It certainly doesn’t help that the opening is so flat. The introductory section in the space station feels like a dull retread of the first game’s Pillar of Autumn mission, while the whole sequence of levels on Earth is only fitfully entertaining. Bungie’s art team seem to have been inspired by iD’s infamous ‘brown period’ on Quake and Quake II, creating street after street of brown, boxy architecture and filling them with encounters so uninspired that it’s hard to work up enough enthusiasm to defend the Earth. The vehicle sections seem endless, and with dual wielding – the ability to combine identical or different weapons for added firepower – the only major new game mechanic, you feel like you’re just playing a less exciting version of the original game. Where’s the ingenuity, the set-pieces, the epic feel and the attention to detail that made Halo so superb?
To its credit, the game does gather momentum as it goes on. If you liked the universe introduced in the first game, Halo 2 does a fine job of expanding on it, going deeper into the mythology of The Covenant and introducing a second playable character – the Arbiter – who mirrors Master Chief. This no longer seems like a masterstroke, yet with his cloaking capability and mighty sword the Arbiter does add some much needed variety. Laying the smack down on heretics is fun, and by the time you’re back with Master Chief on another Halo ring-world, the game seems to have picked up nicely. The levels feel more playful and less restrictively scripted and linear, and you’re starting to experiment with the rich and varied weapon set and have fun with the various Covenant craft and human tanks. Before you know it, some of the old epic Halo feel is back.
But even so the game rarely hits the same heights. There are some brilliant set pieces to enjoy but a common theme is the tendency of levels to go on and on ad nauseum, repeating the same encounters over and over and over again. Where Halo continually stretched your skills, Halo 2 stretches your patience. We all know Bungie’s magic formula – thirty seconds of fun, again and again – but that thirty seconds is beginning to wear pretty thin by the time Master Chief has infiltrated a Covenant temple and The Arbiter is fighting his way through another monstrous incarnation of The Flood. It’s as if Bungie had analysed the original Halo and erroneously decided that the woefully tedious Library was the bit fans liked best. The storyline is just about intriguing enough to drag you along, but it really is a close run thing at times.