The music in Halo 2 is bad. I recently mentioned this to someone and he was incredulous: Really? Wasn't the Halo music excellent throughout? Yes, the music in Halo was superb, but listen again to the music of its sequel. Halo 2 rapidly enters rock opera territory, with some of the most awesome ponce-metal orchestral posing I've ever heard. It's embarrassingly crappy, and a clear lapse in judgement.
In fact the same could be said of most of Halo 2, particularly this PC conversion. It was all a lapse of judgement. It's not utterly, damnably awful, but nevertheless I couldn't recommend that anyone spend their money on it. Let's just be clear: yes, it's Halo. There's some interesting things in that only Halo can do - and you even get to be a sneaky, cloaky Covenant beastie during the alternating story. We do love the Chief and his cast of friends, we roll around in the multiplayer like a dog in something stinky, but nevertheless, this sequel is Halo done badly.
The fighting itself is much the same, only now you can dual-wield. This ups the amount of damage you can put out, but that's balanced against the fact that there are quite a lot of enemies thrown at you. Ultimately there's not a huge amount of difference - other than you can see less of what is going on. The tactical actions of your enemies and the recharging shield dynamic are still as robust as ever, but I think they're let down by the overall design. There are too many straight corridors or moving platforms that must be defended. Only a few of the fights - a few of the 'arenas' in which the major actions take place - are anything like as good as the original game. There are no interesting defences, and nothing that reaches the heights of the Silent Cartographer. Remember that Library bit in the original Halo? I think the guy who made that had a bit too much say over Halo 2. Even when the Flood turn up they lack any drama. "Oh, them," you think, reaching for the shotgun.
Worse than the on-foot sequences are the vehicular sequences. How on Earth did Bungie manage to make these so awkward and dull? I think I know: the fact that the Warthog etcetera can be blown up means you can even find yourself without a ride, trudging across huge expanses of featureless highway. Then there's the enemies who arrive, as if on a conveyor belt, into your gun sights. It's like you've taken the scorpion to a funfare - cuddly toys to be won if you pop enough banshee-shaped balloons. The first Covenant vehicle section is so lifelessly on-rails that I could barely believe it was happening. Boom, boom, bored. Eventually I realised that vehicular sequences in Halo 2 are actually there to be skipped through. There's no point slogging your way through the fighting since nothing will chase you. Drive through and get back to the close combat before you die of tedium.
This underwhelming feeling is backed up by the lack of interesting visuals. It's bland, bland, bland. Great brown walls, blank grey city, boring old crumbly temples. Much of this will be because of the sheer age of the game, but I can't remember being impressed by the Xbox version the first time around. There's only one level that actually stands out in its design and that's the orbital structure that plunges through the atmosphere of a gas-giant at terminal velocity. The idea is a superb leap of writing and architecture, and the execution of the whole thing feels professional and exciting. If the entire game had been sewn up with that kind of imagination and vision then it would have been a resplendent beast. As it is that level is a brief glimmer in an ongoing sequence of stodge.
All the problems I mention are ultimately compounded by the faltering pacing. It's weird - in just the way that the first game managed to keep the pressure up, and knew just how to drop the dramatic hammer for those perfect scripted moments, Halo 2 seems to falter. There are long, silent pauses, as if the game is having a bit of a think about what should be happening next. A hush falls across the audience and there's probably something going on backstage. Eventually the whole thing starts up again, eventually (thankfully).
One thing I did enjoy is the Covenant Elite chap. He gets to turn invisible for a few seconds so that you can stride up and stab people with an energy sword. (Oi, you, Stab!) It's remarkably satisfying, and comes with a challenging limit. I wished I could have made more of it, and I hope this turns up in a few other games - it's a kind of action-friendly stealth approach that I would enjoy seeing in other games. It's just a shame you have to slog through the half-baked sci-fi story to get to it. And I'm serious about just how poor that story is by comparison to its predecessor: even the nuclear destruction of a human city seems flaccid and unimportant. What's wrong with some fanfare and bombast, folks? This is a science fiction epic ferchrissakes!
Perhaps the main reason why I'm so critical of Halo 2 is that there are just so many highly accomplished first-person games on the PC these days. Visually almost anything since Far Cry kicks it to the curb (not to mention what we're about to get from the DirectX 10 cleverness of Crysis).
And sure, you can use an Xbox-type gamepad to change your basic PC FPS experience - but do you really want that? I'm quite happy using my PC to play FPS games designed for mouse and keyboard.
Then there's the multiplayer. It has the same pace and balance as the Xbox version. We love its vehicular craziness and a proven arsenal of weaponry. I can't see anyone not enjoying themselves playing it, but then again I have to contrast it against what we're already playing on the PC. I'm always going to choose a Battlefield game, Unreal Tournament, or any number of Half-Life mods over Halo 2. (Hell, even Quake 4's rejig of Quake 3 is more likely to hold my attention these days.) I totally accept that loads of gamers will get a big fat kick out of Halo 2 multiplayer, I just can't hold up my hands and honestly recommend it. It simply doesn't do enough.
Finally, there's "Games for Windows", which you're going to have to navigate to get to your online games. You probably know all about this already - it's the Xbox Live stuff all rejigged to work with Windows, complete with bells, whistles and "Achievements". Having played games on the PC for years it all seems rather like an extra layer of unnecessary faffing to me. It's another screenful of stuff before I get to that server-browser and jump into a game. The PC doesn't need it, and I can't say I'm happy about the prospect of Microsoft mediating what I play, or what mods are support for the GFW service.
So yeah. This is a sequel that definitely does not do what the original did, only better. It's too old, and too dull. Did I mention the bad music? Right. Let's just hope it's all just a temporary lapse of judgement. Oh God, please make sure Halo 3 really pushes the boat out...