narrative even if it doesn’t translate to the game play, but Halo 2 is the first shooter people bought for the Online playing. It’s from here you can see FPS’s single player missions shrinking to a tutorial and all the effort put into the Multiplayer. So thanks for that, Halo 2.