Halo 2 was one of the most anticipated games of all time. Preordered in extremely large quantities, there were often long lines of people ready to pick up the game on release day. With expectations for this sequel as high as they were, many people were going to be disappointed regardless of what was released.
And I'll say it right at the start. This is not the best videogame of all time, it's not the best game on the Xbox, and it's not going to change the way you look at games forever. But it is a solid FPS that improves on the somewhat flawed design of the original Halo in a few important ways.
Halo 2 starts out not long after the events of the first game, with the Master Chief and allies being honored for their actions in the original game. We also keep seeing quick scenes taking place back with the Covenant, and we're introduced to a new character being punished for allowing you to succeed. He'll be playable in this game, and while this Arbiter's play control is the same as the Chief's, having this character around allows for more information than about what's going on within the Covenant. He's also got the ability to temporarily cloak himself, which adds a little something to the gameplay. Throughout the game, you'll be alternating control between these two characters. But before that, the Master Chief's ceremony is interrupted and the first combat filled stage begins.
There's one major gameplay change that makes the experience a little strange at first, and that's the removal of the health meter. As before, you have an energy shield at all times. If it's taken down by weapons fire and you get attacked before it recharges, you'll take some damage that'll be permanent until you finish the level. But unlike the first game, there's no way of telling just how serious it is. You might think you're doing fine, and then some fire from one or two enemies takes you down before you know what's happening. The funny thing is that within the story, this new version of the Chief's suit is supposed to be an upgrade. How can the lack of a health reading be an improvement?
The two weapon fighting system is new to this game, and works well for the most part, but it's got a few issues. First off, having two large weapons severely limits your viewing area. Now, this is more realistic in a sense, but it's annoying not being able to clearly see everything around you. In addition, if one weapon runs low and you want to switch it for another one you find, it's tricky to avoid accidentally tossing away your charged weapon by mistake. Other than that, it's mostly an improvement, letting you alternate fire so only one weapon has to reload or recharge at a time... or you can fire simultaneously doing as much damage as possible in a few seconds. It's possible to dual wield different weapon types, like having a needler in the left hand and a Plasma pistol in the right. The tradeoff, and it's a significant one, is that you can't throw any grenade type weapons while dual wielding.
As in the original, there are plenty of Human and Covenant vehicles to drive. Aside from the popular Warthog, which I actually dislike, most of these are fun to use and pretty easy to control. There are eventually restrictions for the sake of story and level design, but once you obtain a vehicle, if you're careful not to get it destroyed, you can often keep it for an extremely long time within a stage.
One major difference where vehicles are concerned is that you can now jump into an enemy craft and try to take it over instead of having to destroy it or target the occupant from far away. The tradeoff is that enemies can do the same to you, and it's best not to let enemy ground units get too close while you aren't paying attention. One aspect of the Halo series I've liked from the start is vehicle vs. vehicle fighting, and there's a lot of it in this game. Whether the battles are in the air with fast moving vehicles or on the ground with slow and powerful tanks, it's some exciting stuff. Unfortunately, a new vehicle added to this game is one you can't actually drive. Would've been a better choice not to have it at all if you can't implement it properly.
Levels have a decent amount of variety, more so than before, and there are once again indoor and outdoor stages. The indoor stages are the better ones despite their general lack of vehicles to use. Fighting the Covenant in narrow passageways and generally small rooms is considerably challenging and highly entertaining, especially with the newly introduced enemy types and new weapons. These indoor stages are also improved over the original, as it's now very difficult to get yourself lost or turned around within them. This increased linearity was a source of complaint from some gamers, but I was happy to have it.
I think one of the largest improvements here is enemy placement. In later stages of Halo 2, it seems there's always a good variety of things to go up against. Rather than one stage mostly for Covenant and one stage mostly for Flood, you're almost always fighting both at the same time, or at least alternating between them regularly. Since the tactics for flood and Covenant are still so wildly different, you have to be ready to change tactics and weapons quickly. The flood has actually changed a great deal from the original Halo... they still come at you with no concern for their own safety, but the numbers are slightly reduced. Before, they could quickly overwhelm you from all directions in ridiculous numbers, and get rather annoying, but they're a little more like standard enemies now.
The flood can be either Covenant or Human variations, like before, and can still be tough to deal with when they come in large numbers if you aren't using the appropriate weapons.
Regarding the Covenant, while there are some you didn't encounter in the first game, you don't see these guys right away. This game seems designed so that once you learn the tactics of the basic enemies and get tired of them, then you get introduced to some new foes. I think this is what the flood was going to be for in Halo 1, but it just didn't work out as well in that game.
Visually, there aren't any huge improvements over the original Halo, but the levels appear more varied in design, with less frequent repetition of the same exact hallway or room five times in a level. The returning Covenant enemies and the new ones introduced here have some pretty cool designs and animations. It's just plain fun to go up against some of these creatures later in the game. The engine developed for the series is a good one... I never noticed any slowdown throughout Halo 2, even when being attacked by enemies from every direction, some with large vehicles. That's one of the most impressive aspects of the game, not just that it looks good or can have a lot happening onscreen, but that it can do it without any apparent tradeoffs. The story scenes are also rather lengthy for a game of this kind and very detailed.
Most people aren't going to purchase a FPS to enjoy some kind of epic plot, but Halo 2 does a better job at telling an entertaining tale than most games in the genre. This is another major improvement over the first game. For the first time, you'll learn in much more detail why the Covenant does certain things, how it's setup internally, the problems it faces, and the ultimate goals. These were my favorite parts of the story because you didn't learn nearly as much about the enemy in the original Halo. It's not as simple as Covenant evil, humanity good, fight. And as expected, the game throws several surprises at you as you go on. It should be noted that Halo 2 finishes with an inconclusive ending that may annoy some gamers. Didn't bother me, but I was aware of the fact ahead of time.
Within levels, dialogue from the Master Cheif's allies is improved with lots of different conversations to be heard. Arbiter levels feature the same thing only with Covenant personalities. It's quite entertaining, and one of the reasons I slightly prefer these over the Chief's stages. For those who haven't played the first game, things might be a little confusing early on, but you should be able to figure most of it out after a while.
I've found the game a bit lacking in the music department, but that's a pretty common thing these days. There's really no memorable songs, and much of the time is spent with no music at all. Voice acting is of pretty good quality though, and I think this is the first time that you're able to hear any Covenant besides the grunts speaking English, or speaking in any detail at all for that matter.
So the question of whether or not to purchase this game. Well, if you have a strong dislike for the original Halo, I'd definitely say no. Despite the improvements made to the design, the games are extremely similar. On the other hand, if you thought Halo was decent, or if you're just looking for a good shooter, Halo 2 is worth at least a rental. It's longer than I expected, and the higher difficulty options should add a good deal of replay value for those who want to keep on fighting.