Behind closed doors, Microsoft is featuring one playable multiplayer map from its upcoming Halo 2. That's all the company has to show for the game at this year's E3, but you know what? It's more than enough. The proof is in the pudding with this E3 demo, which plays great, if familiarly, and demonstrates some of the important, but subtle, new gameplay features in the feverishly anticipated game.
Let's review the new features since the original Halo. First and foremost, Halo 2 will support multiplayer gameplay over Xbox Live, pitting players against each other in team-based and presumably free-for-all matches. The team-based matches will feature teams of Spartans (like the Master Chief) and teams of Covenant Elites. The two sides, though they look decidedly different, play pretty much the same in practice. They start off with different weapons--for instance, Spartans start off with frag grenades and assault rifles whereas Elites get the sticky plasma grenades and plasma rifles. But everyone can use everyone else's weapons and vehicles.
Most of the weapons and vehicles we got to see and use were from the original Halo, and included Earth's shotgun, sniper rifle, and rocket launcher, along with the Covenant's plasma rifle, needler, and plasma blade (which wasn't usable in the first game, but serves as a deadly melee weapon this time around). A single new weapon, a combat rifle, could be used for medium-range sniping when zoomed in, or for effective three-round bursts when not using the scope. As in Halo, all weapons--not just the plasma blade--can be used for powerful melee attacks. We especially liked the attack animation with the standard assault rifle, which Spartans used to deliver a walloping uppercut. There are some additional, new weapon properties this time around, especially in how the rocket launcher can lock onto enemy vehicles and easily take them out.
Vehicle damage is one of the big new changes in Halo 2. Most of the original game's vehicles were invulnerable, making them rather overpowered in the multiplayer. This time, though, there's realistic, location-based damage. You can pop the tires on the jeeplike Warhogs. You can take out the wings on the hovering Covenant Ghosts. Vehicles can blow up altogether, killing the pilot and any crew, and then--in a very cool touch--the smoldering husk of the vehicle's remains blows up one more time for good measure. Better stay the heck away. It's possible to carjack opponents by sneaking up behind their vehicles. This won't be easy in practice--we never managed to pull it off--but as vehicles slow down around certain choke points, we expect it'll be more than possible to relieve them of their drivers in a multiplayer environment.
Given all of that, coming off of Halo's multiplayer, we got the distinct impression that the Halo 2 vehicles were big, honking death traps. We found ourselves preferring to conduct our business on foot rather than risk getting painted by a rocket-launcher-wielding adversary. It's very possible we just haven't gotten used to the new feel of the game, but it's also possible that more gameplay tuning will help ensure that vehicles remain as deadly as they ought to be. Incidentally, the vehicles will have a few new tweaks, specifically, the Ghosts can now execute a high-speed boost.
One of the reasons we were eager to fight on foot is due to the new ability to dual-wield weapons. By forgoing the ability to toss grenades--a considerable sacrifice, since Halo's grenades are extremely useful--it's possible to brandish a second weapon and dump both guns' worth of ammo at your target using both the left and right triggers. Reloading is slower when dual-wielding, so this all-offense approach does have some distinct disadvantages. Additionally, as you'd expect, it's not possible to dual-wield everything. Bigger weapons like the rocket launcher and sniper rifle can only be used on their own.
The single map we got to play on seemed extremely well designed for a 10-player matchup. Titled Zanzibar, this map is set in an African outpost and requires an offense team to storm the beach and raid the base (with a Warthog and two Ghosts to help them do it) while the defense team must protect its single flag at all costs. The offense team scores by returning the defense team's flag to their starting point, and the defense team scores by repelling the attack for a period of time--in this case, three minutes. Teams switch sides in between rounds, creating a balanced and diverse gameplay experience.
The gameplay already has a rock-solid feel to it, and we got a taste of Halo 2's new audio effects, so we can tell you already that it's going to feature the same sorts of hard-hitting effects and stirring musical score as its predecessor. We were easily able to pick up and play the new game due to our experience with the original, but the relatively large Zanzibar map coupled with the new gameplay features and 10-player networked match, made Halo 2 feel decidedly like a sequel--like a very exciting sequel.
The developers at Bungie admit that the success of the original Halo's multiplayer was in some ways unexpected. But this time, the company--which has tremendous experience making multiplayer games, by the way--is obviously going all out to make Halo 2's multiplayer exceptionally good. From what we've played, we believe that's a very distinct possibility. We can't wait to play more.