PALGN is willing to bet that at least 90% of readers have scrolled to the end of this review before reading this sentence, to digest the numerical data at the bottom of the page. So, for those that are still here, let PALGN save you five seconds by confirming that no, Halo 2 is not to be the first 10 this site has ever awarded. It's not entirely false to say that the game came perilously close however, and our verdict on the Xbox Live component of the title - due in the next few days - could yet elevate it in PALGN's eyes. But as it is, Halo 2 is not a ten. Not quite.
It is, however, one of the most exceptional console games in the three years since the first Halo emerged, a tag that PALGN doesn't use lightly. It won't have the same impact on the imaginations of gamers that the first game had, for it simply doesn't boast the injection of fresh ideas that Halo did: the two-weapon rule, the superb implementation of grenades, the vehicular combat, the sprawling outdoor environments. Instead, everything you see in Halo 2 you'll probably have seen before in other games. But it's unlikely you'll have seen many games carry it all off with such aplomb.
Halo and welcome!
For a game funded by the World's richest corporation and developed by one of the most talented developers about, it will come as little surprise to hear the word PALGN most associates with Halo 2: polish. Everything on display here - the stunning cut-scenes, the vast worlds, the masterfully designed vehicles - reeks of care, attention, and a quite exorbitant budget. The first cut-scene you clap your eyes on is typical of what can be expected for the rest of the time spent in the singleplayer campaign. The graphical detail in the face of each marine is intense, light reflects flawlessly from each surface, and the voice-acting is every bit as refined as you'd expect. And, when the introductory movie is over (and mercifully, Halo 2 spares us from 20-minute long, Sons of Liberty-style cut-scenes), handling the controls feels like meeting an old family friend.
Those with just a few hours of experience of the first Halo will be instantly at home here, with Bungie wisely retaining what was already one of the most intelligent control interfaces in the console FPS genre. On-screen, things are a little different. There's new weapons of course, but there's also new ways of handling weapons. Now, players are given the option of combining two of the less powerful weapons at once (more destructive weapons, such as the shotgun and rocket launcher, can still only be used on their own). Dual-wielding weapons in this fashion is certainly satisfying and lends a significant tactical advantage in both singleplayer and multiplayer, but PALGN feels that sacrificing the chance to lob a quick, split-second perfect plasma grenade isn't worth the effort. Nevertheless, it's a thoughtful addition and - most importantly - it doesn't destroy the delicate balance that defined the range of weapons in Halo.
A number of weapons that appeared in the first game have been dropped for it's sequel, though their replacements aren't too adventurous. For example, whilst the first Halo's Pistol is no more, the Battle Rifle - the most common weapon in the game along with the SMG - is very similar, and even comes with the 2x zoom function that allowed for Pistol-sniping in the first Halo. Likewise, the SMG feels like a direct, slightly more lightweight replacement for the first Halo's Assault Rifle. Pleasingly, many of the weapons that have been retained - the Rocket Launcher, the Sniper Rifle, the Shotgun, the oh-so-brilliant Plasma Grenades - are as meaty to use as ever.
And although this is perhaps a predictable thing to admit, the pick of the new weapons is probably the Covenant Energy Sword, a devastating close-range weapon if ever PALGN saw one. In multiplayer, spotting your opponent with one provokes a genuine sense of panic as you try and gun them down before they corner you. Because if they reach you, it's simple: you're toast. Apart from the Energy Sword however, many of the new weapons feel a little uninspiring: the Fuel Rod Gun and Brute Shot grenade launcher feel very nice to use, but suffer from limited appearances in the singleplayer game, whilst the Covenant Carbine feels far too flimsy to ever be enjoyable. The Particle Beam - basically a Covenant version of the Sniper Rifle - suffers from the same limitations as it's human counterpart: great at long-range, but about as useful as waving a stick at your enemy when it comes to close-range combat.
The Covenant Energy Sword is truly deadly: get this close without a Sword of your own and you're likely to perish pretty quickly.
I like driving in my car
Whereas the overhaul of Halo's weapons feels rather conservative, the modifications made to the vehicles in Halo 2 are a little more radical. As Bungie has been keen to highlight in it's pre-release hype, Halo 2's vehicles are fully destructible, right down to the hubcaps, and the gradual deterioration of vehicles is depicted superbly, whether by the engine fires that consume Warthogs or the flurry of sparks and smoke that lick away at the paint job of your depleted Covenant Banshee. There's few sights as thrilling (particularly in the multiplayer game) as seeing your enemies being thrown from an exploding Warthog, and Bungie should be applauded on taking the vehicles of Halo (which were already superbly implemented) and advancing this aspect of the game so impressively.
The updated handling has benefited both the Ghost and the Banshee no end, with the former now a nippy and highly mobile means of causing havoc, as opposed to the sluggish, awkward version that was seen in Halo. On the human side, the Warthog feels similar to the first game, though it's far less prone now to bouncing all over the place or flipping spectacularly. It comes in two flavours as well, with either a Gauss cannon or a standard machine gun strapped onto the back, though PALGN found the machine gun more fun to use, due to the sluggish fire rate and wayward aim of the more explosive Gauss cannon. The Scorpion tank returns, and is the same awesome piece of combat machinery that imbued a genuine feeling of empowerment when driven in Halo. A Covenant version, the Shadow, has been added and feels similarly destructive.
And before PALGN moves on, it would be rude not to mention the hijacking aspect of the game. It's a surprisingly easy manouvre to execute in singleplayer, but really comes into it's own in the multiplayer game, where nabbing an enemy's Ghost before turning it's lasers on them has to rank as one of PALGN's very favourite videogame moments of this generation. Warthogs, Banshees and either the Scorpion or Shadow tanks are all susceptible to being swiped with carefully-timed presses of the X button, and there's even an option of popping a grenade in the occupied hatch of the Scorpion or Shadow you just mounted before legging it.
If there was one bugbear PALGN had about this otherwise superb part of the title, it would be that there's no counter-move to activate when you are hijacked, resulting in the nasty feeling of being totally out of control of proceedings as you're wrenched from your vehicle. Nevertheless, this is nitpicking, for Halo 2 does vehicles better than any other FPS ever seen. Infact, PALGN will happily say it: Halo 2 does vehicles better than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Friends not required...
Few people would argue that Halo was (despite the menagerie of brilliant moments in the singleplayer campaign mode) primarily a multiplayer experience. Inevitably, the same can be said about Halo 2, but that doesn't mean PALGN shouldn't acknowledge what a superb dollop of sci-fi entertainment Bungie has served up in Halo 2's one-player mode. Yes, the art design is still a tad clichÃ©d in places, much like the first game, but what's on offer here (after a deeply underwhelming introduction that is) demonstrates that Bungie have learnt a few lessons in terms of level design. There's two or three levels midway through the game where the levels become rather samey, but thanks to some stellar later levels Bungie get away with it - just. And thankfully, not one of the 15 levels on offer comes close to replicating the sheer monotony of the eternally dull Library from Halo.
Pleasingly, PALGN can think of a good five or six of Halo 2's levels that retain the open, chaotic battlefield feel of the original. Often, just sitting back and watching the conflicts is a joy. Whether it's a group of marines combining to take down a Covenant Elite then congratulating each other with whoops of delight, or the sight of a pair of Hunters crashing through a pile of disused crates and heading full steam towards a fully-occupied Warthog, the battles in Halo 2 are hugely engaging, and contribute hugely to forming the game's atmosphere. In many ways, the player is made to feel like one small cog in a far more expansive conflict, unquestionably one of the first Halo's most impressive achievements.
Most of this is thanks to some robustly improved AI: as well as the fact that there's more marines and Covenant on-screen now than in the first game (though the increase is smaller than you'd think - this isn't quite Rome: Total War just yet), the behaviour of both humans and Covenant is even more convincing. Marines press up against walls before spinning out, shooting, then pressing back against the wall, and Covenant are now even quicker to dive out of the way of grenades. And there's the seemingly endless, incidental chatter of the marines, who seem to have learnt a few thousand extra lines since the first Halo - it's difficult not to feel some small sense of camaraderie with your digital allies.
The story helps as well of course, and provides a sturdy backbone to proceedings, though PALGN fancies Bungie may have introduced a twist too many in parts. Obviously, many of these turns in the story have already been leaked onto the internet, but there is one big twist that has remained uncovered: PALGN will let readers see that one for themselves, though will admit now that it found the game's ending rather disappointing. Those after a good yarn won't feel let down though - the story is another area which has been pumped up considerably from the first game, and another sign of the expense lavished on Halo 2.
Zanzibar, the multiplayer level exhibited in all of Halo 2's pre-release showings, is arguably the finest map on offer
...but they do help
Having said all that of course, there's little doubt where most gamers will be spending the bulk of their time. And as expected, Halo 2's multiplayer is likely to steal just as many hours as the first game did. Indeed, Halo 2 as a whole is a package heavily centred around multiplayer deathmatches: players are invited to sign in to Xbox Live as soon as they reach the main menu screen, and the options now available in refining individual player profiles - the colour of armour, insignias and other forms of customisation - demonstrate that this is the title Microsoft has pinned it's hopes on when it comes to selling Xbox Live to a more mainstream audience. It's even possible to pause the game whilst playing the singleplayer Campaign mode and press Y to check your Friends list.
It will come as little surprise to learn that the multiplayer game is strides ahead of most other titles, though it's pleasing to report that it also improves on Halo's own superbly refined multiplayer mode. This is largely due to some excellent map design, with pre-release showcase favourite Zanzibar amongst the best on offer. A modified version of Halo's Blood Gulch is also amongst the highlights, though there's barely any map PALGN didn't thoroughly enjoy. There are no Chiron TL34's here: each and every map has it's own nooks and crannies, the hotspots that reward ambush tactics. There's fewer power-ups as well, which levels things out a little.
Graphical detail has received a boost in the multiplayer arenas also, with many maps boasting atmospheric weather effects such as snow or rain, and with numerous maps packed full of moving sections (again, Zanzibar is the best example of this) or turret guns to interact with. Like the singleplayer mode, Halo 2's multiplayer provides an evolved, beefier version of Halo's deathmatches, packed with options and sub-options. It provides the leap over the first game that Perfect Dark's multiplayer mode made over GoldenEye, only without the frame-rate issues that sequel suffered from. Indeed, PALGN has already experienced six- and eight-player system link matches, and the lack of slowdown or missing frames, even in the midst of hectic battles, is a considerable relief.
So that's Halo 2. Big, bold, and lavish. Make no mistake: this is a game of truly mammoth proportions, one that will steal hours from lives everywhere. It's an awesome example of what can be achieved with enough time, talent and money. It has it's flaws - the occasional indentikit corridor sections, the odd weak weapon. But as a whole package, little has come close on any console in the last three years - it's a game that deserves every superlative attached to it, a title so well-rounded and technically superior that it demands to be played. Which begs the question: why are you still reading?
* It should be clarified that this review doesn't contain a verdict on the much-hyped Xbox Live component of the game - for that, expect a review of how the game plays online later this week.