Ask any kid what he (or she!) wants to be when he grows up and every last one of the little terrors gives the same answer: cybernetic space marine. Blame Halo for inspiring a new generation of glorified pest exterminators. The game that sold a few million Xboxes is still the best first-person shooter you can play from the comfort of your La-Z-Boy, and its even better with a few (or a dozen) like-minded wannabe-space-marine friends. Dead-on controls, an epic story, and deviously smart enemies well, smart for alien bugs at least are just a small part of Halo's greatness.
Ultimate moment: The Silent Cartographer level has to be one of our favorites in any game, ever. It kicks off with a Normandy-like beach invasion, followed by general tear-assing around in a Warthog jeep with your rowdy marine pals, and then its a great mix of indoor and outdoor action, culminating in a showdown with a one-hit-and-youre-dead blade-wielding alien. But for the expert snipers out there, beating Halo on the Legendary difficulty setting is the ultimate bragging right.
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This follow-up to the hit sci-fi first-person shooter is by far the most important game in the history of Xbox, and Microsoft and developer Bungie know it. So it's no surprise that everyone involved wants to take the time to get it right. "We're sorry to disappoint [Halo fans]--but making this game as good as we possibly can is our paramount concern," reads an announcement on Bungie's website. "Our ultimate goal is to make Halo 2 a great game; when the game comes out next year, we think you'll agree we made the right choice [on the delay]."
Prognosis: Locked and loaded...we think
One concern: Microsoft claims Halo 2 will be out early next year, but Bungie will only say 2004. Both parties even tried to convince us they never "officially announced" the 2003 date (they did, and we have the press releases to prove it). But lest we forget, Bungie delivered the first Halo under the unbreakable deadline of the Xbox system launch. And we hear that game turned out pretty good.
Jones' response brings us right to the bright news: The Bungie team is spending those 13 months doting so feverishly on every piece of the Halo 2 puzzle-- from the intricacies of its galaxy-spanning story right down to the textured knitting on each space marine's T-shirt--that this sequel will surely wallop its predecessor in every way. This ain't Halo 1.5, the rumored Halo 1 rehash tweaked with online play. (Bungie says that the pseudo-sequel was pure make-believe and "wishful thinking" on the part of eager-beaver journalists.) Halo 2 will pack twice as many vehicles, including troop carriers and more flying machines. It will feature destructible environments and missions set in low gravity. It will deliver full-blown online battles between an army of armor-suited Master Chiefs and alien Elites.
It's sequel with so much more of...well, everything that tidying it all up with a tag line is tricky. Jones ceases concentration on the design process for a sec and tries: "I think the game is gonna be...," he stares at the conference room table in Bungie's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, searching for the words, "it's gonna be even more than Halo 1 was." He looks up and smiles. "It's like Halo 1 but on fire. And wrapped in bacon."
"Cool places to go that aren't Earth..."
The Bungie guys call it a "shield ship." It's a troop transport the size of a city block, and it's descending on a patch of hilly turf opposite an alien bunker. Squads of space marines march from the main hatch and prep for an alien assault the instant the ship touches down. A few troopers hop on the back of all-terrain four-wheelers--one of Halo 2's many new vehicles --and zip up a hillside. These guys are snipers, and when they reach the hilltop they dismount and take up positions.
Then everything happens at once. Enemy Grunts, Jackals and Elites--the various races of the troublemaking alien alliance known as the Covenant--pour from their bunker and begin blasting at the marines. Some marines dash headlong into the fight. Others cover their compadres from behind trees and rocks. Explosions erupt. Glowing volleys from rapid-fire energy weapons criss-cross the terrain. The snipers on the hillsides take beads on targets. Everyone works together. It's like a bona-fide military attack force.
The only thing MIA here is Master Chief, Halo's walking-tank main character who really is an army of one. Don't worry--he'll show up eventually, once the level is fully designed. But anyone who's played the original game's Silent Cartographer beach battle (think Saving Private Ryan with rayguns and supersonic troop characters) knows that the battleground we just described is Master Chief's ultimate playground. And it's the kind of big-scale, teamwork-oriented commotion that Bungie plans to evolve for Halo 2's single-player experience. "We had a ton of things in Halo 1 that we tried," says Design Lead Jaime Griesemer, "and one of the things that really worked was when you fought alongside your marines. And now...we're going to focus on it a lot more. I'm not talking about ordering your squad around or anything like that, but you're going to be fighting alongside marines and against organized aliens a lot more than in Halo 2."
The shield-ship skirmish we just watched is actually a Bungie test level that'll wind up highly modified in the final Halo 2 product. We dunno where the battle fits into Halo 2's overall plot. And even if we did, we wouldn't tell you. Why spoil the story of a game that's still more than a year away? But if you've seen Halo 2's wowie-zowie teaser trailer (and if you haven't, go to www.xbox.com and watch it now, soldier!), you already know the Covenant bring their war against humanity straight to our neck of the galactic 'hood: Earth. That's where Halo 2 kicks off, although the trailer isn't the game's opening cinema.
A brief period has passed since Halo i's finale, in which we saw Master Chief obliterate the enigmatic Halo ring-world. He had just crushed a Covenant force and an army of mushball space mutants known as The Flood. Now he's returned to Earth with Cortana--the chatty female A.I. construct built into the noggin of his newly upgraded armor--to find the planet on the brink of a "goddamned apocalypse," quoth the trailer.
The Covenant have wiped out every last human-colony world. Earth is all that's left. Master Chief and Cortana's mission is clear: Hightail it planetside to back up Earth's forces and repel the alien blitz.
Sounds like more than enough mission for one game, right? Well, that ain't the half of it. "There's going to be lots of cool places to go that aren't Earth," Bungie boss jones says. So far, we've seen concepts for a level set in a hydroponic plant; on an orbiting space outpost; and on a mining station floating in the upper wisps of a gas giant, where hurricane-force gales make it tough just to walk, let alone massacre Covenant bad guys. One mission's set on a moon (we're not sure if it's Earth's or another world's), complete with weak gravity that drops the game's hyper-realistic physics into slow-mo. We watched Master Chief leap three times his height to reach a secret door to the Covenant's moon base. The kick from his rifle even slowed his descent when he fired downward while falling. Bungie is working on moon-buggy-style vehicles, which'll take stratospheric jumps in the low lunar gravity. And just think of all the low-G tricks you'll be able to try in multiplayer.... But we'll get to network play later.
"Take the war to the Covenant..."
At some point in Halo 2, the Covenant's assault on our home planet comes to a close. Just don't expect the end-game credits to roll when it happens. Instead, Master Chief and Cortana will zip deep into the heart of Covenant territory, attacking the source of the enemy's power. "We're definitely going to take the war to the Covenant in this one," Jones says. The climactic battle that follows will bring a measure of closure to the Halo saga, something that was missing from the first game. "In Halo 1, you faced disaster after disaster," Jones says, "and by the end of the game you hadn't really gotten anywhere except saving the galaxy three different ways. Ultimately, humanity was in the same place as when the game started."
Bungie won't tell us much about Master Chief's encounters on the Covenant's home turf--other than that it'll be nothing like the alien homeworld in the PC/PS2 shooter Half-Life. We do know Halo 2 will reveal a lot more about the aliens and the motives behind their intergalactic assault and battery on humanity. "I think they were so mysterious in the first game that people saw the Covenant as very flat,"
Jones says, "or they just came across as the stupid cliche of an alien race that ruthlessly attacks mankind. Nobody knew about their social structure or anything, but I had hoped people would give us credit and realize there's more to the Covenant than what we showed. We're really expanding on them in Halo 2. There's a whole bunch of the story we still have left to tell, and that's going to be a lot of fun." Revelations come in the form of new alien races, chief among them the Prophets (see page 220) and the Brutes (see right), with more alien enemies to be revealed later. Some revelations will even come from the original Halo--at least once the sequel shows you what to look for. "All through Halo 1, we were putting in the hooks for Halo 2," Griesemer admits. He's referring to the first game's mysterious little details, such as the scattered symbols on Halo and the funky history lessons from 343 Guilty Spark. "Almost nothing in Halo was random," he says. "I think a lot of people are going to play Halo 2 and then go back and play Halo 1 and see a lot of things they didn't see before."
"Much more complicated engagements..."
Chat with Jason Jones about sequels--any kind of sequels, even the movie variety--and he'll tell you exactly how not to do them. "When you talk about the the bad transition from the second Alien movie to Alien3,1 think we all know what happened there," Jones says. "Alien 3 was just a different movie, right? And that's what you don't want to do. Likewise, we don't want to make a different game. Why eliminate the reasons people played our first game?"
That's why Bungie isn't fiddling with Halo's fundamentals. Master Chief can still carry only two weapons at a time. He still possesses superhuman strength. He still has a rechargeable force-field shield and flashlight. His armor has been upgraded this time around, but he's still pretty much the same green guy from the first game. "We're not going to give him any more superpowers," Griesemer says. "He won't walk on walls or fly. But we'll definitely give him augmentations. He'll have some tools."
Bungie didn't clue us in on what those "tools" might be yet, but we did glimpse a few of Chief's enhanced skills (see page 224 for a complete rundown). He's can now peer around corners and lean forward over ledges to check out a scene before he dives into it. (He won't be able to shoot or lob grenades, but the enemy A.I. can't see him, either.) The Chief's melee attack is beefed-up, too. Time your button presses right and he'll string together a combo of up to three skull-crunching smacks with his gun.
But the Bungie guys are saving most of their tweaks for the Master Chief's alien enemies and marine allies. We're not just talking about their look, although Covenant and marine character models come in a much greater variety this time. (Different types of marines, for example, will haul around their own special backpacks and wear unique body armor.) The bigger deal here is the A.I., which will potentially make the already darn-smart enemies and marines from the first game seem like high-school ROTC dropouts. "We gave a demo on Halo's A.I. at a game developers conference," Griesemer says. "We gave away every secret, and then we realized, 'Hey, we gotta make a sequel. We need a bunch of new secrets!' That's what we've been working on lately."
What they've settled on is a scheme that makes all computer-controlled characters more flexible in any situation. They'll have a larger variety of behaviors and interact more realistically with each other. "In Halo 1, the marines knew they had friends around, but they only used that information passively," says Chris Butcher, one of Bungie's technical leads. "In Halo 2, one of the marines will finish reloading his weapon, look at his four buddies and say, 'Charge!' The one with the [assault rifle] will immediately start suppressive fire white the two with shotguns charge across the beach and the guy with the rocket launcher watches the sky for Banshees.
They'll really watch each other's back and coordinate their actions for maximum effect." Other flashes of Halo 2 A.I. brilliance: Marines will knock over tables and use them for cover. (Such defensive moves won't be part of a pre-planned script--the troopers will actually think to do this.) Marines pinned down by enemy fire might call for a Warthog to save their bacon. Marines will point out a sniper for an ally to grenade. Any of these scenarios can and will happen in Halo 2. "Instead of just communicating what they are doing at that moment," Butcher says, "marines'll be communicating intentions and making requests."
Your A.I. comrades complete the illusion of being living, breathing, thinking killing machines by getting a lot blabbier. Bungie is building on the first game's marine-conversation system, making it so your fellow soldiers will have more to say to you and each other. Let's rewind to the big shield ship battle at this article's outset for an example. Say that, instead of following the main attack force away from the ship, you mosey up on a hill and stumble upon one of the snipers. "If you hang out with him, he'll have these really cool things to say as he's popping off targets," says Cinematic Lead Joseph Staten, who, incidentally, provides the voice for the chickenhearted pipsqueak alien grunts. "That's something totally off the path and it's not crucial to go there, but we're building in that content knowing that the player might go there. We really want to have that level of detail that you may or may never see." Depending on which way you walk in a level, you might find marines who point you in the direction of a pitched battle, or who warn you about snipers while they hunker down, or who are just afraid to go any farther until you come and lend your firepower. "We just want to set up situations where the story isn't mission-critical, but it's definitely adding something special to your experience because the characters in the world are communicating to you," Staten says.
Of course, lifelike brainy marines deserve lifelike brainy opponents, so Bungie has souped up the Covenant's I.Q., too. "In Halo 1, our A.I. was about shooting people and not getting shot, and that was all it really focused on," says Butcher. "Now our A.I. will understand and move through their environment in ways that they never could before. You've got guys climbing. You've got guys ducking under objects or jumping over them." It makes for enemies who animate like animals. The Elite soldiers will be more lithe and leopard-like, jackals will behave more like birds. Life will be anything but a day at the zoo for Master Chief and his marine allies. Enemies know to switch on their flashlights and hunt for you in darkness. They'll understand how to fight in low-gravity environments. They'll talk to each other more (and most of them will speak English this time) and coordinate attacks. As tenacious as the first game's bad guys were, Halo 2's enemies will make you fight even harder for every inch of ground. "You're going to have much more complicated engagements that are going to take longer," Butcher says.
Even the simple things look interesting...
"I think we're probably the first sequel in history that's not bragging about having higher polygon counts," says Design Lead Griesemer. "In fact, the Master Chief is actually made from a little bit fewer polys than the Halo 1 Chief, but he looks 10 times better because we're using bump maps in such an intelligent way."
Bump mapping--the rendering hocus pocus powering much of Halo 2's advanced new visual vibe--is a magic word with Bungie, because it's letting the team achieve an astonishing level of detail in the sequel's environments and on its characters and objects. Bump mapping's tech-nerd definition is that it's an Xbox-friendly rendering process that overlays a map of three-dimensional details--treads on a tire, buckles on gear, gouges on body armor--onto a polygonal model's flat skin. If you think of a 3D model such as a vehicle or character as a simple shape hacked out of wood, then bump mapping is the process of sculpting out all the fine details.
Bungie's artists are sculpting everything with bump maps in Halo 2, and it works beautifully. Just look at the screens and watch the trailer. "That's ingame content," Butcher says. "It's the visual bar we are confident we can achieve with the same frame-rate [smoothness] as in Halo 1." Unlike the first game, in which bump mapping was added late in development and used only on environments and structures, Halo 2 has been bump-enhanced from the get-go. Everything in the game, including marines, weapons and retouched Halo 1 models, will be sculpted for maximum visual impact.
"Master Chief doesn't look like a little featherweight polygonal mesh," says Art Lead Marcus Lehto. "He looks like a 400-pound cybernetic character who is gonna kick your ass. It's much more believable."
And the whole point here is that such believability doesn't come at the expense of the game's performance. "We wanted to be able to have the large-scale battles we had in Halo 1," Griesemer says, "and we couldn't therefore just triple the poly counts on everybody. The bump mapping helps us make the game look so much better while not demanding anything more of the Xbox." Griesemer adds that the sequel will have even more characters on the battlefield this time.
Many Bungie guys we talked to guesstimate that Halo 2's visuals are an order of magnitude better than the first game. That boost isn't just from the bump mapping's pumped-up detail: Half the pizazz comes from the sequel's advanced new real-time engine for creating light and shadow, which reacts more realistically to bump maps than to ordinary textures. Watch Master Chief descend in a wire-mesh elevator and you'll see shadows dance around everything in the scene as he passes each floor. When the hangar airlock doors rumble open in the trailer, you see harsh sunlight, reflected from the Earth outside, bathe the scene and wash out weaker light sources. (Bungie calls such splashes of overpowering light the "bloom effect.") "Even the really simple things look interesting," says Straten. Bungie's artists are creating textures with this new lighting model in mind, whereas in Halo 1 the lighting engine came in fits and starts, and the artists never really got the hang of it. Now it's letting them achieve the subtlest of details, such as the way every model in the game casts shadows on itself as well as its surroundings. "There's a lot of lighting things that our engine is doing," says Lehto, "but self-shadowing is probably the most important thing that you might not even notice. It's so subtle, but it's so cool."
You don't really appreciate the sequel's lighting effects until the lights go out completely. It's a situation you could find yourself in frequently, since that Master Chief has the ability to shoot out lights and skulk in the shadows this time. Imagine hearing a bump in the dark, cutting loose with your battle rifle and seeing a dozen Covenant enemies strobe-lit by your muzzle flash, their shadows writhing on the walls as they scurry for cover. "It's really cool just running guys over in the dark," says Graphics Programmer Adrian Perez, "and watching the headlight from your vehicle cast this long shadow behind the bad guy right before you hit them." Just don't get the idea that Halo 2's enhanced use of light and shadow is going to drastically change the feel of the game. By no means will most of Master Chief's new haunts be dim and creepy. "We're definitely not doing this to set just a horrific tone," Griesemer says, "and we're not changing it into a stealth game. Halo 2 is still alt about fighting and shooting and killing. But, yeah, players have this great resource of being able to hide in the shadows now, and we're going to use it in some interesting ways."
"Re-creating Halo's single-player experience among players on the Internet..."
Halo 1 was the first Bungie game in five years that didn't have Internet play. You can tell the team hates that--they hate it with all their might--especially because the game was originally designed for online. Microsoft's gaming network just wasn't ready when Halo launched in late 2001, so players had to settle for split-screen or linked-system multiplayer play. It was still ludicrously fun, just not the kind of experience Bungie wanted. "We've just been drooling to come back to team Internet multiplayer," says Jones.
Fast forward to Halo 2's launch a year from now. Xbox Live, Microsoft's broadband-gaming network, will be a year old with its kinks ironed out. Bungie will be able to stop drooling and we can start: Halo 2 will feature online battles between Master Chief characters on one side and Covenant Elite soldiers on the other. The plan is for online to support at least 12 to 16 players. It'll be nothing less than the total online war Bungie originally envisioned. "The thing we're excited about bringing to Xbox Live is recreating Halo's single-player experience--with all the weapons, vehicles and explosions--among a bunch of players on the Internet." All of Halo l's multiplayer modes, including Capture the Flag, Oddball, etc., will return, except now with the added oomph of flying vehicles, way more weaponry, and real-time strate-gizing and trash talking via the Xbox Communicator headset microphone.
Bungie has other big plans for Halo 2 multiplayer that they're just not ready to chat about. They know they want to enhance the cooperative mode of the main campaign game, but they probably won't make it playable over the 'Net ("That's really hard to do," Jones says).
And they've heard all your gripes about the first game's lack of computer-controlled 'bot opponents for multiplayer. "We're thinking a lot about the 'bot question," Griesemer says. "We understand there are people who play Halo who want to play multiplayer, but they only have two controllers and they're not online. We want to do something for them, but I don't know what it's going to be." We can't wait to find out. We can't wait to try online dogfighting in soaring new vehicles. We can't wait to try multiplayer battles in low gravity. We can't wait to play as a Covenant Elite wielding a human shotgun. We just can't wait for Halo 2. And the funny thing is, neither can Bungie. "We do what we do because we want to play our final product, too," Griesemer says. "Nobody has higher expectations than we do."
Ultimately, that's the numero-uno reason this sequel should turn out great. As fun and polished as the first Halo was, most of the game came together in the final month of development. Bungie has been working on Halo 2 since six weeks after they finished the first one, planning every little detail, making sure this sequel lives up to their original vision. "When Halo 2 is finished, it will define the next generation of games on the Xbox," says Ed Fries, Microsoft's VP of games publishing, "and it will define what network play can be on Xbox Live."
If that ain't good news, what is? Now what the hell are we going to do about that 13-month wait again? "I suggest cryosleep," Griesemer says.
To say that Halo 2 is already one of the most successful game titles of all time is an understatement. Hovering just around 2 million units in pre-order sales, the success of this impressive sequel is guaranteed. However, is the hype worth the price? How much has changed from that familiar formula that we know and love? Will rockets on prisoner ever be fair? Let me try to answer these questions and more.
The graphics are hotter than ever, and the bump-mapping technology, which gives even simple textures an illusion of depth and reality, looks even better than you could've imagined. With the ability to play in HDTV resolution, you can get one mean looking picture out of this game. Additionally, if you've got a widescreen TV, you can split the screen vertically for co-op mode, giving each player a better view area. Backing up the visuals is Halo 2's sound, yet again top notch with a more kinetic, frenetic feel. The music has gotten the same treatment, and you can even listen to two Halo 2 soundtracks outside of the game.
Gameplay, it's all there, and it brought along a bag of chips. The action is more intense, more challenging. Dual-wielding brings a new tactic to the table, and the removal of the pistol scope for sake of the battle rifle is a welcome change. No longer will the pistol be dominant in multiplayer maps. As before, you'll find an engaging storyline wrapped around this gameplay, and excellent design choices mean that there's nowhere near the same repetitiveness of the original.
Be prepared for even more story, and even more high quality voice acting, from such actors as Ron Perlman, Michelle Rodriguez, and Michael Wincott. I'll warn you though, the plot takes some twists that not everyone may like, and has an ending that may leave you feeling unfulfilled.
Star above all else is Halo 2's multiplayer component. Featuring Xbox Live connectivity, downloadable content, online clan support through Bungie.net, Halo 2 lets you find a game with players near your level of gameplay, and lets you track all of your gameplay statistics through their stat tracking website. Gone are the days where you'd need to search through a server list, replaced by party formation and matchmaking systems that make this an instant winner in my book. This is the party game to beat.
All in all, Halo 2 is a top notch game, through and through. It does have some weaknesses, but they're few and far between, and in some cases, would've seemed like design strengths in other titles I've reviewed. This is an unashamedly good game, and is worth more than retail price.