May 1, 2007 - If you have never experienced the phenomenon that is Halo, you truly do not know what you have been missing. At least that is how I have felt over the last few weeks. I will admit it - I have never been a huge supporter of the Microsoft Xbox system until recently when I purchased my own Xbox 360. Along with a few noteworthy games, I also picked up what some view as the best multiplayer shooter - ever. There are also those that would go as far as to say that the Halo series was the only game worth buying the Xbox for. Whether either of those beliefs is true or false, there is no denying the effects the industry felt once Bungie Studios released Halo Combat Evolved. Join us now as we prepare for the most anticipated FPS title to arrive this year on any system.
In order to understand the hype, anticipation, and the sheer bated breath most gamers are experiencing right now, it is important to understand where it started. That, of course, is the birth the Microsoft Xbox, a brand new system that threatened the dominating presence of Sony. Only there was a problem. Either many of the games arriving on the Xbox already appeared on the PlayStation 2 or they were coming out on both systems. So, there really wasn't anything that was daring consumers to take that leap towards a console with an unproven track record. All of that disappeared with the arrival of Halo.
Halo was the equivalent of what games like Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil, and Metal Gear Solid were for the PSOne when Nintendo had a stranglehold on the market. The truly surprising thing was that the game, traditionally speaking, was nothing revolutionary. Please allow me to flesh out what I'm saying before you utter several nasty comments. For the casual gamer, Halo was just another first person shooter and with third person perspective flooding the market, it was hard for a few to dive back into a genre that usually excelled on the PC. Yet, here was a game that nobody could turn away from once they started playing.
The story was your typical run of the mill Sci-Fi horror film. You know the ones that litter the SCI-FI channel now. The game is set in future X, where humanity is on the final frontier and at war with an alien race. Furthermore, that alien race is on the brink of destroying the human race with a certain weapon. As these events are unfolding, you meet and start to get a better understanding for the hero, one of the last Spartan-117's - Master Chief. It just so happens that the ship that is transporting him is under attack and, in accordance with protocol, he awakened from a cryogenic slumber to aid in rescuing the one thing that could be detrimental to mankind if it falls into the wrong hands, a ship mainframe named Cortana. The Construct A.I. unit actually comes in handy more often than not. At first your mission is simple: get off the ship under attack and make sure that Cortana does not come into enemy hands. Simple enough, right?
Fortunately, the game is not that short. Once you have escaped the Pillar of Autumn, which is the name of the ship, you discover the weapon, the Covenant, the opposing alien race, has. The weapon is so massive that you can land on it. This is actually a good thing since your escape pod is crashing. Of the attendees on the escape pod with you, you are the only survivor, another Sci-Fi movie device. However, you were not the only ship to make it off the Autumn. Now, in addition to saving Cortana, you must save the surviving Marines that have landed on the weapon. From here, you find out that the weapon is called Halo. Once that is discovered, your ride through a well outlined and beautifully executed piece of science fiction. Betrayals, miscommunication, and unquestioning soldiers flood the game.
Still, all of these things have been done in other games. What made Halo so different? After all, the graphics, though better in a few regards, where somewhat comparable to the PS2. Then again, maybe it was the gameplay. Yes, there had been FPS games one the market, but the ease of the controls, even if the controller was as big as a hamburger, were nice and fluid. One of the biggest complaints console gamers had in the past with FPS is that the controls didn't capture the heart of realism for them. With Halo, your controls are laid out in a way that it quickly becomes second nature to the player.
So, maybe it was the gameplay, but that doesn't exactly capture the reasoning behind Halo becoming the game of the year. Was it the fact that your buddy could hook up his Xbox to yours and the two of you could challenge one another in a no holds barred brawl that rivaled the console multiplayer action of GoldenEye for the N64? Maybe, but not really cost effective. Whatever the case might have been, whether it was the story, the graphics, the gameplay, the multiplayer, the interchangeable weapons ranging from the standard issue assault rifle to the Covenants very own Plasma Pistol, or the vehicles you use to plow through your enemies, like the Warthog, Banshee, or the speeder bike inspired Ghost, there's no denying the magic behind the game. In fact, Master Chief's rescue mission of the entire human race quickly cemented him as one of the toughest characters of a game. Therefore, it should have been no surprise when a sequel was announced for the game of the year.
Some time in development had passed since the inception of the first title and its successor. From the very first pixilation of the Covenant Empire, you notice the difference between the cutscenes of the games. While Halo's cutscenes were sharp and presented in short bursts of prestige, the opening sequence of Halo 2 will leave you hungry for the next scene. Master Chief looked sharper, more fluid, and definitely worthy of the best new hero in a game category. In fact, Halo 2 had an opening that would rival the opening of a summer blockbuster film. Of course, having a stellar opening to a game has become more commonplace over the recent years in gaming, but given that Halo 2 released nearly three years ago made it something special. The evolution of the Halo series was amplified by the new additions to the game and gave fans something to be proud of.
The story of the game picks up very close in the timeline after the end of the first. Heroes are being rewarded and traitors to their race are being reprimanded, whether it is justified is for you to decide. Parallels are depicted between the ceremonies held by the human race to honor its heroes and the ceremony conducted by the Covenant against a soldier that "betrayed" them, or so they think. It is through these scenes that we either feel for the Covenant warrior, Arbiter, or at least wish his suffering would end. Whatever the case might be, we will get a chance to get to know Arbiter a little better. In addition to Master Chief, you are able to play as Arbiter. As the plot of the game unwinds, you will learn that Master Chief's efforts in the first game were, ultimately, in vain.
Another Halo ring exists, Halo Delta, thus alluding to there being at least four of them. Once again, Master Chief, with the help of Cortana, must find a way to remove the weapon from the equation of the war. The problem is that enemy forces are charging towards Earth, and time is limited. Don't worry though, there is not a countdown in the upper right corner for you to worry about - that would have been detrimental to the series. While on your mission to defend humanity you discover a little more back story behind the war and Arbiter. Through him, you will witness the struggle many face when confronted with conflicting beliefs. Halo 2 had a stronger, more compelling story to suck the casual player in; because of this, Halo 2 quickly surpassed it predecessor on many levels.
Playing as either Master Chief or Arbiter and a deeper story were only a few of the things that were new to the series. One of the notable changes was the health meter. Instead of being prominent on the screen, it was now absent. The health meter recharged whenever you were not taking damage, but not knowing what it was added to the level of difficulty to the game. Bungie alleviated the extra difficulty by allowing players to wield two weapons and fire them by pulling back on the left and right triggers. However, when dual wielding you can no longer throw grenades, which some will remember was a vital aspect to the gameplay of the first on more than one occasion. With more than fourteen human and alien weapons to cycle through in the game, the variety of how you depleted your enemy forces quickly became a strategic method more than a blaze of glory attitude. Another advantage to dual wielding was in the first you could only carry two weapons. This is true in Halo 2 unless you dual wielded, then you could carry three.
Utilizing vehicles in the game returned, only this time Bungie made things a little more interesting. Now, players could highjack enemy vehicles while they were occupied. No more waiting around for an enemy to be disposed of before you took possession of the vehicle you wanted. Of course, this worked both ways. Enemies could now relieve you of your trophy weapon just as quickly as you could them. While this technique could be used frequently in the campaign mode, it became a gloating tool for multiplayer action. The multiplayer aspect of the game was amped up by including online gameplay through Xbox Live. Halo 2 garnered the title of most played online console game of all time. It held the title for a very long time, at least until another Xbox title emerged, Gears of War. While nothing new as a whole, online gaming on the console was at best slow and choppy in their previous attempts. Halo 2, however, made the experience enjoyable on many levels. This is not to say that Xbox Live didn't have its follies, because it did; instead, this is to say that the bar was definitely raised when any game incorporated online multiplayer into the mix hereafter.
The advancements in Halo 2 are enough to make any fan salivate for a sequel, just to see what will be new and what favorite aspects of the first two make a return. However, the new game mechanics and increased playability might not be the biggest reason behind the growing anticipation. Much like the rules of trilogy movies, Halo 2 ended with a cliffhanger that has left fans with bated breath for nearly three years now. One line delivered by Master Chief, "Sir, finishing this fight," has had fans prepared to do just that. The wait is almost over and on May 16th, we will get a taste of what to expect. Some would even go as far as to say that the success behind the game Crackdown is due to the downloadable beta of Halo 3 when it goes live. I know that is one reason I picked it up. It reminds one of how the trailer of Star Wars Episode 1: Phantom Menace was received - a lot of movies did really well just because of the trailer. Whatever the case may be, the gaming community is a buzz with excitement and with good reason. As Master Chief said - its time to finish this fight.