|Developer(s)||Bungie Studios (Xbox)
Microsoft Game Studios (Microsoft Windows)
Pi Studios (PC editing tools and two new maps)12
|Publisher(s)||Microsoft Game Studios|
|Distribution||Optical disc, download|
Halo 2 is a 2004 first-person shooter video game developed by Bungie Studios. Released for the Xbox video game console on November 9, 2004,3 the game is the second installment in the Halo franchise and the sequel to 2001's critically acclaimed Halo: Combat Evolved. A Microsoft Windows version of the game was released on May 31, 2007,4 developed by an internal team known as Microsoft Game Studios. The game features a new game engine, as well as using the Havok physics engine; added weapons and vehicles, and new multiplayer maps. The player alternately assumes the roles of the human Master Chief and the alien Arbiter in a 26th-century conflict between the human United Nations Space Command and genocidal Covenant.
After the success of Combat Evolved, a sequel was expected and highly anticipated. Bungie found inspiration in plot points and gameplay elements that had been left out of their first game, including multiplayer over the Internet through Xbox Live. Time constraints forced a series of cutbacks in the size and scope of the game, including a cliffhanger ending to the game's campaign mode that left many in the studio dissatisfied. Among Halo 2's marketing efforts was an alternate reality game called "I Love Bees" that involved players solving real-world puzzles.
On release, Halo 2 was the most popular video game on Xbox Live,5 holding that rank until the release of Gears of War for the Xbox 360 nearly two years later.67 By June 20, 2006, more than 500 million games of Halo 2 had been played and more than 710 million hours have been spent playing it on Xbox Live;8 by May 9, 2007, this number had risen to more than five million unique players.9 Halo 2 is the best-selling first-generation Xbox game10 with at least 6.3 million copies sold in the United States alone.11 Critical reception of the game was generally positive, with most publications lauding the strong multiplayer component. The campaign was the focus of criticism for its cliffhanger ending.
Halo 2 is a shooter game, with players predominantly experiencing gameplay from a first-person perspective.12 Players use a combination of human and alien weaponry and vehicles to progress through the game's levels. The player's health bar is not visible, but players are instead equipped with a damage-absorbing shield that regenerates when not taking fire.13
Certain weapons can be dual-wielded, allowing the player to trade accuracy, the use of grenades and melee attacks for raw firepower.13 The player can carry two weapons at a time (or three if dual-wielding; one weapon remains holstered), with each weapon having advantages and disadvantages in different combat situations. For example, most Covenant weapons eschew disposable ammo clips for a contained battery, which cannot be replaced if depleted. However, these weapons can overheat if fired continuously for prolonged periods.13 Human weapons are less effective at penetrating shields and require reloading, but cannot overheat due to prolonged fire. The player can carry a total of eight grenades (four human grenades, four Covenant) to dislodge and disrupt enemies. New in Halo 2 is the ability to board enemy vehicles that are near the player and traveling at low speeds. The player or AI latches onto the vehicle and forcibly ejects the other driver from the vehicle.
The game's "Campaign" mode offers options for both single-player and cooperative multiplayer participation. In campaign mode, the player must complete a series of levels that encompass Halo 2's storyline. These levels alternate between the Master Chief and a Covenant Elite called the Arbiter, who occupy diametrically opposed roles in the story's conflict. Aside from variations in storyline, the Arbiter differs from Master Chief only in that his armor lacks a flashlight; instead, it is equipped with a short duration rechargeable form of active camouflage that disappears when the player attacks or takes damage.
There are four levels of difficulty in campaign mode: Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary. An increase in difficulty will result in an increase in the number, rank, health, damage, and accuracy of enemies; a reduction of duration and an increase in recharge time for the Arbiter's active camouflage; a decrease in the player's health and shields; and occasional changes in dialog.14
There is hidden content within the game, including Easter eggs, messages, hidden objects, and weapons. The most well known of the hidden content are the skulls hidden on every level. The skulls, which can be picked up like a weapon, are located in hard-to-reach places. Many are exclusive to the Legendary mode of difficulty. Once activated, each skull has a specific effect on gameplay. For example, the "Sputnik" skull found on the Quarantine Zone level alters the mass of objects in the game; thus resulting in explosions being able to launch these objects across larger distances. Skull effects can be combined to provide various new levels of difficulty and/or novelty.15
Like Halo: Combat Evolved, the Xbox version of Halo 2 features a multiplayer system that allows players to compete with each other in split-screen and system link modes; in addition, it adds support for online multiplayer via Xbox Live.13
Halo 2 introduced an entirely new paradigm for matchmaking players together. In earlier games, one person specifies a game type and map and configures other settings, before setting up his or her device as a game server and advertising the game to the world at large. Halo 2 introduced a "playlist" system that automated this process to keep a steady flow of games available at all times, and layered a skill-ranking system on top.16
The Xbox Live multiplayer and downloadable content features of the Xbox version of Halo 2 were supported until the discontinuation of the service in April 2010.17 The online multiplayer of Halo 2 for Windows Vista uses Games for Windows – Live.18 In January 2013, it was reported that the PC multiplayer servers would be taken offline on February 15, 2013 due to inactivity.19 On February 12, 2013, it was announced that the multiplayer servers for Halo 2 on PC would remain online until June, while further support options would be investigated.20
Halo 2 takes place in the 26th century. Humans, under the auspices of the United Nations Space Command or UNSC, have developed faster-than-light slipspace travel and colonized numerous worlds.13 According to the game's backstory, the outer colony world of Harvest was decimated by a collective of alien races known as the Covenant in 2525. Declaring humanity an affront to their gods, the Forerunners, the Covenant begin to systemically obliterate the humans with their superior numbers and technology. After the human bastion at the planet Reach is destroyed, a single ship, The Pillar of Autumn, follows protocol and initiates a random slipspace jump to lead the Covenant away from Earth. The crew discovers a Forerunner ringworld called Halo, which the Covenant wants to activate because of their religious belief that the activation of the ring will bring about a "Great Journey," sweeping loyal Covenant to salvation.21 Leading a guerilla insurgency on the ring's surface, the humans discover that the rings are actually weapons of last resort built to contain a terrifying parasite called the Flood. The human supersoldier Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana learn from Halo's AI monitor, 343 Guilty Spark, that activation of the Halos will prevent the spread of the Flood by destroying all sentient life the parasite can subsist on in the galaxy. Instead of activating the ring, however, the Master Chief evades Guilty Spark and his robots and detonates the Pillar of Autumn's engines, destroying the installation and preventing the escape of the Flood. The Master Chief and Cortana race back to Earth to warn of an impending invasion by Covenant forces.22
Taking place shortly after the events of the novel Halo: First Strike, Halo 2 opens with the trial of Thel 'Vadam, a Covenant Elite commander aboard the Covenant's mobile capital city of High Charity. The Elite is stripped of his rank, branded a heretic for failing to stop the humans from destroying Halo, and is tortured by Tartarus, the Chieftain of the Covenant Brutes. On Earth, the Master Chief and Sergeant Avery Johnson are commended for their actions at Halo. Lord Terrence Hood awards the soldiers alongside Commander Miranda Keyes, who accepts a medal on behalf of her deceased father, Captain Jacob Keyes.23
A Covenant fleet appears outside Earth's defensive perimeter and begins an invasion of the planet. While the UNSC repels most of the fleet, a single Covenant cruiser carrying an important member of the Covenant hierarchy, the High Prophet of Regret, assaults the city of New Mombasa, Kenya. The Master Chief assists in clearing the city of Covenant; with his fleet destroyed, Regret makes a hasty slipspace jump, and Keyes, Johnson, Cortana and the Master Chief follow aboard the UNSC ship In Amber Clad. The crew discover another Halo installation; realizing the danger the ring presents, Keyes sends the Master Chief to kill Regret while she and Johnson find Halo's key to activation, the Index.
Meanwhile, the disgraced Covenant commander is presented before the Prophet Hierarchs, who acknowledge that though the destruction of Halo was his fault, he is no heretic. They offer him the honored position of Arbiter so that he can continue to fight for the Covenant. On his first mission to kill a heretic, the Arbiter discovers 343 Guilty Spark, who the Covenant calls an "oracle," and brings him back to High Charity. Responding to Regret's distress call, High Charity and the Covenant fleet arrive at the new Halo, Installation 05, just before the Master Chief kills Regret. Bombarded from space, the Chief falls into a lake and is rescued by a mysterious tentacled creature.24
Regret's death triggers discord among the races of the Covenant, as the Hierarchs have given the Brutes the Elites' traditional job of protecting them in the wake of the death. The Arbiter is sent to find Halo's Index and captures it, Johnson, and Keyes before being confronted by Tartarus. He reveals to the Arbiter that the Prophets have ordered the annihilation of the Elites, and sends the Arbiter falling down a deep chasm.24
The Arbiter is saved by the tentacled creature and meets the Master Chief in the bowels of the installation. The creature, Gravemind, is the leader of the Flood on Installation 05. The Gravemind reveals to the Arbiter that the Great Journey would destroy Flood, humans, and Covenant altogether, and sends both the Arbiter and Master Chief to different places to stop Halo's activation.24 The Master Chief is teleported into High Charity, where a civil war has broken out among the Covenant; In Amber Clad crashes into the city, and Cortana realizes that Gravemind used them as a distraction to infest In Amber Clad and spread the Flood. As the parasite overruns the city, consuming the Prophet of Mercy in the process, the Prophet of Truth orders Tartarus to take Keyes, Johnson, and Guilty Spark to Halo's control room and activate the ring. The Master Chief follows Truth aboard a Forerunner ship leaving the city; Cortana remains behind to destroy High Charity and Halo if Tartarus succeeds in activating the ring.25
The Arbiter is sent to the surface of Halo, where he rallies his allies to assault the Brute's position. With the help of Johnson, he confronts Tartarus in Halo's control room. When the Arbiter tries to convince Tartarus that the Prophets have betrayed them both, Tartarus angrily activates the ring, and a battle ensues. The Arbiter and Johnson manage to kill Tartarus while Keyes removes the Index. Instead of shutting down the ring entirely, a system wide fail-safe protocol is triggered, putting Installation 05 and all the other Halo rings on standby for activation from a remote location, which Guilty Spark refers to as "the Ark".26 As Truth's ship arrives amidst a raging battle on Earth, Hood asks the Master Chief what he is doing aboard the ship. The Chief replies, "Sir, finishing this fight."27
Halo had never been planned as a trilogy, but with the critical and commercial success of Combat Evolved, a sequel was expected. Bungie writer and cinematic director Joseph Staten recalled that during Combat Evolved's development, Bungie "certainly had strong ideas for extending the story and gameplay experience that we knew we couldn't fit into one game". The added publisher support for a sequel allowed greater leeway and the ability to return to more ambitious ideas lost during Combat Evolved's development.29
An important feature for Halo 2 was multiplayer. Multiplayer in Combat Evolved was accomplished via System Link, and only came together weeks before the game was released. Most players never played large maps, while a subset greatly enjoyed 16-player action via four networked consoles. "We looked at the small set of fans who were able to do this," said engineering lead Chris Butcher, "and just how much they were enjoying themselves, and asked ourselves if we could bring that to everybody. That would be something really special, really unique."29
The story for Halo 2 grew out of all the elements that were not seen in Halo: Combat Evolved. Jason Jones organized his core ideas for the sequel's story and approached Staten for input. According to Staten, among the elements that did not make it to the finished game was a "horrible scene of betrayal" where Miranda Keyes straps a bomb to the Master Chief's back and throws him into a hole; "Jason was going through a rather difficult breakup at the time and I think that had something to do with it," he said.30
Halo 2 was officially announced in September 2002 with a cinematic trailer,29 subsequently packaged with Halo: Combat Evolved DVDs. A real-time gameplay video was shown at E3 2003, which was the first actual gameplay seen by the public; it showcased new features such as dual-wielding and improved graphics. Many elements of the trailer, however, were not game-ready; the entire graphics engine used in the footage had to be discarded, and the trailer's environment never appeared in the final game due to limitations on how big the game environments could be. The restructuring of the engine meant that there was no playable build of Halo 2 for nearly a year, and assets and environments produced by art and design teams could not be prototyped.29
In order to ship the game, Bungie began paring back their ambitions for the single- and multiplayer parts of the game.29 Chris Butcher commented, "For Halo 2 we had our sights set very high on networking. ... Going from having no Internet multiplayer to developing a completely new online model was a big challenge to tackle all at once, and as a result we had to leave a lot of things undone in order to meet the ship date commitment that we made to our fans."31 With only a year to go until release, Bungie went into the "mother of all crunches" in order to finish the game;32 in a 2007 interview, Jamie Griesemer, one of Halo's design leads, said that this lack of a "polish" period near the end of the development cycle was the main reason for Halo 2's shortcomings.33 Butcher retrospectively described Halo 2's multiplayer mode as "a pale shadow of what it could and should have been if we had gotten the timing of our schedule right";33 the campaign mode's abrupt cliffhanger ending also resulted from the frenzy to ship on time.32
On February 9, 2006, Nick Baron announced that a version of Halo 2 would be released on PC, exclusively for the Windows Vista operating system. While this was a deliberate decision by Microsoft to push sales of Vista, the game could be enabled to play on Windows XP through an unauthorized third-party patch.34 The game was ported by a small team at Microsoft Game Studios (codenamed Hired Gun) who worked closely with Bungie. As one of the launch titles of Games for Windows – Live, the game offered Live features not available in the Xbox version, such as guide support and achievements. The Windows port also added two exclusive multiplayer maps and a map editor.35
Halo 2 for Windows Vista18 was originally scheduled for release on May 8, 2007, but the release was pushed back to May 31 on the discovery of partial nudity in the game's map editor - a photograph of a man mooning the camera was presented as part of the ".ass" error message.36 Microsoft offered patches to remove the nude content and revised the box ratings.37
Cheating and updates
A common complaint regarding Halo 2's online play was widespread cheating, which began occurring almost immediately after the game's release. Users exploited bugs in the game and vulnerabilities of the network to win ranked games and thus increase their matchmaking rank.38
Some players used "standbying" to cheat, in which the player hosting the game intentionally presses the standby button on his or her modem; this results in all players except the cheaters freezing in place. This way, the cheater would be given time to accomplish an objective in the game. "Dummying" involves using an Elite character and a vehicle, exploiting a glitch which would cause a doppelganger of the player to appear. Cheating also includes softmodding, in which a player uses devices such as Action Replay and computer programs to gain unfair advantages, and bridging, which uses computer programs to give a player "host" status, and therefore the ability to disconnect other players from the game session. A game exploitation called "superbouncing" or "superjumping" is labeled cheating by many in the Xbox Live community, and Bungie employees have described it as cheating when used in matchmaking.39 Another exploit called "BXR" allowed players to melee, cancel the animation, and quickly attack for an instant kill; this exploit and many others were removed from the game's sequel.40
Bungie released several map packs for Halo 2, both over Xbox Live and on game discs. The Multiplayer Map Pack is an expansion pack intended to make Xbox Live content and updates available to offline players, and was released on July 5, 2005. The disk contains the game's software update, all nine new multiplayer maps, a documentary about the making of the maps, and a bonus cinematic called "Another Day on the Beach", among other features.41
On March 30, 2007, Bungie announced that two new maps would be available on April 17, 2007. Bungie's own Frank O'Connor confirmed that both Xbox and Xbox 360 users would have access to the content.42 The two new maps were remakes of maps from the original Halo: Combat Evolved, "Hang em' High" and "Derelict".43 Due to issues with distribution of the maps, the updates which made the maps mandatory was released on May 9, 2007, later than planned. Bungie also reset all ranks for Halo 2 at the same time.44 On July 7, also known as "Bungie Day", Bungie released the map pack called the "Blastacular Map Pack" for free.45
Halo 2's soundtrack was composed primarily by Martin O'Donnell and his musical partner Michael Salvatori, the team that had composed the critically acclaimed music of Halo. O'Donnell noted in composing the music for Halo 2 that "Making a sequel is never a simple proposition. You want to make everything that was cool even better, and leave out all the stuff that was weak."46 O'Donnell made sure that no part of the game would be completely silent, noting "Ambient sound is one of the main ways to immerse people psychologically. A dark room is spooky, but add a creaking floorboard and rats skittering in the walls and it becomes really creepy."46 Halo 2, unlike its predecessor, was mixed to take full advantage of Dolby 5.1 Digital surround sound.47
In the summer of 2004, producer Nile Rodgers and O'Donnell decided to release the music from Halo 2 on two separate CDs; the first (Volume One) would contain all the themes present in the game as well as music "inspired" by the game; the second would contain the rest of the music from the game, much of which was incomplete, as the first CD was shipped before the game was released.48 The first CD was released on November 9, 2004, and featured guitar backing by Steve Vai. Additional tracks included various outside musicians, including Joe Satriani, Incubus, Breaking Benjamin, and Hoobastank. The Halo 2 Original Soundtrack: Volume Two CD, containing the game music organized in suite form, was released on April 25, 2006.
The release of Halo 2 was preceded with numerous promotions, product tie-ins, and movie trailer-like commercials. There was a Halo 2 Celebrity Pre-Release Party at E3 2004, in which a private home was transformed to replicate the world of Halo, complete with camouflaged Marines and roaming Cortanas.49
In addition to more traditional forms of promotion, Halo 2 was also part of an elaborate Alternate Reality Game project titled "I Love Bees," which cost an estimated one million dollars. This "game" centered around a hacked website, supposedly a site about beekeeping, where an AI from the future was residing. The project garnered significant attention from sites including Slashdot and Wired News;50 Wired noted that the game was drawing attention away from the 2004 Presidential Election.51 The game won an award for creativity at the 5th annual Game Developers Choice Awards52 and was nominated for a Webby award.53 On the morning of October 14, 2004, a leak of the French version of the game was posted on the Internet, and circulated widely.54
Halo 2 was sold in both a standard and "Limited Collector's Edition". The Collector's Edition features the regular edition and includes several promotional offers, a special cover and a special DVD of the making of Halo 2. The instructional booklet is also written from the Covenant point of view rather than from the UNSC point of view used in the regular edition. Also enclosed is the "Conversations from the Universe" booklet that contains additional information from both the human and the Covenant side of the Halo storyline; transcripts are available online. The game is enclosed in an aluminum case with the Halo 2 logo.
The first official release of Halo 2 was in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States on November 9, 2004. Anticipation for the game was high; three weeks before this release, a record 1.5 million copies had already been pre-ordered.55 Massive lines formed at midnight releases of the game; the event garnered significant media attention.56 This was followed by releases on November 10, 2004 in France and other European countries, and November 11 in the UK. The game sold 2.4 million copies and earned up to US$125 million in its first 24 hours on store shelves, thus out-grossing the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest as the highest grossing release in entertainment history.57 The game sold 260,000 units in the United Kingdom in its first week, making it the third fastest-selling title in that territory. On June 20, 2006, Xbox.com reported that more than a half-billion games of Halo 2 have been played on Xbox Live since its debut. Halo 2 is the best-selling first-generation Xbox game10 with 8.46 million copies sold by November 2008. As of September 25, 2007, Halo 2 was the fifth best-selling video game in the United States with 6.3 million copies sold, according to the NPD Group.11 From the day of its initial release and up until mid-November 2006, Halo 2 was the most popular video game on Xbox Live, even after the release of the Xbox 360; its position was eventually surpassed in 2006 by the 360-exclusive Gears of War. Halo and Halo 2 are still some of the most played games for the Xbox console.5
Halo 2 received critical acclaim. On review aggregate sites GameRankings and Metacritic, the game has attained overall scores of 94.57% and 95 out of 100, respectively.6365 Halo 2 received multiple awards, including Best Console game and Best Sound Design from the Interactive Achievement Awards. According to Xbox.com, the game has received more than 38 individual awards.67
Many reviewers praised the audio for being especially vivid.5963 Multiplayer especially was noted in being the best on Xbox Live at the time. Game Informer, along with numerous other publications, rated it higher than Halo: Combat Evolved, citing enhanced multiplayer and less repetitive gameplay. Most critics noted that Halo 2 stuck with the formula that made its predecessor successful, and was alternatively praised and faulted for this decision. Edge's review concluded that Halo 2 could be summed up with a line from its script: "It's not a new plan. But we know it'll work."60
The game's campaign mode received some criticism for being too short,68 and for featuring an abrupt cliffhanger ending.62 GameSpot noted that although the story's switching between the Covenant and Human factions made the plot more intricate, it distracted the player from Earth's survival and the main point of the game;62 while Edge labeled the plot "a confusing mess of fan-fiction sci-fi and bemusing Episode-II-style politics."60
The Windows version of the game received mixed reviews, with IGN rating it a 7.5/10,69 and Gamespot giving it a 7.0/10.70 Most criticism was due to the late release date, and the graphics being dated. It received an aggregate score of 72.67% from GameRankings64 and 72 out of 100 from Metacritic.66
Several publications have listed Halo 2's innovative matchmaking technology as one of the turning points in the gaming industry during the 2000s. Television channel G4's Sterling McGarvey wrote that "Bungie's sequel was a shot in the arm for Xbox Live subscriptions and previewed many of the features that would set the standard for Microsoft's online service on the next machine".71 The editors of Popular Mechanics listed Halo 2 as one of the top fifteen events of the decade, crediting the game with bringing online multiplayer to the console masses.72 The Province's Paul Chapman concurred, writing that games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 would not be as enjoyable to play if not for the ground Halo 2 broke.73
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- Bungie. Halo 2. Xbox. Microsoft Game Studios. Level/area: High Charity. "Cortana: If he does, I'll detonate In Amber Clad's reactors, just like we did the Autumn. The blast will take out both this station and the ring. Not a very original plan, but we know it'll work."
- Bungie. Halo 2. Microsoft. Level/area: The Great Journey. "343 Guilty Spark: Fail-safe protocol: in the event of unexpected shut-down, the entire system will move to standby status. All installations are now ready for remote activation. / Keyes: Remote activation? From here? / 343 Guilty Spark: Don't be ridiculous. [...] Why... the Ark, of course."
- Bungie. Halo 2. Xbox. Microsoft Game Studios. "Admiral Hood: Master Chief, you mind telling me what you're doing on that ship? / Master Chief: Sir? Finishing this fight."
- Bungie. Halo 2. Xbox. Microsoft Game Studios. "Gravemind: Silence fills the empty grave...now that I have gone. But my mind is not at rest...for questions linger on. I will ask...and you will answer. / Cortana: ...Alright. Shoot."
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