Let's face facts: Halo 2 is going to be the biggest Xbox game this year. Maybe the biggest game, period. The fan base that has emerged around Bungie's original trendsetting Xbox shooter is nothing short of staggering in its size and its fanatical devotion, and now that fan base is beginning to slaver like a hound before the feast of a stack of hams at Halo 2's imminent November release. Anticipation for the game is so strong that even a peripherally related, Web-based marketing campaign recently whipped legions of fans into a frenzy without ever mentioning the game's name.
Even now, just two months before Halo 2's release, Microsoft and Bungie have remained viciously protective of the game's vaunted single-player campaign. Not so with the online mode, however. The secretive developer invited us right into its own offices recently for an afternoon session with the same multiplayer beta version that 7,000 lucky Microsoft employees have been pounding on for weeks. After a few hours of battling it out across five maps with new weapons, vehicles, and game modes, we must say that Bungie seems to be going well above and beyond expectations with Halo 2's robust multiplayer offering. And we haven't come close to seeing all of that offering just yet.
But then, what we have seen is just as substantial as some other games' entire online modes right out of the box. Online functionality is still new to this hardware generation, and Bungie's baby may very well redefine what it's like to play console games over the Internet. The multiplayer interface is being designed from the ground up to be as streamlined as possible, offering extensive options for finding allies, finding games, tracking your performance, and generally being as customizable as possible. We've rarely seen this degree of options in the setup portion of a multiplayer game before, and this thing isn't even finished yet.
Once you get past all these menus, you'll find there's quite a bit of game in Halo 2's multiplayer mode (as if you expected anything less). We got our first hands-on look back at E3, and we've since formed a more complete picture of the game's online component now that we've tried a number of new maps, interesting new weapons, and new multiplayer game types. Bungie seems to be doing quite a respectable job of maintaining the unique identity and feel of Halo while adding a whole bunch of new content to the mix.
Over the next several pages, you'll get a complete look at everything in Halo 2's now-discontinued multiplayer beta, from the new maps and weapons to the vehicle changes, updated graphics and physics, and a lot more. Don't miss an exclusive interview with Bungie team members Frank O'Connor and Brian Jarrard as they run down all the basics of the multiplayer mode, as well as a big batch of
Can you believe there's so much to talk about here, and we haven't even gotten a look at Halo 2's single-player campaign yet? See you on page two.
Meet Up, Throw Down
Bungie wisely knows that while the original Halo's intense single-player campaign drew in millions of players, it's the multiplayer features that have kept those same players dragging televisions to each other's houses for all-night slayer sessions in the three years since the game's release. So to say the developer is paying extra special attention to Halo 2's Xbox Live implementation would be a terrific understatement. In fact, irrespective of the actual guns you'll be shooting and the maps you'll be shooting them on, the initial multiplayer setup--everything from the character creation to the friends list to the game-finding interface--was extremely simple and among the most elegant we've seen in an online-enabled console game.
Once you've created a profile, defining your online warrior is a simple process. You'll start by choosing to play as either a Spartan--you know, like Master Chief--or one of those wily Covenant Elites, and you'll get to define your choice of costume colors and insignia at this point as well. Amusingly, your choice of model has nothing to do with which team you end up on, so you'll often see a team composed of both Spartans and Elites charging into battle alongside each other. While this may look a little odd, the action is so frantic you won't have much time to care what your enemies look like, you'll only see what color they are.
In any case, after you've specified the look of your character and set up your controls, you'll get to search for a match to join. Online matches in Halo 2 will fall into two basic categories: official, ranked games that come as is with predefined map selections and settings, and custom games in which you can define all the relevant parameters, such as weapon availability, number of players, and so on. Of course, there will be something like a zillion possible combinations of these settings, so if you want to play on one particular map using only energy swords and grenades all the time, you can.
In fact, Bungie has devised an elaborate stat-tracking scheme that will keep tabs on just about every aspect of your performance in online games. Furthermore, your performance will contribute to a transparent experience level that you'll accumulate as you play, and you'll visibly gain levels over time that correspond to how well you play. We actually managed to hit level two on the afternoon we played the game, though we imagine higher skill levels will take much more time (and skill) to reach.
The purpose of your experience level? To match you with players of similar ability, of course. The experience system will be weighted such that the greater the differential between your level and that of your opponents, the more experience you'll gain if you win. Conversely, when you defeat players of lesser skill, you won't gain much experience at all. If you're a real stat hound, you'll be able to check out all your own performance numbers, as well as the profiles of other players, on bungie.net.
This leveling system has one catch: Only official games will contribute to your statistics and your experience level. Before you cry foul, realize that this limitation is in place to keep less-than-scrupulous players from artificially jacking up their level by exploiting certain game types or settings. Though the standard ranked games will be more or less random--that is, you'll have to prove your mettle on all combinations of maps, game types, and so on--Bungie will be able to run specific game-type tournaments with associated leaderboards. An amusingly titled "One Versus One Weekend Spectacular" was mentioned as a possibility so that players will be able to compete in these mini-tournaments and then (hopefully) see their names up in lights for that particular series of games--assuming, of course, they do well enough.
This online stuff is all well and good, but how can Halo 2 possibly re-create the personal experience of playing in a living room with other people? You might be surprised. Find out about that next.
It's Good to Slay Together
Regardless of whether you're playing an official match or a custom game, you'll have to find possible matches through the game's search feature, which lets you set up preferences and then looks for games matching those settings. In other words, there will be no lengthy, cluttered list of servers to scroll through; you won't be able to see a comprehensive summary of all the games running at a given time. Bungie views this as an antiquated and clumsy feature that doesn't serve the user very well, so the team has replaced the server list with a playlist feature that essentially lets you define a set of possible, preferred game types. The game will then do its best to match up one of the games you've specified in your playlist, so you'll have at least some measure of control over the types of matches you'll be playing. And finally, during the matching process the game will take into account the speed and stability of your connection to the host and peers of a given game so that you get the smoothest possible gameplay online.
Not surprisingly, Halo 2 will have full support for Xbox Live 3.0 functionality, which includes advanced messaging and clan support. But Bungie is going well beyond the basic features by implementing a robust friends list and party system that will make it marvelously easy to locate and play with other players that you know. Even better, it'll be equally easy to make new acquaintances as you play and quickly form a group of people that you want to play with--or against--all the time.
For starters, you'll have a basic friends list that you can pull up at any time between games. This list will show you which friends are online and what they're doing, and you'll be able to send them text or even voice messages asking them to play a game with you (or telling them to get bent, if necessary). The game will similarly maintain a list of gamers you've recently played against in random matches, so if you decide you want to keep tabs on that guy who just owned you so handily with the sniper rifle, you'll be able to access the list of recent opponents and get in touch with him. From the demonstration we saw, all of these actions can easily be accomplished effectively at the touch of a button.
The friends list is nice enough on its own, but an even more compelling matchmaking feature is Halo 2's innovative party system, which Bungie says is aimed at re-creating the experience of playing Halo with other people sitting on the same couch. It works like this: You'll be able to invite players on your friends list, or those who you've recently played against, to join your party, and this party can then access games as a single unit. The purpose of this party is to keep friends playing together across multiple games, so you won't have to worry about having one friend attempting to join your game and ending up in another, or other such confusing situations.
Just because you've got your little online clique set up doesn't mean that you'll have to shut out all other players. You'll even be able to merge your party with another party if you want to form an unstoppable gang for large-scale team games or a massive slayer match. Bungie demonstrated these party features to us once, and after that we didn't have much problem setting up our own parties for ourselves. Forming a party is entirely menu-driven and easy to figure out, so we expect this is a feature that hardcore Halo 2 players will use extensively to maintain the integrity of their online games.
Now that you've got your party set up, you're searching for a game, and you're ready to get your kill on. So how does Halo 2 actually play? Keep reading to find out.
Red Versus Blue
Depending on your expectations, it may come as a shock to you (or not) that Halo 2 plays a lot like, well, Halo. At least where the multiplayer is concerned, that is; we sure can't comment on the single-player campaign just yet. Anyway, the multiplayer beta gave us access to three basic modes: slayer, capture the flag, and assault--the first two of which will be quite familiar to Halo vets. Slayer is, of course, the basic deathmatch mode, and it also comes in a team-based flavor that hasn't lost any of its frantic thrill. Capture the flag is also an old standby, and it can be played in one- or two-flag variations, depending on preference and map.
As a new gameplay mode, assault was the biggest surprise for us. This mode essentially works like a reverse capture the flag: The team on offense begins with a bomb that it must deliver into the enemy's base and then protect for a certain number of seconds before scoring a point. Once the bomb is planted, the defending team can run up to and defuse it, provided they get there with enough time to spare--which usually requires them to blast their way through all the people that are defending the bomb. Assault is a little like the demolition mode in Counter-Strike, though it felt decidedly like Halo to us. This certainly isn't the end of the new multiplayer modes that are in store; Bungie just wasn't ready to tell us about the others yet.
Once you're in a game, Halo 2 feels just like Halo, which is certainly good news for anyone who liked the feel of the gameplay in the original (we think there are a few of you out there). One of the biggest additions is the ability to wield two weapons at once. We've seen this feature in demonstrations before, but perhaps didn't appreciate its true import until we used it in the multiplayer beta. All smaller weapons--that is, pistols, submachine guns, and so on--can be dual-wielded together, with the left trigger controlling your second weapon so that you have to use both triggers to fire both weapons at once. The effect of ripping into another player with two magnums (the new pistol) or a submachine gun and a plasma rifle is downright devastating.
Speaking of weapons, it just wouldn't be Halo without a mess of new guns to slaughter your enemies with, and Halo 2 delivers impressively in this department. Plenty of the old guns are back, or at least, new guns that are very similar to the old ones. The Spartans have a new pistol, the magnum, which doesn't have a zoom mode like the pistol in the first Halo did. Bungie wants the magnum to be a support weapon as it was intended, not the superweapon that skilled Halo players have turned the original pistol into. The standard submachine gun is similar in functionality, if not appearance, to the assault rifle from the first game. Finally, the shotgun, sniper rifle, and rocket launcher have made their triumphant return, more or less unchanged (Bungie is understandably of the "don't fix what ain't broke" school of thought). One new Spartan weapon is the battle rifle, which is a no-frills heavy gun that can't be dual-wielded, but it has a zoom feature and packs a big punch with its burst fire mode.
On the Covenant side, we got to play with several new additions to the standard lineup of the plasma pistol, rifle, and needler. Our favorite was the brute shot, which was a giant sort of grenade launcher that fired a bouncy projectile. This explosive would deflect off of one surface and then explode on the next one it touched, whether that was another wall or another player. Naturally, the brute shot is excellent for taking out opponents that lurk around corners or like to hide in hard-to-reach places. The Covenant baddies have also been granted a sniper rifle of their own in Halo 2 with the beam rifle, which has two levels of zoom and fires a high-powered energy projectile. Unlike the Spartan sniper rifle, the beam rifle draws from a large store of energy and doesn't have to be reloaded every four shots, but it's just as prone to overheating as the other Covenant energy weapons. Finally, there's the menacing Covenant carbine, which has a zoom level that actually limits its rate of fire--but is lethal nonetheless.
And then, of course, there's the Elite energy sword that the Covenant has used to make Master Chief's cybernetic life difficult. In Halo 2 multiplayer, you can wield this thing for yourself, and oh, what a deadly sword it is. You might think it dangerous to limit yourself to a melee weapon while other players are running around with sniper rifles and rocket launchers, but then, the energy sword is basically a one-hit-kill weapon. Even better, when you're close enough to an opponent, you can hold the targeting reticle on him for a moment until it turns red to establish a lock, then attack with an auto-targeted lunge that essentially guarantees your kill. We can attest that some of our longest unbroken kill streaks were accomplished using this baby, and it's sure to be a favorite when the game is released.
It's worth mentioning that any of these weapons can be used by any player, no matter whether you're playing as a Spartan or an Elite. Any player can also access Halo 2's vehicles--or even steal other players' rides right out from under them. Continue to the next page to find out more.
When Guns Aren't Enough
While Halo 2's arsenal of weapons provides a respectable number of ways to kill your opponents, Bungie is also including the expected assortment of vehicles to aid you in stamping out the opposition. Naturally, we didn't get to see every vehicle in the game during our time with the beta, but we were able to try out enough of them to know that they're good stuff. As per Bungie's approach to the game's weapons, all of the vehicles (even those from the first game) are being carefully tuned to offer the best possible fighting potential.
The warthog was a staple in the original game, and in Halo 2 it will come in several different flavors, each with distinguishing characteristics that will revolve around the weapon complements carried on board. The warthog's onboard weapons can run the gamut from standard machine guns to decidedly more powerful fare. This time around, the all-terrain vehicle will feature an E (or emergency) brake, useful for quick maneuvering, and a horn, useful for annoying your opponents.
The ghost (you know, that deadly Covenant hovercraft from the original game) is back with a cosmetic redesign and some tweaks to its abilities. You'll now be able to perform quick speed boosts, which are deadly against the unlucky foes running on the ground. And if your ramming doesn't do the job, then you'll be able make use of the twin blasters that come standard on the craft.
The banshee is another returning vehicle that will be playable for the first time on the Xbox in Halo 2. Although PC owners had the pleasure of piloting the finicky craft in the PC port of the first game, Xbox owners will soon get to discover its appeal and challenging nature firsthand. As with the ghosts, you'll be able to perform boosts that can come in handy when directed properly. In addition, you'll be able to do barrel rolls and loop-de-loops, not to mention fire off a power plasma mortar, which makes for some exciting bombing run-style discharges.
The vehicles will also reflect the symmetrical relationship between the Spartans and the Covenant, with the addition of such powerhouses as the wraith tank. This massive vehicle is the Convenant's equivalent of the Spartan scorpion and it features a powerful array of weapons. The most challenging weapon in the wraith's arsenal is the powerful mortar blast it fires in an arc. Deadly to players on foot and immensely dangerous to anyone in lesser vehicles, wraiths appear to be a pretty kick-ass counterbalance to the scorpion.
One catch to this array of vehicles is a new set of weaknesses. While riding any of the above craft would appear to offer a clear tactical advantage (and generally, it does), none of these things are invincible. Sharpshooters will be able to strike the fuel cells on many craft and bring your maniacal dreams of victory crashing down to earth. To add insult to injury, you'll have to watch out for crash landings as well, since the vehicles can explode in a truly fantastic fashion and take you with them if you aren't careful.
A new, modern equalizer in Halo 2's vehicular combat is the ability to hijack yourself a pair of wheels, which we've seen in previously released trailers and demos. Although the hijacking system is still a work in progress, it handles quite well already, allowing you to snag just about any vehicle in the game through proper timing. We've seen, in previous footage, how you'll be able to knock a player off of a ghost, for instance, and hop on to it yourself. However, we were surprised and delighted to see this mechanic applied to such larger vehicles as the scorpion. In this instance, you'll be able to jump on top of the tank's turret and pound on the driver until he gets out to fight you, or until he dies.
With all these new modes of transportation, you'll need plenty of big maps to move around on. Guess what, pal--Halo 2's got you covered there. Continue on for a comprehensive look at the five maps included in the multiplayer beta.
Until our time with the multiplayer beta, we'd gotten a look at just one of Halo 2's maps, Zanzibar, at this year's E3. Our visit to Bungie revealed four more levels that varied widely in terms of design, flow, and visual presentation, so don't expect a bunch of Blood Gulch rehashes when you sign onto Xbox Live on November 9. The team wouldn't commit to a final number of maps, but did say that these five represent only a fairly small portion of what will be included in the game that will be shipped. Even better, new maps will be posted as content downloads after the game's release, though we weren't given details on pricing or availability just yet.
Anyway, enough yammering; check out new screens and information on the maps we got to try out.
In Ivory Tower, one of the most balanced maps we played, you'll find an expansive courtyard-like area at the center that's surrounded by multiple levels accessible by stairs and powered lifts. With the default weapons configuration enabled for this map, both the rocket launcher and the Elite energy sword are available in this courtyard, so the action tends to get extremely hectic as everyone vies for these powerful weapons. Plenty of less powerful arms are scattered throughout the outer halls, and the ledges that look down on the central area provide a great location from where players can use their weapons on hapless foes in the courtyard.
From our experience, Ivory Tower worked well for team-based competitive games, though it felt most suitable as an arena for free-for-all slayer matches, since it's essentially symmetrical and only has a few choke points for teams to fortify and defend. We expect players will identify their favorite map-and-mode combinations quickly after Halo 2 hits stores.
Waterworks is easily the largest of the maps in the multiplayer beta, and thus, it's the one best suited for large-scale vehicle combat. This level features two dissimilar fortresses that are set into opposite ends of a massive cavern and are connected by a primary walkway that dips down over a bottomless pit. Perhaps "walkway" is an understatement, though, because we saw a huge scorpion being driven over this connector more than once. Thankfully, we got to see a demonstration of a new vehicle-stealing mechanic when a teammate leaped onto the scorpion's turret and began to bludgeon the driver until he fled the vehicle. Both the ghost and banshee are also available here. The cavern's high ceilings seemed to make aerial attacks quite effective.
The two bases in Waterworks feed into networks of tunnels cut into the rock that are full of weapons and ammo. Furthermore, teleporters can whisk you between the upper and lower levels, which bolsters your defensive options when the opposing team is bringing a coordinated attack.
Lockout is composed primarily of walkways and small platforms suspended over a bottomless pit. There is, in fact, no solid ground whatsoever, so make one misstep and it's curtains for you. The action on Lockout tends to center around one relatively wide platform that gives you fairly sure footing. Several walkways extend from this platform and lead to small towerlike structures and other enclosed areas above and below. Many of the platforms in this map aren't connected by walkways at all, forcing you to jump from one level to the other. Leaving yourself exposed in midair is really not the best idea, as you might imagine.
We played one extremely frenzied energy swords-only match on Lockout that proved just how tense the action can be when the threat of stumbling to your death is ever present.
Midship is especially interesting for a variety of reasons. For one, it was here that we got to try out two of Halo 2's unique new weapons: the grenade launcher-like brute shot and the Covenant's sniper rifle equivalent, the beam rifle. This map also demonstrates how the maps will be able to integrate objects with physics properties. There's a platform in the middle area that actually tilts under your weight, making it more difficult to jump up to a weapon-laden platform overhead. Finally, Midship is cool simply because it's set inside a Covenant ship with the prevailingly purple-alien-technology motif those off-world bastards are known for.
This map contains a lot of winding hallways and wall-inset platforms wrapped around a relatively open, multitiered central area. Much like Ivory Tower, Midship is generally symmetrical and felt most appropriate to us as a setting for intense slayer matches in a team or a free-for-all format.
Originally playable at E3, Zanzibar is the one map in the beta that felt like old hat to us. We've learned that Halo 2 will feature a number of asymmetrical multiplayer maps--that is, maps that don't have identical terrain on each end. This kind of map is well suited to game types in which one team defends a fortified position from the attack of the invading opposing force, such as single-flag capture the flag.
Zanzibar starts off with the attacking team on a beach, where they are forced to squeeze through a relatively small doorway into a massive courtyard area equipped with turrets, sniper rifles, and devious machinery. In a capture-the-flag match, the flag appears inside a small enclosure that's easily defendable, so grabbing and returning the flag in Zanzibar requires extreme effort and team coordination.
For a better look at this map, watch this gameplay footage of Zanzibar from E3 2004.
Is it possible we could have even more to say about the Halo 2 multiplayer beta and the state of the game in general? You bet. Keep reading for more.
More Than a Pretty Helmet
Much has been made of Bungie's improvements to Halo 2's graphics, which represent a marked improvement over every aspect of those found in its predecessor. Naturally, we spent some of our precious time with the game scrutinizing every aspect that we could. Generally speaking, Bungie is coaxing an impressive amount of performance out of the Xbox with a higher level of detail and polygon-rich models and environments. The crisp detail on the Spartans and Elites will most certainly catch even the most discriminating gamer's eye. Everything from the subtle reflective sheen off of the Spartan armor to the flashy weapons' fire and explosions is well done and quite pleasing to the eye. The same holds true for the detail in the environments.
In some respects, Zanzibar remains the most showy of the environments we've seen, with its various interactive elements, such as the machinery in the interior of the complex, providing a good amount of things for devious players to do. The other maps have plenty to be proud of, too, thanks to a rich lighting system and imaginative level design. However, upon further scrutiny, you'll find there's even more going on underneath the hood of Halo 2. The implementation of a more robust physics engine has resulted in satisfying rag-doll death animations and truly awesome vehicle carnage, as the various craft take damage and explode with spectacular results. The downside to the new physics system is that you'll have to be much more conscious of your surroundings. Nothing will kill your sense of accomplishment at downing an opponent worse than being struck down by debris from the sky or the explosion from their wrecked vehicle. We were also pleased to see some more subtle uses of the physics, such as movable objects that tripped us up in some maps.
With all the graphical improvements and the added burden of network latency, Halo 2 still managed to cruise along at a respectable frame rate and with smooth gameplay. The work-in-progress nature of the beta lends itself to all manner of visual quirks as the game heads toward release, however, the game purred along smoothly for the majority of the time. There were hiccups in a few spots, but nothing that affected gameplay significantly. Despite the rumors and talk of the next Xbox on the horizon, Halo 2 makes an impressive case for the argument that there's still quite a bit of life left in the old Xbox.
The audio in Halo 2 was still coming together and obviously revolved around the combat in the levels. The bulk of the game's audio centered on the combat experience, with the various weapons' fire being piped through with painful clarity as all hell breaks loose. Each of the weapons had its own unique effects, of course, with our current favorites being the powerful boom of the shotgun and the electric thrum of the Covenant weaponry. Given the game's support for Dolby 5.1 and the impressive sound we've already heard, we don't doubt Halo 2 will offer some good business to those with tricked-out sound systems. On a related audio note, we were able to try out the upcoming Plantronics headset that's set to hit when the game ships, and, aside from the fact that we looked like a Time-Life operator on a killing spree, we were quite impressed with how comfortable it felt--light years better than the current Xbox Live headset, in fact.
Based on our all-too-brief time with the online multiplayer game, we have to say Halo 2 appears to be poised on the fabled "practically guaranteed not to suck" path that few games find themselves on. Bungie's commitment to offering the best multiplayer experience and the time that has been devoted to making that happen, are paying off in spades in Halo 2. Improved visuals, a robust and innovative matching system, a ranking system, and polished gameplay all add up to offer an experience that will likely be the pinnacle of the first-person shooting genre on the Xbox, if not all consoles. If you consider that the game's multiplayer mode feels so right, even in its work-in-progress state, and if you consider how impressive the original game's single-player mode was, it's not too big of a stretch to say that Halo 2 will likely live up to the hype and be the game to buy this fall. Halo 2 is currently slated to ship this November for the Xbox. Look for more on the game in the coming weeks.