It’s been nearly a decade since Halo 2 graced the f
irst generation Xbox, and while the popularity of the series has died down a bit, Halo still retains a large and passionate fanbase.
So its no surprise hearing such a vocal backlash for Halo 4 upon its release. Every new title in a well-established series is always subject to initial public scrutiny and Halo is no exception. Vocal members of the player population tend to criticize additions or alterations made in a new entry while simultaneously lauding the previous title for being ‘better’. An ‘out with the new, in with the old’ philosophy, if you will.
After some time adjusting to the new title, the vocal minority tends to dwindle in size, become less critical, and the community can once again all be on the same side. Only in the case of Halo 4, the vocal minority quickly transformed into a majority mob.
Complaints arose about balancing issues and new game mechanics clashing with the core gameplay that made Halo so fun to begin with. Simply looking at the numbers, Halo 4 has fallen out of the top 10 most played Xbox titles despite being a console exclusive. Even if more patching was done, its hard to imagine Halo 4 — or any subsequent Halo title for that matter — living up to fan expectations. A franchise that prides itself on coming out with the next big idea in each subsequent title will eventually run out of gas.
Times weren’t always this tough for the Halo franchise. The first three Halo titles all had ambitious ideas that the players thoroughly enjoyed. Halo 1’s campaign audio was miles ahead of the competition. Instead of a couple repeated lines (think ‘I see the enemy!‘) , Halo 1 treated players to a vast array of dialog that reacted dynamically to the action on screen, bringing the battle to life. Halo 3 introduced Forge mode which allowed players to create modified levels and gametypes. And Halo 2? It brought us almost everything we love and enjoy about multiplayer titles today.
Many will argue that Halo 3 is the best multiplayer entry to date, but for me Halo 2 was, and still is, the crowning jewel in the franchise. At a time when online console gaming was lagging far behind PC gaming, Halo 2 came along and gave console gaming a huge shot of adrenaline and more importantly, legitimacy in the online gaming landscape. I could go on about how Bungie made it easy to play with friends, the ranking system, all the maps, and my affinity for grenades, but then you would have no need to read my article.
This is by no means a de facto list of Halo 2’s greatest elements, but these are the things that immediately come to mind when I reminisce about it. So without further ado, here are my top 5 things that made Halo 2 so iconic:
1. Online Multiplayer
Online gaming has existed for consoles since the Dreamcast, but was relatively clunky in comparison to PC games. Most PC games at the time that were ‘Powered By Gamespy™‘ had a fairly straight forward approach. Click ‘Refresh All’ to get a server list, gloss over the ‘ping’ column, and double click on the server you want to join. Even by the time Microsoft launched Xbox Live in 2002, online gaming was still nowhere near as intuitive. Games that utilized the server list often took significantly longer to retrieve available matches than PC. So long in fact, by the time you got around to attempting to join, the match would more than likely be filled. Connection quality was generally unreliable. The frequency of random disconnects before or during games would put anything EA has done this past year to shame. Unlike PC games, where typically servers let people play until they decide to quit, Xbox titles typically didn’t afford players the opportunity for continuous play. Worse yet, most Xbox games didn’t have a post-match lobby which made repeatedly rounding up friends a chore. During a play session, it was inevitable that after a particular match you’d invite 4 of your friends back for the next match, but only 3 would show up. Did that one player log off? Is he/she tied up at the moment? You’re then left with a choice: either start the match assuming the player logged off, wait and hope the player comes back, or start a match and then get hammered with messages begging everyone to quit so that player can rejoin the group.
There really wasn’t a blueprint for how the online component should function or operate on consoles. When Halo 2 launched in November 2004, it took the value of a Xbox Live subscription to new heights, transforming it into something more than just a friends list and a gamertag.
The multiplayer suite was highly refined, intuitive, and above all else fun. Halo 2’s lobby system made rounding up friends and configuring a game a breeze. Gone were the days of backing out and restarting a lobby to switch from custom games to matchmaking. Merely choose one of the playlists — ranging from Team Slayer and Double Team to Big Team Battle and Team Objective — and the game would drop you and all your friends straight into battle. Want to switch things up and play a custom game? Press a few buttons and get going on some matches of SWAT CTF or Tower of Power. Better still, the lobby screen displayed what parameters were setup for the game. Definitely handy information if you didn’t want to get stuck playing a no-time limit CTF match. And the connection quality? No other console title was even close to the rock solid netcode present in Halo 2.
Halo 2 opted for a ‘quick-match’ solution as opposed to utilizing a server list. Typically, I prefer server lists, but I quickly began to appreciate Bungie’s matchmaking preference thanks to another ingenious idea: the ranking system.
It was abundantly apparent that Microsoft’s TrueSkill system was a farce. Advertised as a set of complex mathematical equations that would pair you with similarly skilled players, it never seemed to function as intended. One match you could be playing against a team of bullet sponges in Rainbow Six 3, the next you could be on the receiving end of a headshot from across the map. Bungie’s skill system was simple and effective. Players were assigned a numerical value (1-50) which was prominently displayed next to their gamertag. If you performed well or your team won, your rank went up. If you performed poorly or your team lost, your rank went down. Not only did ranks provide a fairly accurate barometer of how your opponents and teammates would perform, but it also provided player incentive to get to rank 50. What did this magical rank 50 do for players? Other than bragging rights, the number was fairly trivial. Nevertheless, the ranking system encouraged players to finish their games as to not be penalized for quitting early.
User controllable vehicles were a bit of a rarity amongst the shooter genre throughout the 00’s. Battlefield 1942 was the only other notable title to include them, but where 1942 had vehicles in quantity, Halo had them in quality with more iconic design and a superior physics engine.
Although vehicles have always been apart of the franchise, Halo 2 was the first time you were able to drive around with friends online. For me, nothing could beat riding around with a teammate in the Warthog. Whether it was trying to get through the wheel on Zanzibar, bringing the enemy flag back to base on Coagulation, or weaving in-and-out of the ribs on Burial Mounds, vehicle gameplay felt like it was deeply woven into the game’s DNA. Vehicles weren’t there just to occupy space. They could significantly shift the tide of a match.
Some of the most exhilarating moments of Halo 2 wouldn’t be possible without vehicles. Take for instance the Warthog on Zanzibar during a CTF match. In the event the attacking team gets a hold of the flag, they have to escape the base, get through (or around) the wheel, and finally drive behind the sea wall before they are out of enemy sight lines. This 10-15 second drive can prove to be extremely tense as you’re avoiding sniper fire, rockets, and grenades that can potentially flip the Warthog over.
Though vehicular mayhem in the modern multiplayer landscape is now more commonplace in games like Planetside 2 and Battlefield 4, Halo 2 was clearly ahead of its time.
Halo 2’s map list ranks as arguably the best of all time. Take one dash of Halo 1 classics — including Coagulation (Blood Gulch), Beaver Creek (Battle Creek) and Elongation (Longest) — and add a dash of new favorites — Ascension, Ivory Tower, Lockout, Midship to name a handful – and you have countless hours of fun. A lot of the maps scaled nicely to work well with 2-8 players so you didn’t feel obligated just to play the same few maps repeatedly.
What’s even better is how Bungie paired each map with a particular objective based gametype in matchmaking. It’s impossible to think about Elongation without CTF, Burial Grounds without Assault, or Ivory Tower without Oddball. For Team Doubles, one-flag CTF was easily my favorite gametype. I remember the tense moments playing one-flag CTF on Lockout with a 2 minute timer trying to run out in the open and grab the flag. Unfortunately, you had to keep an eye out for potential enemy fire from no less than 6 different spots. Ascension was just as tense, especially if you didn’t have control of the rocket launcher.
The point I’m making is that even though the maps scaled fairly well to multiple gametypes and players, each map had unique characteristics that made them specifically suited for certain gametypes and playstyles. If you prefer close range combat, chances are you should vote for Beaver Creek over Coagulation. Looking for a sniper duel? Ascension is probably more up your alley than Midship. Whatever I was in the mood for any particular day, I knew exactly what map and what game type I wanted. And even if other players didn’t vote my way, I never felt as if I was about to play a terrible map.
4. Weapon Balancing
Echoing the sentiments of our fearless leader, keeping things simple can sometimes be for the best. Halo 2’s biggest changes were “nerfing” the pistol (yes, the pistol) and including dual wielding. What was interesting about dual wielding is it afforded players an opportunity to come out victorious in CQB situations. Some players weren’t comfortable using grenades, so in the event you were going up against someone with a BR, it at least gave you more of a puncher’s chance than using the AR.
The pistol, as we once knew it, was no more. The magnum visually was the most reminiscent of the pistol, but no longer did it have the 2x scope or the incredible range of the original pistol. In its place, Bungie introduced players to the BR. The BR had the same 2x scope as the Halo 1 pistol, but instead of firing a single shot laser, the BR fired a 3-shot burst that had a smidgen of bullet spread. In close proximity, the bullet spread was hard to notice. But as distance increased, connecting with all shots in one burst became more and more difficult. This nuance in weapon balancing is part of what makes Halo 2’s gameplay so fun. The bullet spread isn’t always the same, so while there’s quite a bit of skill involved, the element of chance plays a small role in who succeeds in long distance battles.
Ultimately, what makes or breaks a Halo player is the art of a well-placed grenade. Master Chief has clearly been hitting the gym because in Halo 2, he has an absolute cannon for an arm when it comes to tossing grenades. This can be handy, particularly when you trap a wounded player behind cover. See, in Halo 2, players don’t have sprint available to them. So when an enemy ends up retreating, its much easier to guess where there proximal distance is from their last known location and toss a grenade to finish them off.
Another thing I like about simplicity: no weapon unlocks. With plenty of time to spare, earning a multitude of XP based unlocks might seem like fun. But when free time starts to come at a premium, it’s nice to just have all the weapons available at your disposal right from the get go. The same arsenal is available to every player, every match. It’s a lot easier just having to worry about which power weapon spawn enemies are camping rather than the OP weapons and attachments they’ve unlocked.
5. The Community
Halo 2’s social aspect extended well beyond the online battleground. Dynamic gameplay when playing alongside and against players online is great, but nothing exemplifies the human element more than LAN parties. All you needed to get going was 2 consoles, 2 TV’s, a crossover cable (or a Linksys BEFSR41 Router aka THE WORST ROUTER EVER), and 1 controller per person to make a LAN party happen. One of the winning incentives my buddies and I made up was the losing team of each match had to play on the smaller of the two TV’s. Incentives like that are impossible to recreate in the online realm.
Even if you had to give up your controller, LAN games were just as much fun to watch as they were to play. And clearly, others took notice as well. In 2002, MLG was founded with Halo being one of its featured titles. Halo may have been the beginning of competitive console gaming, but Halo 2 sent it into another stratosphere. No longer did you need to head to a tournament to play with the best or figure out how to setup port forwarding on your router so it would work with XBConnect. Halo 2 let you do that easily from the comfort of your couch.
The community was also producing great original content as well. I used to visit halo.bungie.org to check out things like the hidden campaign weapon, skull locations, or how to super bounce. The very popular Red vs. Blue series was spawned using Halo as a backdrop. Humorously, Rooster Teeth used the launch of Halo 2 as an opportunity to get Sarge and the gang out of Blood Gulch. And does anyone remember this rap video by FSR? All of this peripheral content helped cement Halo 2’s iconic reputation in the gaming arena as well as pop culture.
And the best part about the community? Nearly everyone used their microphone. I’ll be lucky nowadays to see more than 3 people in a week using their microphone in a game. There’s little risk of running into a troll anymore, but I prefer the old days when I could easily communicate with all of my teammates.
Even the ones I didn’t get along with.
If I was only allowed to make one point about why Halo 2 was such an iconic title in gaming, I would simply point to the dedicated fanbase that stuck around well after release. In 2007, Halo 2 received another wave of DLC. Think about that for a second: a previous-gen title was still getting downloadable content nearly 3 years after it was released, and nearly 2 years after a more powerful console was launched. For a title to receive post-launch support for that long is almost unheard of, especially in today’s era of yearly releases and season passes.
Halo 4 players can’t wait for the ride to be over. Halo 2 fans never wanted it to end.
Do you think Halo 2 is an iconic title? Is it the most iconic of the series? Let us know in the comments below!