We got a raw deal from Halo. Where there should have been wonder there has been disappointment. Where there should have been one of the greatest PC games of all time, there has been a moderately entertaining shooter.
You might recall that there was a time before the Xbox, a time when Halo seemed like the savior of FPS gaming on the PC: beautiful, vehicular space-war with burning energy weapons, roaring vehicles, proudly chromed aliens, all wrapped up within a mysterious ring-world sci-fi mythology. We were so excited, so sure that this would lead us into perfected escapism.
Seven years later and we’re slumped at our PC wishing this game would go away. Halo 2 is a lazy port of a less-than-perfect sequel to an FPS that was pretty good on a console and only average on a PC. Oh, how the hyped have fallen.
Let’s break it down. Firstly and most fundamentally Halo 2 doesn’t deliver fights with the promised pizazz. Shooting people, which constitutes 100% of Halo 2’s game, struggles to satisfy from the start. The AI of both enemies and allies is solid and reliable, but hardly as inventive as that in Half-Life 2 or F.E.A.R. The weapons are all agonizingly similar, and none of them require much skill to master. They’re either splash-damage monstrosities, or designed to spit loads of damage over a wide angle. Point in roughly the right direction and you’re going to win (perhaps do some weird floaty jumping to avoid hostile fire).
The same is true of the enemies who are fighting you: by the end of the game it’s a case of ordnance-spam attrition. Can you pump out more grenades and rockets in the first few moments of the fight than your enemy? Good, then you’ll reach the next checkpoint. It’s boring. Halo 2’s fighting is soulless and tiresomely predictable. It’s boring like cleaning your house is boring. Pick up some shoes, wash the dishes, bazooka the conveyor-belt of linear monsters. Halo 2 has no puzzles that we can recall, no notable physics events, a handful of interesting scripted scenes and no memorable emergent glories at all. It is repetitious shooting that leaves us feeling, at best, sad and unfulfilled.
These problems are amplified by the overall pacing. It starts out competently, with a punchy opening sequence, but soon it stumbles, occasionally picking itself up and looking around, clueless and dazed. There are long, absent-minded pauses, as if the game forgot to make anything happen. It happens again and again - moments pass... weren’t we supposed to be saving the human race? The vehicle-based levels are the worst culprits. These are huge open maps where you can find yourself wandering on foot if your Warthog jeep (now destructible) gets exploded. We found ourselves simply driving through a couple of the later vehicle levels, just to get past their tedious, lingering exchanges of ammo. The AI seems to assume that we’ll stick around to fight it, and had no real plan for us just driving on through.
Fighting through the last two hours is painful, like hard math where you have to show your work. We couldn’t enjoy it, and began to feel ill.
Think we’re done with bitching? We’ve got more: there’s the overall level design and visual drabness. This is an old first-generation Xbox game. It looked unexceptional back then, but these days no amount of upped resolutions and anti-aliasing is going to save it from a case of the grey-walled uglies. Crap textures, made worse by lack of artistry and lack of computational palette, make Halo 2 hypnotically uninteresting.
The original Halo at least had some challenging level design (the Silent Cartographer, anyone?) that had been given life by intriguing alien architecture.
Halo 2 manages a couple of exquisitely drawn science fiction landscape skyboxes and an alphabet of lumpy, crappy grey blocks. Lifeless level design and concrete-boredom pervades. It’s just exhausting.
Further down the list of Halo 2 bashing: it only works on Windows Vista. Laughable, really, only it’s no joke. If it had been a pure DirectX 10 thoroughbred, dripping with freshly processed pixels, then maybe the Vista-only tag might have made sense somehow. As it is, this is a weird, ugly botch that we can’t imagine anyone upgrading to Vista for. Bring on Crysis, please, oh please. Please.
There’re also the leftover remnants of its console heritage to consider. The menus ask you to press the green and red A and B buttons on your Xbox controller. They are, of course, the A and B keys on your keyboard. Or you could use a PC-adapted Xbox controller instead of a mouse and keyboard, and that might not be a bad idea, so poorly balanced for mouse play is this beast of lore.
There’s something else that’s a little troubling about Halo 2, and that’s the inclusion of Microsoft’s “Live” architecture for online play. Halo 2 has been bolted into Microsoft’s plan for online gaming - the same plan that they’re using for the Xbox. It’s a tried and tested interface that serves the consoles well, but on the PC it seems like more unnecessary fiddling. We just want to be able to load a server browser and start playing, just like we’ve done for years.
Having to be signed into Live and use its architecture seems like yet another layer of this meaningless Microsoft control. Updates and extra content will all be delivered through Live, whether we like it or not. This has some fairly intense implications for modding and level design for games that use this system. Essentially, if your name’s not down on Microsoft’s list, you’re not coming in. If this is a taste of “Games for Windows” to come, then we’re not feeling like part of the smiley-happy future.
In conclusion: we miss our dream of Halo. Halo 2 has some glimpses of it here and there. We love the energy sword stuff, and wading into enemies at close range is a joy until they become too tough to fight. The plunging-base-in-gas-giant level is a great (but solitary) level idea. The “dual-wielding” of having two guns in your mitts is provocative too, allowing for a minor boost in firepower. Best of all is the capacity for your second character, the Covenant warrior who is fighting in parallel with Master Chief, to briefly turn invisible. It allows for some sneaky stuff that’s fun, but doesn’t demand tedious adherence to stealth principles. Run behind cover, cloak, reposition, attack. It’s a tiny idea that we expect to see picked up elsewhere.
Halo 2, you see, isn’t truly awful; it’s just repulsively mediocre, with a clumsy story, poorly orchestrated action and bad music. It lacks bombast to the point where the nuclear destruction of a city on Earth doesn’t really seem all that dramatic. It’s a subtle thing: camera angles, the feeling of violent feedback and the nuances that make FPS games great. Average isn’t good enough, especially when it crushes our expectations of greatness. We can’t be genuinely appalled by this failing - Halo 2 is just too boring for that.