Even though Halo 2 shipped for the original Xbox in 2004, Microsoft sees plenty of potential in the upcoming PC version to spur its new Games for Windows initiative. Halo 2, after all, was the biggest-selling Xbox game ever made, and it remains incredibly popular on Xbox Live even today. The PC version is being developed by Hired Gun, an internal Microsoft studio working in cooperation with Bungie, and executive producer Jo Clowes was on hand at Microsoft's showcase event at the Game Developers Conference to give us our first hands-on time with the single-player portion of the game.
Considering the sheer popularity of Halo 2, Microsoft and Hired Gun haven't tinkered at all with the gameplay. The single-player and multiplayer content in the PC version are taken directly from the Xbox game, and it will also feature all the various downloadable map packs that were released afterward. The major difference is that it will look a lot nicer on the PC thanks to the vastly improved resolution and some higher-resolution textures. We had a chance to see it for ourselves by playing the Delta Halo level, and the visuals were so sharp that you could read the fine print on the Master Chief's rocket launcher. The gameplay was pure Halo, as we shot, rifle butted, and plasma grenaded the alien horde that faced us.
The control scheme has been tuned and balanced for the mouse and keyboard, though you can also plug in an Xbox 360 controller to your PC, and the two are integrated so seamlessly that you can start playing with the mouse and keyboard and then pick up the gamepad midlevel. Interestingly enough, Clowes told us that the developers have been a bit surprised to see some players use both the mouse and gamepad at the same time, using the analog stick on the gamepad to move and the mouse to aim and shoot.
The system requirements for Halo 2 are a bit high considering the Xbox version ran on 2001-era hardware, though you've got to factor in the higher graphical resolutions and OS overhead in the PC version. However, they're fairly modest for a Windows Vista machine. You'll need a 2GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a decent DirectX 9 video card. The game will not use DirectX 10, so you won't need the latest video card to play it. However, you will most definitely need Windows Vista, because Halo 2 will only run on Windows Vista PCs. According to Clowes, that's because the game takes advantage of many Vista-only features, such as rapid install. When you first insert the Halo 2 disc into your PC, you won't have to install the game like you traditionally would a PC game. Instead, like a console game, Halo 2 will begin to load up and you can play immediately while it installs in the background. The PC version will also have support for Games for Windows Live, the PC version of the popular Xbox Live online service that allows for matchmaking, friend tracking, gamerscore, and much more.
If you're currently an Xbox Live gold member, then you needn't worry about signing up or paying for a separate service, because we're told that the Xbox Live membership is universal with your Games for Windows Live membership. And if you don't have Xbox Live, signing up for Games for Windows Live will also set up your Xbox Live account. The two are basically one and the same. There will be two levels of Games for Windows Live, silver and gold. Silver is the free, limited service, while gold is the full subscription service. Clowes said that you will not need to be a gold member to play Halo 2 multiplayer, and that players can set up open dedicated servers that anyone can play on, just like dedicated servers for other PC shooters. However, Halo 2 for the PC will be the first game to let players set up dedicated Live servers.
One advantage of this system is that players can use the official map editor that ships with Halo 2 to easily create and share maps. The map editor is the major--and pretty much only--new feature to appear in the PC version, and it's based on the level editor that Bungie used to create the game. Using the map editor, you can create custom levels and even unique gameplay modes. Clowes showed us a huge soccer stadium that she built, with a giant metal ball that served as a "flag." The goal for each team is to "score" by moving the ball into the opposing goal, but the trick is that the ball is so large it can only be moved by being nudged by vehicles. Toss in weapons such as the rocket launcher, and you essentially have combat soccer. And the cool feature is that once you're done, players can automatically download your map when they connect to the server.
The PC version of Halo 2 will be the first Halo game to ship with achievement points, which are used to build up your gamer score by performing certain feats. That may not sound like much to PC gamers, but trust us when we say that building up achievement points can be addictive. Alas, Clowes wouldn't get into specifics regarding Halo 2's achievements, as they're usually one of the last things to get finalized. As its, Halo 2 is on track for release sometime before the halfway point of the year.