Where Halo 2 still scores big is on character. Whatever anyone says, Bungie has created a universe and an enemy much more interesting than those you’ll find in the average FPS game, and there are times when Halo 2 successfully grasps the space opera feel it’s clearly searching for. Each enemy type is distinctive, and all bar the weakest grunts have some way to challenge and confound you. It’s also a game full of humour; from the whining exclamations of cowardly grunts to the cheerful boasts and verbal backslaps of your fellow troops in combat. In this one area, Bungie still feels ahead of, say, Raven’s efforts with Quake 4. Overall, however, the Halo 2 single-player game just doesn’t stand up to the more recent competition.
What about multiplayer? Well, it’s still fun, still well-balanced, still packed with great maps, and still supported by a fine selection of options? Play it, and you can still understand why Halo 2 became the gold standard of online console FPS games. On the PC, however, it’s in a much bigger and more competitive arena. Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142 do the epic warfare thing better, and Quake 4 has the twitchy, close-in combat side of things sewn up. And if you don’t like those, you still have F.E.A.R., Prey, Counter-Strike: Source, Call of Duty 2 and Half-Life 2 Deathmatch to keep you going. The lobby and matchmaking facilities work brilliantly, but when you add together the various costs of getting online with Halo 2 (unless you already have an Xbox Live subscription) the benefits just don’t add up.
All in all, then, Halo 2 doesn’t really spell great news for anyone. For Microsoft it’s another lacklustre advert for gaming on Vista and the Games for Windows Live service. For us, it’s a poor conversion of a mildly disappointing sequel. For Bungie, it’s a missed opportunity to rectify what went wrong with Halo 2, and an unwelcome reminder to the gaming world that Halo 3 needs to live up to the hype if it wants to stand up against the likes of Gears of War, Haze and Crysis. Buy Halo 2 if you want to get up to date before Halo 3 hits, but if you’re already satisfied with existing PC games in this most over-crowded genre then there’s really very little reason to bother.
Nearly three years on, Halo 2 is looking rough around the edges – a problem this PC version does too little to fix. There are periods when the gameplay makes up for it, but not enough to make this a must-have PC FPS.