You can read my Halo: CE review here.
For this review I’m playing the Vista version of Halo 2 on PC. I heard that legendary was crazy bullshit in Halo 2 with one-shot kill jackal snipers, so again I decided to start on heroic first. The very first thing I noticed when I gained control was that Master Chief actually moved at a respectable movement speed. No more slow plodding (though it is still fairly slow in the scheme of things), and significantly less floaty jumps. You gain the same height, but much higher gravity and jump force. This made me initially hopeful, before I got railed into interactive cutscenes. Okay. Fine. At least they’re short (and never show up again).
Once getting into combat I initially had some confusion over the controls, and how dual wielding worked, and at first it felt pretty cool to have an SMG in one hand and a plasma pistol in the other, then I discovered that with two weapons at once, I couldn’t switch out to whatever my third backup weapon was, or melee enemies without dropping the offhand gun, or throw grenades at all (yet he can somehow magically reload both guns while holding them). So I very quickly went back to the regular 1 weapon at a time setup from Halo 1 before I had even been through 3 encounters.
Big changes are apparent in the first level: There’s now a real physics middleware at work, allowing boxes and other props to go flying, and true ragdolls as well. Elites now have the ability to climb on top of things. There’s a new insectoid enemy that can fly around and perch on walls. Animations are all 60fps and look much much more smoothly animated overall (except the melee animations which punch instead of pistolwhip usually). There’s more generous use of moving parts of levels, that even have things like angular velocity, which are really complex to implement. The SMG is a weapon with a recoil effect for the first time. The battle rifle is the new pistol, and nothing as shitty as the assault rifle seems to exist anymore.
Enemies in Halo 2 on heroic are much more accurate than enemies in Halo 1 on legendary, and seem to do more damage or you seem to have less health, like, the shields themselves are weaker. Obviously you no longer have health underneath your shields, so in combat I realized that my habit of actually trying to actually avoid damage honed from the first game didn’t make sense anymore. The shields regenerate quicker, and after a shorter delay, so you have essentially an infinite supply of paper shields to protect you from bullets. So there’s no longer context in battles, there’s shoot down an enemy, or get shot down. There’s no dodging in battles anymore, there’s cover. I’m playing a modern shooter suddenly and all the happiness has been drained from my experience.
To make it less satisfying, the gun effects and animations feel a lot weaker and wimpier than the ones in the first game. The plasma pistol doesn’t have the same exaggerated recoil on firing a charge shot. The shot itself is like a green mist shot at the enemy rather than a crackling solid ball of plasma, the sound effects are worse. It’s just depressing. The enemy elites seem to have less shields to compensate for your own weaker shields, so I guess that’s sort of fair, albeit disappointing, because if they had more regenerating health than you they’d be a major pain to kill without getting killed first.
I guess I have to say this here: Halo 2 is kind of the game that ruined first person shooters. This is the game that invented the modern implementation of regenerating health in combination with highly accurate enemies. Call of Duty 2 would copy it a year later, then go on to release Call of Duty 4, which was a huge mass market success and made everyone want a piece of the console FPS pie. Halo 2 is the reason shooters have been fucked up. This is seriously depressing after coming off Halo 1. I knew the health system was changed, I really should have known better. And still for some reason I got my hopes up. The marine in the first cutscene tells me the suit got an “upgrade”, allowing it to recharge faster. This is like a slap to the face.
I was seriously looking forward to this game. Halo 1 felt incomplete in a lot of ways, and I was expecting the new features of Halo 2 to help make the game more complex in the ways Halo 1 lacked. And they fixed the movement at the very start. I don’t think I’ve been this disappointed about a game I had high hopes for in a very long time. I was seriously contemplating busting out cheat engine and modding in the correct health and shield values until a friend told me the editor is actually really robust, so I actually spent a fair number of hours finding the correct editor to try to fix the game, and I might make a mod and release that at some future point. We’ll see about that.
The jump between Halo 1 and Halo 2 reminds me of the one between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Sometimes people have asked me, what game has had the worst influence on the game’s industry, and what would you erase to improve the game’s industry? I like to jokingly answer Half-Life, because it was clearly and obviously a great game, but it invented Interactive Cutscenes, Scripted Sequences, those periods where you can’t do anything but watch and aren’t allowed to skip it, and sometimes are even asked to participate just a little every few minutes to keep it moving. And they got a lot worse in Half-Life 2, and eventually took over the industry. But of course, that’s kind of a jokey answer. Half-life 1 is an amazing game, and Half-Life 2 is still pretty good. But it’s a similar path overall to the eventual ruin of the genre.
I was seriously looking forward to this game. Halo 1 felt incomplete in a lot of ways, and I was expecting the new features of Halo 2 to help make the game more complex in the ways Halo 1 lacked. And they fixed the movement at the very start. I don’t think I’ve been this disappointed about a game I had high hopes for in a very long time. I was seriously contemplating busting out cheat engine and modding in the correct health and shield values until a friend told me the editor is actually really robust.
And to be honest, the above is a bit of an overreaction. Halo 2 is still kinda good overall, just the new health system and accurate enemies makes it suffer a bit in close quarters and long ranges without cover, since you can’t dodge as well anymore or tank as much health, and the lack of dodging sucks most in those situations, requiring more conventional cover play. Halo 2 could never have a level like The Library (not that people liked the Library much) because dodging just doesn’t work as well, and you get killed too quick. Most of the levels are a bit more wide and open, so you aren’t targetted by enemies immediately and have a chance to shoot at them before they shoot at you.
So what’s still actually good about Halo 2? You still get pushed to pick up new weapons due to ammo scarcity, just you can stick with the same good weapon combinations a lot more commonly. The energy sword by itself is good enough to force you into bad weapon combinations with a lot of benefits. Grenade play is still nice. You still have to use pairs of weapons to de-shield enemies and kill them efficiently in many cases. Enemies still have limited awareness, allowing them to be ambushed, and preventing you from fighting all the enemies in a room at once. They also don’t have amazing target acquisition times, so you’re allowed to run out in the open frequently, even if you can’t realistically dodge most enemy weapons.
The weapon balance feels improved from the first game, meaning the more powerful guns are weaker, and the less powerful ones are stronger relative to the baseline, which oddly I don’t think is totally a good thing in this case. Snipers deal less damage from bodyshots, other weapons already kill unshielded enemies in headshots. Rocket launchers deal less damage overall, not oneshotting elites through their shields anymore. I can see how better weapon balance would be nice for multiplayer. Snipers need to hit shields twice with a headshot to kill most enemies, and they can take two or three shots to kill an unshielded enemy with a body shot, even on grunts. The shotgun meanwhile is just laughably weak. I found no use for it. This means that the power weapons are less powerful, but also their niche and uniqueness from the other weapons is weakened. Sniper Rifles are a long range hitscan weapon, much like the battle rifle is as well. The nerf on rocket launchers is just kind of sad and pointless, but they picked up the ability to lock onto vehicles and home in (really well, better than any other homing weapon) which makes them the best anti-vehicle weapon, so that’s a fair situational use. They’re already heavily limited in ammo capacity and very rare to pick up, limiting their damage too isn’t so helpful. The sniper and rocket launcher are still more powerful than other weapons, but only by a little bit, so the rocket launcher’s disadvantages, the limited ammo, make it a lot worse and more situational as a selection, and the sniper ends up being kind of samey with the battle rifle, only slightly more powerful and is still effective at the longest ranges.
I can see these being balanced out for the sake of multiplayer, just in the case of a single player campaign it’s kind of disappointing. I think they should have taken the approach of the later game, Starcraft 2, and had weapons function differently in the campaign from multiplayer. Weapon damage is stored in tags inside each map file, so it would not have been unreasonable for story missions to have weapons be a different strength than multiplayer matches. I think overall it pays more to have a small group of diverse weapons that you’re forced to bounce between due to ammo limitations than a large group of samey weapons that you generally keep getting more of. Ammo limitations make it so even though some weapons are clearly better than others, you can’t always use them or need to ration your use of them, which, in a single player context, makes a lot of sense as a form of balance between weapons. Even speedruns of Halo 1 use a diverse array of weapons very frequently. Balance doesn’t just mean equal power level, it also means diversity of function, and in the case of weapons in particular, situationality.
There are new weapons, the beam rifle, covenant combine, fuel rod cannon, brute shot, brute plasma rifle, sentinel beam, battle rifle, and SMG, but these feel very similar to the existing weapons.
The battle rifle is the most different addition from halo 1, replacing the assault rifle, but taking the role of an improved version of the pistol from halo 1, now with repeating fire, higher damage output and the same headshot capabilities. The battle rifle is good at everything except taking down shields.
The covenant combine is essentially a worse version of the battle rifle, as is the SMG. Given that the covenant combine is basically a slightly worse battle rifle, it kind of breaks the ammo economy, since covenant troops drop them and it has a large reloadable magazine, much like most human weapons. It deals bullet damage and can headshot, again, like human weapons. This means it can be paired up with plasma weapons to break shields, then headshot.
The needler is good at killing anything at close distance and has a tighter cone of fire, so it’s slightly less hot shit this time around.
The beam rifle is a slightly more powerful sniper weapon, but as usual has less total ammo, and can fire less shots in a row (3 with good timing, instead of 4 quickly), and still can’t kill with a single headshot on shielded targets. Given how common beam rifles are in the ammo economy, I think it would make sense for them to remain as strong as they are, and the more rare human sniper rifle to be more powerful like it was in the first game.
The brute plasma rifle is basically an improved plasma rifle, with a higher rate of fire and greater effect against shields, but slightly lower damage, however greater DPS overall, so it’s basically a straight up improvement on the standard plasma rifle. It comes late in the campaign however so I don’t feel it really competes with the standard plasma rifle.
The Sentinel beam fries anything unshielded, and sucks against anything with shields. It shows up primarily in levels with Flood, where it works best. Functions like a covenant weapon, overheating, no reloads, must be regularly replaced. Perfectly accurate, long range, sustained fire. The sentinel beam is this game’s shotgun.
The fuel rod cannon is really disappointing actually. In Halo 1 multiplayer, it had an arc on it and a set ammo capacity with overheating, as was standard of covenant weapons. In Halo 2, it’s a reskinned rocket launcher with reloads. Projectiles from the fuel rod cannon have no arc on them in Halo 2.
Notably the plasma pistol’s normal fire was made less effective against unshielded targets with a slower rate of fire than the original, which is a totally reasonable nerf considering it could both deshield enemies and kill easily in the original. A charged shot will still completely remove the shields of anything it hits, provided you can lead the homing effect well enough.
Overall, the cast of weapons has grown fairly large, but a lot of the weapons are more homogenous in function, meaning that instead of functionality being divided across differently functioning human and covenant weapons, you can generally always get your hands on the right weapon to complement what you currently have, or fit one of the standard noob combos. At least plasma weapons are still better against shields than bullet weapons, so there’s an impetus to get a plasma weapon and bullet weapon together. You don’t need to use ammo as efficiently as Halo 1, you’re not shunted off your favorite weapons and simple noob combos as much. You can basically always set up a weapon combo that is reasonably decent against anything you come across. The one exception is the energy sword.
The energy sword is really great. It made me notice that melee attacks have a hitbox separate from just a hitscan line. Also it just has a fantastic boost forwards for the slash, which itself can be manipulated to let you slide around past enemies, or launch up ramps. Very satisfying weapon, fills a unique slot, and the limited ammo makes it fit in very well as a covenant weapon. Notably it also has reduced ammo consumption against flood, which makes sense given it’s an effective weapon against the flood. I’d like to see more melee combat games try emulating something like this. There’s a real depth to the variety of boosts you can get off it.
The energy sword also fits into the weapon system really well and helps shake up the balance of the rest of the system, adding some well-needed diversity. If you are holding a beam sword, you cannot hold two ranged weapons. This is really big. You get beam sword and only ONE other weapon. The energy sword is close range only, so your ranged weapon selection is suddenly really really important. Beam sword will kill all unshielded enemies, except brutes, in one hit. Shielded enemies and brutes take two hits. Energy sword is totally ineffective against hunters. So for standard enemies, you need to pick a weapon that lets you get in versus them, and for brutes/shield enemies, you need something to take down their shield or weaken them, which is (slightly) different depending on whether it’s a brute or a shield. You can get weapons that overlap in these functions (plasma rifle, brute shot, sniper weapons), and ones that are more specialized in these functions (plasma pistol, battle rifle, covenant combine, rockets), and that works really great.
Charged shots with the plasma gun don’t seem to stun enemies anymore. In general there seems to be less stunning of stronger enemy types. Also grunts will run away less when their commanding elite is killed. There’s a more dynamic algorithm for this now, but it comes across as just inconsistent. Enemies still jump or move out of the way of explosives, which is nice, but it feels like I had to deal with that behavior a lot less in this game than the first one. Carrier flood no longer explode instantly when shot, instead laying down to explode like their attack when they get near you. They’re also less close to other flood, and serve less as enemy-shaped walking exploding barrels.
Dual Wielding is interesting, but not very useful with most allowed weapon combinations. I think the plasma pistol/headshot weapon combo is the most interesting, but most of the headshot capable weapons are forbidden from being dual wielded. Double plasma pistol is not very useful. Double Needler is actually great, because needler has been buffed in accuracy this game and the damage is about the same, so two needlers can usually get the target punctured relatively quickly, and since needler ammo is so common and needler is treated more like a human weapon than covenant weapon, being refillable, it breaks the typical ammo economy associated with power weapons. You can go double needler and keep picking up needler ammo frequently, without needing to choose to leave whatever ammo is in your current guns behind. Needlers still suck at a range though, so this combo isn’t good for everything, but it can take down brutes and elites really quickly. Additionally, needlers have normal reload time when dual wielding, while everything else takes twice as long. Dual wielding means you lose access to grenades, which is a big deal for their ability to crowd control, direct enemies, and fight asynchronously, so you’re giving up a major asset to essentially avoid weapon switch times between two specific weapons. You also can’t switch to your stored weapon at all while dual wielding. And Melee attacking forces you to drop your offhand gun, don’t really get why that’s the case. Given all the limitations on dual wielding, it’s extremely situational, which makes sense, they wanted to force situationality with most of their other weapons.
The arc on grenades is lower, and it has more starting force, making the throwing of grenades a bit more direct. Otherwise grenades remain largely similar in application to the first game. You can even still jump off explosives, though it’s not quite as effective.
The Arbiter levels aren’t honestly as bad as everyone makes them out to be. Some parts are definitely bad, the autoscrollers with flood everywhere in particular, but you have fairly nice level layouts otherwise, with a lot of opportunities to stealth past enemies using his cloak ability, especially in Uprising, which seems very deliberately designed for this purpose until the later half of the level. His cloak ability in general is pretty nice. It takes advantage of the way enemies track your last position, and has the reasonable downside of deactivating when you get hurt. So in order to use it during combat, you gotta get behind cover, then activate it, and loop around the enemy. It reminds me a little of Crysis Warhead’s Cloak. My only complaint is I think it could stand to be a bit more flexible in application. Right now you need to activate it for a certain period of time, and need to wait for the whole cooldown to finish. It would be a bit nicer as something like a stamina bar I think, allowing you to activate it and deactivate it at any time as long as you have juice.
I think that a lot of the levels in Halo 2 more closely live up to what Halo 1 wanted to accomplish with its levels, but it falls short of the scale and openness of levels in the original like, Halo, Attack on Control Room, and Silent Cartographer. That and because of the changed health system, there are many levels that would have worked fine in the original that now are much more limiting. Specifically those with close quarters encounters in tight hallways (High Charity) and wide open spaces (many parts of Outskirts)
The fight with the scarab is weird. It’s like there’s an infinite number of enemies below that keep spawning, and you need to push through into the lower level to stop them from spawning. I even clipping into the lower level via a glitch and saw there were no enemies down there, they just appeared at the top of the stairs. This is the only time in the game where there’s a spawner with a seemingly infinite number of enemies.
There’s a new enemy: Buggers. They can fly, so naturally they move around a lot. They only seem to shoot plasma pistols. And they have low health, so are easily eliminated. They don’t show up very often. There are Jackal Snipers too which carry no shields. They basically always knock your shields out on hit, then shoot again a little later to kill you, so either you kill them quickly or use cover to avoid dying. I think they would be more interesting if they were scripted to always miss a shot at the start of an encounter, so they can’t oneshot you before you’re aware of them and give you an idea of roughly where they are. They’re kind of like the ranged equivalent of poison headcrabs, except every enemy in this game is ranged, and those that aren’t will kill you instantly with melee. Hunters have a new energy beam weapon which is cool. They don’t seem to be able to boost you really far with melee attacks anymore. Also they no longer seem to have the weak spot on their back. Sniper shots from the front to their midsection can kill in one hit now, but they’re tricky to aim.
Brutes have a ton of health, no shields, and helmets to avoid getting one shotted from headshots. After a while of being onscreen, they decide to rush you down. Not the most interesting of enemies. They go into a berserk mode after a while, seemingly correlated with killing their squad, but frequently they just do it, and try to rush you down. I heard Brutes were added late in development and were unfinished, but left in anyway. They have no shields, so they’re more vulnerable to bullet weapons and explosives.
Elite Flood are more powerful flood with a shield. I don’t think it really fits the flood archetype. Also the flood encounters seem seriously toned down in this game, perhaps in part because of the new health system that doesn’t really tolerate enemies rushing or jumping at you, and the nerfs to the shotgun. There’s a lot less infection type flood when it shows up too. A modifier in the files shows .5 infection form on heroic, 1 on legendary and 0 on the other difficulties. Dunno if that’s correlated with anything. The infection form flood also deal damage per-frame, meaning they’re a lot more deadly than in the first game, making up for their lesser numbers, but I think that just makes them less interesting as an enemy. Not a very good tradeoff.
Once again, kind of the downside of the enemy designs is they all attack you in similar ways. They all have similar hitscan or fast projectile weapons. Hunters thankfully break up the monotony yet again, with interesting ranged and close range attacks. Their ranged beams can be walked into and out of, controlling space for a time, managing to be even more interesting than their slow projectile fuel rod guns in Halo 1. Grunts pick up the slack there by using the old fuel rod guns rarely. Similarly, the player’s weapons could stand to be more diverse.
Vehicles feel much better than in the first game, thanks Havok. They added boosting, the e-brake, sideways movement for banshees plus side rolls, proper implementation of wish direction for warthogs and tanks, and not locking your fucking view angle forwards as you move, so solid improvements all around. Can’t float banshees backwards anymore though, which is unfortunate. Also the rate of fire for tanks and missile weapons was increased, which rocks. Vehicles and vehicle driving sections are flat-out better, and perhaps the highlight of the game.
There’s a nerf to crouch height, which is a weird thing to change. You stand at .7 units tall, and when crouching you are .5 units, more than half height. So you can no longer crouch completely beneath chest high walls, or a lot of things you can peek over.
The boss fight with the heretic leader is probably the closest to a fully realized boss battle. Has some minor communication issues at the start, I honestly didn’t recognize that there were supposed to be 2 duplicates and 1 real guy for a little bit, and you’re supposed to target the real guy. Apart from that, it’s just too easy. He flies around and shoots at you, you’re given ample cover and the level has loops so you can ambush him from behind by taking advantage of your last known position. However he doesn’t have much health, so it’s fairly easy to just wreck him as long as you keep track of him.
The boss fight with Regret is alright. He has some nice weapons. The room has a nice level design with a wider space filled with cover and loops. He’s assisted by honor guard and grunts. It works. Actually attacking him is kind of lame, since they reused the hijacking thing from vehicles, and basically the fight consists of clearing out the enemies around him, boarding his throne, and punching him for a bit until he disappears and more guards spawn. Of course it’s possible they could creep up on you while you’re punching him, then you just get fucked for trying. Having him be more mobile and vulnerable to standard fire would be nicer, but they clearly didn’t think out their boss fights this game.
The final boss fight with tartarus is really bad. I can’t tell if his shields had health, or merely went down at regular intervals. Also there’s no signal indicating they’re about to go down, and the periods where they’re down are extremely brief. Also not helpful was how you could melee him, and he’d randomly decide to just murder you and there was nothing you could do. His recovery time on attacks was insane. Trying to punish him attacking another elite is useless.
Additional downgrades from the first game are the absent health kit, active camouflage, and overshield powerups. That kinda sucks. They were interesting in the parts where they showed up in the first game, and I suspect they’re absent to make the game seem less “gamey” and because health kits would basically be pointless. Other subtle touches are that grunts no longer get killed by melee hits from any direction while sleeping, and in general there’s no sections clearly set up to be stealth sections anymore, and you can only really effectively stealth as Arbiter.
They did away with fall damage, which frankly just makes sense given the verticality of many levels. Still no nonlinear levels like “Halo” from Halo 1 or exploration focused levels like The Silent Cartographer. Most levels are fairly directed. Avoids the pitfall of copypasted rooms that lack direction however, and I never got lost, even in the more repetitive rooms in Sacred Icon.
There are a lot more checkpoints, probably on account of the more continuous level design, and the stupid health system. And they can trigger mid-combat more frequently and easily. I’m not a fan of such frequent checkpoints, but given that you’re going to die a lot, and it’s not really going to be your fault, just bad luck, they can be helpful for avoiding frustration. The spawn system apparently works the same as halo 1, but I didn’t die as much, so I didn’t really notice it, except in a few rare choke points, like one of the last rooms in high charity where the doors are guarded by brutes and flood spawn all around you.
Doors in some rooms, such as at the end of high charity and the great journey, are locked until enemies are killed. There’s no visual indicator which ones are locked versus inaccessible, not very consistent with the rest of the series up to this point. Kind of seems to be this game’s theme, poor visual communication, and inconsistency with the rest of the series. I found the locked door in high charity to be irritating, since the flood swarm all around you, it’s close quarters, and not very much cover. Bad combination. The encounter at the end of The Great Journey is much better, having a clever under the floor tunnel which you can use to sneak around the gang of brutes you need to fight, even in the middle of combat. Or you can just use it as a chokepoint to pick them off one by one as they chase you down there.
Unfortunately I can’t comment on everything. I didn’t use any guides on the first playthrough (and don’t actually feel like replaying) and therefore did not find any of the hidden skulls, the scarab gun, or try out any fun glitches. I also couldn’t figure out how to board/hi-jack enemy vehicles, apparently you just hold use nearby them and don’t get squished. You can also throw a grenade as you board to hit the guy in the cockpit, which is neat. Apparently the only place this is significantly useful (as shown in the speedrun) is on a wraith right before the scarab fight, since you need to destroy the two wraiths before you’re allowed in. In all the vehicle missions you’re generally provided with a vehicle and they’re not really hard enough or checkpoint light enough that you’re likely to lose that vehicle. You’re even given spares in many cases. The skulls are pretty neat as far as secrets go, most of them increasing the difficulty, except for Envy, which permanently (until you close the game) gives Master Chief the arbiter’s active camo power instead of a flashlight. They’re also fairly hard to find, which is pretty cool. Explosion jumping still works from the first game, but no longer having invincible vehicles or overshields, or invincibility on leaving vehicles limits its effectiveness. Also it’s useful in less places, and the places where it is useful usually lead totally out of bounds where enemies can’t attack you rather than bridging shortcuts through active areas of contention. So kind of a letdown, but swordflying is absolutely crazy and broken, so whatever. I obviously did not play with swordflying, but it looks cool and that’s all I can really say. I love advanced movement.
Overall, Halo 2 is not as good as Halo CE and I don’t know if I really want to replay this one like I did with the first. It had slightly more enemy variety, more weapons, more and better controlling vehicles, but all the gunfights were worse, and entire categories of gunfights were really boring and tedious because of the changes to the health system. It had more consistent quality compared to the original’s more erratic peaks and valleys and stuck to its strengths in map design for firefights more frequently, but I feel like it didn’t raise the bar as significantly as it could have, failing to present larger nonlinear levels like the original had. If I had to assign a score, I’d go with a 6/10.
There’s no Halo 3 port to PC as of yet, so until that happens, my reviews will have to end here.