With the release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection this week, plenty of gamers are reacquainting themselves with some of the best first person-shooter games ever made. You probably already know that this year marks the 10-year anniversary of Halo 2, what with 343 Industries making that fact abundantly clear through its Anniversary remake of the title for The Master Chief Collection.
What has gone at least a little more under the radar is that 343 has hidden various pieces of lore tied to the upcoming Halo 5 within the new terminals implanted into the revamped Halo 2. It’s somewhat similar to what the developer did with Halo: Anniversary in the run up to Halo 4. Some of these additions focus on the Arbiter, one of the central characters in Halo 2‘s storyline and it has some fans speculating that the character could make a return in some form in Guardians.
All of this talk of Halo 2 got us thinking about the unique place of that particular title in franchise history. Halo 2 was beloved by fans for the multiplayer experience that single-handedly put Xbox Live into overdrive, but the title also caused several headaches and controversies for then-developer Bungie. To celebrate this week’s return of Spartan-117 to the games industry’s collective consciousness, we’re taking a look back at the development, story, and reception of Halo 2, one of the most important first-person shooters of all-time.
Can Bungie Do It Again?
Halo: Combat Evolved is well-recognized as the title that allowed the original Xbox to be successful. The game was responsible for more than 50 percent of all software sales for the Xbox 60 days after launch. The story was thrilling, the controls were precise, and Microsoft knew it had its killer app when the game hit 1 million copies sold in just five months after going to market. Given the title’s (and the console’s) immediate success, it’s not surprising that Microsoft executives quickly turned to Bungie with a request.
More, please. And step on it.
Bungie’s 60-person team was thrown back into all-out crunch mode from the very beginning of development. The Xbox was arguably more successful than it was expected to be by some industry observers back then, but the question still remained as to whether or not it would have any real staying power in the marketplace. Bungie had already made a great game, but now was tasked with turning the story into a great franchise, one that would prove that the Master Chief (and the Xbox) were here to stay.
A Well-Hidden Plot Twist
While making another great Master Chief game was important, the lead writers at Bungie also wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t just Spartan-117’s story alone. The team had a complex story it wanted to tell and chose to stick to its guns when it came time to make Halo 2. The game tossed players what is arguably one of the biggest curveballs in gaming history by introducing a second playable character to the franchise: the Arbiter.
The reason this new character was such a surprise was that Microsoft’s massive marketing campaign for the game focused solely on Spartan-117. Halo 2 was supposed to be more of the same great action players enjoyed in the first game, but now with online play over Xbox Live. Bungie stayed totally quiet about the plot twist. So when players got to the start of a new level a little bit into the game and suddenly found themselves controlling this weird looking alien dude, the collective WTF could be heard around the world. Players frequently switched back and forth between the Master Chief and the Covenant Elite who was punished for failing to prevent the first Halo’s destruction.
Players to this day have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Arbiter, with some appreciating how well Bungie pulled one over on us, while others continue to grumble about Master Chief getting pushed aside. This twist is not remembered as the biggest Halo 2 controversy however, likely because players forgot all about their Arbiter rage once they got to the end of the game.
Cut to Black
The final episode of HBO’s The Sopranos is notorious for the way it simply goes dark without resolving much of anything in the end. But Halo fans can tell you they had a similarly infuriating experience, years before the end of Tony Soprano.
As Halo 2 reaches its end game, the Arbiter partners up with Sgt. Major Avery Johnson to stop Delta Halo from going off. But as the game’s final cutscene comes to an end, players are shown the Master Chief arriving at Earth to finish the fight…Oh boy! we’re finally going to get to save our planet, like all of Microsoft’s promotional materials implied we would.
Annnnd, roll credits.
Um, what? Controllers were smashed and Bungie’s forums were overtaken by nerd rage. All of that build up, all of that hype… and now we have to wait another few years for Halo 3 before getting any kind of real conclusion? Ugh.
At the time, Bungie went into damage control mode and claimed that the cliffhanger was an artistic decision. That, of course, sounded like B.S. even back then, and Bungie would eventually come clean years later, stating that the rush to get the game out by its release date had caused them to cut a final level on Earth as the Master Chief.
Add the awful ending to an already short campaign, plus that awkward business with the Arbiter, and many Bungie fans were left with a bit of a bad taste in their mouths. The game still received high reviews and the game is looked back on now as a great entry in the franchise all things considered, but the first few months after release were rough for the developer. Good thing for Bungie then, that they were able to distract fans from the campaign mode with the first truly great Xbox Live title.
An Online Revolution
The original Halo: Combat Evolved shipped with a LAN Multiplayer mode that was popular with fans. But Bungie and Microsoft had much bigger plans for Halo 2. The original Xbox shipped in November 2001, and while Microsoft had shared details about its upcoming service for online gaming, it would be a full year before Xbox Live was launched. Xbox Live proved popular with Xbox fans, but the service didn’t really have its first truly great killer app until 2004 when Bungie got around to creating Halo 2‘s multiplayer.
Halo 2 is responsible for creating a paradigm system for matchmaking that has widely influenced how other online titles handle pairing players together. Halo 2‘s playlist system meant there was always a game available with little fuss and also included a skill-ranking system to put players of similar talent together.
The title was a massive success, with many players holding on to their original Xbox systems just for Halo 2‘s multiplayer even after the Xbox 360 released in 2005. There was even some grumbling when Microsoft killed the original Live in 2010, taking Halo 2 offline. Some players even kept their connections running for almost a month to prolong the experience. Thankfully, all of Halo 2‘s maps are back online for The Master Chief Collection.
Halo 2 is arguably one of the most hyped, controversial and influential FPS titles of all time. It’s no surprise that its remake in Halo: The Master Chief Collection appears to have officially started the hype train for Halo 5. Everyone’s favorite Spartan not named Leonidas might just be poised to return his glory days at the top of the FPS heap when Halo 5: Guardians ships next year.