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MovieWeb takes down XBox's Halo 2

Check the end of the article for some outstanding Halo 2 video clips!

At a quick glance, you may have noticed that this Cynamatic represents yet another video game review. Coming directly on the heels of our September coverage of Microsoft’s Fable, this might seem somewhat excessive, maybe even a little bit off-topic, to those of you looking for a good, old-fashioned cinematic rant. But I like to think, at least to some degree, that our love of a good film directly relates to our enjoyment of a great game – both of which, at their best, are skillful combinations of sights and sounds, of depth and scale, that make for one hell of an engaging experience.

And in the ever-expanding relationship between film and gaming, we’re beginning to see another, less-obvious connection: the anticipation factor. The “teaser” is certainly nothing new to the eyes of a hungry film-fan, sitting in the dark and watching thirty-seconds of a film being released one, or even two, years down the line, feeling that slow build of appetite. The soft grip of anticipation. As if the closing credits were the first herald of a good film’s sequel.

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For gamers, there has been no greater example of this than our boundless impatience for the follow-up to Xbox’s top selling, critically acclaimed title, Halo. Put simply, there is nobody on the face of this small, blue planet who has played this title and not fallen deeply, passionately in love. The jaw-dropping graphics, tight gameplay, expansive level design, unparalleled vehicles and weapons, multiplayer maps, creative enemies and intuitive AI are only a fraction of what made Halo the top first-person shooter on the market, if not the best game currently on shelves today, for any system, period.

And now, two years later, Microsoft and developer Bungie are back with the most anticipated follow-up since the second coming of Christ, delivering on their promise to make a great thing greater and doing so with such precision that even the beefiest of gamers might weep. Openly. And for days, even.

No, really, I’m serious. You’ll cry. It’s that good.

(Pulling back the critical curtain for a moment, Microsoft has provided us with a laundry list of THINGS WE CANNOT REVEAL, which, to be honest, covers any number of notable additions that I’ve been waiting for weeks to blabber on about with fellow gamers. Thankfully, I’m not allowed to do that here, and my Microsoft muzzle will prevent me from spoiling some salient details that will generally surprise you about Halo 2.)

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That said, just think one word: Bigger. Or another word: Deeper. Which, put together, might sound something like a review for a porno film. And while Halo 2 shares some striking similarities to the human sexual experience, believe me, there’s no comparison. Halo 2 is better.

Everything here is expanded, built-upon, blown-up and blown-out. Most notably the story. The relatively average, though thoroughly engaging, plotline of the original Halo followed the adventures of Master Chief as he fought his way through the alien world of Halo, battling past the enemy Covenant, the ravenous Flood, and the devious central intelligence behind the mysterious ring-world.

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Having won the day in the original, Master Chief has finally made the long journey home, albeit just in time to defend Earth against an invasion of the Covenant armada. It’s really around here where I have to halt myself, because to go further would almost certainly ruin a good number of legitimate surprises. I can reveal that we certainly learn more about Covenant culture this time around, delving into its history and political structure in such a way that the bad guys seem somehow less bad. There’s a real sense of scale here, of a war being fought on multiple fronts, and where Halo 2 succeeds is in not concentrating solely on any one perspective. The view we get of this great conflict is not so one-dimensional, which makes for an infinitely more compelling story.

Suffice to say that the entire plotline of the original Halo could fit neatly into about thirty minutes of playtime with the sequel.

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Graphically, the game is something of a miracle. With increasingly detailed textures and visual effects, combined with its massive, sprawling level-design, Halo 2 draws the player directly into the day-to-day life of a fully armored, semi-robotic, elite forces commando. From enclosed, claustrophobic fire-fights to medium-scale urban warfare to all-out city-wide chases, the various set pieces are key ingredients in allowing Halo 2 to fully eclipse its predecessor. There’s a palpable sense of openness here, of a progression through a place without boarders, and that idea of freedom makes all the difference. That we no longer have to repeat or backtrack through a familiar level is Halo 2’s real saving grace.

But how could one progress through all that space without a sturdy mode of transportation and a huge, reliable gun? Thankfully, your favorite vehicles are back in this sequel, bigger and better than you’d seen them in the past. The Ghosts and Warthogs are more maneuverable. The Banshees can now spin and barrel roll, making dogfights twice as interesting. The Scorpion tank can run over or blow away just about anything in sight. Or both, if you’ve got a good gunner. There’s a new vehicle or two thrown into the mix, all of which that sniper across from my window would have to take me out for disclosing. So when you see them, jump in, drive and enjoy. ‘Nuff said.

As for weapons, there’s a ton…or two, or three. Many of those familiar, blasting grips are back again, though a little polished and revamped for this second go-around. The most notable change is the switch from your automatic rifle to a small, scoped machine gun that I, personally, enjoy quite a bit more. The advantage of this is that it draws attention to whatever weapon is appropriate for a certain situation, rather than allowing the player to make their easy way through Hell with only their basic M-16 blasting endlessly away. Also look out for a new and improved Needler, more efficient grenades, and, of course, a few of those damned secret surprises that I’m not allowed to reveal. (Yes, sniper, I see you. So back off a bit. I didn’t just reveal something off-limits. It’s not like I mentioned anything about a laser beam.)

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The second great addition to the mechanics of Halo 2 is the much lusted-after dual-wielding function, which allows Master Chief to blow his way through any level at twice the fun, with a machine gun in one hand and a Needler in the other (or most of the other weapons, for that matter). The respective triggers fire each weapon, together or individually, and allow for as intense an encounter as humanly possible, with two guns blazing in a dark, narrow alley. The only downfall is that you can’t toss grenades while dual-wielding, but, you know, you can DUAL-WIELD, so we’ll pretty much all get over it. Another fun addition to the weaponry is that Master Chief can now commandeer weapons from fellow soldiers, trading his pistol for their sniper rifle, which often makes for some hilarious quips from the inevitably doomed solider.

Weapons aside, the flow from one battle to another is nearly seamless, in part because of the stunningly subtle integration of music and audio. The sound and fury of Halo 2 is a character in itself, following a half-step behind Master Chief as he makes his two-fisted way to the closing moments. The music sweeps and fades appropriately with the action, incorporating any number of diverse elements into the eclectic mix – from the familiar Gregorian chanting to the hard-rock blast of a few electric guitars. The sound effects of bullets clanking against metal and flesh, of explosions shredding the engine from a damaged Ghost, are center to the level of immersion that defines this sequel. And the 5.1 surround mix is just astonishing. There’s nothing quite like the sound of a jet-propelled rocket as it narrowly misses your retreating backside.

All things considered, Halo 2 is pretty much the perfect game, and every bit as good a film as anything Bruckheimer or Spielberg might choose to produce. Except, of course, that it’s roughly twelve hours long and that you actually get to blow people away. That’s a plus.

Regardless, run out on November 9th and buy this game without hesitation. If you don’t own an Xbox, buy one. If you don’t own a TV, buy one. If you don’t own a home or a TV or an Xbox, buy the Xbox, buy the game, find the nearest Best Buy, plug the Xbox into a TV in a corner of the store where you won’t be spotted, and just play. If they try to kick you out, dual-wield a few blasters around the store for awhile and chase ‘em out with a well-placed plasma grenade. And if that doesn’t work then …What?…

I’m sorry, have I gotten too far into this?

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I'd like to give a quick tip o'the hat to all our friends over at Microsoft / Bungie for letting us in on all of Halo 2's biggest secrets...and then shushing us completely. I've never had so much fun not saying anything. And for all of our NEW YORK readers -- be sure to make your way down to the Times Square Toys R' Us at 12AM Tuesday, November 9th, for the massive midnight launch of this jaw-dropping title (wherein Geoffrey the Giraffe will be blown to bits by a Covenant dropship and Master Chief will seek revenge). Or so I hear.

Watch Video Clips:

 E3 2003 Gameplay  (9 min)
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 Game Trailer  (50 sec)
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 E3 2004 Gameplay  (21 sec)
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 Spike TV Special TV Spot
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