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The Next Generation

Before I get started, welcome to 2021! 🎉

As I casually dropped in my last article, I was lucky enough to preorder an Xbox Series X for launch day. The Series X, Series S, and PlayStation 5 are impressive machines, without question, though Microsoft and Sony (to a lesser extent) have launched with perhaps a pair of fairly lackluster launch day lineups. Of course, this new generation of Xboxes was supposed to launch with Halo: Infinite which would have satisfied a huge swath of Xbox devotees. That release getting pushed back was a major fail, but as a Halo fan I’m hopeful that the Halo: Infinite we end up with will be better for it.

Sharing is caring, after all.
“Sharing is caring, after all.”

Beyond that one glaring issue, Microsoft treating the Series X|S as more of an extension of the Xbox One rather than an entirely new console generation suits me quite well. I’ll most definitely continue taking advantage of the Xbox One’s expansive library, which of course includes backwards compatibility with many Xbox 360 games and some original Xbox titles as well, only now with improved loading speeds and other enhancements. There’s also at least one Xbox One game I’ve been wanting to play that reportedly ran terribly on the original Xbox One that I’ve purposely delayed playing until I could upgrade to the Series X, actually, and given that I skipped over upgrading to the Xbox One X, this really is a notable jump in performance for me, even while still rocking a 1080p TV.

One more practical change, as minor as it might be, is the Xbox controller is finally catching up to the PS4’s with the addition of a “share” button, meaning I can at long last capture my own action shots of Xbox games with ease instead of having to plunder the nether regions of the Internet for screenshots for some of these blog posts. I know most people won’t care about this feature but, having already used it extensively for my Halo 3 game log, I can say I’m a fan.

Captain Spirit, ready to beat some Mantroid ass!
“Captain Spirit, ready to beat some Mantroid ass!”

I’ve not just been using my shiny new Xbox Series X to play ports of 13 year old Xbox 360 games though! My girlfriend and I had also started playing Life is Strange 2 just before the Series X launch, and managed to transition to playing the remaining episodes on the Series X with ease thanks to the wonder of automatic cloud saves. Life is Strange 2 is a much newer game, of course, but it’s not Series X|S enhanced, nor was it really pushing the hardware of even the original Xbox One, but hey, we have to start somewhere, right?

As I’d recommend to anyone reading this, we started our playthrough with The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. In this free mini-episode you play as Chris, a young boy who lives a somewhat isolated life due to the difficulty his father is facing coping with the death of Chris’s mother. Chris is able to compensate a bit better by leaning into his huge imagination, with Captain Spirit being his superhero alter ego, for example. The game itself is typical Life is Strange fare, with the player navigating Chris through a variety of tasks around his home. The “slice of life” stuff is quite strong in this one, and Dontnod manages to paint a compelling picture of these characters in the short time we’re with them. We both left this episode really rooting for Chris and hoping to see him make a proper appearance in Life is Strange 2.

Exploring the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
“Exploring the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.”

In Life is Strange 2 you play as Sean, a teenager living with his dad and little brother in Seattle. Starting off with more slice of life mundanities, shit quickly escalates in unexpected and tragic ways, with Sean’s brother Daniel exhibiting some sort of supernatural powers (a recurring theme in Life is Strange, apparently) Sean and Daniel find themselves all alone and on the run. Without getting too much further into spoiler territory, this sets up the rest of the game as we follow Sean and Daniel’s journey, with the relationship between the brothers being the real highlight of both the story and the mechanics.

You’re constantly faced with decisions about how Sean interacts with Daniel, how you let him behave, and yes, how (and when) you let him use his powers. I personally took a very careful approach with him, always attempting to be a good influence on him despite the difficult situations we often found ourselves in throughout the course of the game, while also giving him an appropriate modicum of freedom and respect that children often crave but so rarely receive. That’s a bit more of a balancing act than you might think though, but I almost always left every episode satisfied with how I’d played as Sean when looking at the end of episode statistics.

With great kid brother power comes great older brother responsibility.
“With great kid brother power comes great older brother responsibility.”

It really is kind of an interesting take, not being the person with the power, but instead being the person next to the person with the power. In that way, the whole experience is a bit more grounded than the first Life is Strange, perhaps feeling a bit more like Before the Storm. The similarities don’t stop there though. Life is Strange 2 really focuses on those “slice of life” moments, character building, and decisions which were the real focus of BtS. Attempts to shoe in puzzles or action sequences are barely there at all, and I think that fits the tone of the stories Dontnod seems to like to tell better overall, personally.

The game has a similar look to the original Life is Strange and Before the Storm, though, again, as with BtS, leans into the stylization just a tiny bit more, and for the better. Like the former two games, it definitely has moments where the visuals really work, especially when paired with another fantastic Syd Matters soundtrack and some talented voice actors. The writing (notably, the character dialog) is also worlds better than what we encountered in the first Life is Strange. I do think I had more minor bugs and technical glitches in Life is Strange 2 though, especially in later episodes, but nothing terrible enough to ruin my experience – just oddities like odd bits of clipping, overlapping dialog, that kind of thing.

Sean's journal entries are short and (usually) fun.
“Sean’s journal entries are short and (usually) fun.”

The new backpack and journal system is a nice upgrade from the former games. This both expands on those titles’ similar systems, yet somehow simultaneously makes it less intrusive. The journal entries are much more terse, consisting mostly of short thoughts, notes, and sketches related to recent events rather than the more complete transcriptions of the story, so they don’t take too long to review, yet still add a nice bit of extra exposition. This is particularly useful when it comes to filling the gaps from several timeline leaps that occur throughout the story.

Speaking of sketches, Sean’s a bit of an artist, and you’ll have several opportunities to sketch in your journal throughout the game. While the sketching mechanic itself feels a little half baked, the sketches themselves are pretty cool, and sitting down to sketch is yet another “slice of life” that serves to connect you with Sean. Like the photograph and graffiti mechanics from the former titles, this is basically a “collectible” system, though LiS2 also features a more tradition one of those too, where you can find various odd items in the world and squirrel them away in your inventory for achievements out of game, and the ability to use many of them to decorate your backpack in game. Fairly pointless, but a fun little addition.

After finishing the game, this one brings the feels.
“After finishing the game, this one brings the feels.”

Back to the more important stuff though, the story eventually reaches its end, culminating in a final decision. In an interesting twist, keeping with the theme of Sean guiding his younger brother, the decision ends up not being yours alone. Whatever you pick is paired with Daniel’s response based on who he has become by that point in the game, which itself is dictated by numerous other decisions, both major and minor, you made regarding him throughout. The endings vary quite a bit, with one of them being pretty insane, and while there are ultimately only four endings with some variations thrown in, this felt far superior to the absolutely binary choice and corresponding ending you got at the end of Life is Strange. I was pretty happy with my ending, for the record!

Despite some significant hype from some reviewers and podcasts I frequent, Life is Strange 2 managed to avoid letting me down. I’m happy with Dontnod’s decision to only very loosely connect Life is Strange 2 to Life is Strange, as getting to know new characters in new settings, and in new situations, was a lot more interesting than needlessly rehashing the events of Life is Strange yet again. While it didn’t emotionally affect me quite as much as either of the previous games, it definitely still did, and that remains a rare, powerfully compelling thing to encounter in a game.

Something a bit more appropriate to let my Series X flex just a little, was Star Wars: Squadrons.

X-wing versus Star Destroyer. Classic!
“X-wing versus Star Destroyer. Classic!”

I’m a big fan of the old LucasArts X-wing series and I’ve wished for something resembling a proper sequel for ages now. The closest was perhaps the Jump to Lightspeed expansion for Star Wars Galaxies, which while kind of cool in its own right, wasn’t quite a fit, never mind being attached to an expansive MMORPG weighing it down. Now with Star Wars: Squadrons, Motive, likely inspired by their work on the space battles from Battlefront II, has come out with a modern, online focused Star Wars space combat game of its own that is clearly heavily influenced by those older games.

I’m not sure where my expectations were when first checking the game out. I mean, EA made no secret that Squadrons was going to be a bit of a budget game, but it feels and looks plenty polished to me, pretty much nailing those Star Wars aesthetics. Zipping around a Star Destroyer in an X-wing, rolling and turning as you try to evade the Tie Interceptor on your tail, laser fire and explosions all around you? Yeah, it just looks flat out amazing if you’re a Star Wars nerd like me. The intermission cutscenes and in-game world menus (somewhat aping those seen in the original X-wing games and it’s ilk, such as Wing Commander) look reasonably nice too, despite them feeling more aimed at PC players using VR than fans of those old titles. Oh, and yes, there is full VR support here too! I don’t have a VR headset myself, but if I ever get one, Squadrons will be high on my list of games to try it out with.

Boring conversations in boring hangers.
“Boring conversations in boring hangers.”

Despite being online focused, there is a single player campaign. I feel like it gets a bit of a bad rap, often being described as little more than a glorified tutorial, but it certainly feels like a full enough campaign to me. You’re tossed back and forth between pilots for the Empire, still reeling from the Emperor’s death, and the emboldened New Republic, who are looking to capitalize on their recent victories by building a super weapon of their own. I think it’s story is… adequate. It’s not terrible, and it certainly does a fine job of giving you a reason to be in the cockpit, which is the main thing, but it’s all a little ho-hum. I found talking to your fellow pilots and other NPCs between missions similarly unfulfilling. I just didn’t find many of them very interesting, honestly.

Once in the cockpit the scenarios you’re put into are much more appealing, thankfully. There’s a fair amount of variety in set pieces and objectives, and some of the battles actually managed to remind me of those good old days playing Tie Fighter for hours on end. The biggest difference is perhaps the lack of mundane tasks and dead time in missions that often comes with simulation games, and was certainly a big part of the original X-wing series. A few times in a few missions aside, you’re always hopping from fight to fight, rarely out of the action for very long. I haven’t decided if that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting as a significant difference, at least.

The campaign is pretty fun though!
“The campaign is pretty fun though!”

It took me longer than it seems like it took most people to work my way through the campaign’s 14 missions, but after doing so, I immediately dove into the game’s practice mode which functions as a bit of a sandbox, complete with obstacle courses to race though, Fleet Battles tutorial, and then into the Fleet Battles vs AI mode, which you can run solo or coop with up to 4 other players. Fleet Battles is the main online game mode, and while the formula will probably eventually get a tiny bit old (at least versus AI) I’m intrigued by the design, which seems to borrow some concepts (most notably “creeps”) from MOBAs. It also contains phases similar to those games, though defines them in terms of fronts like some strategy games that attempt to simulate battle lines.

Each side starts out with their team of 5 players, a bunch of AI creeps. A flagship and two cruisers hold each team’s backline, while a smaller capital ship heads out to attack the enemy. Whoever wins this phase progresses to the next phase, in which they must attempt to take down the enemy cruisers. Winning that, results in a phase to finally destroy the flagship. These phases aren’t static though, and if the losing side manages to do enough damage to players (or farm enough AI creeps!) while avoiding taking too much themselves, they’ll push the winning side back and progress to the next phase themselves. This back and forth can continue for a while depending on how quickly the players can manage to take down the capital ships, and can be pretty dramatic at times, with victories pulled from the brink of total defeat not being all that uncommon. It’s a pretty cool system that mixes some objectives in with the dogfighting, while also letting us feel like we’re in the midst of a larger battle.

Maximum Star Warsiness.
“Maximum Star Warsiness.”

There are four classes of ship you can select between lives (or swap out by flying into your flagship’s hanger) like which can all be geared and used somewhat differently, while still allowing for a fair amount of overlap. The gear you can unlock and equip can be adjusted for different purposes and preferences, but that feels more about flexibility than catering to flavor of the moment easy button meta builds. There’s also a system for unlocking cosmetic items for your pilot, your ship, and your ship’s cockpit. The whole unlock system is clearly just there for the sake of providing players with some kind of progression, but it doesn’t provide any sort of edge, and works well enough. Plus, who doesn’t want a Grogu (ok, “Baby Yoda”) bobble head on their ship’s dashboard?!

I feel like going much further into the game’s mechanics would be digging into the weeds more than anyone would likely want to read, especially coming from someone who has barely even played online where real tactics and skill are developed. If you’re interested, there are all kinds of YouTube channels and streamers with a lot more expertise than I have putting out content. Here’s one I like, for instance. This is the type of game I do wish I had a crew for though, as I can imagine sinking a ton of hours into this thing with an organized team would be insanely fun, but for numerous reasons, the timing just wasn’t right to attempt to pull something together. In any case, even without playing it online much, I love the game and am definitely happy with my purchase. If you’re a fan of the old X-wing series (or any of its contemporaries) and don’t mind the more competitive, online nature of the game, it’s hard not to give it a solid recommendation, but even if you’d rather stay out of the online lobbies completely, you might just get enough fun out of it to justify your $40.

Fleet Battles is the gift that keeps on giving.
“Fleet Battles is the gift that keeps on giving.”

One more interesting thing about Star Wars: Squadrons is that despite announcing close to its launch that they wouldn’t be releasing any new content for it, Motive has continued to put out patches, new cosmetics, a new map, and they’ve even recently added two new ships – my beloved B-wing is now in the game to round out the classic roster of Rebel Alliance ships! This is all unpaid content, I should mention, because on paper this game definitely sounds like it could be yet another cynical microtransaction cash grab. Anyway, I imagine (and hope) that all of this continued support is due to the game being quite a bit more successful than originally planned. Fingers crossed that it’s done well enough to justify a future, larger sequel!

The Squadrons screenshots are mine, though the Life is Strange 2 shots were sourced from Steam Communities. I didn’t want to annoy my girlfriend with constant capture notification spam while playing through it with her.

Halo Fest 2020: Halo 3

The Story So Far: Taking blame for the loss of Halo Installation 04, an Elite commander is tried for heresy. He’s given the opportunity to become the Arbiter, a position that serves at the Covenant leadership’s behest to embark on special, typically suicidal missions in order to atone for his failures. The Arbiter is then dispatched to recover 343 Guilty Spark. Meanwhile, a small Covenant fleet led by one of the Covenant leaders, the Prophet of Regret, arrives near Earth. During the ensuing battle, Regret’s ship gets through Earth’s defenses and begins to assault the city of New Mombasa. As the battle turns, Regret retreats, making a slipspace jump right above the city. The UNSC frigate that Master Chief and Cortana are on manages to jump along with them, arriving at another Halo installation. Master Chief and the small UNSC force with him head to the surface to prevent this new Halo from being activated and the Master Chief manages to kill the Prophet of Regret. The main Covenant fleet jumps in and the Arbiter is dispatched to intervene. While successful in stopping the humans, the Arbiter is then betrayed by Tartarus, the commander of the Brutes, as they assume the Elite’s power within the Covenant. As a civil war between the Brutes and the Elites breaks out, both the Master Chief and the Arbiter find themselves held captive by an intelligent Flood creature called the Gravemind. The Gravemind reveals to the Arbiter that he’s been lied to and then sends them both to stop the activation of the Halo installation; Master Chief to the Covenant’s mobile capital city High Charity and the Arbiter to stop Tartarus on the Halo installation. The Arbiter, teaming up with some of the remaining UNSC forces, succeeds in stopping Tartarus though, interrupting the activation already in progress, a failsafe system engages, threatening to remotely activate all of the remaining Halos. As the Flood begin to overrun High Charity, Master Chief tracks the last of the Covenant leaders, the Prophet of Truth, to an ancient Forerunner dreadnought in the city. The Master Chief manages to hitch a ride just as the ship takes off and jumps to Earth while Cortana remains behind to finish dealing with the Halo installation, and inadvertently, the Gravemind.

Unlike Halo 2, I was actually anticipating the release of Halo 3. As mentioned in my last post, I was actively working on finishing off the original Xbox games on my backlog before finally migrating to the Xbox 360, and I capped off the effort by purposely lining up another playthrough of Halo: CE and my first real playthrough of Halo 2 with the release of Halo 3. This felt like the perfect transition from one generation to the next and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with the last installment of the trilogy. Probably more significantly, Halo 3 also became a highly social game between me and a few different groups of friends which continued on to some degree through the life of Halo: Reach. So many Xbox Live Slayer matches, innumerable in-person get-togethers for couch matches, custom game types and house rules, custom maps via Forge, coop over Live, etc. Halo 3’s multiplayer was for me, I suppose, what Halo 2’s was for so many Halo fans, and I look back on those times quite fondly.

Master Chief and the Arbiter, back together again!
“Master Chief and the Arbiter, back together again!”

So, playing the campaign for only the second time, I once again relied on the Master Chief Collection for Xbox One. This time I played it on my new Series X, which on my 1080p TV, only really benefits me in Halo 3 by way of quicker loading times. In any case, I mentioned last time that I was worried about playing this game right after playing the beautifully remastered version of Halo 2, but I’m glad to report that I have zero regrets. Despite lacking the extra layer of graphical flourish that Halo 2 Anniversary brought, Halo 3 still looks absolutely gorgeous today. Its only major shortcomings come down to some fairly hideous human faces and some jerky character animation during cutscenes, neither of which are an issue for the vast majority of the game.

As far as the game itself goes, I don’t know if it was actually a stated design goal for Halo 3, but if Halo 2 was “quite a different animal than the original Halo: Combat Evolved” (as I said in my Halo 2 post) than Halo 3 seemed to make purposeful efforts to find a middle ground between the two games, taking a lot of the best additions and changes brought by Halo 2 and smoothing over the rough edges just a bit, often taking a half step back towards Halo: CE. It’s not incredibly easy to summarize, but it feels blatant to me when playing the three games back to back like this.

Ahhh, my beloved AR. Fits like an old glove!
“Ahhh, my beloved AR. Fits like an old glove!”

Any weapon I had complaints about in Halo 2 feel much improved for one. The shotgun, being one I explicitly mentioned last time, is a perfect example of a “half step back” Halo 3 takes – while the rate of fire is still lower than Halo: CE’s shotgun, it definitely feels faster than Halo 2’s, and its range feels a lot closer to Halo: CE’s as well. Additionally, dual wielding no longer comes off like a gimmick that Bungie really wants you to test out, but just a handy thing you can do when it feels advantageous to do so. Oh, and the damn assault rifle is back! Melee feels reasonably powerful again too! Hoo-fucking-ray! While vehicle damage is largely unchanged, vehicles do at least seem a bit more resilient this time around – no more hopping into a vehicle to have it shot to pieces all around you within seconds.

Of course Bungie added some new things as well. Halo 2’s selection of weapons is further expanded with more Brute weapons such as the Mauler, the Spiker, the Spike Grenade, and the Gravity Hammer, and there’s some other goodies like the legendary Spartan Laser. There’s also the lovely addition of being able to pull mounted guns from their mounts and lug them with you which can’t go without mention despite being more cool than actually useful most times. Of course we get several new vehicles as well, like the UNSC’s Mongoose ATV and Hornet aircraft. Halo 3 also adds the concept of deployable equipment to go alongside the previously available power-ups. The relatively long list of these includes things like Bubble Shields, Power Drains, Trip Mines, and Gravity Lifts that you can toss out with various effects. These were pretty damn divisive (but pretty damn fun) when it came to multiplayer, but in terms of single player, while they can mix up encounters in some very cool ways, they always felt a little underwhelming to me. Having such a variety of equipment but only being able to hold one at a time meant certain effects couldn’t necessarily be relied upon, which in turned caused me to use them a lot less than I probably should have.

You'd better get used to blowing up Scarabs.
“You’d better get used to blowing up Scarabs.”

Level design was another area of improvement though. Both Halo 3’s open and more linear sections felt more open and more filled with possibilities than Halo 2’s. The pacing, both moment to moment and level to level, felt a lot more even to me as well. You could perhaps argue that Halo 3’s campaign was less “epic” than Halo 2’s, where each level felt more like its own interesting set piece. Hell, not counting the Scarab sections, Halo 3 didn’t even have any real “boss” battles to speak of, save for the very end of the game. You also don’t play as the Arbiter (though he’s often fighting alongside you, available for a second player to jump into when playing cooperatively) which loses that additional perspective on events in the story. Still, while Halo 2 might have had more big, memorable moments, Halo 3 was so much more playable and, well, fun. That extends to difficulty too. Playing through the campaign on “Heroic” again, this time I barely suffered for my choice – gone were the ridiculously bullet sponginess of the Brutes, the overabundance of enemies (except for when it made thematic sense, like in the level “Cortana”) and many of the cheaper feeling, frustration fueling deaths.

Flood extermination.
“Flood extermination.”

I’ll sum up Halo 3’s story when I post about Halo 4, but I did want to talk about an underappreciated character real quick: the Gravemind. In Halo: CE when we were originally introduced to the Flood they seemed to be little more than parasites and the mindless zombies they produced. Sure, there was obviously some sort of rudimentary (perhaps hive) intelligence there, but what we got in Halo 2 with the Gravemind was so much more sinister. Whether you realized it or not at the time, throughout the plots of both Halo 2 and Halo 3, the Gravemind successfully manipulated so much of what was occurring. For instance, in Halo 2, while it’s not explicitly explained, it seems clear that it had assumed control of Halo Installation 05 after capturing its caretaker AI, then it was able to capture the In Amber Clad specifically to spread itself to (and take over) High Charity. It then captured and interrogated Cortana, all but completely corrupting her programming and turning her, which surely led to much of what the Flood was able to accomplish in Halo 3. I liked fighting the Flood much more in Halo 3, actually – the new “pure form” was pretty damn cool, for one.

Warthog Run, version 2.0
“Warthog Run, version 2.0”

In so many respects Halo 3 feels like an attempt to make the sequel that some fans of Combat Evolved (like yours truly) wanted but didn’t quite get with Halo 2. Beyond all of the gameplay shifts back towards Halo: CE I mentioned above, there are even more, like how much more time was spent fighting on Earth this time around, addressing a complaint I and others had around Halo 2’s campaign, and how much more active and chattier your UNSC marine companions are. Then there’s all of the Easter eggs and intentional references to the previous games Halo 3 makes, like re-delivered lines and rehashed levels; Hell, the game ends with another (much improved) Warthog run sequence ala Halo: CE. As a fan of the first Halo, of course this all feels like an improvement to me, but more importantly, it was all just so goddamn fun to play through again. It’s the first one of these that, even before finishing, I felt compelled to play more of. Somehow I didn’t have that many fond memories of Halo 3’s campaign going into this, but man, I really loved it this time. Throw in all of the additional multiplayer features and things like Forge and Theater, and this is easily one of the best games in the series, and one of my favorites.

Special delivery!
“Special delivery!”

As an aside, Halo 3 also marks the start of live-action Halo content with what is known as Halo: Landfall as well as these Believe ad campaign shorts. Landfall is made up of three parts that show us some UNSC marines fighting Covenant forces on earth while attempting to locate Master Chief, while Believe shows brief interviews with veteran of those same battles recounting their experiences. While neat, they’re hardly essential, but as I plan on covering some other official Halo related video productions when we get to them, I thought it these were a worthy footnote.

All screenshots by me!? Thanks to the Xbox Series X controller’s new share button I’m finally able to easily grab good screenshots from my Xbox. Fuck yes! I’ve been bitching about this forever.

Halo Fest 2020: Halo 2

The Story So Far: The “Master Chief”, a genetically modified “Spartan” supersoldier, is woken up from cryogenic sleep aboard a UNSC cruiser during an attack by an alien alliance known as the Covenant. With no options left and a plan to crash-land the ship on a mysterious artificial ring world nearby, the Master Chief is entrusted with safeguarding the ship’s AI, Cortana. On the surface of the ring the pair regroups with other survivors skirmishing with Covenant forces and formulates a plan to breach a facility that they hope will direct them to the ring’s central control room. In addition to learning that the Covenant worships the race who originally constructed this “Halo” installation, the Forerunners, Cortana discovers a weapons cache which might help turn the tide of the battle. It turns out that this “weapon” is a sample of a parasitic alien species called the Flood. Accidentally released, the Flood quickly begins to spread, overwhelming both the human survivors and Covenant forces alike. With the assistance of the installation’s caretaker, an AI called 343 Guilty Spark, the pair is guided to the ring’s control room so they can activate its defenses. Cortana stops the activation at the last moment, having learned about the nature of the defenses in question – the installation itself is a superweapon designed to combat the Flood by eradicating all sentient life in the galaxy. Not really loving that idea, the pair head to the wreckage of their ship to attempt to trigger a detonation that will destroy the entire installation and prevent Guilty Spark from carrying out its apocalyptic task. Successful, Master Chief and Cortana are able to locate a still-operational fighter in the wreckage and make it off of the installation just in time.

Halo 2 was hotly anticipated by Halo fans everywhere, setting pre-order records and ending up with massive sales and an amazing reception. Despite all of this, I somehow didn’t give too much of a toss about it. The truth is that 2004 was probably the peak of my involvement in online gaming and my clan at the time, The Praetorian Guard, was still playing America’s Army and Planetside as well as dabbling in some MMORPGs, with most of us waiting impatiently for World of Warcraft to finally be released. My brother, who had introduced me to Halo, brought home a copy of Halo 2 in short order too, but the hook didn’t quite stick the second time.

Back on Earth, at last.
“Back on Earth, at last.”

Halo 2 was quite a different animal than the original Halo: Combat Evolved. The game engine was rebuilt from the ground up and it really showed – the physics felt different, the game looked different, the weapons felt different, etc. On top of that, there were some huge gameplay differences too. One of the more notable ones was the overhaul of the health system. Now instead of having a rechargeable shield layered on top of a more traditional health bar, you simply have rechargeable shields which sit on top of a tiny buffer of unspecified, also regenerating health. This made tracking down health packs a thing of the past and really reinforced the importance of ducking out of combat to quickly recharge. While this feels quite jarring when playing Halo: CE and Halo 2 back to back, once used to it, I think I actually prefer Halo 2’s simplified take.

Another more “back of the box” change was the addition of dual wielding weapons. While nifty, it rarely felt advantageous to me since holding a second weapon came at the expense of being able to chuck grenades or melee attack, two staples of Halo: CE combat. On the other hand, basic melee attacks felt a lot less effective anyway, even if Bungie did decide to add a bit more depth to them by taking into account movement and what weapons you’re holding when calculating damage. Speaking of weapons, shocking at the time, my beloved assault rifle had been traded out for this new battle rifle thing, along with a new (weak and obviously intended to be dual wielded) submachine gun. While I’d eventually warm up to the battle rifle in future Halo games, neither gun felt like an adequate replacement for the assault rifle. There were numerous other weapon differences too, like the shotgun being all but ruined with its lower rate of fire and shorter range, and some new weapons like the Elite’s energy sword and Brute’s brute shot. Most of these special weapons were quite awesome though, thankfully.

That said, I love dual wielding plasma rifles.
“That said, I love dual wielding plasma rifles.”

Another big change to the core gameplay was to vehicles, and like the aforementioned melee changes, the theme here is added complexity and depth. Unlike in Halo: CE, where vehicles were totally invulnerable, there’s now a vehicle damage system in which the vehicles degrade with damage until they eventually blow up and become unusable. While I sometimes miss Halo: CE’s simpler system, Halo 2’s updates feel more advanced and ultimately much better, even if it can be incredibly disheartening to watch your ride disintegrate around you. The graphical effects of having pieces fly off your vehicle as it gets smashed up by a huge explosion (or a poorly planned jump, as is often the case in the Warthog) definitely only adds to the already impressive spectacle. It also pairs nicely with the new ability to board and assault and/or take over vehicles, critically leveling the playing field a bit more, especially in multiplayer matches.

As for level design, Halo 2’s maps are constrained to open arenas connected by corridors. The larger arenas sometimes come close, but nothing really quite captures the feeling of Halo: CE’s more open environments and battlefields. Despite being more linear, the backtracking and repetitious sections are mostly absent, and even when present, aren’t anything like the more tedious sections of Halo: CE. For better or for worse, Halo 2 feels a lot closer to a modern first person shooter than its predecessor. One other difference I noted was how the later levels often feel more chaotic in Halo 2. “Containment Zone” for example, features some insane battles as Elites, Covenant loyalists, Forerunner drones, and the Flood all go at it, often with an array of vehicles and powerful weapons to spice things up. The insanity translates into more of a challenge on higher difficulties too. Playing this on “Heroic” difficulty once again, many of these encounters felt a bit untuned, with too many enemies that were a bit too bullet-spongy for my tastes, even if they were a bit less frustrating than the harder encounters in Halo: CE.

Hooray for vehicle damage?
“Hooray for vehicle damage?”

So, while none of the above is bad per say, in fact most people would call most of these changes improvements, for someone who loved Halo: CE but didn’t get caught up in the hype around Halo 2, all added up, it was a bit of a hard pill to swallow. I still dabbled with Halo 2, of course, occasionally playing a few matches of Slayer with my brother and my dad, but it didn’t come anywhere close to pulling me away from my PC. In fact, I don’t think I ever made any real attempt to get into the single player campaign until years later when I made a concerted effort to beat all of my old Xbox games before finally moving on to the Xbox 360.

One aspect of Halo 2 that was closer to universally unpopular was the addition of a second protagonist. You take control of the Arbiter, an Elite who had been entrusted with a series of special missions which has him ultimately crossing paths with the Master Chief by the end of the campaign. A lot of people hated playing this random alien instead of their beloved Spartan, but I and many others actually thought the Arbiter’s story was pretty damn cool, as was the addition of a new Covenant adversary key to this storyline in the powerful Brutes. Perhaps spreading the missions where you play as the Arbiter out a bit more and having less of them overall would have helped avoid people feeling that the Master Chief was being overshadowed, but who knows.

As with last time, for this playthrough I played Halo 2: Anniversary, included with the Xbox One Master Chief Collection. Like with Halo: CE, this was my first time playing the Anniversary edition remaster, so naturally I’ll pick the particulars of this version apart a little too.

...and this one's Great Journey, are the same!
“…and this one’s Great Journey, are the same!”

The first thing that stands out about this new version of Halo 2 are the graphics. While Halo: CE Anniversary still looked a tiny bit rough around the edges in spots, Halo 2: Anniversary is a total triumph. First, they got the legendary Blur to produce beautiful new cinematic cutscenes to replace the previous in-engine ones. These new cutscenes are based directly on the original ones but, with the higher fidelity, they feel a lot more expressive to me. I particularly love the new Gravemind scenes! I also can’t escape the fact that the game, given a similar new “coat of paint” to its in-game graphics as Halo: CE, wears them a lot better. I’d largely attribute it to how much more advanced Halo 2 was – given its release being so late in the cycle of the original Xbox, it was practically an early Xbox 360 game. The remaster being one generation newer, targeted for the Xbox One instead of the Xbox 360, doesn’t hurt either. On top of that, while some areas of the game do look radically different than their original incarnations, for the most part it feels like 343 was much more respectful of the game’s aesthetics this time around. Also, on a totally subjective note, I could never stand how oddly washed out Halo 2 looked, an issue that has been absolutely resolved in this remaster.

Like Halo: CE Anniversary, the sound effects and soundtrack have been completely re-recorded too. The original soundtrack was already a masterpiece, so while which renditions you prefer is definitely a matter of opinion, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the new tracks. On the other hand, as with last time, I find the new mix to be a bit distracting. It’s not quite as bad about overpowering the dialog but it can certainly drown out other sound effects. A great example of this is the level “Uprising” in which the ambient jungle noises and sounds of distant battle are all but missing because the music is so much louder. A nitpick, sure, but these little things do make a difference. Halo 2: Anniversary also includes the awesome on-demand instant swap between old and new aesthetics, which I’m mentioning now, because it also includes swapping between those original and remastered sound effects and the soundtrack now. Excellent.

The Arbiter heading to The Anodyne Spirit on High Charity.
“The Arbiter heading to The Anodyne Spirit on High Charity.”

This new version also revisits the idea of including hidden terminals in each level. The cutscenes triggered by interacting with the terminals focus on the history of the Covenant, and particularly the concept of the Arbiter. Although I did like the terminal cutscenes from Halo CE: Anniversary, I found these ones so much more interesting, and more likely to be appreciated by a first time player too. The additional background on the Arbiter only made me appreciate his role in the story that much more. Very cool stuff. That said, Halo 2’s story (which, like last time, I’ll wait to spoil in the next post) didn’t leave as many seemingly crucial background details out and it’s told in a much more cohesive way overall, so these scenes really do feel like bonus content rather than a necessary attempt to fill in gaps.

In the end, Halo 2 is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, the game still undeniably feels like a bit of a departure from what I loved about Halo: CE. On the other hand, it’s a richer and more skillful effort, and the lovingly crafted makeover it received with Anniversary only reinforces that, feeling almost as easy to pick up and play today as it would have 15 years ago. That is, of course, a massive compliment to both Bungie and 343 alike. How impressed I am with this remaster does make me just a bit nervous to return to Halo 3, which has yet to receive any such overhaul. More on that next time though!

Screenshots taken from the Steam community for the PC version of Halo: The Master Chief Collection.