Of all the games on show at Game Stars Live today, there was only ever going to be one that stood out. And although it may have taken several lukewarm hotel coffees and two solid hours of queuing, finally PALGN can say it has experienced Halo 2.
For those not in the loop, the appearance of Bungie's game today in London represented the first time that members of the PAL public had been let loose on the sequel to what is (still) the Xbox's best-selling title. And if the gigantic queues of sweaty, irate Londoners waiting to sample the title were anything to go by, the wait had been long enough for many.
The area dedicated to the game was an event in itself almost: palm trees and gravel adorned the pathways where literally hundreds of gamers waited their turn, whilst a large projection screen overlooking the queues showed off the E3 2004 multiplayer demonstration again and again. And again. The game itself was housed in a silver, futuristic-looking military 'bunker', away from the prying eyes of those waiting in line, a rather cruel decision. Once inside however, PALGN wasn't disappointed. The multiplayer map used for the showing here was 'Zanzibar', the same map that was shown off to such grand effect at May's E3 event in LA, with two teams of five players going head-to-head.
The ten-player limit was unexpected (and meant the queues inched along at a snail's pace), but then maybe it wasn't that surprising: after all, the odd case of slowdown reared it's head in particularly hectic moments of the battle, so perhaps Bungie decided not to risk showing a (even more jittery?) sixteen-player mode. Certainly, PALGN can't recall seeing slowdown in the first Halo's LAN matches. Then again, it's also worth noting here that the game (according to the announcement made before each deathmatch started) is supposedly only 80% complete, leaving enough time for the frame-rate to be tweaked. And besides, any slowdown was simply too minimal to seriously detract from the overall experience.
Which, by the way, is every bit as thrilling and visceral as the first game. With so many players crammed onto the Zanzibar map, the battle quickly shifted to the beach area at the edge of the map, and the overcrowded nature of the experience meant that standing still for more than four or five seconds was an effective way of inviting a quick death. Despite the flying bullets and the packed battlefield, PALGN did succeed in commandeering one of the new warthogs, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the new damage models Bungie discussed in their E3 demonstration (remember that the warthogs in the original game were basically invincible) were well-implemented. Driving into a wayward Ghost resulted in a visible dip in the handling of the vehicle, before an opposition rocket arrived to smash PALGN's ride to smithereens, the wheels flying off the sides of the vehicle's chassis and coming to rest on the beach.
It's not only the improved physics that catch the eye however - there's been some noteworthy leaps in the graphics department. The most immediately noticeable difference is in the range and depth of colours used. Whilst certain maps in the original Halo could be accused of being a little drab, Zanzibar's colours were far richer and more varied. The textures were also considerably sharper, and whilst not quite matching the exquisite standard seen in last month's ridiculously beautiful The Chronicles of Riddick, it's difficult to find complaints. The water effects deserve a special mention of their own - if Halo's water was a little too blue and clear for it's own good, the water that lapped against the shores of Zanzibar was murky, frothy and utterly convincing.
There were graphical improvements elsewhere. For example, whereas in the first game deceased bodies and weapons would subtly disappear from the arena once a certain number had accumulated, here there seemed no limit. The result was a beach strewn - and PALGN means strewn - with dozens of bodies, weapons, blood and the charred remains of vehicles. It seems like a trivial detail to mention, but overlooking a battlefield littered with such an enormous amount of clutter is far more satisfying than seeing bodies and weapons slowly fade from view before your eyes.
Finally, the weapons (or those that PALGN had the chance to try out - sadly, the Covenant energy sword was a popular choice and thus never available) were each satisfying, though only further play will allow us to accurately judge whether or not the range of firearms is as well-balanced as those seen in the first game. Needless to say however, dual-wielding is a lot of fun, and pitching a successful grenade is as enjoyable as it ever was.
And that's it for now. Judging from today's all-too-brief session, Bungie look on course to recreate a FPS multiplayer experience that can rival (and possibly supercede) anything the first Halo has to offer. An equally polished singleplayer adventure would complete what is already looking like a heady, brilliant package. Cross those fingers.
To view some frankly colossal screens of multiplayer Halo 2 in action, clicketh here.