Poll Winner: HALO 2
The original Halo game put the XBox on the map and quickly became a household name. It deservedly is often credited as a blueprint of how to make a first person console shooter, the pinnacle for developers of that time period to strive for when developing a console shooter. So Bungie had big shoes to fill when developing a sequel, they needed to knock it out of the park with equal quality and some new ideas for the genre. They did just that in 2004 when Halo 2 released for the XBox to overwhelming reviews. It became the highest selling game for the system, selling 8 million copies.
Rarely does a sequel outshine its predecessor when the original is widely considered a masterpiece. Whether we’re talking movie sequels, a new music album or new video game, sequels to great media tend to crumple under the pressure or not live up to the ridiculously high expectations we set for them. Halo 2 was the rare exception to this rule. Graphically it pushed the boundaries of Microsoft’s system, with cut scenes that are almost on par with most we see today, good textures and elaborate alien landscapes. Speaking of the cut scenes, Halo 2 had cut scenes that at the time were better looking than ones any other studio was doing (sans maybe Square Enix). It delivers strong in the audio department also, matching the original game’s quality sound effects and large scale orchestral tracks.
The gameplay manages to keep that same wonder and originality seen in Halo, like the alien weaponry, unique alien enemies and use of futuristic combat vehicles. It does so while slightly improving them and more importantly, showcasing them all. Halo 2 added a handful of new weapons, the ability to dual wield some of them and it also put a focus on vehicle combat. My only minor beef with the combat was the AI was not the smartest I’ve ever seen, but that has been a common theme for me while doing this blog. Developers have made big strides in that department so its more noticeable than some other game play mechanics. Multiplayer modes were just as fun as the original but with more options in game type, weapons, vehicles and maps. It was the first console game I personally remember as being THE reason to console game online. There were a few people playing console games online before that with the original Halo and some with SOCOM, but Halo 2 is the first game I remember that everyone just HAD to get access for their console online so they could play multiplayer around the world.
For me personally the biggest improvement Halo 2 has over the original is in a department some gamers don’t even care about when discussing shooters: the story. It isn’t the same story of like “Hey guys let’s stop this invading alien force and kill them all!” Halo 2 has depth and character development that very few shooters had at the time. The focus of the story is split between Spartan and Arbiter (an important character of the Elite race). It gives us much insight into the Covenant’s reasoning, hierarchy and intentions in a way that Halo didn’t. It also introduces a handful of characters who will become extremely integral to the overall story of the Halo universe which has now spanned comics, anime and live action films along with its games. Not only is the story just overall far more intriguing than the original game’s, Halo 2 does a better job of making it seem an important part of the game and make the player truly feel like they’re a part of it. What I mean by that is there are several endings to levels in Halo 2 where the gameplay focus changes dramatically from just typical run-and-gunning to focused events the player controls. For example, the mission where you’re on board a falling space station and have to work your way down to escape before crashing to your death, or the mission where you are on a bridge and must fight your way across the important tactical highway in your Scorpion tank.
With us now having several spectacular entries in the Halo franchise it is easy to just focus our awe and appreciation at whichever is the most recent entry at the time, especially since this is a series of shooter games (a genre that tends to make slight, non groundbreaking improvements over-time instead of large overhauls). But Halo 2 to me is the most important entry of the series and is responsible for the Halo universe becoming the phenomenon it has over the past decade. Halo 2 was the perfect improvement in shooter gameplay and story development that captured the attention of millions of young and malleable console gamers, turning them into lifelong Halo fans and rocketing the world of Halo from something that all gamers were familiar with to something that every American, gamer or not, have heard of.