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The Second Act Syndrome

So I decided to play Halo 2 after all. On console. If I wanted to continue with the series, I had no choice in the matter, seeing as how the PC version requires an upgrade from Windows XP, which I refuse to do.

Although I wanted to play the game, I wasn’t looking forward to wresting with the control scheme, and wrestle I did. Though I play them infrequently, I have long been accustomed to keyboard-and-mouse controls for first-person games. The Wii offers a excellent console-based alternative thanks to the Wii Remote, but the dual analog sticks that are standard for Xbox and Xbox 360 FPSes were unappealing.

In fact, they still are. Early on in Halo 2, I spent much of the time fiddling with the settings, trying to find the sweet spot that would make up for the right stick’s (or rather, the surrogate mouse’s) lack of finesse. Finally, I found an okay compromise by turning the camera sensitivity all the way down to 1 and vertical inversion on. The irony here is that, when I played Halo: Combat Evolved on PC, I had the sensitivity set at its highest level, 10, and inversion turned off! Anyway, on with the review, and please note that as usual, this covers single-player only.

Y'all know this guy.

The Xbox game Halo 2 is, in many ways, your typical sequel. At a fundamental level it offers more of the same, but also builds upon the first game’s foundation, with some decent variety in the environments, new weapons and enemies, and a slightly more complex story. Spartan 117, aka the Master Chief, is back, as is shipboard AI-turned-sidekick Cortana, and though there are a few brief glimpses of their respective personalities at work, such moments aren’t as prominent in this outing. Military caricature Sergeant Johnson is, oddly enough, back as well; unfortunately, the circumstances behind his return are glossed over in one of the earliest scenes.

Of the new characters introduced, the most prominent one is an intelligent and honorable Covenant Elite who eventually becomes playable for a significant portion of the campaign. With the human UNSC well established in Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2 spends less time with them and more with the Covenant, allowing the player to get to know both them and their motives a bit better. While splitting between the points of view of Master Chief and this Elite sometimes led to haphazard storytelling, I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the UNSC’s enemies.

The story, by the way, is still sci-fi cotton candy, even with the obvious effort to give gravitas to the Covenant’s quest. As in the first game, there are well-placed touches of humor here and there, especially early on, and the game upholds its predecessor’s tradition of general lightweightedness—one character in particular does so to a fault. On a similar note, though we get to see much more this time through a Covenant point of view, they still lack some of the depth of certain other popular sci-fi aliens. Also lacking is the emptiness that the first Halo displayed every so often, not to mention the tension which came about thanks to that game’s big plot twist. Thankfully, the environments, as before, are not at all greys and rust, and instead display varied and judicious applications of color.

Speaking of the environments, there’s a bit more diversity this time around, though those narrow corridors—which I’ve suspected are there for buffering purposes—are back in some areas. A strange bug popped up in at least two areas, one which caused semi-transparent overlays of parts of the environment to become stuck on top of my field of view; this bug was not game-breaking, but distracting and, at its worst, annoying. Vehicle sections once again appear on a regular basis, with tanks playing an especially prominent role this time around; however, as much as I like Halo 2‘s tanks, there seemed to be one too many parts devoted to driving one.

As far as other gameplay elements go, the new Covenant weapons are excellent, and it was great to be able to use the cool-looking melee-based Energy Swords this time around. For the UNSC, there wasn’t much new weapon-wise, though the submachine gun’s recoil was realistic but annoying, especially since I wasn’t fond of the controls to begin with. One of the big new features touted on the game’s back cover was dual-wielding, which could only be done with some weapons and proved cumbersome whenever I wanted to toss a grenade, but worked well in general. Two notable subtractions from the game’s features are the health meter and medipacs, but I didn’t realize they weren’t there until roughly halfway into the campaign. The battles themselves were about as balanced as they were in the first Halo (note that I played on Normal difficulty for both), and I found myself using many of the same tactics that I had before.

Speaking of battles, the worst part of the campaign was the final one. It involved taking down one particular unit and was set in an arena-style map consisting of three tiers (going from large up to small, and the middle one with holes in the floor), and a central beam of light which can shoot you upward. Combine this with a healthy amount of backup, and I found myself not only constantly lost amid the chaos, but also robbed of the satisfaction of a killing blow. The campaign concludes with a teasing cliffhanger, as if to push more insignificance onto the ending which, much like God of War 2‘s, hammers home the fact that this is the second act in a trilogy.

So where does that leave me? Ordering and waiting on a copy of Halo 3, of course! As much as Halo 2‘s final act disappointed, the game as a whole left me wanting more. Despite the fluffiness of the Halo universe as I have seen it through these two games, and despite having to put up with the clumsiness of the right analog stick, I want to spend more time with these characters and the beautiful and terrifying galaxy they live in.