Twenty Years of Halo: Halo 2

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

Halo 2 was developed by Bungie and ported by Gearbox and 343 Studios

To this day I have never owned an Xbox so Halo 2 was always out of reach for me.  Oh, what’s that? A Windows Vista port?  Yeah, this was back in the Stone Age when all I had was a Windows XP, so no I never got around to playing it on PC or on Xbox until they FINALLY released The Master Chief collection and I bought it a few months ago on Steam.  The game has pretty universal acclaim, and introduced a lot of features that would be refined in the sequel Halo 3, so getting my hands on this gem after all this time will certainly be an interesting experience; no nostalgia to cloud my judgement, and not the next gen experience I enjoyed when I got the Xbox 360.  Does it hold up is this a classic better left in the past?  Let’s find out!!

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I like to start these with discussing the narrative first, and if I were to give this game one GIANT thumbs up, it’s that the story is actually pretty darn good.  Not PERFECT as the ending left me rather unsatisfied and I had to look up a few details on the wiki when all was said and done, but it definitely soars above the original in this regard.  Following the events of the first game (and also the novel First Strike, though I don’t think there are any overt references to that in here), Master Chief is back with the UNSC and chilling out on the Cairo space station.  While we see him getting commendations and trading witty barbs with Sergeant Johnson, we also see The Covenant having a decidedly less celebratory congregation as Thel Vadamee, an Elite solider who was in charge of the operation to reclaim Halo and use its weapon (we all know how THAT ended up), is getting jeered and condemned by the leaders of The Covenant; known as The Prophets.  He’s stripped of his armor, burned with a symbol of shame, and with nothing else to live for… agrees to be the top solider of The Prophets.  Yeah, apparently if you screw up SO badly that you’re effectively convicted of treason then you can qualify for the position of Arbiter which Vadamee agrees to since he doesn’t really have anything better to do.  I joke, but Thel Vadamee is the reason to play this game, as he’s not just an interesting character filled with conflict and contradiction, the voice work for this character (done by none other than Keith David) is top notch and he gets across all the mixed feelings that this character has to embody.  He’s part of a proud warrior race so he speaks like a Klingon with twice as much acting range but the story puts him through his paces as he goes on one suicidal quest after another only to find more questions and challenges to his faith at the end of each path.

“None of this makes any sense!  Why would they release all the Halo games on PC, EXCEPT for Guardians!?  Infinite is coming to PC, but not Guardians!?”

Compare that to The Master Chief who frankly is even shallower here than he is in the novels.  Now I’m not saying that he’s a detriment to the story or anything as they certainly get the TONE right for his character, but there’s just not much there to work with as he continues to be more reactive to circumstances than engaged with what he’s doing.  What he is here is a power fantasy.  A darn GOOD one as the new and improved cut scenes are an absolute joy to watch as he maneuvers though each set piece or challenge with the peerless bravado of your favorite action figure come to life, but there’s not enough time for him to even say much; let alone have an arc.  The fact that there’s a brand new Halo in this game (apparently the Forerunners are like The Empire and have ONE idea they just keep doing over and over again) and he just keeps going like it’s a Walmart or something!  No moment of shock, no fear about the futility of it all, not even any determination to do something different; He just crashes down to the planet for his grand entrance and spanks The Covenant with a rocket launcher.  Granted that’s what I WANT as being The Master Chief is all about looking cool and feeling like a bad ass and his levels tend to not drag as much as the Arbiter missions do from time to time, but with such an interesting character to contrast him with it makes his levels feel a lot more perfunctory.

“I’m here to kick ass and steal movie lines, and I don’t watch a lot of movies.”

In any case, after a failed invasion of Earth by the Prophet Regret (bit on the nose, isn’t it Bungie?), Chief and a few members of the UNSC including Johnson and Captain Keyes (Miranda; Jacob Keyes’s daughter) follow them through Slipspace to find themselves in front of the aforementioned second Halo.  While Chief and company are trying to stop The Covenant from using it, The Arbiter is doing what he can to get it working.  It would have been nice if him and Chief had a few confrontations throughout the campaign, but sadly this is where the narrative starts to feel a bit sloppy as Chief gets knocked out during one of his numerous battles against impossible odds, and the Arbiter falls prey to a trap by The Prophets and another race of aliens known as The Brutes who leave him for dead and start to kill off all the Elites in some sort of ethnic cleansing.  I THINK the implication throughout the games is that The Elites are the only race with the sort of honorable warriors code that could possibly see through The Prophet’s nonsense which made them a liability, but in any case Chief and Arbiter are both saved by THE GRAVEMIND which is essentially the Borg Queen crossed with Audrey 2, and essentially forces them to start working together in what is VERY close to a Deus Ex Machina moment in the script.  Apparently it wants them to stop The Prophets from activating Halo and will deal with The Covenant and the humans once the ONE WEAPON in the universe that can kill them is out of the way.  Kind of makes you wonder what the UNSC’s plan is once Halo is gone for good, but I guess it’s better to give it the ol’ college try at destroying the infestation rather than giving up and hitting the History Eraser Button on the galaxy.

“FEED ME, CHIEF!”     “No.”    “Alright then.   FEED ME, ARBITER!”     “That’ll be a no from me as well, vile creature.”     “Well you two are just playing hard to get!”

The rest of the game follows Chief as he is sent to kill off The Prophets while the Arbiter tries to catch up with the Brutes and stop them from activating Halo.  Arbiter once again has the best scenes here as he has to start working with humans to get to his objective and genuinely tries to reason with the Brutes about the lies spread by The Prophets while Chief continues to be completely awesome.  Sadly the ending is kind of vague as I THINK the new Halo was stopped but perhaps only briefly, and the whole thing leaves us on a cliffhanger as we presumably head into the start of the next game.  We’ve got two more novels between now and Halo 3, so unless they’re prequels I’m not sure how they’re gonna fit it between Chief in orbit around Earth and Chief CRASHING into Earth.  Where the first game was a very solid if straightforward story with a self-contained narrative that opened the door for new possibilities, this one tries the Matrix Reloaded gambit and left me feeling rather deflated; and that’s from someone who can boot up Halo 3 five seconds after finishing the game!  I can’t imagine what it was like for fans in 2004 to have wait three more years to get a satisfying conclusion!  Still, the Arbiter’s story segments make the whole thing worthwhile, and the expansion of the UNSC’s role in all of this as well as key characters like Miranda and Johnson definitely bring up the Chief side of the story which polishes his iconic badass image to a mirror shine but doesn’t do much else besides that.  Heck, even Cortana who should be the one balancing out his taciturn nature with her vibrant personality is almost a non-entity in here as she only seems to chime in every once in a while with straightforward running commentary; far from the firebrand who called the Chief out for being a meat-headed fool in the first game!

“Microsoft just offered me a sweet gig as their Virtual Assistant which I just can’t pass up, but I’m sure you’ve got this from here!”

Now the version that I played was the Anniversary addition as part of the Master Chief Collection, and unlike with the first game I played this one all the way through with the remastered graphics and the new cut scenes which are ABSOLUTELY fantastic!  Blur studios who have been doing video game cut scenes for years and even worked on the Sonic the Hedgehog movie were hired to recreate the cut scenes from this game, and it’s totally night and day.  Even with the staging, timing, and performances being more or less the same, everything from the camera work to the jaw dropping visual fidelity make these cut scenes shine and made this game feel like it was a brand new title for current generations.  The rest of the game looks similarly good as I switched to the old school graphics from time to time to see the difference and it is quite stark; especially the music which was also redone for this game and only adds to the fantastic atmosphere of this game.  Again, nostalgia may have completely blinded me from the flaws of the first Halo game, but where I felt something was lost in the updated graphics to that game, the graphics from the original Halo 2 just look way too brown and muddy without much flair to it and the remastered graphics add a lot of brightness and color to make it all feel so much more alive.

I guess there’s no putting it off any further as I’ve talked about everything else, so let’s get into the gameplay which I want to stress up front is VERY good!  It improves upon the first game without losing any of its identity, and I found myself REALLY enjoying the new weapons here that I was more inclined to switch between where in the first game I was content to stick with the rifle and pistol.  The vehicle sections are a lot more fleshed out and control more smoothly, and there are set pieces in the game that are an absolute joy to play through and surpass even the best moments in the first game.  All that said, I think this game suffers from a kitchen sink approach to game design and the end product has some very noticeable jank to it.  It’s bloated with new features that KIND of work and more complicated levels and set pieces that are VERY much appreciated, but some of it just doesn’t fit right together and led to some hilariously absurd moments.  The dual wielding is a cute idea and I had some fun with it, but I never found myself using it all that much outside of very specific situations.  The double Needlers turn out to be useful in some of the later sections where you’re facing off multiple brutes with little cover, but I never found having two weapons firing at the same time as useful as using just one while still having access to grenades and melee attacks.  They also never seemed to give me an edge in terms of fire power as I never felt like I was twice as effective when shooting say two blaster rifles and in most cases I would just end up dying a few times before going back to one weapon with a scope or something and picking them off form a distance instead of going in guns blazing. 

TRY THE RED GUN!  NO THE BLUE!  THE RED!  BLUE!  RED!  BLUE!  RED!  BLUE!!

Also, sometimes the game just wouldn’t work as intended; not in a game breaking way or even stuff that I would classify as bugs, but there were points where things didn’t quite click together.  The enemy AI is a good place to start as I found a few places early on where The Covenant had a hard time finding me from over a chest high glass wall, and sometimes they would just zone out as I was in front of them frantically firing carbine bolts into their midsections.  The level design as well is not without its frustrations as they copy-paste whole sections of levels which make it very easy to get turned around and lost with only the occasional Checkpoint message letting you know that you’re still headed in the right direction.  This was something of an issue in the first game, but with the levels being more sprawling here it makes it harder to distinguish the alien rotunda with a bridge and three exits from the NEXT alien rotunda with a bridge and the same three exits.  Overall, things feel a bit more scripted in terms of the set pieces and that opens up avenues for you to do things the game may not have expected and tries to compensate in weird way.  My favorite moment in this entire campaign was right at the end of the second mission where I was tasked with taking down three or four transport ships racing down a tunnel.  I got SO into this section as I drove up in my ghost and started putting plasma bolts into the drivers of these vehicles while dodging fire from the vehicle in front, and it was one of the best experiences I had in the game… until I got out of the ghost to switch into one that was less damaged and IMMEDIATELY got run over by a Warthog driven by two AI marines who must have thought they were being helpful but just ended up killing me on the spot and forcing me to restart the section.

This didn’t happen once.

This didn’t happen twice.

This happened FOUR TIMES IN A ROW which granted might be on me as I kept trying to switch vehicles without first checking to see if another one was burning rubber down that same highway (it’s not like they were helping me with the transport vehicles as they were WAY behind us), but it was so ridiculous and ended up cementing my thoughts that this game could have used a few more tweaks before hitting store shelves; a thing that developers HAD to consider before updates and fixes became standard for console releases.

And thus the Earth was lost as the Master Chief GOT TEAM KILLED OVER AND OVER AGAIN!!  SERIOUSLY!?

Anyway, that was my fun story about this game and a good place to start wrapping things up by looking at how the game was received at the time.

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RETRO REVIEWS

I’m actually surprised how much of my nitpicking almost two decades later were covered in the reviews at the time as I was always under the impression that Halo 2 was universally acclaimed upon release.  I read Gamespot’s review and IGN’s review of the Collector’s Edition, and both of them agreed that the ending was a bunch of nonsense; leaving us on a cliffhanger and without much of a resolution to make this game feel satisfying on its own.  The Gamespot review was much harsher on the campaign than IGN’s and while I agree with a lot of their points I can’t say they effected the game as much as they are saying it does.  The length in particular felt like a weird complaint as I thought it was a great length that didn’t overstay it’s welcome, but I’m also coming at it from a 2021 mindset where first person shooters come in three categories; way too short, Live Service endless grinds, and Bethesda games.  Heck, even Halo isn’t immune to this as Guardians is supposed to be around six or seven, so maybe I’m just conditioned to low standards but I still found the length just right for what it was trying to accomplish.  What I think put this over the top from a great game to a LEGENDARY game despite the gripes that were noticeable even then was the multiplayer component which I MAY cover at some point in a future piece but is not a priority in this retrospective as it’s more focused on the narrative and lore.  I remember playing the heck out of Halo 3’s multiplayer so I can see where an eight star campaign with that added on top of it can push it to a full ten, but considering the difference between what I expected to read in these reviews and what I actually found, well it was quite interesting to see how rose tinted the past can be even with stuff that I never experienced first-hand

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Halo 2 is definitely a mixed bag, but the kind that belies a strong sense of ambition as opposed to a haphazard effort.  It is by design incomplete so I can’t say it left me on a particularly high note, but there’s so much to like here that I can see why it was such a big hit and proved that this series had legs.  I’m glad I FINALLY got around to playing it and it will hopefully mean that when I finally replay Halo 3 that it will make sense what’s going on; especially now that I know what that giant goop monster is at the end of the game!  That’s three years away however, and we’ve got a LOT of stuff to cover between now and then!  We’ll be breaking conventions a bit here and I’ll have a supplemental for this piece up in a few days covering some of the related material around this game’s release, but next Saturday we’ll be discussing the fourth season of Red vs Blue so keep an eye out for that!

Next: Conversations From The Universe & The Art of Halo
Previous: I Love Bees

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