It took me years to realize that Halo deserved its stripes. Bungie revolutionized console shooters so well, they made it look easy. The game had its flaws, but the experience was propped up by excellent AI and shooting mechanics. Even though I really didn’t like Destiny, I thought it’s gunplay was the best part because its Halo roots were visible.
The version of Halo 2 included with the Xbox One compilation is similar to Halo: CE in that it is a remastered “anniversary” edition. Textures have been redone and gives this ten year old product a beautiful new face lift. The game looks so good that I’d almost say it almost outperforms the visuals of Halo: Reach. It’s cutscenes, originally designed with the in-game engine, have been replaced by gorgeous, high value CGI movies that easily rival Blizzard’s promotional work. Whoever 343 is using to produce these movies clearly are experts in studying facial animations because they look incredibly natural. Almost frighteningly so.
Regarding gameplay, Halo 2 is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Bungie returned with a host of improvements across the board, from character abilities to level design. Chief’s shields recharge faster (hooray) and he can now dual wield nearly every weapon. The weapons, specifically the energy pistol, have had their damage outputs tweaked which means you can no longer use a pistol to destroy legions of Covenant forces. On the flip side, nerfed pistols means there is more incentive to experiment with the game’s full arsenal often in the middle of a firefight. Enemies are considerably tougher this time around, especially the new Brutes, and can take more of a beating before they go down. Better resilience combined with their already unnerving AI and the Covenant are no joke here and you’re going to have to plan accordingly. Halo 2‘s levels offer some assistance because they are much bigger and varied than before. Boring hallways and the horrible repetitiveness of The Library dogged Halo: CE and its good to see Bungie going back to the drawing board. Chapters now include a healthy amount of large, open areas in between indoor locations that offer multiple flanking opportunities.
Another area of Halo 2 that sees notable improvement is its story. Not to say that the first game’s plot was terrible, but its sequel offers a deep look into the political structure of the Covenant empire. While Master Chief’s role focuses on his attempt to save humanity after Covenant forces launch a bold incursion on planet Earth (in retaliation for the destruction of Halo Alpha), I grew fond of the Arbiter and his eventual alliance with his long hated enemy. Supreme Commander Thel ‘Vadam gets thrown under the bus by the High Prophets Truth, Mercy, and Regret for failing to stop Master Chief from destroying their object of extreme religious reverence. As punishment, he is stripped of rank, tortured, and condemned to public execution. In secret, Truth and Mercy delay the sentence and ask Thel to become the Arbiter, a holy crusader of sorts summoned during times of “great need.” The Prophets command Arbiter to hunt down a growing faction of Covenant heretics, a quest that will eventually expose the truth of the Halos.
Levels are split among Master Chief and Arbiter and after completing a series of engagements, they find themselves forced to fight side by side by an interested third party. Again, I really enjoyed Arbiter’s story, especially when the Prophets start mucking things up by replacing the Elites, the storied protectors of the Covenant hierarchy, with their bitter rivals. Brutes lack shields but are brick walls. These gorilla-like creatures are intimidating in a fire fight because of their proclivity to come at you like a runaway train. Alone, witnessing the downfall of the Hierarchs through the eyes of a devout would have been great on its own. But guess who shows up to really screw things up? The goddamned Flood. When Halo 2 takes the Arbiter to Installation 05, he is tasked with visiting that Halo’s Library. I nearly suffered a mental break at the mention. Halo: CE‘s absolute lowest point was the tiring Library portion of the campaign, where the parasitic Flood made their grand appearance. To Halo 2’s credit, the Library has been redesigned to be less of a headache. The Flood has also been taken down a peg, as they are fewer in number and easier to put down. Make no mistake: they’re still a pain in the ass.
Halo 2 is a great sequel that openly addresses its predecessor’s flaws. The changes made to weapon strength and level design encourages a more strategic outlook to combat. Exciting as this makes combat, it is also a source of frustration. Halo 2‘s enemies toe the line of “bullet sponge” territory. Even on Normal difficulty, Elites and Brutes can withstand a lot of damage before dying. The game’s boss battles leave much to be desired and I’m grateful there are only two of them to worry about. If there’s one major thing to complain about Halo 2, it is the ending. I’m lucky that the Master Chief Collection allows me to pick up the story in Halo 3 without any delay. If I had to wait three years for a resolution to Chief and Cortana’s story, I would have gone into a wild fit.