Late to the Party: Halo 2 (Part V)

When last we left off, we had discovered that there was yet another Halo ring, and that we would have to go there to once again stop the Covenant from firing the thing. The only thing that’s really different this time around is that we have an actual antagonist behind the Covenant threat. Our target in question is one of the religious leaders we saw in the opening, The Prophet of Regret. As it happens, he’s also the guy who’s personal fleet jumped to Earth, shot up the place for a bit, and then jumped out. So we’ve seen his face, we’ve tangentially fought him before, and now we’re here to stop his sinister plan. All good stuff, we just don’t know why the Covenant seem so intent on lighting up the Halo network, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

So with our objectives in mind we drop down to the planet. 

The drop in question is made in small, one-man drop pods that encase the soldier in an armored shell, pop air brakes to slow the descent, and then slam into the ground in much less time than it would take a modern-day paratrooper to hit groundside, nevermind the fact that we can’t paradrop people from space. 
These pods are pretty obviously a kind of shout out to Starship Troopers. Not the rat turd of a movie that Paul Verhoeven made back in the 90s, but the science fiction classic by Robert Heinlein. Starship Troopers is probably my favorite book ever written so I’m always happy to see it paid homage to here and there, especially when it’s probably even less popular in its thematic content today than when it was written in 1959. But apart from this being a personal treat for me it’s also a very fitting reference: Starship Troopers practically invented the concept of “Space Marine” and since most of the characters in Halo are taken from this same stock it stands to reason that they’d find some way to address their roots. 
As I understand it, these orbital-dropped marines would serve as the basis for the Halo 3 pseudo-expansion ODST, as well. I don’t think I’ll be covering that game in this series as I really only intended I to address the core Halo offerings but I may end up playing it on my own time; a Halo game about a few grunts and not an almighty super-soldier sounds like it would be pretty interesting. We’ll see.
Never one to be out-gunned, Master Chief hauls a rocket launcher out of the pod and then proceeds to ruin the day of everyone in the immediate vicinity. In so doing the in-game pop-up tutorials informed me that my missiles could now lock on to hard targets (i.e. ships and vehicles) and track said target after firing. This is a substantial upgrade over the dumb-fire rockets from Combat Evolved and it allowed me to trust the rocket launcher a bit more than I did the first time. Normally I forego heavy weapons entirely in games for fear of ineffectually using their minimal ammo capacity, but the ability to practically guarantee a hit on vehicles (and still be able to dumb-fire it at the feet of tougher soldiers) encouraged me to make more use of it than I might have normally, so that was nice. 
The game dictates that we get to have a tank, so we get a tank. Air-dropping armor is something we’ve been trying to get right since the second world war and as of yet, it’s not incredibly viable. The amount of resources needed to transport one armored vehicle is pretty immense, nevermind the problems presented by needing to drop it (safely) in a small area presumably under at least some threat of enemy fire. I believe that we can do it, but usually only for lighter tanks and even then it’s just not a great use of resources. I’m totally fine with us having some way to feasibly do this in the future that Halo is set in, I’m just not sure if “precariously hanging underneath a Pelican that is only slightly larger than the vehicle it’s transporting” is it. Of course that’s a minor issue because weeeeeee tank! 
Oh to be a fly on the wall in the meeting where it was decided that this was a good idea. I was concerned before about Halo 2 starting to re-tread the same plot points as Combat Evolved, but now it was starting to re-tread the same plot points that were located in a cesspit. Just leave those points alone, guys. Skirt around ‘em, build a bridge, something. Just don’t make me do this again. 
We don’t get there just yet, though. On the way we run into the Prophet of Regret and dispense a beat-down on his floating ass. 
No, really, Chief jumps up on his floating chair and starts beating him to death with his bare hands. I know they’re one of the best weapons in the game from a statistical perspective but in-universe wouldn’t it be way easier to just shoot him? The whole concept seemed a bit ridiculous to me, really, and I rather doubt that “laughter” was one of the reactions Bungie was looking to evoke during this boss fight. 
As our boxing match comes to a close, however, the Covenant in orbit apparently decide that Chief is a big enough threat that “complete obliteration of the entire surrounding area” is the most effective means of taking him out of the picture. Seems a bit like an odd course of action seeing as how the Covenant consider Halo to be a sacred relic: you don’t usually see Catholics setting fire to pieces of the Saints just because somebody they don’t like happens to be in the museum. But regardless of this possibly out-of-character action, the result is the entire structure you’re on (and presumably much of the surrounding area) being glassed into oblivion and Chief falling unconscious into a lake, where he is then seemingly captured by: 
Apparently this part of the game was outsourced to a Japanese developer and I’m now terrified of what may happen next. 
We’re left in suspense however as at this point we transition back over to Arby to see what’s shaking after that business with 343. 
It’s nothing nice. 
So what happens is that the Prophets start getting even more villainous than before. They extend the blame for the Prophet of Regret’s death to all Elites and revoke their role as protectors of the Prophets, giving it instead to the Brutes, who are giant ape-looking things that act with about as much decorum. Besides this being a seemingly rather bad idea, we also learn the reasons for the Covenant wanting to activate the Halo rings: in their religious mythology, these rings are apparently the means by which the Covenant can achieve salvation. How they reached that conclusion is a mystery to me but in any event it’s not good. 
So with that in mind they prod 343 for answers on how to activate the ring and 343, who of course is quite eager to see this happen, points them to the Index. This is somewhat of a problem as we the audience know that the Index is bad news but are forced to go after it to advance the plot. Games forcing players to do things that they know are stupid is never particularly fun (though again I’ll point to Spec Ops: The Line as an example of how it can be made interesting) and is a good way to get players to resent the game. However this is actually more palatable to me than the first time around because instead of just being an idiot we are very deliberately deceived. Maybe Arby should have asked a few more questions, yes, but he is ultimately beholden to the Prophets and the Prophets ordered him to find the Index for the good of the religious order that he follows. I can totally buy him going through with that obediently more than I can Chief trusting without question a floating ball he just met a few minutes ago. 
Next time: more Flood.

Late to the Party: Halo 2 (Part IV)

So it’s been a few hours since we’ve actually seen the Arbiter at the start of the game, but now we actually get to play as him, which really threw me for a loop since the Halo games are pretty much all Master Chief all the time. Look at every bit of advertising the franchise uses and you’ll notice that they all focus on the big guy in the green armor. You never really see any promotional materials or tie-in products showcasing any of the marines, any of the covenant, any vehicles, it’s always the Chief. Now, this is fine as he’s basically the means through which players live out their power fantasies in the game, but I was surprised when the game itself then deviated from that supposed ideology.

But even though it was something of a thematic leap, I obviously still appreciated this. I mentioned in the start of this bout of tweets that the new perspective we get on the Covenant is easily the most interesting part of the Halo story thus far. Sure, grand sweeping dramatic events (Halo network can destroy the galaxy) are fine and all, but they’re basically meaningless without a personal connection to make you care. For me, the Arbiter was a much more personal connection than Chief ever was. His status as a pariah is a bit more interesting than Chief’s as a veritable messiah, and also provides glimpses into what Covenant society values (and what the Arbiter values). Furthermore, this sequence in particular is a great opportunity to see more turmoil inside the Covenant’s ranks, which goes even further to cement them as real characters.

See, what’s going on here is that the Arbiter has been branded a traitor following the destruction of the Halo installation, which the Covenant consider to be a holy relic. You are however then offered some small opportunity for redemption by taking up the mantle of Arbiter: a kind of legendary position that is only ever filled in times of great crisis and ultimately always resulting in the death of said Arbiter. Your first mission is to eliminate the threat posed by another Elite who has been stirring up some uncomfortable talk and has split from the Covenant proper, establishing a breakaway “heretic” faction that challenges the religious order of the established Covenant authority. In short: we have to kill an alien version of Martin Luther.

I really have no idea why I’m so excited about this. As I said earlier, swords in a world full of futuristic firearms are kinda dumb. Shooting someone in the face from 100 meters is decidedly more practical than stabbing them in the gut from less than one. Maybe it’s some kind of misplaced nostalgia from having grown up with an intense love for Star Wars combined with the fact that the internal consistency of the narrative and lore isn’t very important to me but at any rate: PLASMA SWORDS BRAH!

As Master Chief, your HUD is blue. As the Arbiter it’s purple. Seeing as how this is a first person game and you never really see your character apart from your hands, differentiating between the two protagonists by using different HUD elements is a good call. It also does keep that purple motif consistent which is nice.

Y’know, I get it. The sword is really, really powerful once you manage to get it close enough to use it (and you can lunge a bit during the attack which helps offset that). Giving it ammo is a good way to ensure that players won’t find “that one weapon” and use it throughout the whole game to destroy everything in their path with virtually no challenge. An ammo cap makes you pick and choose which targets you stab (hint: the big ones) and be a bit more selective and tactical in your approach. I can even understand some kind of in-universe justification, like if some of the plasma energy discharges on a hit and drains some kind of internal battery each time. But that does leave us with one big problem, namely this completely negates the entire point of melee weapons in a world where firearms are the norm. As the saying goes, “a knife never runs out of ammo”, so you can use it as a dependable fallback in a desperate situation when you run dry on everything else. Only when it does run out of ammo then it’s most advantageous feature is nullified and you might as well just carry another gun.

But whatever.

I really liked the score for the original Halo. I still think the Halo Theme is probably one of the best examples of an awesome, memorable title theme we have in modern video games. I wouldn’t have been able to decide on the tone of the first game without that score and it’s not actually uncommon for me to load that track up on Pandora every now and then when I want to listen to something cool.

So what the hell happened? The soundtrack in Halo 2 still has some cool orchestral/techno bits featured prominently throughout and they’re still very good but the space in between is filled in with some kind of hard rock/alt metal tracks that feature over-emphasized guitar riffs and vocals screamed out by somebody that probably never emotionally matured beyond their teens and still thinks that growing his hair down to his shoulders makes him “deep”. Apparently a lot of this was outsourced to prominent bands, probably to increase market appeal but really it just kinda felt like it solidified Halo’s place at the top of the “bro-shooter” category. I’m not against licensed tracks in games by any means. When used right they can be phenomenal (look at basically every scene that includes licensed music in Spec Ops: The Line for reference) but I just wasn’t feeling it here. This is largely due to my own taste in music, I’m sure, and some of you can feel free to disagree with me on the quality of these tracks but what bothered me was how out of place they sounded at the time in regard to what the tone probably should/could have been.

So as you’re chasing down this heretic leader you’re suddenly also attacked by the Flood. Not only is this kind of annoying because I kind of automatically have a negative response to these guys after last time, but it makes no sense. The Flood were being kept on the Halo ring in the previous game, the one which we destroyed. So the question then is if we blew the thing up then how the hell are they still around? We fried them all and launched the charred remains into the vacuum of space. That equals “dead” for just about anything short of a contrived plot device re-reveal and… oh, wait, that’s exactly what this is? Right, how silly of me.

Again: book/comic/whatever explanation doesn’t work. If they can’t bother to plug their plot holes within the game then they’re not actually plugged as far as the audience is concerned.

It wasn’t as bad as the library by any means, but once again Halo’s combat encounters just don’t know when to end. When an incredibly slow-moving elevator swarming with Flood laboriously grinds its way down floor after floor and wave after wave of enemies with absolutely no variation in setting or enemy type then I as a player start to get pissed off. When any game throws combat encounters like this at me I feel like they’re just arbitrarily padding their content and trying to justify their shelf price by saying “well hey, it’s a ten-hour game!” but neglecting to tell you that five of those hours are spent in monotonous, repetitive hell.

Sorry, I’m letting a bit more venom into my words here than I’d like but the Flood always brings out the worst in me. All my friends say I should just let them go but I keep wanting to think they’ll change…

I keep a flask of Johnnie Walker Black on my utility belt. I thought it would help.

It did not. 

And now the kicker. 343 Guilty Spark somehow didn’t explode along with the Pillar of Autumn and the entire Halo installation (does no one die from having the planet/station thing literally explode under their feet in this universe?) and is back once again to torment you. I’m sure there’s all kinds of excuses Bungie could use to try and justify this but “because f*** you” honestly seems the most likely. This little ball was a pain in my ass throughout the entire first game, had arbitrary invincibility in the finale, and forced me to settle for an off-screen death at the end. Only now even that’s been taken from me. There’s a trick to pulling off a good reveal, guys, and “pulling a contrivance out of your ass” is not it.

After all, it’s not called “Earth” or “Random Unnamed Gas Giant”. This makes sense, though. Since we know that the first Halo was part of a large network that was designed to act in conjunction with the other installations it stands to reason that the others would still be a threat, and now that we know the Covenant regard them as holy relics that makes them a bit more connected to our unfolding plot with the Arbiter. My only concern at this point was that the rest of the game would be a re-hash of Combat Evolved as the goals were now pretty much exactly the same, leaving behind the concerns of an invasion of Earth, though I suppose that was kind of aborted.

Anyway, next time we join back up with the Chief, whose ongoing personal drama is sure to zzzzzzzzzzz…

Late to the Party: Halo 2 (Part III)

So we arrive on Earth and after a combat encounter that lasts for far too long in an inexplicably sealed-off section of city street, we’re presented with a Warthog. Driving the Warthog is the same as it was before: fun, but somewhat finicky and prone to flipping over at the least opportune moments. However, the Warthog is implemented in a rather more precise role at this point in the game. Whereas previously you often found yourself in possession of a Warthog just so you could have a Warthog, here you get one because you really do need vehicular transportation. This allows the set pieces surrounding the acquisition of the vehicle to be a lot better designed. Case in point: 

At this point, you’re on one side of the city and a bridge that you need to get to is all the way on the other side. In order to get there, you need to haul ass all the way across the Covenant-occupied territory between these two points. One or two other Warthogs are along for the ride and together you speed through hostile environments as your gunners unload on Covenant vehicles that pull in front of you to try and slow your progress. Swerving around obstacles while pushing the vehicle to its limits and gunfire is pouring out of that massive gun on the back is pretty fun, but the best part is that the environment in which this takes place actually makes sense.

You’ll recall that the Warthog race against time segment in the finale of Combat Evolved struck me as being implausible and stupid because there was no reason for such a long run of track to exist on a ship like that. In contrast, this chase sequence takes place along an underground highway with vehicle wrecks scattered about and traffic signs for on/off ramps and various destinations marking the way. Something like this is much easier to imagine actually existing: we’re already quite familiar with major roadways and in the future where urban sprawl appears to be quite common keeping your major highways consolidated underground (at least while within city limits) would be a smart idea to save valuable real estate topside. Additionally, since such a network would undoubtedly be constructed according to a very uniform blueprint, it allows the developers to re-use a lot of art assets and textures without making it obvious: of course the walls all look the same, they’re supposed to. Trying to do this with buildings in a rich urban environment wouldn’t work so well as we expect to see a bit more variance in our surroundings. All of this makes for a much more feasible locale that actually makes the fighting chase within it feel a lot more real, thus aiding in our immersion. Good sequence. 

So we finally get to the bridge and we swap out our Warthog for a tank. These things were a force to be reckoned with in the original game but in Halo 2 tanks appear to have been upgraded from “good” to “god”. The time between shots for the main canon has been drastically reduced and basically everything explodes in one-two shots anyway. Probably a dozen Ghosts rush you during the crossing and I don’t think one of them got within even 50 feet of me. It actually would have been rather boring if it weren’t for the physics of exploding Ghosts being absolutely insane and doing a small breakdance number before permanently detonating.

Also, unless I’m mistaken, the tank received another substantial upgrade to its design: it’s frakking driver’s seat isn’t open to the world anymore. As to why anyone would ever design a main battle tank to be driven by someone who has their head exposed to all that fire the armored vehicle is supposedly designed to protect them from is completely beyond me. So thankfully somebody at the UNSC managed to pull their head out of their ass and realize “oh hey, all those guys back in the 20th century might have had the right idea what with protecting their operators and all” and now I’m no longer liable to get taken out by small arms fire while driving something with several inches worth of armor plating surrounding me.  

So it seems to be fairly common knowledge in most video gaming circles that Master Chief is one of an elite line of super-soldiers called Spartans. Only unless I’m mistaken, we never actually hear the word “Spartan” uttered until about 90 minutes or so into the second game. This is like watching Star Wars and then suddenly having some random Rebel soldier call Luke a Jedi halfway through the Battle of Hoth. We have zero context for that term or who it even applies to (I only knew because of outside meta-knowledge) and for totally uninitiated players this would probably be kind of confusing.

And don’t you dare tell me it’s all explained in a book somewhere: Halo is first and foremost a series of video games, not books, comics, anime, etc. If it can’t bother to explain to me vital pieces of the fiction within its primary medium then it’s failed at establishing said fiction. And if the source material fails to firmly establish its own fiction, then why would anyone bother with trying to learn more about something that the creators obviously didn’t give much of a crap about?

For those of you that do read and love the books and all the other expanded universe material, that’s fine, more power to you. But it’s pretty clear that Bungie did not intend for this to be a rich universe with a focus on a nuanced and interesting story. I’ll give them credit for fleshing out the Covenant, and I will even dish out some kudos to the folks willing to go into supreme detail about backstory, military/political organization, and weapon and vehicle naming, it’s really cool that some folks care enough to do that. But what I’m talking about here is the game, and the game fails so spectacularly at providing any kind of depth or context for much of any of these things that I find myself unable to give a damn even if it is supposedly explained elsewhere.  

It had been a while since I’d seen Starship Troopers so I actually looked up said nuke-bugs right before I started writing this post and it turns out that they don’t really look like this giant walker at all. So I guess just disregard this tweet.

Have you ever stopped to think about the kind of ridiculously stupid stuff video games prompt you to do? In my time I’ve flown a spaceship into the bowels of an exploding space station, fought creatures several orders of magnitude larger than me with not much more than a sharp stick, thrown myself off of countless ledges, cliffs, and rooftops, and generally inflicted more bodily harm on myself than anyone should reasonably sustain, medpacs and regenerating health be damned. If video games actually caused violence or flawed reasoning then I’m pretty sure we’d all be dead by now.

Luckily, since most of us do in fact realize that video games are a way for us to do stuff that we couldn’t or wouldn’t do in real life, these moments are instead pretty fun. And the game realizes it. As soon as you drop down onto this thing the music swells and you go about blowing the thing up from the inside before jumping back out to safety.

If Master Chief had a bow tie this would be the moment where he pauses to straighten it.

So with one super-tank down the game throws a bit of a curveball at us, one which we’ll explore starting next week. 

Late to the Party: Halo 2 (Part II)

While there are most definitely times where having a larger-than-life hero jump into the middle of a fray guns akimbo can be all kinds of cool (case in point: Hard Boiled) on the whole I think dual-wielding is incredibly stupid. Ask anybody who’s ever spent any time at all around firearms and they’ll tell you that dual-wielding is about the dumbest possible thing you can do with your weapons. The human eye can really only focus on one point in space so you’re only ever going to be able to shoot at one thing at a time, and if you’re doing that then why not just use a two-handed grip that allows for more precise aim and recoil control? And then what if you want to reload? And this is just in regard to handguns. It reaches a whole new level of stupid when you start talking about doing this with weapons that absolutely require two hands to be used effectively and have automatic fire capability. It’s just not practical and usually just makes you look like a mall ninja at best and a hyped-up adolescent who likes to say “badass” a lot at worst. Good camera work and setup can make a dual-wielding scenario look fun and impressive but in a game where you’re a rather bland character who’s really just a camera attached to a gun in a structured military setting it just feels flat and kind of silly. You need to go way over the top and have some good visual tricks up your sleeve to make me accept dual wielding. Max Payne 3 can do it, but Halo 2 can’t.

I stumbled across the pistol shortly afterwards however, which made me feel better.

The fact that it appears to have been debuffed to have the approximate killing power of a fluffy kitten, however, is less than nice.

For whatever reason, a lot of sound guys in the game industry have really latched onto one particular sound effect for machine gun fire. It wouldn’t normally be something you’d notice except that this sound effect is so unbelievably quiet compared to what a real machine gun sounds like. Fire off a burst from one of the turrets during this sequence and you’ll see what I mean: the sound is roughly equivalent to that of the action cycling on a belt-fed machine gun, only without the actual blast of the ammo being fired. Listen for it and you’ll hear this sound effect being used all over the place, in strange contrast to the over-dramatizing trend of using shotgun blasts to stand in for pistol shots.

Once again, a ludicrous level of ego stroking for the player. You’re a gigantic super-soldier, you’re the savior of humanity, you wield automatic weapons in each hand, the soldiers under you lavish praise on you (“Sir, you are awesome” is more or less a direct quote) and now the female characters can’t even talk to you in a voice that isn’t dripping with suggestive inflection and kind of uncomfortable sexual overtones. Let’s ignore the fact that women do indeed play games and this ego-stroking would be kind of insulting and uncomfortable for them and just focus on the more immediate implications: as far as I’m concerned I’m no longer playing a space adventure story but Halo has basically become a masturbatory juvenile power fantasy at this point.

I really am pretty upset that the game opened with such incredibly promising characterization for otherwise bland antagonists and then proceeds to give us… this. I have no idea how these two tones can possibly exist within the same game.

But once again, the game attempts to distract me with shiny things. Because my hopes of having a developed narrative were pretty much dashed at this point I had to take what I could get and at right then, that was jet packs.

Alright, so you never actually get to use one of the jet packs. It’s probably for the best, though: if the previous game is any indication all I would have seen for miles around were repeating tiles of corridors and implausible arena-rooms.

As I soon found out, though, you apparently don’t need a jet pack in this game because Master Chief is already flight-capable, needing only a gentle tap of the A button to send him rocketing towards the heavens.

A lot of games these days don’t allow you to jump, instead eternally gluing you to chest-high walls and linear corridors which, when confronted with the element of vertical movement, would result in the breakdown of your rigidly-defined play experience. Granted, Halo 2 isn’t a whole lot different since all they did was make all the walls a lot higher (though I still regularly hit my head on the ceiling when jumping which I find somewhat hilarious) but sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss a simple activity like being able to jump.

At this point I was crawling around on the outside of the station (which apparently still has gravity) and was legitimately about 20-30 feet away from a ridiculously huge rail gun seemingly designed to destroy capital ships. Firing some kind of small arms weapon is loud and can kick pretty good. Firing even a basic civil-war era artillery piece is louder and needs to be locked down before firing. Larger modern guns are cacophonous and are on record as having killed with concussive force alone. Now imagine standing at the base of what is probably the largest single weapon ever made by man. Seeing as how we’re somehow not actually in the vacuum of space at this point (being as that we’re not floating away and can hear things) Master Chief should probably be deaf and possibly dead from being this close to a weapon discharge of that magnitude.

Yes, I’m nitpicking but this still seemed like a monumentally bad place to be standing.

So the whole reason I’ve been traversing the outside of Big Bertha is I need to get to the hangar bays where our friends the Covenant have left us a giant bomb. Unfortunately, it’s in the wrong color so I have to take it back to them and ask for a refund. But when I get there I find that the bomb is only about 40% bomb and 60% morning star. This thing had more spikes on it than a seismograph reading from Krypton. An abundance of small, sharp objects are common in smaller, usually home-made anti-personnel explosives in order to create a more devastating “shredding” effect is common enough but putting them on an explosive device meant to destroy vessels or structures is a colossal waste of time. They’ll be vaporized instantly as the size of the explosive is so great that it doesn’t send objects flying outward but really just removes things from existence. This is the kind of thing you’d see in a fantasy story, just to make the bomb look scary. It’d also make it difficult as hell to handle as the team is trying to deploy it in a combat situation.

My previous tweet was meant as a joke but of course the first thing Master Chief does with the spike-bomb is pick it up, jump into space, and practically throw it at the Covenant ship that delivered it. I half-expected him to just swing the thing like a spiked club and destroy the ship that way. It probably wouldn’t have been any more ridiculous than what we saw, anyway. I kinda felt like the whole sequence was designed just so Master Chief could give an over-dramatic one-liner (actually, I think his only lines of dialogue in this game are all over-dramatic one-liners). To top that off, Black R. Lee Ermey quips that he flies pretty good “for a brick”, which was probably meant to reference Chief’s armor but I chose to interpret as a concise summary of his personality.

Next time: Take earth back.

And if I ever use that painfully forced and mediocre tagline again I want one of you to shoot me.

Late to the Party: Halo 2 (Part I)

Just like it says on the tin: as promised, I’m continuing my foray into the Halo franchise with the ever so creatively titled sequel Halo 2. Obviously I had a few… issues with the original installment so we’ll see how this goes.

So right off the bat I find myself a bit more amenable to this game. Halo 2 was made three years after Combat Evolved and two things are immediately very obvious: one, the Bungie staff got a lot better at their craft at least insofar as dramatic presentation was concerned and two, they also figured out how to get a lot more power out of the original Xbox. This particular phenomenon has always interested me because while PC gaming is always taking advantage of new advancements in hardware console developers are pretty much stuck with the same static system for the better part of a decade. Without getting into flame war territory over which is better, it’s nonetheless pretty impressive how developers for the consoles are able to figure out how to get more and more juice out of an unchanging platform. If you look at launch titles for something like the Playstation 2 and then compare that to some of the last runs of games that were released for it (Resident Evil 4, God of War II) it can be pretty crazy how far developers can push a system to get some really impressive results out of it. Halo 2 wasn’t quite at the end of the life cycle for the Xbox, but the graphical improvements over Combat Evolved are both obvious and welcome, and along with those improvements comes a much more interesting and active camera during cutscenes.

So Halo 2 immediately takes things in a different direction than its predecessor. Instead of picking up right where we left of with Chief and Cortana, we open with the Covenant. And at the forefront of this sequence is a lone Elite voiced by none other than Keith freaking David, one of my favorite voice actors. David has one of those immediately commanding and recognizable voices that lends a lot of character to whatever role he’s in and makes those characters a lot of fun to listen to. Things were definitely looking promising at this point.

Something of a dig at the original but this really was meant to be a big compliment for what I was already seeing in the sequel. See, one of my problems with the first game was that everything was just kind of lifeless: I didn’t care about the people on my side that I presumably was supposed to care about and all the enemies had that kind of 90s era “evil space alien” vibe to them that would have made them feel more at home in an arcade than anywhere else. Halo 2 goes a long way towards fixing that by immediately introducing us to the Covenant on a more personal level and as such they make the leap from being simple enemies to being real antagonists. In the opening few minutes we see that the Covenant have a distinct culture, a system of social and political hierarchy, and even prominent religious establishments that seem to take the lead in most matters relating to military and political action. While it’s all thrown at you a bit suddenly and we don’t have a lot of context for it at first glance this really is a huge deal: the Covenant aren’t just objects in a shooting gallery anymore but now they’re real characters.

But we do eventually have to make our way back to our supposed main character and in doing so we’re once again treated to a “which way would you like to turn your head” control orientation. This being the second time we do this goes a bit further towards making this process seem more like standard operating procedure for anyone wearing powered armor, though “reversing tilt axis of your own head” is still just downright baffling.

I guess his name is actually Sgt. Johnson but seeing as how he’s basically just a cheap knockoff of the same character everyone’s been trying and failing to emulate since Full Metal Jacket I’m going to stick with my own naming schemes. It is a bit jarring given that I’m reasonably sure this “character” wasn’t meant to be anything more than a stock NCO stand-in during the main game (I don’t believe he’s ever named in Combat Evolved and is addressed only by rank) and I’m pretty sure he died several times during the course of that misadventure (I may have actually shot him once myself by accident) but I’m willing to look past it. While this is kind of a transparent ploy to try to turn their simple space adventure story into more of a space epic piece (though I use that term loosely) it’s not like we haven’t seen this done before in video games. Barney Calhoun in the Half-Life games is probably the Ur Example of this particular trope and those games are pretty fantastic. As the video game medium grows and individual franchises mature and develop they’ll often expand upon previously minute aspects of previous iterations so as to more richly develop a story or universe. It’s not what anyone would call a seamless development but when games sometimes shoot themselves in the foot with re-used assets and hardware limitations of the past in earlier titles then I guess we’ll take what we can get.

And much like the “About that beer I owe you” line, Halo similarly hangs a lamphsade on the fact that Johnson was a throwaway stock asset in the original by having another character ask how he survived that business on Halo. The answer is predictably “classified” (because let’s be honest, there isn’t one).

This part of the game takes place on a large orbital defense station above Earth. As we proceed along its hallways and get a few kinda cool vistas of other similar stations, Johnson runs his mouth about how such a defensive grid is “all but impenetrable”. Maybe he doesn’t watch much TV (or read much history) but the best way to guarantee that your defenses will be beat is to proclaim them to be unbeatable. The Death Star, The Titanic, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall: all engineering marvels that were supposedly invincible and all nonetheless inevitably defeated. Even ignoring the fact that we obviously needed something to kick off the conflict of the game we were pretty much doomed from this point on.

So despite the previously really endearing things the game has showed me up through now, this is where some of my first real complaints start to spring up. Like a lot of other games (Mass Effect, Half Life, God of War), Halo seems to have allowed the real-world hype over the “bad-assery” of its characters to seep into the fiction of the game world. Everybody you talk to on the station has their lips firmly locked onto your ass. You can’t go two steps without somebody telling you how great you are, and all of this is happening while you’re on your way to get a prestigious military honor for your work on Halo. I get that the Chief would have a reputation by now (and yet still somehow hasn’t advanced beyond Petty Officer), but it felt less like the characters were talking to the Chief and more like they were trying to stoke some pathetic juvenile power fantasy of the player. It made me pretty uncomfortable.

All this revelry is interrupted, however, when a couple of Covenant warships warp into orbit around Earth. We know from dialogue in the previous game that the Covenant don’t actually know where Earth is, and defending this information is of the utmost importance to the war effort. Yet now when they find it and presumably can begin a full-scale invasion of the birthplace of humanity nobody seems to be too upset. When the radar contacts show up and the ships appear all of the high-ranking military officials seem to just sigh wearily and half-heartedly start organizing a defense.

This scene is inexplicably devoid of all emotion when it should be an incredibly high-intensity sequence. I mean, the big bad aliens just found Earth. Remember how freaked out people were when that happened in Independence Day? Cities were blowing up, people were dying, and everyone was scrambling around in poorly-organized terror trying to fight back. It was a really tense event, conveyed by the panic and emotions of the characters. What should be a similar scene in Halo 2 has none of the same emotion and as such we the audience don’t feel nearly as engaged or invested as we could. Perhaps they were trying to show that the UNSC was prepared and competent, which is fine, but they shouldn’t do so at the cost of our investment in the events of the story. Earth was being attacked and I was falling asleep because Colonel Yawn and Captain Snooze couldn’t give so much as a shouted order.

Hoo boy. We’re not even out of the intro cutscenes yet and I’m already drawing dangerously close to the “too long” limit for one of these things. Granted, there is a lot of exposition dump going on in these opening minutes so there’s a lot to talk about, but still. I’m gonna go ahead and call it there and on Wednesday we’ll actually get to pick up a gun and see if Chief’s still got the moves.