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Review: 'Halo 2' bests original

By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Marc Saltzman, a freelance technology journalist whose reviews also appear on the Gannett News Service.

In 'Halo 2,' up to 16 players can battle aliens -- or each other -- by going online using Xbox Live.
In "Halo 2," up to 16 players can battle aliens -- or each other -- by going online using Xbox Live.
Video Games
Computing and Information Technology

"Halo 2," which went on sale in November, shattered video game sales records, but does it live up to the hype? Yes. And in spades.

The original "Halo: Combat Evolved" is a single-player game that pits a human, Master Chief, against an onslaught of menacing aliens. By navigating through huge locations, the player discovers what weapons work best in a given situation and how best to dispose of the sly extraterrestrials.

"Halo" was one of those rare games that excelled in every department, from the game play and story to the graphics and orchestrated music soundtrack. And now its sequel takes things further.

Multiplayer mayhem

Arguably the most impressive new feature in "Halo 2" is the online play for up to 16 gamers via Xbox Live (service sold separately). Imagine running around stunningly surreal landscapes with more than a dozen of your buddies, each battling on foot or while riding in jeeps and other vehicles.

Game modes include the familiar Deathmatch (here called Slayer; whoever gets the most kills wins), Capture the Flag, King of the Hill and other fun head-to-head options.

Choosing a game type, finding other players in the virtual lobby and launching a multiplayer match is as intuitive as it is fast and smooth. Within seconds of logging on to Xbox Live, you'll find yourself deep in gunfire and will hear players strategize (or trash-talk) using an optional Xbox Live headset/microphone.

Microsoft says players will soon be able to use Xbox Live to download new "Halo 2" maps.

Other multiplayer options include a split-screen mode for up to four players on the same television, and a system link mode for those who want to connect multiple Xbox units in the same room.

Also new to "Halo 2" are extra weapons such as the Covenant (alien) energy blade and submachine gun (plus you can now wield two weapons at once) and the ability to toss an enemy out of a vehicle and climb in, perhaps a nod to "Grand Theft Auto"-style carjacking.

The game's sci-fi story and impressive cut-scene sequences are some of the best in a video game to date. The story begins shortly after the events in "Halo," where Master Chief is attending a medal ceremony onboard a spaceship hovering above Earth. The evil Covenant begins an attack on the ship and planet, which calls Master Chief back into action down on the surface.

Memorable moments from the game include cruising in an enemy "ghost" vehicle over a huge suspension bridge leading into a city; fighting an onslaught of creatures along a beach; and jumping on top of an enormous four-legged scarab creature to destroy it. The story also contains many plot twists and a very gratifying midgame surprise.

Not perfect

There are a few minor shortcomings. For one, computer-controlled characters won't always operate a vehicle when they get in the driver's seat. The first example of this is during a mission where you must drive down a long tunnel. Players may need to switch positions with the soldier who is manning the turrets, drive a bit, then switch back before your associate decides to step on the gas.

Another minor beef involves some graphical issues such as downed humans that seem to move because of glitches that cause their bodies to awkwardly shift around.

The music in "Halo 2" is outstanding; think of it as new-age ambient melodies, classical music and Gregorian chants mixed with rhythmic drum beats and electric guitar.

"Halo 2" proves you can improve on excellence. It's an outstanding solo adventure and multiplayer game that gets almost everything right.

A metal-bound limited collector's edition of the title is also available, containing a second DVD with special features including a "making of" movie, multiple short features, deleted scenes and outtakes, commentaries and more.

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