The first order of business is to say that this review will be absolutely SPOILER FREE.  If you want spoilers, read my review, realize how fantastic this game is, and then go buy it.

I’m sure that Halo 2 is a title that needs no introduction but I’ll cover the basics nonetheless just for those who aren’t quite up to speed quite yet.

Halo starts off similar to that of a little movie called Star Wars, right in the middle of the action.  You are quickly brought up to speed as Covenant forces, an alien race hell-bent on the destruction of the human race, are attacking your starship, the Pillar of Autumn.  You are the Master Chief, a SPARTAN soldier wrapped in an armored suit and you represent, as is often the case, Earth’s last, best hope for survival.

As you progress through Halo, you find that the Covenant have inadvertently released a parasitic race called The Flood from the Halo ring, a giant ring-shaped weapon that the Covenant intend to use to turn the tide of battle.  The Covenant and humans alike are overrun by the voracious Flood and things look grim for both sides.  The Master Chief and his AI construct sidekick Cortana begin to look for a way to destroy the Flood.  An AI Construct named 343 Guilty Spark from Halo ring tells the Master Chief that the only way to destroy the marauding Flood is to activate the ring’s true power.  Thankfully, moments before that power is unleashed, Cortana figures out that the true power of the Halo is to wipe all organic life from the universe.  There has to be another way…

Cortana and the Master Chief decide that they must strike quickly at the Halo itself to destroy the Flood before they have been given a chance to spread.  Using the engines of the Pillar of Autumn battlecruiser’s wreckage the Master Chief is able to destroy the Halo and the Flood, but not before learning the awful truth…there is not just one Halo. There are more…

Halo 2 begins shortly after the destruction of the first Halo.  The Master Chief and Cortana have rushed back to Earth to warn them of the impending Covenant assault.  They have arrived too late…

Let me sum up the world of Halo 2 – it’s beautiful. It’s amazing what Bungie can push through a 700mhz P3 processor and a modified GeForce 4 video card. Your home PC with the same specs wouldn’t be able to touch what’s shown on your TV.

Unfortunately, while Bungie is pushing the envelope as to what the Xbox can do, it also occasionally rips that envelope, and at that time the limitations of the hardware are clearly shown. Let’s start with the good points first.

As I said before – the game world is beautiful. Game ‘levels’ (they’re loaded in chunks, without a giant ‘now loading’ screen ever short of bootup) are absolutely huge and usually very well detailed. Debris looks like scattered debris instead of just items placed on levels. The same with any flora and fauna you run into.

Once again you can see for miles at a time, although there doesn’t seem to be as many wide open spaces as the original. What open areas you encounter though are picturesque and wonderful to look at. Some would even make nice vacation places if it wasn’t for all the enemies populating the land.

Character models are very well detailed and have improved since Halo 1. While you’ll rarely see the improvements (short of the cinema scenes or looking down the scope of a sniper rifle), they are there. During cinemas, you’ll see some impressive bump mapping on all the characters, enhancing their realism.

The many vehicles you run into (and get run over by) have received a dramatic upgrade. Instead of being nigh invulnerable, capable of taking a rocket and a half-dozen plasma grenades without a scratch short of killing the occupants, these vehicles will take damage and eventually explode. You’ll watch as the armor plating rips away, tires flatten, and wings blow off. Finally, the hunk of junk will give up the ghost and explode, sending shards of metal everywhere.

Concrete will spark when a sniper rifle bullet misses its target, vehicles and grenades will leave a burned scorch on the ground when they explode, and bulletholes are visible everywhere as you fire. You think that with all this detail the Xbox would have problems displaying it. Well, for the most part, you’re wrong – the Xbox sits at 30fps most of the time while playing.

Unfortunately, when the going gets tough, the game starts to stutter.

During very heavy firefights, you’ll notice the Xbox start to lag and drop frames as it attempts to keep track of all the action. It recovers less than a second or two later, and it tends to not affect you too badly (you won’t get killed because of it), but it’s noticeable as the game runs so well the majority of the time.

Another issue is during cinema scenes. Between how the Xbox drive is constantly streaming in data and how detailed the characters look close up, you’ll actually be able to see the low detailed models get replaced by high detail ones in some scenes. After that, you’ll watch as the bump mapping and lighting affects are applied in another pass. This is very noticeable and very ugly to watch, but because of how the game is designed, I don’t think the developers had any other options.

Finally, we come to how the game is displayed on Progressive Scan (480p) TV sets. For some unexplainable reason, those of you with those kinds of TV sets encounter an anomaly – some of your gages will simply be cut off and are displayed outside the ends of your TV. Why does it do this? Good question. Those of you without the graphical enhancements will see the game display just fine. Thankfully it doesn’t affect gameplay at all (as you can still see all the relevant details), but it’s noticeable.

Overall, Bungie should be commended for making this living and breathing world for you to kill things in. They’ve done a fantastic job visually drawing you into their world, and it looks so good you simply don’t want to leave it.

Excellent voice acting? Check. Great, epic music that makes you want to find the music CD? Check. Lots of crisp weapon noises and sound effects? Check. The kitchen sink? Uh…

To start, Bungie continued with the excellent voice acting they had in the original Halo. Every person sounds exactly like they should, and you won’t find a soul in the game who sounds like they’re reading off of a script (unless they’re supposed to sound that way). Every human, every Covenant, every alien, and every communication you hear through your speakers is crisp, clear, and sounds just right.

The music is just as good. While sometimes I miss the original Halo ‘theme’, the multiple remixed versions are heart pounding and make you want to run out there and kill anything that gets into your way. The other music tracks you hear compliment the action (or lack thereof at times) perfectly. Once again Bungie has produced a musical masterpiece.

In addition, every weapon sounds like the real thing. The weapons that don’t exist based on human technology still sound realistic as well. Sniper rifles give off that infamous crack as they fire and the bullets thud just right as they penetrate human or Covenant flesh. Your Warthog will purr with power as you drive around and the Banshee will scream as you dive past your opponent.

As in the original Halo, you have a few controller configurations to choose from. You have a total of 4 different control options for the analog sticks as well as 4 more configurations for the buttons. You can also choose from one of nine settings for analog sensitivity. Unfortunately you can’t completely reassign the buttons to whatever you want, but I couldn’t think of a better button configuration than what I chose.

Controls are extremely tight and responsive. You are in complete control of Master Chief’s movements, so any loss or mistake is completely your own.

The same quick response carries over to when you drive the multitude of vehicles around. Those of you who are pros in driving the Warthog or Ghost around the battlefield will dominate those who don’t have that ability, all thanks to how tight the controls are.

Some time has passed between Halo and Halo 2. How much time? And how exactly did Master Chief get back to Earth? That answer isn’t explained at all. Instead, you’ll have to read the books that are available for purchase at a bookstore near you. The details within are interesting, but are unneeded for enjoyment of this title, thankfully.

In short, Master Chief escaped total destruction of Halo in the original title and has now arrived back at Earth. Things are anything but peaceful, as Earth is awaiting a Covenant assault at any moment. They’re prepared for anything.

Or so they think.

After a short introduction where you learn the abilities of your armor, you once again jump right into the fray. From there, expect to have nary a moment where you aren’t under attack from all sides.

What’s the story this time around? Let’s just say that it involves the Master Chief, the Covenant, and something that has to do with the title of the game.

How is the single player mode? Without giving anything away, you’ll spend lots of time above and underground, ‘borrow’ lots of vehicles for your own personal use, and you’ll pull the trigger on your guns more times than you care to count.

After about 10-15 hours, you’ve finished the game. The only problem is that you simply don’t expect the game to end where it does. My brother put it best this way – “Wouldn’t it just suck if the game ended right here, right now? And then it suddenly did.”

It’s an absolutely terrible ending. It’s like the designers just ran out of time for the final stage of the game and just tacked on the ending sequence as seen. After a story that draws you in as much as Halo 2 does, and to have it end like that, is pretty much disgusting.

Come on Bungie, just put it out and say it in big giant letters – HALO 3, COMING OUT IN 2007, or something. Sad. So very sad.

So, to keep all of us Halo fanatics happy until Halo 3, Bungie has designed the absolute best multiplayer experience you’ve ever seen on a console. Period. Why do I say this? Let me explain.

It has the best multiplayer because Halo 2 not only offers a completely lag free experience, even if all 16 players are on different sides of the country, but because it offers the most robust set of multiplayer options you’ve ever seen in a console or PC title before.

For starters, once you’ve signed onto Live, you can skip all of the fancy ‘choose which gametype you’d rather play’ and click on a single button to start playing. Live will automatically find the best available server that holds the same characters of your skill level and throw you in. No server browsers to mess with, no ‘server full’ messages, no nothing. Just click on QuickMatch and you’re all set.

If you’d like to choose which type of game you’d like to play instead, you can do that too. Capture the Flag, Slayer (deathmatch), Assault (best described as a round of Counterstrike), King of the Hill, Oddball (pick up a ball and hold on to it until you win), Juggernaut (one player is the overpowered Juggernaut while others try to kill him), and Territories (best described as Onslaught from UT2K4) are all available for you to play. Some of these modes offer team versions and other modes are team play only. Just choose OptiMatch and select a playlist of a few maps, and you’re all set.

What if you think you have a better way of playing these modes than the standard way of playing them? You can create your own game type, save it for future use, and play your friends online with it.. Do you want to play Slayer with rocket launchers, cloaking devices, and no radar? Go right ahead. Or a game of reverse Capture the Flag (take your flag to your opponent’s base) with nothing but Tanks and a slew of weapons? Your choice. Would you rather play Facility with Prox Mines instead? You’re playing the wrong game.

Would you rather take these new game types and play them against your friends? You’ll be happy to hear that Halo 2 incorporates all the friends features that Live has already, but takes it a bit further. Not only can you invite your friends into your game, but your friends can outright join you (assuming you’re selected that option on your game server) at any time they choose to do so.

In addition, you can take your friends list and combine them into a Clan, and thus take your clan against other clans in world domination. Once you get your friends all together, you can use the Live matching service to once again find a group of people that’ll be best fit for your skill level and challenge them.

The best part about all of this? Bungie is watching everything you do. Every bullet fired is recorded on their servers. Every hit you make is kept. Every kill. Every death. Everything. It’s absolutely stunning to be able to pull up the previous set of games and look over them again. This way, you can actually learn from your mistakes and successes.

Bungie has changed the very face of Live online gaming with Halo 2. Now it’s up to the developers of future games to adjust just so they can keep up.

Value?  What…are you joking? If you are into multiplayer Halo, then this is a no brainer.  If you gave Halo a try and couldn’t commit to it, the improvements in Halo 2 just might pull you in.  While the single player campaign length, terrible ending, and Covenant-centric story arc might push away some, there is no resisting the vast multiplayer components of this title.

Once you play multiplayer just a single time, you’ll be so impressed with how well it plays that you’ll stick around until your alarm clock blares to remind you that it’s time to wake up. People will be playing this game online for months, if not years.