Price: £6.99 (£39.99 for Master Chief Collection)
Developer: Bungie/Saber Interactive/343 Industries
The gradual arrival of the Halo series on PC has been far from perfect. While still a competent shooter, Halo: Reach struggled to hide the ravages of time when it launched in December last year. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary fared a little better, but was let down by its shoddy remaster on behalf of Saber Interactive, one that sucked out much of the atmosphere of the original game.
With Halo 2, however, the Master Chief collection has finally come into its own, providing a decent port of a great remaster, while Halo 2 itself holds up much better than either Combat Evolved or Reach.
There are multiple reasons why Halo 2’s remaster succeeds where Halo Anniversary did not. Saber Interactive clearly learned a lot in the three years between 2011 and 2014 when these remasters were developed. But the Halo 2 Remaster’s success also has a lot to do with Halo 2 itself.
Whereas the original Halo’s environments have an austere beauty to them, Halo 2 is a largely dull morass of grey and beige environments, an early adopter of the dingy brown aesthetic that would dominate shooters in the 360/PS3 era. Halo 2 was originally meant to feature Doom 3-style dynamic lighting and shadows, but this feature was removed mid-development, presumably because the original Xbox couldn’t handle it. The result is that most of the environments look terribly flat and desaturated.
Halo 2 anniversary introduces the lighting Halo 2 was supposed to have, as well as overhauling the environments with HD textures and swapping out character models for modern equivalents. The result is by far the best-looking Halo game of the Master Chief Collection. Halo 2 has much more environmental variety than the original, taking you from Earth to a new Halo ring, to a Covenant base and beyond. Saber Interactive’s remaster really emphasises on that variety, bringing colour and vibrance to the sun-soaked city-blocks of New Mombasa, the lush tropical paradise of the Delta Ring, and the clinical oppressiveness of the Covenant’s High Charity station.
The remaster doesn’t stop at the visual either. Saber Interactive has also completely remastered Halo 2’s audio. This arguably adds even more to the experience than the improved graphics. The reworked score by Skywalker Sound is fantastic, if a touch bombastic at certain moments. The most tangible improvement, however, is to ambient and weapon sounds, the latter of which lend palpable of weight and power to Halo 2’s arsenal. The Battle Rifle, which feels flimsy and unsatisfying in Halo Reach, is one of my favourite weapons in Halo 2. When you’re wielding the game’s dual submachineguns, Halo 2’s combat feels downright tremendous.
The quality of the combat isn’t purely down the remaster, however. Halo 2 improved considerably upon the combat of the original. The addition of duel wielding might seem like a small change, but it dramatically alters the rhythm of the combat. The player is now capable of dishing out far more damage-per-second, and consequently Bungie is able to up the intensity of the combat to match. Indeed, Halo 2 can be a surprisingly challenging experience. Console-centric shooters tend to be a breeze on PC due to the added precision of mouse control, but I had to think very carefully about how I approached some of Halo 2’s combat encounters.
Halo 2 also includes some fantastically-thought out set-pieces, such as the Master Chief’s early assault on a gigantic Scarab unit as it plods through New Mombasa’s street, and the Arbiter’s attack on a rebel Covenant station as plummets through a planet’s atmosphere. One of the most spectacular levels is simply called “The Bridge” and see Master Chief piloting a tank across a huge suspension bridge while blasting a small army of Covenant vehicles into scrap as they assault from the far side.
Generally, the combat has a much greater variety to it too. Halo 2 introduces several new weapons, from the aforementioned Battle Rifle and the submachineguns, to the wonderfully powerful Sentinel Beam. Enemy types have also been expanded, introducing Brutes and those annoying Locust-type enemies. One of the most interesting changes is that the Flood can now pilot vehicles as well as the Covenant, which results in surreal vehicular battles against Flood-driven Warthogs.
Of the three Halo games currently available on PC, Halo 2 the best structured and, pound for pound most entertaining of the lot. That said, there are still problems. The first half of Halo 2 is undoubtedly better than the second, which falls into the same trap of Halo’s mid-game of overly repeating combat encounters. Although it doesn’t happen as often, there are times when you’ll walk into a room and realise that you’ve been in it before. Some of the levels also go on for far too long.
Meanwhile, the AI seems to have taken a blow to the head somewhere between Combat Evolved and Halo 2. Elites will often stand around as grenades tick away at their feet, while Brutes will often wait for your shields to recharge instead of hunting you down. Moreover, while I mostly enjoyed Halo 2’s level of challenge, the later stages have a tendency to gank the player, filling an area with snipers who cut you down the moment you enter, or swarming you with Brutes.
Lastly, the multiplayer is still fraught with issues, from co-op campaign netcode simply not functioning properly, to competitive multiplayer suffering bizarre bugs like shotguns killing other players while pointed at the ground, and rockets spawning behind the player who fires it and hitting them in the back. From all reports, 343 are on the case with the multiplayer, but this is the third time running that the multiplayer has launched to severe issues, and the studio really needs to get its act together regarding Halo multiplayer launches.
If you’re here for Halo 2 multiplayer, then it’s probably worth waiting a bit for 343 to fix the problems. If you’re here for a single-player campaign, however, then I can happily recommend Halo 2. It’s the first of the bunch that I have consistently enjoyed, offering a spectacular campaign bolstered by a genuinely good remaster. In a way it’s a shame that from here we’ll be stepping back in time again to the un-remastered Halo 3, although it’ll be interesting to see how that much-loved title holds up after thirteen years.
November 6 2020 | 17:30