Halo 2: Anniversary Review

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I think it’s obvious that the original Halo was successful. It’s a sci-fi first-person shooter with an interesting premise, fun combat, and excellent enemy AI, at least when talking about the Covenant. Halo ended up spawning several sequels, fleshing out its universe and characters even further, and Master Chief would go on to become one of gaming’s most famous icons. I’ll never forget the day Halo 2 came out. I was a sophomore in high school and it was all anybody was talking about a week or so prior to its release. When the day finally came, I got on the bus and it was mostly empty. Anybody who had an Xbox just stayed home to play Halo 2 and all I can remember thinking was that my parents would never let that fly and would kill me I skipped a day of school just to play a game. I didn’t have an Xbox so I missed out but GTA San Andreas released for the PlayStation 2 a week prior and that pretty much consumed my time for the next several years anyway. Still, if I had an Xbox, I would have definitely been all over Halo 2. Developed by Bungie and published by Microsoft Game Studios, Halo 2 was released in November, 2004 for the Xbox and it was extremely hyped before release. It was also the first game in the series to include multiplayer over Xbox Live. It was eventually ported to PC in 2007. For this review, I played Halo 2: Anniversary which is part of the Master Chief Collection for Xbox One, released in November, 2014. In addition to playing through the game solo, I also teamed up with Jeremy for a local co-op playthrough. To be clear, I played through the game solo on an Xbox One X and we played through it cooperatively on a standard Xbox One. Also, this review was completed before The Master Chief Collection received any Xbox One X enhancements.

Halo 2’s story takes place after both the first game and the novel Halo: First Strike which I’ve never read. As opposed to the previous game, you get to play as two characters here and you also get to see the inner workings of the Covenant, the primary enemy faction of the original trilogy. The story opens with Master Chief and Sergeant Johnson being commended for their actions on Halo. Shortly afterward, the Covenant attacks the UNSC fleet and begins to invade Earth. They assault the city of New Mombasa, Kenya, and Master Chief is sent in to kill one of the Covenant leaders, the High Prophet of Regret, spearheading the assault. Sooner or later, the UNSC discover another Halo ring, realize the danger it represents, and set out to stop the Covenant from activating it. The other side of the story follows an Elite stripped of his rank for his failure to safeguard the Halo ring in the first game. He’s branded as a heretic but the three High Prophets grant him the honored position of Arbiter. Evidently, Arbiters are usually sent on suicide missions that both bring the Covenant closer to the Great Journey and restore their honor among society. What the Prophets don’t tell the Covenant society is that the Great Journey involves activating the Halo rings which wipes out all sentient life in the galaxy. As explained in the first game, the rings were designed by the Forerunners as weapons to combat The Flood. The Arbiter is first sent on a mission to kill a rogue Elite heretic who disbanded from the Covenant. After that, he’s sent to find Halo’s Index. At this point, the Brutes, a new Covenant species introduced here, become the new protectors of the Prophets and are ordered to wipe out the Elites which results in a Covenant civil war. I always thought the civil war aspect was really cool and it’s fun to watch the two groups battle it out late in the game. The story actually ends on a cliffhanger which doesn’t really mean much now since we all know, or can easily look up, what happens but in 2004, this was definitely a bummer. In my opinion, most of the voice work is really well done and there’s an ensemble cast of voice talent here including Steve Downes and Jen Taylor who reprise their roles as Master Chief and Cortana, respectively, Keith David as Arbiter, Michael Wincott as the Prophet of Truth, Julie Benz as Miranda Keyes, Kevin Michael Richardson as Tartarus, and Ron Perlman as Lord Hood. One of my favorite characters in the series is the Elite commander, Rtas ‘Vadum and I like him mainly because of his personality and the voice work by Robert Davi. Miguel Ferrer lends his voice to the rogue Elite heretic and I’d like to give a shout out to David Cross who provides the voice for many of the Marines that accompany the Chief during combat. Some of his lines are downright hilarious. Overall, I thought the story was pretty good and enjoyed how it explores the Covenant’s society and hierarchy.

Halo 2 includes four difficulty modes – Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary – and, just like every other game in The Master Chief Collection, skulls are present here, too. I believe the original Halo 2 did contain skulls which were extremely well hidden, some were exclusive to Legendary, and were immediately activated upon picking them up and could not be turned off unless you exit the game. I don’t really remember much about them but a whole set of skulls are already unlocked in The Master Chief Collection and they act as gameplay modifiers which can either make the game harder or easier. The scoring system, which is apparent for each game in the collection, also returns and some skulls are considered non-scoring which means they disable any achievements related to scores. The other skulls, which usually make the game more challenging, increase your score multiplier. The skulls add plenty of replay value to the campaign which is a plus and many of them will provide a significant challenge that downright borders on masochism. Once again, I’m going to be completely transparent. We used the infinite ammo skull for our co-op playthrough and I also used it for my solo playthrough. Although, the infinite ammo skull doesn’t actually provide infinite ammunition for all weapons which does come as a surprise. For example, the plasma weapons, beam rifle, sentinel beam, and energy sword all drain ammo despite the skull being active. Besides the skulls, the only other things to look out for within the environments are terminals which have been added to the Anniversary edition. From what I read, they are supposed to, or did, provide information on Halo 5 but in our experience they just took us to the Xbox Store, specifically the page to download the Halo Channel app. They also provide achievements upon discovery so there’s that. Jeremy and I played through the game on Legendary and I played through it solo on Normal and there’s a very good reason for that. First of all, I’ve beaten the original game a few times before, and at least once with Jeremy, and I usually play through these games on Legendary but I forgot just how infuriating the Legendary difficulty is in this game. In co-op, when one of you dies, both of you are forced to respawn at the last checkpoint. We thought that was a glitch at first but Jeremy fired up the original Xbox game and discovered it’s an actual thing exclusive to the Legendary difficulty. This is a very odd but significant design choice that can really change how you play. To be clear, we were not fans of this. I guess I blocked out my memories of my time playing through this on Legendary because after we beat it, we were both relieved and frustrated. I would say the enemy AI is on the same level as the AI in the first game, however, many areas just turned into frustrating cases of trial-and-error gameplay, specifically any areas with sniping Jackals. They can kill you immediately with one shot. This is very bad design, at least in a game like this. This game is not realistic nor is it a simulation of any kind, and being insta-killed by enemies you can’t even see is just not fun. Who enjoys constantly respawning because you popped your head out from cover and were immediately blown away by a shot you couldn’t even see coming? I certainly don’t find that enjoyable. I understand Legendary is supposed to be hard but these sniper sections aren’t really hard, they’re just tedious. The Jackals can get a shot off before you can even see them. Hell, sometimes it looks as if they’ll get a shot off before they even see you. It’s insane. It’s not fun. And it boils down to memorization which is just annoying. After going through this, that’s when I made the decision to play through the campaign on Normal for my solo experience. When I first played through the trilogy way back when, I played through the games on Heroic first and then re-played them at some point on Legendary. For the newer games, I just immediately jump to Legendary. I actually never played through Halo 2 on Normal before and didn’t realize how much easier it would be, I basically breezed through it. But I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with the frustration again.

Many of the weapons from the original game make a return here including the shotgun, sniper rifle, plasma pistol, plasma rifle, needler, frag and plasma grenades. The rocket launcher can now actually lock-on to vehicles, turrets, and even Sentinel Enforcers. The assault rifle does not make a return which is a real shame considering it’s one of my favorite weapons in the series. There’s a new pistol here which I think looks a lot cooler than the one seen in the first game but it’s far less effective. You can no longer zoom and fire it simultaneously. The other two new UNSC weapons include the battle rifle which fires in bursts and basically replaces the assault rifle as the Chief’s primary weapon and the other is the SMG. The Covenant arsenal includes several new weapons including the Covenant Carbine which is similar to the battle rifle but is a single shot weapon. The Brute Shot is like a grenade launcher. The Beam Rifle is the Covenant equivalent to a sniper rifle and the Fuel Rod Cannon is like a Covenant rocket launcher but the projectiles slightly arch and it can not lock-on to anything. The Energy Sword does makes a return and this time you can wield it and, yes, it can kill many enemies in one strike but most of the tougher enemy types can take two, sometimes even three strikes to take down. Of course, enemies wielding the sword can still kill you instantly with just one strike. Another new weapon is the Sentinel Beam which I believe is dropped from fallen Sentinel Drones and is kind of like a laser weapon that can drain shields and is perfect against Flood enemies. One of the newest features in Halo 2 is the ability to dual wield weapons. You can only dual wield most of the smaller weapons like two plasma rifles, a pistol and SMG, needler and plasma pistol, and other combinations like that. However, you should know that when you dual wield, you may be more deadly but you’re also sacrificing accuracy in favor of power.

Master Chief and Arbiter play almost exactly the same. This time around, there is no health but both characters have an energy shield that drains when they take damage. If it drains completely and they get attacked, they die. Basically, the energy shield is your health. I prefer this to the shield and health bar combination in the previous game and it removes the need to seek out medkits. As soon as you’re given control of the Chief, you learn that his previous armor was basically destroyed during the events of the first game so it was replaced with the Mark VI suit. Both characters can walk, run, crouch, jump, man turrets, dual wield weapons, and have access to a motion tracker which is visible on the HUD that allows them to see nearby enemies and allies. The only significant difference between the two characters is that Master Chief can toggle on and off a flashlight at any time during gameplay and the Arbiter can activate active camouflage, which means he can turn invisible for a brief time which is great for sneaking up on enemies. Based on the dialogue heard during gameplay, the Arbiter’s armor is older than the current Elite armor which is the explanation for why he can’t remain invisible indefinitely. Now there are no equipment pick ups in the campaign. Some enemies do utilize active camouflage and I believe the original multiplayer included the overshield and active camouflage pickups. This time around vehicles in the game can be hijacked, even sabotaged. For example, you can kick an enemy out of a ghost to take it over or hop on the back of a Wraith and plant grenades inside it to blow it up. It can make for some interesting scenarios because you don’t necessarily have to run away if an enemy vehicle is coming straight at you. However, they can still run you down if you’re not careful. Classic vehicles like the Warthog, Ghost, Banshee, Tank, and Wraith all make a return and some of them include new additions. Warthogs can now powerslide and some of them come with what looks like a rear-mounted gauss cannon instead of a turret. Banshees can now strafe, do “tricks” which means flip and perform barrel rolls, and they can even boost for more speed. Ghosts can also boost which can be helpful when you need to make a quick getaway. You can now pilot Wraiths which can fire massive plasma mortars, have a turret at the top, and can boost for a burst of speed. Halo 2 also includes a new Covenant vehicle called the Spectre. It’s a ground vehicle with a rear-mounted plasma turret. All vehicles still control as they did in the first game where the camera determines your direction. The overall handling of the vehicles was tuned for the better in my opinion and the Warthog doesn’t slide around as much which I’m very grateful for. You can still crash vehicles causing them to flip over, which forces you out, and is annoying but it happened to us far less often here compared to the first game.

Once again, the two primary factions you’ll be up against are the Covenant and, sadly, The Flood. Grunts, Elites, Jackals, and Hunters all return and basically function the same as they did in the first game. All of the Covenant enemies show some degree of intelligence. They’ll shoot at you, throw grenades, man turrets, try and suppress you, they can even flank you if you’re not careful. No encounter will ever play out the same. Enemy rankings are prevalent here and their ranks are determined by their armor color. Different ranks determines how much damage they can take but sometimes it’s just their appearance like in the case of Honor Guards which can actually be taken down rather easily compared to other Elites and Brutes. Ultra Elites have white armor and they can actually withstand a few rockets to the face, making them one of the most deadliest enemies in the game. Some Elites are equipped with jump packs which allows them to fly and hover in the air. On Legendary, Elites can easily dodge your gunfire and grenades, dive out of the way, get behind cover, and can shoot you with what feels like pinpoint accuracy so you always need to be alert. Grunts are still under the leadership of Elites and freak out when their Elite commander is killed and Jackals still run around carrying shields that can deflect human ballistics. Jackal snipers are added to the roster and are usually encountered at a distance because you’ll rarely get close to them, at least on Legendary. They don’t carry shields but can drain your energy shield with one shot and on Legendary, just outright kill you immediately with that one shot. They are very annoying. Another new addition to the Covenant are Drones which are these insectoid creatures with wings that fly around wielding plasma pistols and needlers. They’re easy to kill but always appear in large numbers and it can be very easy for them to overwhelm and kill you. Brutes are introduced as a species early on but you don’t actually get to fight any until late in the game. They’re ape-like creatures in appearance and story-wise, they’re portrayed as very blind and ignorant to Covenant politics compared to the Elites who are quite intelligent. Now I’ve always been a big fan of the Elites, especially their design. In fact, their design is one of my favorites in the medium. Brutes, on the other hand, are not as graceful, they jump around, and they’re just not as interesting in design. They’re just kind of like big hairy beasts as opposed to the more unique and thoughtful design of the Elites. Brutes act a lot like Elites as well so it’s not like they’re pushovers but there’s nothing that really makes them stand out during encounters. They have no shields, they usually wield red plasma rifles or brute shots, and when you encounter multiple at a time, when you kill all but one, that last one will go berserk meaning it drops its weapon and just starts charging around the environment or at you if you’re nearby. I was reading about the development of Halo 2 and I believe Bungie designed the Brutes to have a “pack mentality”. I really don’t know what that means because other than the berserk thing, encounters with them seem no different than any encounters with Elites. The civil war that ensues between the Elites and Brutes at the end of the game is really cool and the areas where you encounter the two groups fighting each other is what stands out most to me in this game. When I first played this years ago I can remember just sitting back and watching the battles thinking how it cool it was and it’s the one thing I always remember whenever anybody brings up Halo 2. In fact, you’re better off letting the battles play out and then diving in to deal with the stragglers. Sentinel Drones make a return but new to the Sentinel roster are Enforcers. Enforcers are these giant drones that have shields in the front which are weak against plasma weapons, and they can fire pulse beams and missiles. These things can even pick up tanks and destroy them. Based on Halo lore, The Sentinel Drones and their variants were designed by the Forerunners to prevent and suppress The Flood which, unfortunately, also make a return in Halo 2. As you may or may not know, I am not a fan of The Flood and feel they are some of the worst enemies to ever grace video games. On a positive note, they are not as prevalent here as they were in the first game but they still make up a good majority of encounters late in the game. The idea of The Flood is that they’re a parasitic alien life form that infects sentient life, using bodies as hosts to infect others. They’re basically alien zombies that swarm and rush you and that’s it. The story introduces a creature known as the Gravemind which I think is supposed to be The Flood’s final form. It dwells in the bowels of the ring and it can actually speak somehow. If Halo was anything but a video game franchise, I probably wouldn’t have any issues with The Flood. I think they’re actually a good catalyst for the story. But as an enemy type designed the way they are, they just suck. Considering the Covenant enemies perform intelligently, the encounters with The Flood are such a downgrade because it all boils down to mindless shooting and trying not get overwhelmed and killed. Rinse and repeat. Just like the first game, some of the infected bodies are wielding weapons so that’s still annoying and they can now pilot vehicles because that’s exactly what this series needed – more ways to engage these terrible, awful, fucking annoying enemy types. You can shoot off the limbs of infected bodies and Fallen Flood enemies can now be re-animated by the little infectious forms because, apparently, being swarmed by mindless enemies just isn’t enough. I think if you shoot them while they’re down or basically blow off whatever limbs they have, they stay down.

Halo 2 includes a good variety of diverse locations. You start the game as Master Chief and must defend the Cairo Station, a massive UNSC orbital defense platform, from invading Covenant forces. Next you’ll be working your way through the city of New Mombasa, defending it from the Covenant assault. After that, much of the game takes place on the new Halo ring, itself, and just like the previous ring, this, too, has a diverse geography full of beaches, snowy tundras, and alien installations. You’ll also traverse through High Charity, which is a mobile planetoid that doubles as the Covenant holy city. The level design is greatly improved over the environments in the first game. The environments do show some signs of repetition, especially when you get to High Charity, with some similar looking corridors and rooms, but it’s nowhere near as bad as the first game and the environments are much more interesting with a good amount of visual variety, overall. Your objective is usually always to go from point A to B. One standout sequence has you infiltrating a Scarab, which is this massive Covenant mobile assault platform that can fire a massive plasma beam. Many areas require you to kill waves of enemies in order to progress, and most of the environments are linear in their design. Missions that include large, wide open spaces usually provide you with vehicles so you don’t really have to trek long distances on foot unless you choose to. Every now and then the Master Chief will be accompanied by Marines and Arbiter will be accompanied by fellow Covenant creatures like Elites and Grunts. They’ll ride along with you when you pilot vehicles which also means they’ll man turrets, they’ll shoot at enemies, throw grenades, but the biggest advantage to having allies is that they’re great at diverting enemy attacks away from you. But most of the time, the ally AI is just as dumb as it was in the previous game, specifically the Marines. They often get in your way, they seem to enjoy taking damage repeatedly since they’re terrible at staying out of harm’s way, and if you start a journey with five or six allies, there’s a good chance they’ll all be dead, or at least most of them, by the time you get to your destination. There are three boss battles spread throughout the campaign and on Legendary, they can be a pain in the ass, but on Normal, they’re ridiculously easy. All of the boss battles follow the same mold in that you have to kill one individual character but the challenge comes from being attacked by other enemies as well as the boss. For example, when you have to kill the Prophet of Regret, for some reason he’s immune to your weapons so you have to jump on his throne and punch him repeatedly or at least as many times you can before he teleports away. But you also have to deal with Honor Guards wielding energy swords and Grunts. Some areas allow you to be stealthy by sneaking up on sleeping enemies, or enemies from behind, and performing melee attacks to kill them quietly. The Arbiter missions include more of these scenarios and the obvious benefit of Arbiter is active camouflage. However, there’s no real reason to be stealthy besides trying to save ammo or raise the odds of an encounter in your favor.

The audiovisual presentation in Halo 2: Anniversary is quite impressive. All of the cut scenes were completely re-done by the Blur Studio and contain some of the best visuals I’ve ever seen in a video game. The cut scenes look so amazing that they put the gameplay visuals to shame and even those look damn good. Many characters were redesigned and look drastically different than their appearance in the original. The standout is the Gravemind. I may despise The Flood with every fiber of my being but this thing’s redesign looks incredible. You can switch between the new remastered visuals and original Xbox visuals at any time during gameplay, even during cut scenes and it’s always a seamless transition. The new backgrounds, skies, explosions, particle effects, and textures, all look amazing with plenty of detail. I did notice some pop-in here and there but, overall, the developers did an absolutely fantastic job. Because of this, Halo 2: Anniversary is the standout of The Master Chief Collection and it also begs the question as to why the rest of the games in the collection didn’t receive the same treatment. Not only did the visuals receive an overhaul but the audio did as well and switching between presentations also switches the audio to either remastered or original. Explosions and the new weapons sound effects all sound booming and powerful and make everything in the original game sound weak in comparison. The Halo franchise has always been known for its music and Halo 2 is no exception with some excellent remixed tunes, new orchestral tracks, and even some excellent rock and metal tunes, complete with wailing guitars. It’s awesome. The music in the remastered edition is either redone or just louder and more prominent but it really does a better job at emphasizing the action when compared to the music in the original game. On the technical side, we noticed frame rate stuttering during some cut scenes, it dipped heavily in some areas during our co-op playthrough, but my solo playthrough was a very solid and smooth experience and I didn’t notice any significant bugs or glitches.

Halo 2 is a great game and I had a lot of fun but it definitely could have been better. From what I understand, Bungie rushed the original game out the door to meet a deadline so many things were left out. I also read that they placed a bigger focus on the multiplayer than the single player, especially since it was the first entry in the series on consoles to support online play. I remember playing the original multiplayer on my 360 way back in the day and had a decent time but I didn’t attempt to try it in The Master Chief Collection. On the other hand, I’ve played through the campaign several times now and I guess I suppressed a lot of memories because the Legendary difficulty here is often more frustrating than it is fun. Outside of the insta-kill snipers, it’s fine, I enjoy the challenge. But the snipers and the odd design choice with co-op to make both players respawn when one player dies doesn’t make the experience more enjoyable, it just makes getting through areas very tedious. It’s one thing to face a tough enemy and learn new strategies or even hone your skills to defeat it and it’s another to be repeatedly killed from attacks you can’t even see coming. You can’t even drive vehicles into areas populated with enemies because the sniping Jackals can still take you out instantly. You have never any real protection. You either memorize where they are by frequently dying and trying again or you get lucky and happen to spot all of them and then take them out quickly. I’ve played games where getting hit means you die. Contra is a good example but at least in Contra you can see the enemies on the screen. It’s also primarily a sidescrolling series. Halo 2 is a first-person shooter in full 3D and you’re entering large spaces with numerous buildings, structures, and other things that can be used as cover, as well as obstruct your view of snipers, that it would be impossible to see where every enemy is within a few seconds upon entering. Snipers seem like such a small thing but there’s several areas spread out throughout the campaign where you have to deal with them and they make these areas just slogs to get through on Legendary. Other than that, and The Flood bullshit, I had a good time with the campaign.

In the end, Halo 2 does improve the core gameplay established in the first game thanks to tighter mechanics and new features. The elimination of the health bars allows you to focus more on combat and less on scavenging for medkits. The ability to dual wield weapons is a nice touch, I appreciate the tighter vehicle handling, improved level design, and some of the new weapons and enemies have since become staples for the series. The Covenant enemy AI is just as challenging as it was before, making some of the firefights feel really intense. But the game is not without faults, though. Encounters with The Flood still suck in my opinion, insta-kill Jackal snipers basically destroy most of the enjoyment derived from the Legendary difficulty in favor of frustration, the developers thought it would be a good idea to force both players to respawn when one player dies in co-op on Legendary, and the cliffhanger ending is kind of a bummer, albeit, more so when the game first released. Ultimately, Halo 2 is a fun action-packed romp and from my experience, I would say the Anniversary edition is the definitive version of the game, at least when talking about the campaign.

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