Let’s face it – Microsoft has been asking for the critical beating that the PC version of Halo 2 has received. It’s taken nearly five years to convert the game, the ‘Vista Only’ restriction seems like a marketing requirement rather than a technical necessity, and the decision to link it to an online games service (where PC owners pay an annual £40 charge for facilities they normally expect for free) is disastrous.
What’s more, it was clear at X06 last year that the PC version of Halo 2 was a fairly basic port-and-polish exercise, not a major graphical overhaul. When Microsoft released a PC version of Halo in 2003, the game just about stood up to the competition. Now with games like Far Cry, Half-Life 2, Call of Duty 2 and Prey around, Halo 2 looks every bit as dated as you might dread. Textures have been enhanced, but there’s little visible in the way of new lighting routines or effects, and the characters and environments are unchanged and at times painfully blocky. Where the art design excels – the covenant troops, technology and vehicles – Halo 2 still has the power to impress, but there are certainly times when the game looks shockingly crude.
To make this worse, a game that ran fine on what was basically a 700MHz Pentium III with 64MB of RAM and a GeForce 3 GPU now struggles to run at a constant 30fps on a dual-core Athlon 64 with 2GB of RAM and a Radeon 1800. It’s really just the filling in the proverbial excrement sandwich. No wonder the PC gaming press has taken to Microsoft’s holy cow like it was a Mexican Piñata.
Overall, I can’t blame them. Roll away the ludicrous hype that awaited Halo 2’s original release, and take the dated engine out of the equation for now, and you’re left with the bare game experience. And here Halo 2 has a problem – it just isn’t as good as its illustrious sire. The original Halo deserves its place in gaming history. Innovations like the adaptive AI, the two-weapons-only carry limit and drivable vehicles were a breath of fresh air for the FPS genre, and the game had an epic, space opera feel that no other game of the time could match. It’s actually one of the few games released in the last 10 years that I’ve bothered to complete more than once. Not so Halo 2. On the original release I got about halfway through before losing interest and playing it again I can see why. There are times when Halo 2 hits the same high notes as Halo but not with any frequency. The pacing is irregular and sloppy. The structure doesn’t feel anywhere near as tight.