Friday, June 19, 2009

Halo 2

Halo (2001)--the first one--was a game that was innovative, new, atmospheric, and challenging. It revolutionized several video game concepts including, but not limited to: a maximum of two weapons (swappable with any others on the battlefield), a shield system that allowed the player to jump back into the battle without having to worry about health, multiple vehicle systems with good handling, smart(er) AI teammates, an epic science-fiction story, and more. It was genuinely fun, well-told and paced, and only had several nitpicks that detracted from it, the most primary due to the repetitious level design.

And now we come to Halo 2 (2004), a game that picks up right where Halo left off, for better or worse. As a whole, Halo 2 seems to suffer from a lack of focus, vision, and consistency.

The story, which is split up between Master Chief's defense of Earth and the Arbiter's chance for redemption, seems to suffer in its execution in several parts. On Master Chief's side, we are given the story of the invasion of Earth, but never a glimpse of its full scope. As an idea, the invasion of Earth has been repeated many times in the past, and is by now almost a cliche. This is why other stories choose to focus not on the invasion itself, but on other aspects such as the aftermath of its effects. Other stories such as Half-Life 2, or Ender's Game, are set in the aftermath of an alien invasion, one successful, the other not so. The consequences of these invasions are much more interesting than the battles themselves, something which Halo 2 does not capitalize on. I understand that the invasion of Earth provided the much needed action for the story, but it feels as if it could have been given a unique or better twist to it other than "The aliens are coming, let's defend!"

On Arbiter's side of the story, he is not without his own flaws. Firstly, a dramatic soap opera story about betrayal constituting aliens speaking a human tongue (without lips or a human vocal tract, mind you) is somewhat hard to take seriously. This story eventually pits you up against YOURSELF (the humans) in the other story, so it would no longer make sense to start debasing your progress on each side. Thus, the entire plot twist of "Arbiter turns good!" is totally negated by the fact that it was absolutely necessary, and thus predictable, for it to happen.

Taken as a whole, the composite story is unfortunately a rehash of all the events in the first game, except told in a more inconsistent manner. Each side eventually comes upon another Halo ring,searches for the key to use it, and then something blows up in the end. What's worse about this retelling than the first one is its inconsistency. It goes from being a comedy (Master chief holding a rocket which has a picture telling him to "Hold it this way!"), to a serious story (Arbiter getting betrayed by his fellow alien), to downright odd (A giant underground flower-alien thing picks up Master-Chief and Arbiter and has a conversation with them). The story is told from multiple perspectives, angles, and styles, and the atmosphere is totally all over the place (At one point there are aliens dancing in front of the camera for no apparent reason as you crash land on a planet). Because of this, it is no longer a story about the survival of the human race, and it is instead reduced to some kind of bad Hollywood action movie.

Halo 2 continues in the vein of its predecessor in the gameplay department, but also suffers from some awkward gameplay decisions. First off, many times in the levels there is a lack of direction or goal as to where to go. Oftentimes the true exit is comprised of a single green (as opposed to red) door out of many in a giant arena. What makes matters worse is that these arenas often repeat themselves, and the exit often jumps around from door to door, making it a nuisance to find out where to go next. Even when the exit to the level is made clear, it is not made apparent whether or not you actually have to kill anyone to proceed. Due to Arbiter's cloaking device, as well as a low gravity jumping system, large sections of the game can be sped through by simply avoiding to engage in battle with the enemy. This is subsequently countered and made confusing by the few sections in the game where you actually have to kill all the enemies--for what reason I do not know--in order for a gameplay flag to check itself off so in order that you may proceed to the next level.

A second matter that is annoying is the overabundance of pitfalls and open-air platforms that you are forced to traverse. Oftentimes you are presented with a sweeping vista that you believe you can jump down to, but instead you fall to your death when you were heading to your apparent goal. Or, you are trapped indoors to search for the only way out (a green door, perhaps), and believe that maybe you are supposed to jump down this chute or into this pool of water below in order to proceed, which in the end turns out to be the wrong decision. Most times, there are literally NO reason for these pits of death to exist at all, other than to provide another way to die when jumping around dodging enemies. Even worse, large sections of the game use glass floors without any texture whatsoever, leaving you confused as your teammates walk across large open pits which are in reality glass floors.

The final gameplay matter which could be improved upon was one of the core selling points of the game: dual-wielding weapons. Yes, you can now wield up to two small firearms at a time. However, this oftentimes is counter-productive since you can no longer throw grenades or melee enemies while keeping your two weapons. This is somewhat ironic since the main opportunity to use dual weapons is within large groups of enemies, which requires the only action you can no longer perform--throwing a grenade. Even though there had to be a drawback to dual weapons, the lack of grenades and melee (while keeping your two weapons) makes it feel like dual weapons does not provide much of an advantage in the same battle scenarios as wielding a single weapon.

Taken as a whole, is the game fun? Yes. Is it also mindless, repetitive, a rehash, and unimaginative for being a sequel? Yes, it is also those things, as well. Given that Halo 2 came out in the same year (2004) as other great shooters such as Half-Life 2, it is easy to contrast how two different sagas produce their own sequels, one that greatly improves upon the original, and one that does not. Overall, Halo 2 is a fun sequel, but does not expand upon or innovate gaming in the long run.

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