2020: Year of Halo – Part 3: It Was All A Blur

It… might actually happen. We’re now over halfway through the year, and somehow also over halfway through the Master Chief Collection‘s chronological rollout of PC-optimised Halo games. As the rest of the gaming industry attempts to navigate the pitfalls of 2020’s justified uncertainty, Microsoft continues to drop its tantalising sci-fi FPS breadcrumb trail. And so at long last, sixteen years after the fact, I have finally finished the Halo 2 campaign.

But for goodness’ sake, dear reader, let’s not undersell this; sixteen years after the fact, I have finally played Halo 2.

If 2002 was an exciting year marked by the seemingly limitless possibility of a new console generation – where even Nintendo fanboys could marvel at the possibilities of a company like Microsoft joining the console war – 2004 was defined by entrenched teenage loyalties for yours truly. I won’t hesitate to admit that I have no memories of any hype around Halo 2‘s initial release – When I wasn’t dealing with high school drama I was too busy immersing myself in what would become three of my favourite games of all time: Tales of Symphonia, Pokemon Leaf Green and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. My brother also got a PS2 that year, with two controllers and the original Star Wars Battlefront to boot. I had more than enough to chew on, and my friends at the time weren’t exactly Halo superfans.

And so years later, when I found myself in the Microsoft ecosystem thanks to my very own Xbox 360, the reverence I discovered for the second Halo game came as a bit of a shock. But I still didn’t dive in, because Halo 3 was already out and, well, we’ll get to that. Long story short, in 2020 I still knew much less about Halo 2 than I thought I did, and most of my experience playing the game felt wonderfully fresh as a result.

That is, when it worked.

Yes, this post arrives perhaps a month or two later than I wanted because for far too long I could not get a co-op game running with my Combat Evolved partner. No matter how many fixes we googled, what settings and configurations we changed, those first few weeks after Halo 2 launched in early May were beyond frustrating. We could play competitive multiplayer, but not campaign. When life (and other videogame releases) got in the way, we benched the idea until one day in late July, when our schedules aligned and at long last, I was able to take one of my favourite screenshots of the year so far:

I don’t know how much of this was due to my heat-of-the-moment decision to buy Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Steam after uninstalling the repeatedly disappointing Game Pass version, and how much was just months of game patches bearing fruit. All I know is I’ve never been happier to see the face of another Master Chief. Anyway, onto the game itself!

It is very difficult to put into words just how hard I was hit by the opening cinematic of Halo 2 in this “Anniversary” format. I knew I was going to get a sizeable jump in storytelling quality over the first game – This was the first Halo release that knew it was part of a franchise, after all – but this 2014 re-do of the story famously includes cutscenes by Blur Studio, one of the most revered 3D animation studios in the world. The resulting cinematic (and melodramatic) panache on display is positively jaw-dropping. I’ve heard the Blur approach described as an over-produced, self-serious coat of heavy paint that misses the point of the series’ art style, but as an initial Halo 2 experience it is truly something to behold. Up to this point in my year-long Halo retrospective, I thought I had my head around the general level of narrative ambition I was in for. I should’ve known better.

Following a prologue framing device featuring everyone’s favourite Halo 5 alt-protagonist Locke (who I had completely forgotten existed for a good solid minute), we get our first proper look behind the Covenant curtain, as a stadium of grotesquely detailed Halo enemy types scream for blood in a sea of purple. The whole thing is soaked in a cinematic atmosphere that looks far grimier than anything in the actual game, particularly in this ultra-crisp 2020 PC iteration. Anyway, an Elite of some significant stature within the bureaucratic alien alliance is on trial for letting the Halo ring from Combat Evolved fall to “the demon” (our boy the Master Chief), and things do not look good for him as a direct result. It turns out that this is the famous Arbiter I had heard so much about over the years, and I was about to spend far longer with him than I thought.

Halo 2, it turns out, is so excited to play around in its expensive new (for 2004) world-building playpen that it insists you play almost as many minutes under the helmet of the Arbiter as you do the Chief. Considering how much flak some of the later Halo games would receive for going light on the Chief, it’s wild to see the series’ first bout of POV hot potato engage in quite as many swaps as it does.

For better or worse, this narrative choice tears the veil of mystery right off the face of the Covenant army I had until now only faced at an arm’s length. Especially after playing Reach – where they project a terrifyingly foreign malevolence – going deep enough into the innards of the Covenant so as to follow their political infighting leaves much of the prior mystique in the rear-view mirror. And yet while playing as the Arbiter I found myself more engaged with the ongoing story of the Halo-verse than ever before. Gimmick or not, playing another side of a conflict subdividing into more granular conflicts really does add richness and depth to the game’s world. Or maybe I was just infatuated with all that purple on the screen.

But before the first ignition of an energy sword with Elite hands, Halo 2 makes sure you know you’re in for a ride bigger, better and far less disorienting than its predecessor. The campaign action kicks off with a space station skirmish that leads Master Chief to ride a giant bomb into a Covenant ship, and if that isn’t a clear statement of tonal intent I don’t know what is. From there the striking imagery piles on as Earth makes its chronological Halo series debut. Bungie’s vision of a futuristic time-divided Mombasa, Kenya fills the screen as you crawl into a Covenant hot zone aboard a Scorpion tank, and the Chief’s time there is emphatically underscored by the destruction of a towering insectoid Scarab walker from the inside out. These set pieces are barely an hour apart, making for one heck of a way to placate your fans before you drop that story-slowing perspective switch.

As the Arbiter’s once-simple existence is challenged and the chaos around him gradually changes his allegiances, Chief continues to serve as an immense hindrance to the Covenant’s plans, dismantling enemies with a significantly larger range of weapons than the first game afforded him. Actually playing Halo 2 at last – campaign and multiplayer alike – gave me a somewhat familiar feeling, because this is a sequel to an unexpectedly popular game that didn’t yet know its optimal form. This is no Adventure of Link or Final Fantasy II, of course; the scale of experimentation isn’t even close to the same league as those. But there’s something to the way the game moves and feels that sheds light on a dev team spreading its wings and pulling a muscle or two in the process.

The weapon balance will probably always be the plainest example to see. Halo 2‘s addition of the Covenant-tickling SMG, one of many weapons that can now be dual-wielded, sets the stage for a fundamentally different gameplay flow; one that is less bullet-efficient and more reliant on switching up your arsenal. This is the Halo game that introduced the legendary Battle Rifle, and yet I was a little shocked to find myself using mostly Covenant weapons throughout the story. In fairness, plenty of great alien weapons had their start in 2, including my beloved Carbine, and this really is more of a Covenant story than anything I’ve played in the series so far. There’s even a melty fun weapon called the Sentinel Beam that I do not remember using in any Halo game before. But the almost complete absence of the Magnum leaves a noticeable hole in the moment-to-moment Halo combat experience for me, as does the enemy durability changes no doubt brought on by the dual-wield ability. Fighting the Brutes really sucks in this campaign.

Having said that, I can say with great confidence that I enjoyed my time with the Halo 2 campaign, because there is actual, honest-to-goodness visual variety and signposting in interior environments. Compared to Combat Evolved this is a corridor of a game and it is all the better for it. With the exception of the Quarantine Zone level, where my mate and I accidentally found ourselves heading back where we came from for far longer than I’d like to admit (we’re still in a pre-waypoint world here), the sequel speeds by at a wonderfully brisk pace with nary a repeated room or fake elevator in sight. Oh, and the still-punchy combat is helped along by one magnificent set of tunes.

In a world where the 2016 Doom reboot hadn’t revitalised the single-player shooter, Halo 2 Anniversary just might have boasted the most outlandish soundtrack of anything I’ve played in the genre. The cruisy 1980s action movie riffs that Marty O’Donnell so lavishly heaped upon the first Halo adventure are replaced with a buffet of headphone-shredding sonic flavours straight out of a symphonic, soprano-flaunting Nine Inch Nails fever dream. At times there’s restraint shown to be sure, but H2A‘s version of restraint is a few downward spins of the treble dial while the bass shakes your eardrums and a warbling voice of distinctly Metal Gear Solid ilk hovers in the distance.

The early, Earth-African-centric parts of the game have a ball playing around with traditional percussion before more artificiality creeps into the soundscape. As the story careens towards the finish line the intensity of the battles increase, and it becomes steadily more difficult to take what you’re hearing as background music. These beats are unmistakably foreground music. They match the sheer vibrancy and chaos on the monitor perfectly, enhancing the flow of combat more than I could have ever expected. Just have a listen to this bad boy, which happens to be a re-orchestration of a Breaking Benjamin tie-in of all things:

One final mention has to go to the vehicle combat of Halo 2, which is leaps and bounds more varied and exciting than it was in the last game. Few moments I’ve played in any science fiction-adjacent videogame have felt as great as the beginning of the final campaign mission, where you fly loops through and around the legs of an allied Scarab providing fire support for its slow and steady march. A geeky highlight that feels as good now as I imagine it would have if I had indeed played Halo 2 when it first arrived on the scene.

So it turns out I can distill my late-arriving impressions of the Halo 2 campaign in 2020 down to five bullet points, which delights my brain to no end. Halo 2 is narratively ambitious, mechanically experimental, structurally linear, sonically enthralling, and definitively incomplete. Which reminds me, this post is so late that at the time of publishing, Halo 3 has already made its way to PC.

There’s no time to lose – There’s a fight to kinda-sorta-not really finish.



NEXT > Halo 3


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