According to the January Issue of Edge, 2004 has to be considered the best year for videogaming ever. Half Life 2 seemed to have reached so high mark that I doubted anything could come close. Anyway I had to reconsider this after starting playing Halo 2. First I have to say that I didn’t play Halo 1. Yes I know, at this point some friends from Redmond would start making some hostile screaming, but that is. I wasn’t able to overcome the frustration of playing an FPS with the analogue stick instead of the mouse (as FPS are meant to be played) in the first level.
I get back to Halo 2 thank to the suggestion of my friend Paggio who described it as a masterpiece (along with Prince of Persia 2). And I should add that some TV commercials made their job clearing up all my doubts.
Halo 2 is truly spectacular game, in the Hollywood sense. Be prepared for fast action, humor and great cut-scenes. Maybe it’s the first time I see some cut-scenes with a real movie taste, where huge, armored space ships moves and acts as you would expect and not like a detailed, but dummy and empty geometric model.
I really appreciate some clever tricks, for example most of the FPS available on console allows you to reverse the Y-axis of the analogue stick. The net result I got has always been I moved the stick the wrong direction and never understood which was my natural movement (of course the natural movement for this kind of game is the one of moving a mouse). Halo 2 avoids all this pain by an in-game trick. Right at the start of the first level you are given a new armored suite and a pal ask you to calibrate the new suite, by looking at the lit one from 4 lights cleverly placed up, down, left and right. In this way the program is able to detect your natural movement and configure consequently.
So you start playing. The saga is intriguing, maybe I’m loosing something since I can’t always play with a loud volume and I didn’t listen carefully to all dialogues. Anyway objectives are pretty clear.
Another smart move from bungie is the objective aid. After a while that the game detects the player is not making any progress in the right direction a voice comes to help. If the player is still wandering after a while, then a direction is graphically marked on the display hinting you the right door/direction to take to accomplish the goal.
I found this a very good compromise since it doesn’t spoil anything to the hardcore gamer, but helps first softly, then more decisively the “non professional” player saving her/him some frustration (or worse abandoning the game because too difficult).
From the gameplay point of view I think Halo 2 is good and robust, but lacking of ‘adventure’ taste. I.e. in Half Life 2 (the comparison is unavoidable) the player has to operate some traps in order to advance, providing an extra game play level other than just gunning everything alive (and not, when dealing with zombies). Halo 2 is a plain shooter, extra polished and very entertaining, but it is just that – combat evolved.
Talking about zombies I’ve found some … er… citations of Half Life 2. There are some levels with mutants … really really close to the one found by Gordon Freeman, there are even mutants carrying load of infecting blobs.
From the technical point of view Halo 2 is for sure a masterpiece, first of all it loads just once, after that all levels are streamed from the disc while playing. During the cut-scene the graphic engine enters a super detailed mode that for sure makes the XBox sweat, but the look is great. Halo 2 engine is taking the XBox hardware to its limits, you’ll notice in some occasions that the scene is … built, first undetailed models are shown and in a few frames all the wrapping arrives. Apart from this I never notice severe frame drop in the game play, despite the number of enemies, graphical effects or the huge dimension of the set.
So far so good, what isn’t so good? It happened a couple of time I found what I would call A-class bugs, falling forever below the ground, or missing the time to enter a door to find it closed and being blocked in an hangar. Anyway these problems are not so annoying, first they seldom happen, and the checkpoint save is very fine grained, so restarting from the last checkpoint won’t waste to much time.
Talking about checkpoints, it is a very natural way of saving, when you are done, you just select save & quit from the in-game menu, and the next time you’ll restart from the last checkpoint you reached. This is so natural and the save&quit happens so little, that a couple of times I forget about it and I had to replay quite large sections of the game.
Keeping on the comparison between Half Life 2 and Halo 2, in this game too you are provided, sometime, with a team of warriors helping you, what is different from HL2, is that now they are smart. First of all they never get into you preventing from doing what you intend to do. They are also smart enough to not ruining your stealth entrance in room. They keep themself quite always out of your line of fire.
Halo 2 is for sure a game to play, at least as much as Half Life 2 was. Maybe 2004 wasn’t the best year ever for videogames, but H2 and HL2 are two of the best games ever, my word.