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Halo 2 was, pun fully intended, a game changer. Its improvements on the mechanics and gameplay if not the story of Halo: Combat Evolved as well as the effects of its multiplayer matchmaking would be felt for years to come. Halo 2 was a meteor straight into the gaming world. It would be years before the dust of Halo 2’s influence would settle. If Halo: Combat Evolved was Deep Impact then Halo 2 was Armageddon.
Once again Halo 2 put players into the size 15 boots of human super soldier Spartan John 117, the Master Chief. Fresh off the victory on the original Halo ring world the Master Chief and his friend Sergeant Avery Johnson are receiving medals for their part in destroying the Halo ring. Alongside them are Commander Miranda Keyes, daughter of the deceased Captain Keyes, and the Chief’s AI companion Cortana. Never ones to miss a party the alien Covenant jump into Earth’s orbit and begin a planetary invasion. Stopping them in the nick of time the Chief and Friends chase them to Installation 05, a second Halo ring-world in an attempt to stop their crazed, fundamentalists leaders, the Prophets of Truth, Mercy and Regret.
Halo 2 bit off way more than it could chew in terms of story although that wasn’t entirely its own fault. Halo: Combat Evolved was responsible for a lot of the ambitious universe building. Combat Evolved introduced not only the Covenant and their quest to purify the galaxy with holy fire but also the zombie-adjacent parasite known as the Flood as well as the ancient race of extinct aliens that fell victim to them and built the ring-worlds, inventively called Forerunners. While the Flood work as a unifying plot device for the alliance between the humans and the splintered Covenant some things are better left a mystery.
The Forerunners are a great idea in theory but that’s all they should have been: theory. Once the Halo series began to dive into the lore behind the Forerunners and the AI robots like 343 Guilty spark it lost some of its mystery. The film Alien taught sci-fi writers everywhere the lesson that ancient, dead alien enigmas should be enigmatic. Admittedly the film series eventually forgot this lesson but that didn’t mean everyone else had to. It seems though that the Halo series never really learned this lesson. The games would never really regain this mystery until Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach. They would lose it altogether with Halo 4.
Halo 2 might not have worked in the story department but certain aspects shine brighter in retrospect. The Arbiter – the Covenant Elite commander of the first Halo mission doomed to seek an honorary death in battle for his failure – is objectively one of the coolest characters in the franchise. He stands in stark contrast to the overt camp or dull seriousness of his eventual human allies and to the fanatical dogma of his fellow Covenant races.
The Arbiter, as voiced by Keith David, was a regal, intimidating presence and although his missions were forgettable he was not. Unplayable in Halo 3 outside of the campaign co-op this progressive ex-crusader stuck around thanks both to his whorled armour design, deep, rich voice and, compared to the Master Chief, extensive vocabulary.
Despite him being basically faceless, totally expressionless and often mute the Master Chief became a gaming icon for a reason. In a time when gaming was still viewed as a very male, very white and very straight space the Master Chief represented all of this in an uncomplicated way. He was tall, he was strong and he was incredibly masculine but he was also totally divorced from the messiness so many hyper-masculine action heroes often brought to games.
Petty Officer John 117 is a man of total conviction and focus. His one and only goal is to protect humanity. Originally developed as a weapon against colonial rebels the Spartans rapidly became one of the few human weapons capable of going toe-to-toe with the upper echelons of Covenant forces. They were uber-mensch’s designed to crack the sky and shatter the earth, to make the alien menace quake in fear of the ‘Demons’. They succeeded.
Playing as a Spartan in the Halo series makes you feel like a Demi-God especially against the alien, robotic and parasitic hordes. But it was when Halo pitted the Spartans against each other that it really came into it’s own. Assisted by the Irish built Havok engine Halo 2’s multiplayer matchmaking came to define that era of gaming. It would not be beaten until Halo 3 came out in 2007 on Xbox 360.
Halo 2 was fun, like, a lot of fun. So fun in fact that servers for the original Xbox iteration of the game only went offline in 2010 with PC following in 2013. It was the ingenious mix of arcade-style shooting, incredible map design and the hell for leather style of play that made Halo 2 the shooter of a generation.
The Halo Killers came thick and fast after that. Call of Duty was only in its infancy but with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s release four years the sun would begin to set on the Halo Empire. Haze had the same impact as a quiet fart in an empty room. Gears of War – being another Microsoft published title – was never in direct competition with Halo but despite it’s own great success it would never generate the $4.6 billion Halo has so far.
Halo 2’s singleplayer problems and multiplayer successes would pave the way forward for its sequels. Halo 3 still left a lot to be desired in terms of its story but its open-ended levels were better than ever and the introduction of the Forge Mode map-maker that filled in a lot of gaps. Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach would add the Firefight mode, the sprawling Forge World map and cohesive, gripping campaign modes.
I think for me and a lot of others Halo 2 and its sequels conjures a very specific feeling. It’s a warm feeling and the closest I can come to describing it in a single word is contentment. But it’s a lot more than that too. A great many Halo 2 players, myself included, were quite young when it was released. Maybe it’s the golden haze of memory or the desperation of nostalgia but some of my best childhood experiences lie with Halo 2. Blitzing the campaign at a sleepover. Taking on cousins on the Zanzibar map at otherwise boring family gatherings. Giving the Covenant back their bomb. Halo 3, ODST and Reach would create even more memories but It all began with Halo 2 and for that reason alone I’ll never forget it.