Halo 2 means a great many things to many different people, and given the impending release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Halo 2: Anniversary, we had to take a look at it for this week's Blast From The Past. For some, Halo 2 was the ultimate home console multiplayer shooter experience, the Xbox Live poster boy that still kicks a sizeable amount of posterior today due to its peerless balance and superb maps. For Bungie it was a chance to flesh out their universe, turning a premise into a fully-fledged canon. For Microsoft it was a triumphant last hurrah that proved their first foray into home consoles was a success.
For me, though, it's something more special. Halo 2 released shortly after the biggest breakup of my life and my parents' divorce, providing the perfect co-op distraction for my sister and I to bond once I'd returned from university. It kept us sane, and it will always have a special place in my heart.
Unfortunately, I also can't deny that Halo 2 has the dubious distinction of being the only mediocre -- perhaps even genuinely bad -- Halo campaign. Having dipped back into the Xbox original to prepare for the Master Chief Collection, I'd like to dissect the inconsistent singleplayer experience to work out exactly why it didn't pass muster... and why that didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.
To be clear: the multiplayer was and is excellent. That isn't in doubt or dispute. Though we personally enjoyed the additional metagame elements of Halo 3 onwards, Halo 2's sensational map design and perfectly-balanced skill ceiling set a gold standard.
A third of the campaign was also solid gold! Following an epic opening in which we gave the Covenant back their bomb, we descended to Earth's surface to engage in tense urban warfare, epic Warthog assaults, convoy destruction, Scorpion bridge shenanigans and finally leaping onto the back of a marauding Scarab to murder its crew. Metropolis is by far one of the best levels in the entire series, while a quick jaunt to Delta Halo resulted in a brutal offensive followed by beating the Prophet Of Regret to death at his moment of victory. Dual wielding and beating tanks to shreds with bare fists were the mechanical cherries on the cake. Master Chief's early-to-mid-game stages were undeniably superb, and should have been the foundation for a truly superior Halo title.
That didn't happen, because Halo 2 was riddled with problems.
First off: The Arbiter. While adding a second playable character allowed Bungie to flesh out The Covenant, they failed to do anything particularly interesting with him. Once the novelty of stealth camouflage wore off, a matter of about half an hour, we spent half the game wishing that we back following the main plotline with Master Chief rather than marking time until the obvious betrayal. What's worse, though, is that all but one of the Arbiter's levels were poorly-designed, confusingly laid-out, drab in colour and entirely based on corridor crawling against Flood and Brutes - the two most tedious enemies in the entire game. Humans? Nope. Quarantine Zone was the exception, but every other Arbiter stage was forgettable, linear and frankly dull.
Oh yes, the Brutes. Elites are by far the most interesting, dynamic and engaging enemy to fight in the entire franchise, but The Great Schism eventually took them off the table. Their replacements were big doughy bullet sponges that were nasty to look at (think angry potato sacks crossed with Sasquatch) and boring to engage. Halo 3 managed to make Brutes interesting with pack AI, satisfying destroyable armour and unique weapons, but in Halo 2 they were shockingly poor.
At least all was forgiven when the big bad guy turned out to be an idiotic rhyming cauliflower, while the final boss was a horrible time-sink who chased you around a tiny arena while Sergeant Johnson constantly refused to bring its shields down with his beam rifle. Oh gawd, the ending. Not only was the boss battle one of the worst ever made, but so were the closing cutscenes, resulting in a nasty cliffhanger that smacked of rushed development and a missing level. If you thought Mass Effect 3 was bad, Halo 2's ending stunk to high heaven. Or should that be High Charity?
"Finishing this fight." Don't even... I can't... seriously, thank Goodness Halo 3 was so effortlessly excellent.
Yes, that rushed development hurt Halo 2 badly. Desperate to release before the lifespan of the original Xbox was up, corners were cut and opportunities were wasted. Squandering the huge potential of Metropolis, Regret and Delta Halo, the convoluted campaign was mediocre by any standards, not just Halo standards.
But no-one can deny that Halo 2 made an enormous impact on the industry. Perhaps more than any other game in the series.
Partly this is due to Halo 2's most controversial new mechanic: regenerating health. Yes, people blame Call Of Duty for the FPS genre's woes these days, but Halo 2 was the first game that successfully championed the mechanic, and also cemented the two-weapon limit for starters. The thing about the games industry, you see, is that they only copy the easiest and most surface-level features, while refusing to emulate the massive open levels and organic battles from Combat Evolved.
And, of course, there's the multiplayer! Let's not forget the multiplayer. Halo 2 released as one of the first genuinely fully-featured online multiplayer home console FPS titles (though I'm still a Mechassault aficionado), and also managed to be an absolute corker. It was one of the first big games to get people excited enough to try connecting their consoles to the internet and pay a monthly subscription, directly leading to the success of the online services we know today.
Halo 2 was deeply flawed, then, but also incredibly important... and should be treated with both the respect and criticism it deserves. Halo: The Master Chief Edition is out next week, and soon I'll be able to tell you how the new cutscenes, terminals, graphical overhaul and musical score affect the experience.