Halo 2 on the PC offers an inferior experience to that of the Xbox, so if you want to play this first-person shooter as it was meant to be played, the console version is the one to get.
Like Golden Eye and Perfect Dark before it, Halo: Combat Evolved revolutionized the first-person shooter genre. Not only did Bungie’s masterpiece proved that playing first-person shooters were possible in consoles, but the developer also crafted a terrific game in its own right. Although the game was far from perfect (the library level immediately comes to mind,) Halo was a fantastic title that had a terrific narrative, beautifully designed environments, a great balance of weapons, drivable vehicles that were fun to use and an outstanding artificial intelligence. Halo 2 has all that and much more and no fan of the franchise should miss it. Unfortunately, online play is no longer supported and the PC version doesn’t have a staggering number of new features to make me recommend it over the console version.
The first change you’ll notice about Halo 2 is that structurally, this sequel is fundamentally different to its predecessor. This time around, not only do you assume the role of Master Chief, but also one of his enemies: a Covenant Elite known as the Arbiter. As soon as the game starts, you’ll see the contrast between humans and covenants. While Master Chief is welcomed as a hero for destroying Halo at the end of the first game, the Arbiter is called a heretic in front of everyone and sent to prison for failing the mission. Soon enough though, both characters will find themselves in the middle of an intergalactic war and you’ll need to play both of these parts to understand the story. Still, the plot is serviceable and little else, since this is a generic science fiction opera. The gameplay, on the other hand, is fluid and eminently satisfying.
There are some innovations in terms of mechanics. For starters, you can dual wield most weapons which means that you can use two of the same weapons or combine different ones in creative new ways. When you dual wield, you shoot using the two mouse buttons (or the two triggers on the controller) which is convenient and intuitive. As you would expect, not every weapon in the game can be dual wielded, so some of the largest weapons like the rifle, sword or rocket launcher can be used one at a time. Additionally, when you’re playing as a covenant, you can equip a sword which can kill most enemies in one or two hits, but has limited energy and a short range.
Also, the number of vehicles has increased. Apart from the trusty Banshee, there’s a heavy tank known as Scorpion. This large vehicle is really slow, but has the ability to destroy anything that blocks its path. Apart from the person who pilots it, the Scorpion can take a couple of allies on the side who can shoot rockets from a large distance, something that comes in handy when there are some obnoxious enemies on the horizon.
Of course, another new feature is the significant visual upgrade. Back when it was originally released, Halo 2 was one of the best-looking games on the market. Of course, the game doesn’t make the same impact nowadays, but it holds up remarkably well from a visual standpoint. Also, effects like the rechargeable shield, the enemy design and some of the large-scale fights look stunning. It’s also worth pointing out that environments are much more varied this time around (you fight inside spaceships, on Earth, in space and so on.) The only problem is that some of the faces of human characters look weird and artificial. The sound department deserves a mention as well. The Halo franchise has always characterized for its memorable soundtrack and this entry is no exception. Apart from the iconic hymns we all recognize, there are several songs that really set the mood for the larger fights.
In terms of pacing, Halo 2 does a terrific job of never forcing you to do the same things over and over which was definitely a problem with the original Halo. To be clear, you spend most of your time shooting, but since you’re always doing it in a diverse number of places and from different perspective (on foot, using turrets, from the back of tanks and so on) that the campaign never grows stale. The only thing that ruins the otherwise terrific pace is the rudimentary checkpoint system which means that when you die, the game loads the last checkpoint, forcing you to play that last section again. Luckily, the checkpoint system saves quite often, but for a PC port, the developers should have included the possibility of saving whenever and wherever you wanted.
The single-player campaign isn’t that long (finishing the game on the normal difficulty should take you around 10 hours) and it’s enjoyable, but there’s a problem. The adventure ends in an abrupt cliffhanger that made a lot of people mad back in the day, since it doesn’t solve anything. But that’s not all, the ending (which again is unexpected and abrupt) states that you need to wait for Halo 3 to see the true conclusion to the trilogy.
The narrative might have some problems, but the compatibility issues on the PC are even worse. For those unfamiliar, Halo 2 for the PC was exclusive for Windows Vista and that means that users with older operating systems won’t be able to play the game at all. If, on the other hand, you have Windows 7 or a newer operating system, there are ways around this compatibility issue, but you might run into some technical problems. For instance, I was playing with an Xbox 360 controller and from time to time, the game didn’t let me use the right analog stick, so I couldn’t aim properly. It’s hard to say if this is an issue with the way in which the controller was configured, an OS-related problem or an incompatible driver, but it was a recurrent issue and I died several times because of that.
Also, Halo 2’s online servers were closed a long time ago, which means that the multiplayer portion (one of the best parts about the Halo franchise) is no longer accessible on the PC. If you really want to dive into the online modes, I’m pretty sure there are some unofficial mods and patches that let you play it, but they aren’t the best solution. To be fair, playing online on Xbox Live isn’t possible either, since the service ended in 2010, but at least the Xbox version runs better than the PC one.
Halo 2 is hard to review in its current form. The PC version is full of caveats that can ruin your enjoyment, including problems with the controls, lack of online modes, compatibility problems with operating systems that aren’t Vista and more. The campaign holds up remarkably well, but the technical issues, offensive cliffhanger and draconian requirements, make Halo 2 an amazing single-player experience that you should play on the Xbox.