Considering Halo 2 was one of last year's most popular, most successful video games, it's strange to see a retail follow-up like the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack, which is only suitable for a very specific subset of Halo 2 fans. Diehards will love this content, but nearly half of it is already free for download on Xbox Live, and the rest will be on August 30. As such, the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack seems best suited to those looking to play Halo 2 in a network setting, since it lets you update the game with new content without having to log in to Xbox Live using each Xbox on the network. So if you were to split the cost of this disc with 15 other friends, it would actually be a pretty sweet deal. Besides, the DVD-style extras exclusively packaged with the disc are quite entertaining (though brief), and the 30-page manual is surprisingly insightful, too. The Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack isn't for everyone, but it's perfectly fine for what it is. Oh, and the nine new maps themselves are outstanding, making one of the best-ever multiplayer shooters even better.
Before we go any further, let's make sure everybody's on the same page: The greatest thing about Halo 2 is its multiplayer portion, which remains easily one of the best such experiences ever crafted. A virtually perfect balance of run-and-gun and tactical shooting action, multiplayer Halo 2 delivers near-constant edge-of-your-seat thrills and plenty of surprises thanks to its fantastically balanced weapons and its well-implemented moves and abilities, which let you rob opposing players of their vehicles, flatten them with fierce melee attacks, and more. Halo 2's brief single-player campaign left many series fans anxious for closure, but on the other hand, could you think of a better way to get everyone fired up and seeing red, ready to waste some fools online, than with that game's non-ending? Halo 2 shipped with a good number of maps and modes of play, not to mention an innovative player-matching system. More than half a year later, Microsoft and Bungie refrain from continuing the Halo storyline and instead release the Multiplayer Map Pack, which simply adds more content to the game's better half, nearly doubling the overall number of maps to a grand total of 21.
This is quality work. In general, the new maps are marginally more complex than the ones that shipped with Halo 2, and they run the gamut from sprawling battlefields suitable for 16 players and lots of vehicular traffic to rather claustrophobic arena-style settings great for pure on-foot free-for-alls. If you came into Halo 2 today for the first time, you'd be hard pressed to pick the new maps out of a lineup containing the old ones, which is a good thing. You can tell a lot of effort went into making the sum total of these maps feel like a cohesive addition to the Halo mythos, above and beyond the care that clearly went into making sure each of these maps was well balanced and flat-out fun for long-term competitive play.
As with Halo 2's prefab maps, these have a Swiss Army Knife design that makes them workable with any of Halo 2's different multiplayer modes. In some cases, different modes of play have a noticeable impact even on the layout and features of a map, so the nine new maps here are loaded with long-term potential. None of them necessarily fills any obvious voids, since Halo 2 offers a great mix of big and small maps out of the box. But they fill a need for even more variety, making marathon multiplayer sessions on Xbox Live that much less susceptible to too many repeats of the same map-and-game-type combination.
The Earth sequences of Halo 2's campaign were the best parts, and in turn, the similarly themed Turf is probably one of the best maps in this pack. Devastated city streets, complete with a steel door you can bash open and a broken-down Covenant scarab, make for a great mix of close-quarters skirmishing and medium-range sniping, along with plenty of pitched battles in capture-the-flag or territories matches. Terminal is another fun map, thanks partly to the oncoming trains that rush through the middle of the level every now and then. Add warthogs and ghosts to the mix, smash them all together, and have a blast. If you want something a little more strategic, you could try Containment, a huge ice-covered map that's great for large-scale capture the flag. As well, it features some explosive new surprises. The factorylike setting of Elongation offers a mix of corridor shooting and surprise attacks, and its conveyor belt system makes for an especially dynamic battlefield. Relic is a beachside fortress map, perfect for vehicular strikes and reminiscent of the Master Chief's first assault on Halo. Another memorable inclusion is Backwash, a mist-shrouded swamp map that looks like it ought to be teeming with the flood, but makes for some brutal shoot-outs just the same. The Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack initially may not seem like a very ambitious product. But these are some superstar shooter maps, deserving of the special attention and commercial distribution.
Unsurprisingly, all this new content mostly looks like more Halo 2. In fact, some of the new maps appear quite similar to some of the old ones at a glance. Observant fans will note, however, that some new graphical details have been added throughout. A number of new ambient sound effects can also be heard in various maps, though multiplayer Halo 2 is dominated by the excellent sounds of the game's weapons and vehicles, as well as its man's man of an announcer. Overall, Halo 2's presentation has aged wonderfully, which is to say it really hasn't aged at all. This is still one of the best-looking, best-sounding console games available.
The new maps all seem to have been thoroughly tested and offer plenty of opportunities to gain a newfound appreciation for all the weapons and vehicles in the Halo 2 arsenal. There were a couple of instances in which we actually fell through the level geometry after getting ourselves majorly blown up, but that was the only real blemish we spotted (and, honestly, it was pretty funny). It's also worth noting that the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack includes the recent update (aka "patch") that was automatically distributed to players on Xbox Live. The update fine-tuned a near-perfectly honed game to account for issues that rose to the forefront after who-knows-how-many-millions of Halo 2 matches were logged online. Melee attacks and grenades are now more powerful than before, and certain weapon combos have been toned down. To the hardcore Halo 2 player, these changes were dramatic and significant. If you haven't played Halo 2 online in a while, it's not the sort of stuff you'd quickly notice, though. At any rate, if these new multiplayer maps are representative of Bungie's best efforts to date at making well-balanced, exciting arenas for players to compete in, the update to the mechanics of the game ensures that the overall experience is thoroughly outstanding. It's also proof of Bungie's commitment to supporting this game and its player community.
As mentioned, the manual that comes with the Map Pack offers a wealth of information, including a visual shot of each map pointing out weapon locations, as well as a little bit of backstory about how the map fits into the bigger picture of the war between the humans and the Covenant. Better yet, there's a gameplay-focused description of each map, including quotations from the artists and designers who contributed to each one. This is great material, shedding light on what motivated each of the particular set pieces. For example, the manual reveals that the midsized map Gemini is actually based on an old multiplayer level from Bungie's precursor to Halo, Marathon. All in all, this information helps give you a better feel for each map, not to mention a greater appreciation for each one. The maps almost take on a level of personality that's typically associated with game characters rather than the forgettable, faceless levels that typify multiplayer shooters.
The video extras on the disc are a nice touch, though they kind of come across like a defensive admission of the package's limited value. One of the exclusive videos is a Halo 2 cutscene called "Another Day at the Beach," which shows what happened to the one dropship full of marines that gets shot down early on in Halo 2's campaign. It's a brief, fun-to-watch video rendered using the game's engine, and the best part about it is that the Covenant elite giving the marines a hard time doesn't speak English, being a self-respecting Covenant elite. The longer video featurette is called "Halo 2: Killtacular," and it's a briskly paced, entertaining video documentary about the making of the multiplayer maps in this package. It goes into specific detail about each map, so it's unusually detail-oriented but doesn't ever devolve into technical ramblings. Like the manual, this documentary is filled with interesting facts and sheds some light on how a game like Halo 2 comes together. The developers are casual but lively on camera, and they come across like a good-natured group of guys having a great time doing work they really enjoy, as though this were a recruitment video. There's even some good, geeky humor in there for good measure. Other extras include the original Halo trailer shown at the 2000 Electronic Entertainment Expo, as well as the original trailer for Halo 2. Finally, there's a goofy audio test video featuring a very, very cheerful Covenant grunt and a less-enthused hunter.
Considering the number of copies that Halo 2 sold worldwide, it's almost appalling to realize that only a relatively small fraction of people who played the game have experienced it on Xbox Live. That explains the need for the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack, which, while only suited to a relatively small audience within the ranks of Halo fans, makes this great multiplayer content available to offline players. This collection of maps is totally first-rate, and it freshens up an extremely exciting multiplayer game, reenergizing it for what could easily amount to many more months of entertainment. However, it bears repeating that the brunt of this content is or will be freely downloadable. So there's no question you should get the content; you just don't absolutely need to purchase this product. If you do, you won't be disappointed...as long as you're aware of what exactly you're paying for.