The Retrospective: Halo 2

Not too long ago, I took my first foray into the realm originally devised by the fine folks over at Bungie. I had good things to say about Halo: Combat Evolved, and this week I thought I’d give its sequel a visit for the very first time. As I mentioned in my Halo 1 Retrospective, the original Xbox was my childhood console of choice. And yet, I never bought Halo. While this may seem unusual, I suppose I can justify this odd decision by examining my then great adoration for the Star Wars games available at the time.

The Xbox was my KotOR and Battlefront box. I suppose I never felt like I needed anything else. And thus, until very recently, I was one of the few uninitiated. This would be the first time I had ever played Halo 2, a game that many of my friends have listed among their top five games of all time for quite a while. Does it still hold up after the years? Well you’ll just have to read to find out.

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I think it’s fairly easy to say that Halo 2 has an incredibly strong legacy to its name. Not only was it a huge commercial success, selling well over 8 million copies (compared to Halo 1‘s ~6 mil), but it still holds a spectacular 95 on metacritic. Few games see even of fraction of that success.

But even with a celebrated campaign and lauded audio design, the most important element of Halo 2‘s mark on history was its multiplayer component, which shattered ground and propelled consoles into the realm of online matches. Much of what makes a Halo game a Halo game today is its frantic, boisterous multiplayer that was engineered specifically for this entry.

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And really, that means that all of today’s match-making multiplayer has Halo 2 to thank for this revolution in gaming. For better or worse, we have multiplayer ingrained in many a singleplayer-centric game. And even if it doesn’t always benefit the games it inhabits, multiplayer is such a mighty movement that spearheading it is nothing short of momentous and historic. And thus, Halo 2 deserves no small dose of praise.

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Unfortunately, the specific console multiplayer experience that Halo 2 brought with it is now lost to time. All that remains in the story campaign.

Gameplay itself saw little changes from 1 to 2, save for the introduction of duel wielding weapons and some minor tweaks to the shooting. But the shooting was tight before and any changes certainly could have been damaging to the experience. And to be fair, I was still just as enthralled with the mechanical fluidity as I was before. This is shooting at its console-ridden finest, and if you must play with a controller, this is the game to play.

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Because Halo rarely feels as unabashedly tactical as something like Insurgency on the PC, which pushed for realism to an extreme. Much of the combat in Halo feels, and has always felt, rather run and gun instead of sit and snipe. I can only imagine that the game requires a far greater attention to tactical strategy on Legendary difficulty, but I feared I simply wasn’t man enough and went the Normal route, as I usually do.

And even then my death count was remarkably high. As I discovered quickly, a safe location can go sour quite quickly, especially thanks to the fact that enemies have access to the full range of weaponry as Master Chief. If you can have the luxury of one shotting an enemy with a rocket launcher or energy sword, so the hell can they.

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And even in the company of modern games, Halo 2 rarely feels outdated. Made today, it may have had more checkpoints and less immediate, unpredictable deaths, but on the whole the feel of the game is remarkably solid. Auto-aim works as it should, the shield regeneration speed seems fair, and the guns have a great umph to them that just feels right, in a way that even the great Fallout 3 completely failed to achieve.

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And yet, with all of this praise, I still feel somewhat conflicted over how I feel about this game. To be fair, my praise thus far has been entirely focused on the mechanical prowess of the shooting, ignoring the fact that personally mechanics are not the number one thing that concerns me when playing a game. It certainly is important, don’t get me wrong, and bad gameplay can ruin any chance a game has at earning my enjoyment. But games that focus too much on gameplay actually tend to lose my interest. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and I fully recognize that legions of players will disagree with me, but this is the primary reason for why I consistently fail to find any enjoyment out of fighting games or your average military shooter.

I need to form an emotional attachment to something to fully enjoy a game. Whether it be a character, a team of Pokemon or units under my command, a world, or an overal atmospheric tone, what puts games on my favorites list truly is not specifically for solid, enthralling gameplay. It’s for an emotional string being pulled. That stays in my memory for so much longer.

And with that in mind, I find it remarkably difficult to find anything on which to attach emotional worth in the Halo games. Is Master Chief truly a character if all we learn to understand is his fighting talent? Is Halo itself a truly remarkable world if it has no sentient people to inhabit it and develop a culture based on the rules it devises? Truly significant sci-fi narratives know how to relate their worlds and people to the world of today, providing extremes and what-ifs that challenge our understanding of our place in the universe.

Not pictured: that.

Not pictured: that.

Can one really say that the Halo games speak to that? When I gather my thoughts and dedicate my mind to a good Arther C. Clarke novel, I do not look for tales of harrowing military conquest, I look for ingenious examinations of theoretical culture and society. Perhaps my inability to truly love Halo could ultimately come down to the fact that I find it so difficult to understand what humanity looks like in this fictional future.

And sure, Halo 2 gives us a tremendously deep look into the inner workings and politics that define and compromise the Covenant. The arbiter is a fascinating character whose wrought iron faith evenly contrasts the all-or-nothing wrath of Master Chief, and the game benefits hugely from incorporating him into the narrative. But even from his eyes we only ever see a top-down view of what makes the Covenant tick. Do their cities have culture? Do their races work, strive, live, or love?

Ultimately, I find that a purely militaristic view of a culture does little to actually define its inner workings, and for that Halo 2 cannot and will not find a loving place in my memory. Of course that’s not to be unexpected, I suppose. I have very specific, very unusual criteria that allow for myself to fully love a piece of entertainment, and few games make the cut. I’ll always concede that Halo 2 is a remarkably strong game, and does what it seeks to do with near perfection.

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