In the six months since its release, Halo 2 has continued to enrapture gamers with its rich multiplayer component. While the single-player experience had a polarizing effect on gamers, there's no denying the multiplayer is like digital crack for discerning fans of online first-person shooters. Ever the perfectionist, Washington-based developer Bungie will soon feed its fan base's addiction with a Halo 2 update of unprecedented scale. User feedback and Bungie's own observation of the online community have informed a major patch to the game that will roll out in stages over the coming months...starting today, actually. Once the final updates have been released, Halo 2 will have gained nine new maps and a slew of significant mechanical changes. We recently got to spend a day at Bungie's Redmond offices to check out all the new content, and we're pretty sure this is going to be a much more balanced and robust multiplayer game, when all is said and done.
Bungie is using a combination of Xbox Live and traditional disc-based methods to distribute the content that, for retail purposes, is being referred to as the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack. But there will be a lot more going on under the hood than just some new maps. For starters, there's the comprehensive auto-update, which is the one available right now on Xbox Live. Bungie reps referred to this patch as Halo 2 1.1, and for good reason: The multiplayer gameplay has been completely retuned to make it a more dynamic experience, and one that's more similar to the original Halo than the shipping version of Halo 2 was. Anyone who plays the game on Xbox Live will receive the 1.1 patch automatically when they connect, and the upcoming retail disc will have it as well, for those who only play system link against local friends. Bungie has even thoughtfully made 1.1 compatible with the original, such that the version used by whoever is hosting a game will determine the rules.
Dual wielding was inarguably the most important addition to Halo 2's gameplay. Bungie says that dual wielding weapons has proven a little too powerful online, though, which has made alternate offensive options, such as grenades and melee attacks, ineffectual by comparison. Recalling the halcyon days of Halo LAN parties, the designers are making those other methods of attack just as viable in the new version of the game. Melee attacks have received a substantial damage bonus, for instance. Grenades will do more damage, and their timers have been shortened as well, making them much deadlier than they were previously. The poor, unappreciated brute shot has gotten the biggest improvement. Its melee damage is even higher than the other weapons (it does have a big blade attached to it, after all), and since its projectile is a grenade, its overall damage is up as well.
The designers have also taken certain dual-wield combinations into consideration in an effort to further balance online play. For instance, many players have used the dual-magnum combo to score easy headshots, so it'll now be more difficult to do so while spamming two pistols. The popular submachine gun-plasma combo has had its damage reduced as well, since previously it was almost inescapable once someone got you in their sights with it. Overall, Bungie says its goal with the auto-update was to make Halo 2 play more like Halo. We spent hours testing out the new version and noted a significant number of melee and grenade kills, which made the game feel a lot more dynamic than it's felt in the past few months.
Thankfully, Bungie isn't turning a blind eye to the rampant cheating that's been occurring in Halo 2 online. Players have found ways to pull flags through walls, fly through the air with the energy sword equipped, and even use their cable or DSL modems to gain illicit winnings. In light of all this naughty behavior, the auto-update will address every known exploit in the game, making it impossible for people to pull off these cheats in the future. Furthermore, community managers will have access to new data-driven tools to keep eyes on cheaters. If your records indicate consistently suspicious behavior, you could be banned from the matchmaker, with all your stats on bungie.net eradicated. The message seems clear: Don't cheat.
Finally, the auto-update will open the way for Bungie to retool Halo 2's playlists based on player feedback and its own observations over the past few months. The designers expect the new playlists to go live roughly a month after the auto-update, and these new lists will address certain map exploits that have become apparent over the months since release. The playlist update will be accompanied by one more change that will surely have a lot of players up in arms: a full leaderboard reset. Bungie says this is necessary because players' levels and records are simply too polluted by cheating, and since the game mechanics are being altered radically, now is the best time to start everyone over at zero. On the upside, the truly skilled players should quickly rise back to the top. Since the skill-matching system has been made more intelligent, you should more consistently be provided with matches that are at your own level.
If you like the sound of these balance changes, you can hop on Xbox Live this very moment to check them out. But how about those new maps, which should really add some new value to the package? Read on for the full details.
You can start playing Halo 2 with the new balance changes right now, and Bungie isn't going to make you wait too long before you can get your hands on those new maps, either. Within the next week or two, Xbox Live gamers will be able to download two new maps, Warlock and Containment, for free. If you're willing to pony up an early-start fee of $5.99, you'll get two more maps: Sanctuary and Turf. All four of these maps will be available on the $19.99 Multiplayer Map Pack disc scheduled for release this summer. However, if you want them as soon as possible, you'd best dust off your Live account.
So what are these maps like, anyway? We spent an afternoon with them to answer that very question.
This is a massive, snowy battlefield set on Delta Halo, an imprisonment facility created by the sentinels to keep the flood at bay. Containment is laid out in a symmetrical format, meaning each team's base is a mirror image of the other, and the map is centered around a giant canyon that separates the two positions. You'll want a ton of players for team-based matches on this one (a full eight-on-eight game is preferable, since the map is so huge). Pretty much every vehicle is available here, and we found matches on Containment to be extremely hectic--with scorpions, wraiths, and plenty of explosions--thanks to the small, destructible bombs littered around the map. Thankfully, there are two rocket launchers available here to help grounded players deal with the persistent vehicular threat.
Given its size and layout, Containment will be best suited to objective-based game types, like capture the flag, rather than free-for-all slayer matches. Check out an overhead map of Containment on our screen index.
Warlock will be familiar to Halo players who remember the old Wizard map, since this new one is based on and draws inspiration from that classic. The map is set in a medium-sized Forerunner-designed jungle temple that features a nice rain effect and a lot of elevated platforms with darkened areas underneath to hide in. A couple of teleporters also make the action pretty frantic, with players appearing and disappearing randomly.
Interestingly, Warlock is a four-way symmetrical map, making it a good choice for game types that have multiple small teams rather than two larger ones. We played some especially heated team oddball matches on this map, for instance.
This is another symmetrical map that's designed for two teams, so two-flag CTF will likely be the favorite to play here. Sanctuary is another crumbling Forerunner temple that, like Containment, is set on Delta Halo. Each team's base is highly defensible, with a mounted machine gun turret and elevated positions for sniping and laying down suppressing fire. Yet there are multiple paths into each base, some of which are covered by large rocks, so defenders will have to be vigilant to keep the other team out. Vehicles are sparse here--there are only a couple of ghosts available--since the uneven terrain and tight passageways through the center divider will hinder maneuverability.
Budding tacticians can check out an overhead map of Sanctuary on our screen index.
We were pleased to see that Turf is a constricted urban map set in the Old Mombasa portion of Halo 2's campaign. This map features a lot of sharp corners, tight passageways, and house-to-house-style fighting. Bungie says the map is designed specifically for the territories mode, which we tested out several times. We found our attention was demanded frequently at all three of the map's control points, though traversing the mazelike streets to get to each location proved a challenge in itself. Turf also seems like it will work well for free-for-all types, which we verified with a truly bloody swords-only slayer match against several Bungie employees (unfair advantage!).
Like many of the maps in the expansion, Turf will feature art elements of Halo 2's campaign to anchor it to the storyline. Here, you'll see the massive bridge that Master Chief traverses in a scorpion in the single-player game. Check out an overhead map of Turf on our screen index.
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait until the retail Multiplayer Map Pack disc is closer to release before we can reveal the remaining five maps. Bungie is providing plenty of options for fans to obtain these maps, though. If you want to wait until June, these first four maps will be included on the disc, along with the remaining five, for $19.99. If you've already gotten the first four and only want the latter five, you'll be able to skip the disc entirely and nab them from Live for $11.99. At the time of the disc's release, the original two premium maps, Sanctuary and Turf, will become free on Live. Best of all, if you're not really burning for these new maps, Bungie will make all nine of them available for free on Live at some point in the future (possibly as soon as the end of summer).
There will be some compelling reasons to plunk down the 20 bones for the retail disc, though, such as a documentary featuring Bungie employees that describes the process of developing the new maps, in addition to a new cinematic sequence that ties into the story portion of Halo 2 (though it's not a new ending, so calm down). Though console gamers aren't accustomed to the expansion-pack model of paying for more content, Bungie is providing a lot of options for everyone to obtain the new maps by the most convenient method possible. And let's face it, if you wait long enough, you'll get them all for free anyway. From what we've seen so far, Halo 2's combat is indeed evolving, so these are compelling additions to an already excellent multiplayer game. We'll bring you more information on the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack as its late-June release date approaches.