Updated: Sep 21, 2020
In the last article, we investigated Halo: Combat Evolved for the OG Xbox, a game that brought about a sea change in FPS games across all platforms. In this we will investigate its sequel, Halo 2, the game that at last brought online multiplayer to console gaming. Let’s dive in.
Halo 2’s single-player campaign was a major improvement over that of Halo: Combat Evolved (Halo: CE). Halo: CE suffered from a trope I like to call top-loading level design, A.K.A putting the games best levels at the start, thus leaving the later levels something of a chore in comparison. Anyone who remembers playing the tedious and confusing The Library level will know what I mean. Some players thus felt that although Halo: Combat Evolved was great for a console FPS, it was not a great FPS full stop.
Halo 2’s campaign corrected Halo: CE’s shortcomings whilst building upon its best attributes. The level design was superior all-round and possessed greater variety. Gameplay was improved via a larger and more diverse arsenal of weapons and vehicles, a more diverse set of enemies and a wider variety of environments in which to fight them. This included the hard vacuum of space fighting against flying enemies with jet packs.
Combat was enhanced all-round and featured both dual ‘akimbo’ wielding of some weapons, and a larger focus on melee combat, which was a very welcome addition.
Lunging into a Flood combat form with a stolen plasma sword and seeing said Flood explode into a spray of fluids and gore never got old - at least it didn’t for me.
Vehicular combat was enhanced via the carjacking mechanic. If an enemy vehicle got too close whilst traveling too slow, Master Chief could jump onboard. Once aboard, he could proceed to ‘encourage’ the driver to vacate their seat via some ‘persuasive punching’ to the head. That never got old either.That said, players had to take care when driving a vehicle themselves since the enemy could do the same to them.
These improvements resulted in Halo 2 not only being a great FPS by console standards, it was a great FPS Full stop.
Halo 2 (Full Campaign and Cutscenes)
1:11:45: In some parts of Halo 2 you play as an Elite, complete with a cloaking device!
Multiplayer in Halo Combat Evolved
Halo: CE allowed for split-screen two-player co-op and four-player competitive modes, and could create a LAN via System Link. This resulted in Xbox LAN parties much like the PC Doom and Quake LAN parties from about a decade earlier.
The five modes available were Slayer, team slayer (A.K.A deathmatch and team deathmatch), Oddball, Capture The Flag, King of the Hill (somewhat similar to the Domination mode from Unreal Tournament 99), and Race.
Some multiplayer maps were tight corridor shooters, where the fragging was done on foot, as per Unreal Tournament 99 and Quake III Arena. However, others were set-in wide-open expanses with a focus on vehicle use. This included driving tanks and flying Covenant aircraft.
Halo: Combat Evolved was likely the first multiplayer game to include these types of environments and vehicular combat. Later multiplayer games, no doubt encouraged by Halo CE’s success, would go on to include similar sections. Unreal Tournament 2004 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars are good examples of these.
Unfortunately, Halo: CE lacked true online multiplayer since its release predated the introduction of Xbox Live (XBL). This somewhat limited the number of players who could experience its multiplayer innovations - unless said players knew about tunneling software such as XBConnect or the multi-platform XLink Kai.
Halo: Combat Evolved - Multiplayer Gameplay Blood Gulch (2016)
You might notice some lag - the bane of online multiplayer, especially back then.
Xbox Live 1.0
Microsoft correctly predicted that the future of console gaming would be on-line. They had seen the runaway success of online play in PC gaming and were determined to bring it to the console space via the Xbox.
Attempts had been made before, such as the SEGA Dreamcast with its short-lived, Dreamarena and SegaNet services. The latter was the US region equivalent of the former. Unlike Dreamarena, SegaNet required a subscription, meaning the experience of US Dreamcast players could be quite different from those in the rest of the world.
Further fragmenting the on-line experience was the fact that some models of the Dreamcast contained a removable dial-up modem, but not all. The Dreamcast’s 128KB of memory storage was detachable too, so some players had it, some didn’t.
Microsoft knew that for online to work effectively they needed to;
ONE: Remove as many barriers to entry as possible.
TWO: Ensure players across the globe had the same experience.
Therefore, the OG Xbox came with a built-in broadband ethernet port and a built-in hard drive. Xbox Live could be accessed by all gamers the world over and did not require a subscription to do so. Everything players needed to get on-line was there, ‘out-of-the-box’. The built-in HDD allowed for downloading content patches, updates, and maps - just as the PC had been doing for some time. This was the start of console DLC.
I remember being especially impressed that losing power or internet connection mid-download would not corrupt the downloading file. Instead, Xbox Live would automatically pick up from where it left off, and the file (game, map, DLC, etc.) would work perfectly fine. Having experienced many corrupted files due to service interruption in my early pre-Steam days of PC gaming, this was a game changer.
Xbox was launched during November of 2003 and soon became phenomenally successful. By November of 2005, there were two million Xbox Live accounts across the globe. To cater to this success some ISPs (Internet Service Providers) provided internet packages tailored specifically to the needs of Xbox Live gamers. This was at a time when broadband was still seen as something of a ‘luxury’ service and some packages were quite expensive compared to their modern-day equivalents. The Xbox Live centric internet plans provided players with what they needed, but no more, and were priced accordingly.
The speed of ethernet broadband allowed for voice chat, either in-game or from Xbox Live’s voice chat page. Icons next to the player’s Gamertags showed which players had mics, allowing for ‘mic-only’ matches and the like. Xbox Live was a revolution in console gaming, and its killer app was undoubtedly Halo 2.
Halo 2 Multiplayer
Halo 2’s greatest and most impactful innovation lay with its multiplayer modes.
Halo 2’s single-player improvements carried over to its multiplayer. Up to 16 players at a time could now compete in a wider variety of maps, using a wider variety of vehicles and weapons. What’s more, Halo 2 was designed from the ground up with Xbox Live in mind.
Matchmaking was included as standard. This made it easy for a player to find the sort of matches they wished to compete in, with matches using similar rule-sets being grouped into playlists.
Finding friends was also easy, as was hosting custom games and inviting players to join. A lobby system was also introduced, which made it easy for players who met online to stay together in subsequent matches. This, of course, fostered online friendships and the formation of clans, much like those of UT99 and Quake 3 Arena.
It was often easier for players to do all of these on Xbox Live than on PC. Since XBL was an all-encompassing environment there was no need for middleware such as GameSpy. What’s more, players could follow each other from game to game, and it became common practice for groups of friends to play one game for a while, then move on to another, then on to a third, etc. This could be thought of as the digital equivalent of a night on the town, where groups of friends would move from bar to bar as a group.
Halo 2 Classic - Big Team Battle Capture the Flag - Coagulation
Of course it never looked this sharp and clear on its native hardware and a CRT TV
Halo 2’s multiplayer used Microsoft's TrueSkill Ranking System to determine the relative skills of players.
In ranked matches, players would be placed against players of a similar skill level. I must confess, even with my general aversion to online multiplayer I found ranking up quite addictive. Granted, this only meant progressing from ‘hopeless noob’ to ‘slightly-less hopeless noob’.
In unranked matches, players from all skill levels can compete together, and guests are welcome too. This could result in slightly-less-hopeless noobs like myself being pitted against top-tier players, which was a humbling experience.
This ranking system inevitably led to pro players…
Esports Comes to Consoles
Halo 2 was the biggest game on Xbox Live, and it soon attracted the attention of Esports, such as Major League Gaming (MLG).
According to Esports Earnings, Halo 2 featured in 71 tournaments between 2005 and 2007, paying out $1,489,362.47 in prize monies between them.
Some of the above tournaments included Team tournament matches. These usually consisted of either ‘doubles’ (2v2) or two teams of four players each (4v4). MLG introduced this in 2007, in part to reduce the length of the competition days to something more manageable.
Pro Halo 2 Team ‘Carbon’ Montage
The end of Xbox Live 1.0
The OG Xbox’s version of XBL (XBL 1.0) ran until the 15th of April 2010. It is perhaps fitting that the last game to be played on the service before it shut down was Halo 2. Indeed, some players refused to log out, which kept the service running for a month past its official shutdown.
Halo 2 led to its direct sequel Halo 3. This was one of the killer apps for the OG Xbox’s successor, the Xbox 360. Bungie would go on to make Halo 3: ODST, a spin-off ‘sidequal’ of Halo 3, and Halo Reach - a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. Bungie would then go on to create the Destiny franchise. Halo would be left in the hands of 343 industries. Unfortunately, the quality of the post-Bungie Halo games has, in the eyes of many, declined over the years.
Although Halo 2 was broadly similar to Halo: Combat Evolved, and thus didn’t bring as many groundbreaking innovations to the table, its place in video game history is well deserved.
Its impact on console online multiplayer gaming is difficult to overstate. It was Xbox Live’s killer app and did much to popularize the service. As a proof-of-concept of console online multiplayer I can think of few games that could have matched Halo 2. The prevalence of online console gaming across all platforms perhaps owes debts of gratitude to both Xbox Live 1.0 and Halo 2.
In the next article, we will investigate another great FPS whose influence was as much to do with the ecosystem it supported as the game itself. Half-Life 2 and Steam. See you all there.
Did you play Halo 2 back in the day? If so, did you go online? Were you part of a clan? Did you take part in any competitions? Have you played the remastered versions of Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2? If so, what are your thoughts? How do they compare to the originals? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at email@example.com
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