Halo 2 Is Still the Best Game in the Series

We continue our review of Halo: The Master Chief Collection by examining what makes Halo 2 so great. It's the best game in the series.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our week-long review of Halo 2: Anniversary and the entire Master Chief Collection! Stay tuned for more throughout the week, as we give our final verdict on the game.

Halo 2 has always been my favorite game in Microsoft’s flagship series, one I played for endless hours while in high school (back when you had to invite people over to play multiplayer or co-op). The campaign has always been closest to my heart, filled with complex characters whose motives and intentions (and affiliations) aren’t known until the action-packed last act of the game. Two great warriors must sacrifice everything by game’s end in order to finish the fight against the Covenant. Better days loom over them just beyond the darkness of space. 

Back in 2004, Halo 2 had some very big shoes to fill. Following the blockbuster that was Halo: CE, it had the difficult task of one-upping its predecessor. Whether you think it did or didn’t, whether you think Halo 2 is the most vital entry in Halo canon or a pass, that’s irrelevant. 2014 is about celebrating the title, and what a grand reception it’s been thrown.

THE NECESSARY REVIEW STUFF

Really, I’m just giving you full disclosure here. Let’s get the review-y parts out of the way before I get back to telling you why this game is a masterpiece. Note that Halo 2: Anniversary won’t be receiving a numbered score from us. We’ll save that for the complete Master Chief Collection review on Friday.

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Like Halo: Anniversary before it, Halo 2: Anniversary is very decked out — a graphical upgrade, a completely re-recorded score, and re-done cinematics that perfectly complement the game’s great narrative. For all intents and purposes, Halo 2 is still the game you know and love — all the familiar things are still there, down to the original controller configuration (which I must admit is a bit too dated for me to use) — and that’s a good thing. 

Not to say Halo 2 doesn’t show its wrinkles at times. It absolutely does. Not only are the controls blasphemous to today’s standard shooting controls, but action sequences sometimes tend to move a little too slowly. Chief doesn’t always respond when you need him to and the AI is even worse. Actually, I’d completely forgotten just how bad the AI was back in 2004. Or was it just Halo? The point is that you never want to get caught in a firefight with Marine NPCs covering your back. They’ll be dead in seconds, and you’ll be left to fend for yourself pretty much the entire game. But that’s how you like it, right?

Halo 3 and 4 (especially the latter) were more of an update to gameplay than I remembered. Halo 2 sometimes feels stiff. Mobility wasn’t what it is now. I do recall feeling like Chief was ridiculously overpowered by the time the third installment rolled around. He was more versatile, faster, stronger. Basically untouchable. Beating that game on Heroic was no sweat. Halo 2, though, has given me a run for my money. 

After spending hours with Halo 2: Anniversary, I feel like perhaps today’s console FPS fanbase is too pampered. The dawn of Call of Duty did really streamline enemy AI to the point where it’s all become a shooting gallery. But the enemies in Halo 2 seem smart, swarming you at just the right moments or holding back and picking me off at long distance. The hierarchy in command is always apparent during a firefight. Shoot down the Elite and the Grunts lose their minds, running in circles like loose chicken until you’ve punched them to death. Not that THAT’S smart AI, but it is an example of the enemy AI reacting to you. It’s more than I can say about Rodriguez and Jenkins over there.

Maybe today’s lazy enemy AI is a symptom of bad storytelling and world-building. But the early Halo games, especially the first two, take a lot of time developing the Covenant from hierarchy to culture to religious beliefs — done so sparingly, in fact, with cues during gameplay and Cortana’s commentary. I understand why Bungie decided to once again use an AI companion to feed you little tidbits about the enemies in Destiny. Too bad it doesn’t work as well. 

Shooting your way through the devastated Cario streets is ten times more fun than any third world city level in today’s modern shooters. The streets are claustrophic and twist and turn like a maze. There are snipers at every turn, inconveniently placed where they’ll definitely get a good shot on you. The squads come in small packs and the stealth Elites appear for the killing blow once you’re overwhelmed by plasma fire. There’s no sitting in cover in such close quarters. 

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The same can be said of “Sacred Icon,” an Arbiter level that still scares the goddamn crap out of me. Every new area, most of which provide larger spaces to move around in than Cairo, is overrun by the Flood, who will chase you all the way back to the starting point of the level if it means they can feast on your flesh. You’ll notice that “Sacred Icon” isn’t unlike “The Library” in Halo: CE, but Bungie managed to make it a completely different experience. There are several drops in “Sacred Icon” that make you feel as if you’re plunging deeper into the fires of Flood-filled Hell. It’s done so incredibly well.

Ah, but I won’t review the already oft-reviewed. Everything that looked and felt great in 2004 looks and feels even better in 2014. It’s a fantastic remaster. And I haven’t even mentioned the score, which received a powerful re-recording — louder horns, louder violins, LOUDER GUITARS. There are even a couple additional melodies within the new and improved score that deliver their own epic moments. Of course, I think Halo 2 has one of the best video game scores ever made. 

Couple of technical things: besides stiff movement, there is the occasional graphical glitch. Nothing game-breaking, but you can tell that the source material has really been pushed to the graphical limit. Driving vehicles is still kind of the worst. There’s just something about doing everything with one joystick that really irks me. But you get used to it. It’s better than letting Michelle Rodriguez (she’s actually in this game as a spunky lady Marine) drive, though.

Oh, and the BIG ONE. You’ll notice that I haven’t even bothered mentioning the multiplayer component. While Halo 2‘s good old multiplayer is still my favorite in the pre-mastered series (I hope I just coined this term — does it even make sense?), the entire multiplayer experience in The Master Chief Collection is pretty broken. For this write-up, I abstained from trying to join a match playlist from the other games. Attempting to get a game in any of the Halo 2 playlists is a big disappointment. After this, I’ll try the other playlists, but I don’t expect any of the matchmaking to work. In case you haven’t heard, Microsoft knows about the matchmaking problem and is attempting to fix it. Sit tight. 

I did play a little bit of co-op with a Den of Geek pal, but it took us forever to setup online. Maybe I’ll update this once Halo 2: Anniversary‘s multiplayer is up and running. But probably not. I’ll be too busy blowing your head off in Team SWAT. 

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Yikes, now that you’ve gotten your review, maybe I can go back to talking why Halo 2 is the best installment in the series. 

“WHAT IF YOU MISS?”

“I won’t,” replies the Master Chief, as he prepares to launch himself into space with a giant Covenant bomb. I wonder if it was with that same confidence that Bungie plunged forward into the development of Halo 2…Like I said above, the developer had to follow-up on a video game phenomenon. So I’m sure they were panicking just a little in between popping fresh bottles of champagne. One thing is for sure, Bungie took much bigger risks with Halo 2. And that’s commendable in today’s formulaic play-it-safe approach to first-person shooters.

We won’t get too deep into the history of the development of Halo 2 (although that’s coming later in the week), but some facts deserve a mention: Bungie had more story and concepts than could fit in Halo: CE. Needless to say, after making Microsoft a bazillion dollars, they had the leeway and publisher support to get a bit more ambitious with the sequel.

And that’s how you get a tale of two cities, one half of the game starring an ultra good guy fighting for a militaristic society that wants to spread out into the universe and the other half starring a morally ambigious alien who goes on suicide missions in the name of a mislead theocratic government. Today, we know that both of these societies pretty much suck, but back then, we had just discovered the tip of the iceberg. 

By being able to glimpse at both sociopolitical environments, we’re able to really unfold the world of Halo. We learn that the rulers of the Covenant are not guided by the gods but by their own greed. By the beginning of the second act of the game — “The Arbiter” to “Quarantine Zone” — we know that the Covenant doesn’t know what the Halo rings are capable of, or rather that the Prophets won’t reveal the truth. Things get way grayer as the story progresses. Whether you like it or not, being in the Arbiter’s shoes allows you to take that first step to uncovering a living, breathing galaxy on par with the Star Wars universe. 

Bungie were bold enough to tell the story of both sides, and it pays off incredibly well. While Halo: CE‘s tale is in large part an adventure narrative, Halo 2 is something more. You could almost say that the real story in Halo 2 is about the Arbiter and his journey to reclaim his honor. A 15-level epic about one character’s place in his decaying society and that societies place in the universe.

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Most importantly, it answers the thematic questions posed in the beginning of the game. Does the Covenant deserve to go on the Great Journey? I think we all know the answer to that by game’s end. Is the Arbiter an honorable warrior fighting for the greater good? By the time the credits roll, indeed he is. The Arbiter and his society have changed. That is the narrative arc of Halo 2.

I understand that many fans of the first game didn’t like the Arbiter plot, preferring the adventure feel of the Master Chief portions of the game, and that’s fair. It didn’t help that the Brutes, the faction that would ultimately topple the established Covenant order, were severely rushed out during development. But it was a risk worth taking. A logical one for developers who are used to adapting high concept theopolitical science fiction into their games. I’d dare say that up to this point, (because Destiny doesn’t really have much of a narrative at the moment) Halo 2 is the biggest leap in narrative Bungie have ever performed. This is why it takes its place as the best game in the Halo series. 

After Halo 2, the next two main installments (sandwiched in the middle is the excellent and daring ODST) were your usual sci-fi shooter fare. Nothing was ever quite like this game again.

So do you think Bungie missed with Halo 2? Tell us in the comments!

For more Halo, check out our coverage hub.

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