I came to the Halo franchise very late. I played the original game for the first time nearly two decades after its release, and now the sequel sixteen years after it came out in 2004. The advantage of leaving it so long is that my introduction has been through the updated anniversary editions that form part of the Master Chief Collection that was released for the Xbox One.
I was absolutely not a player of shooters until I met Bioware. Prior to picking up the first Mass Effect game, the only FPS I’d played was the admittedly great-for-the-time N64 Goldeneye game. One of the things I’ve come to terms with over the last year is that my taste in games has changed greatly from when I got my first console a little under two decades ago. I used to be big on platforming (weren’t we all?) and couldn’t stand first-person shooters. I didn’t really like ranged attacks at all. Now, however, platformers feel like a chore, and not a bearable one – think scrubbing the shower grouting, rather than taking the recycling out. Shooters, though, have become much more enjoyable to me, and the Halo games have been my introduction to the straightforward kind of FPS, as opposed to the heightened atmosphere and coolness of the Bioshock games.
While I like shooters now, I still don’t fall into the true target audience of the Halo games. There’s a definite sense in the first two games that we’re meant to use the characterless Master Chief as an avatar for our own hero fantasies, and my hero fantasies have never involved being a dude with no personality who goes around shooting aliens. (As a comparison—and me being me, of course it’s a Dragon Age 2 comparison—I would give almost anything to be as cool as Garrett Hawke.) I wish there was an opportunity to either learn more about who the Master Chief is, or else to define that for yourself. Because of this, I really appreciated the introduction of the Arbiter as a playable character in Halo 2. While I struggled with some gameplay aspects connected to this (from a distance, there’s no way of knowing who’s an enemy and who’s an ally), the Arbiter is definitely a more interesting protagonist than the faceless Master Chief.
As far as the other characters go, well, the storyline is a little cumbersome at times, but both Miranda Keyes and Johnson are likeable and well-portrayed by their voice actors, Julie Benz and David Scully. (Keith David does a good job as the Arbiter as well.) In the Anniversary edition, all of the characters look great, too. The humans are quite realistic (and Miranda actually looks like a commander instead of a cam girl) and all of the aliens have benefited from their HD glow-up. The scenery looks much prettier, too, although switching between the original and remastered versions reveals that sometimes this comes at the expense of atmosphere. The improved sound is excellent, demonstrated particularly well when the soundtrack heightens during several of the mass fight scenes.
I had two key issues with Halo 2. The first is quite straightforward: it’s very repetitive. If the game were as long as many modern games are, I would have struggled to finish it without pausing to play something else in between Halo sessions. Generally, a mission involves moving through an area filled with enemies and either killing all those enemies or else getting past them without being killed yourself. Obviously, that’s the basic outline of many games, but I don’t think Halo really goes beyond that outline. The cutscenes are mostly just at the beginning and end of each mission, and there’s not a lot of real variation between one mission and the next.
The second key problem is that it’s not always clear where you need to go and what you need to do. This game would benefit so much from a map function, or at least some kind of indicator on the radar of where you’re supposed to head next. A lot of my game time was spent wandering in circles trying to find a way out of a particular area. There’s also the fact that it’s a rare thing for the game to indicate whether you’re in a kill-everything area or a these-things-will-respawn-until-eternity area. For people who are playing for the sheer enjoyment of shooting stuff, this probably isn’t a big issue, but I’m more goal-driven in games, and I’d have really appreciated knowing when I could move on without going full Armageddon on everything first.
I personally enjoy gaming as a solitary pursuit, so I can’t speak at all about the multiplayer maps or experience in Halo 2. I do, however, appreciate that a game that has such a focus on the multiplayer aspect also has a strong single player campaign mode.
All up, I am enjoying finally getting to experience such an important gaming franchise, and I think it’s been a good primer on FPS gaming for me. I think a lot of my criticisms of both this game and the original relate a lot to who I am as a gamer, rather than to the quality of the game as a whole. And, ultimately, none of them stopped me playing, nor enjoying, Halo 2—they just meant that it won’t ever be a favourite, and that’s fine. I have enough games I play once a year as it is.