Halo 2 disappointment
Posted November 22nd 2004, with slight revision later
- Alien character and animation
- Melee attacking
- Campaign structure and story
- Boss battles
- Enemy snipers
- The 'annoying game' factor
- Broken promises
- Minor annoyances
Like any other Halo fan, I was hugely looking forward to the arrival of Halo 2. Well now it's arrived and there are certainly some aspects I appreciate, like the battle rifle and some tremendous scenery. But for me it's still been a terrible disappointment, chiefly due to the way Bungie has changed or lost so many of the aspects that made the original so special, as if they felt a need to re-invent everything. This article tries to identify such aspects along with some other annoyances, in regard to the single-player campaign.
Please keep in mind that this is not a review. I'm just trying to figure out why I'm so disappointed; hence all the negativity that follows, which implicitly is just my own opinion. In a review there would be plenty of positive stuff, and I'd score the game's single-player campaign quite highly compared to other shooters (though some way below that of Halo).
If you just want something short, here's a brief list of probably the ten biggest obstacles to my enjoyment, in approximate order of importance:
- The altered nature of the Elites, Grunts and Jackals; and particularly the Elites' use of English delivered in ultra-hammy Shakespearean actor style. Elites are just not scary and animalistic any more.
- The awful illusion-breaking ragdoll death animations, which really take the fun out of administering crispy alien death.
- The highly unsatisfactory new melee attacking.
- The way the needler and plasma pistol have been ruined.
- The weakness of MC's campaign. It's short, it's broken up by all the Arbiter gameplay which I'm just not interested in, and the ending makes you want to snap the game disc in two!
- Some embarrassingly dumb boss battles.
- The severity of enemy snipers, which reduces the pleasure of fighting too much.
- The excessive vehicle combat, particularly in regard to enemy Ghosts.
- The weakness of the driving AI, which on higher difficulties makes it far too risky to let an ally drive you into battle.
- Cutscenes which happen at unexpected and unwelcome times, and sometimes leave you in positions of extreme danger.
Alien character and animation
This has to be my biggest grievance overall. For me, the enemy character and animation in Halo was one of the big things that set it apart from other games. But with Halo 2, character has changed and animation seems inferior.
Elites have had a personality transplant, and aren't scary anymore. With their new full-blown English speech and pompous actory voices, they now come across something like Shakespearean human actors wearing Elite costumes, complete with corny lines (reminiscent of what we had to suffer in Brute Force). "Excruciating pain!". Yep, you said it, squid-face. Also, in place of their original bounding stride, Elites now mince along like a bunch of pansies. Sorry but there's no other way to say it!
You remember when Master Chief got surrounded by Elites at the end of the E3 2003 movie? Now those Elites were menacing and animalistic, and never did "Wort Wort Wort!" send a bigger shiver down the spine. What a vision. That's the way I thought Elites were going to go; deep into scary territory, enhancing the menace of the original character. It would've been fantastic. But these guys? They're just too darned human. What a wonderful opportunity wasted. And hey, have I even heard "Wort Wort Wort!" once? Can't recall it. Didn't Bungie know that we loved things like that?
Use of English
The non-grunty uses of English by aliens has really brought things down, and is a major obstacle to my enjoyment of the game, particularly in regard to the Elites as it radically changes their old character. I'd rather have seen subtitles to odd alien speech in cutscenes, if Bungie had really wanted us to follow an involved plot (not that I want an involved plot). At least they could have made the English stylized with forms of alien distortion; but instead it just sounds like a bunch of extremely hammy stage actors going way over the top. That's the trouble really. I don't hear aliens, I hear actors.
Of course, the Grunts always had a bit of pidgin English; and I think most of us loved it. But their character too has been weakened, and we seem to've lost many of the old cute animations and the clip-clopping of footsteps.
The voices are different, and overall much inferior to the old style. Also, the hilarious old remarks have seemingly all been deleted, and the new remarks are nothing like as funny, nor as frequent and varied I think, nor as clearly audible. Why not just retain the existing voice style and lines, and simply add some extra lines?
And I still haven't seen a Grunt go sailing through the air going "Waaaaah!" like they so often used to. Some of the Grunt animations remain similar to the old, such as when running in panic, but they don't seem as good. And why did the old animations need to be replaced anyway? The Grunts were already superbly engineered. Grunt reactions are also not as good. It used to be enormous fun to tag one with a plasma grenade, watch the reaction and listen to the cry; but the new Grunts seem far less obliging.
Overall the new Grunts can at least be classed as amusing. But the old Grunts were hilarious, and I'm just not getting the degree of grunty fun I used to.
The Jackals are radically different in the way they move, and have lost many of the old traits we loved, though at least some of the Jackal sounds have been retained. I haven't see a Jackal roll once, or point at me. Huh? A Jackal that doesn't point? That ain't no Jackal!
They now have a high-speed running style and do a lot of flitting about. I can see that the running adds a useful new dimension to Jackals, but the way it's been done is too inconsistent with the old character. It's way too fast. If the running had been only about two or three times as fast as the normal skulking gait, that would have sufficed, without being too inconsistent with the old character. But now, Jackals are like sprinters.
I also think that the Jackal model is visually far less appealing than the old one. The skin has an odd plastic look, and we also seem to've lost the big curved helmets that I always liked in the original game.
With the possible exception of Hunters, the old enemies largely don't seem to move like they did before, i.e. they don't have all those old movement patterns we grew to know and love and exploit in battle. I've noted a few examples already; Elites have a different stride, Jackals don't point, etc. It's annoying to see things re-invented so needlessly. By all means extend characters; but don't re-invent what we already loved! It makes the universe too different, which is basically why I find it so hard to embrace the game.
I think enemies also have a slightly floaty look to their movement; I don't get the same sensation of mass or contact with the floor. Or maybe I'm getting that impression due to enemies often moving faster (particularly the Jackals) and accelerating too fast for actual beings of that mass. Whatever, it all detracts from the realism. In the believable depiction of physical creatures, I think Halo did things better.
The new ragdoll death animations are awful, reminding me of what things were like in Brute Force, where any sense of realism was shattered each and every time an enemy got killed and suddenly turned into a random jumble of limbs bouncing around. Maybe not quite as bad as in that case, but still not a patch on the old animations, which not only looked great but were frequently also very amusing.
In the new style, enemies generally pop up off the ground and bounce around lightly as if made of loosely connected polystyrene pieces, with limbs bending in ways that seem to ignore skeletal structure. It's like in the movies when they throw an obvious dummy off a cliff or something, completely breaking the illusion. It's about then that I stop bothering to watch. There's generally no sense of a solid mass slumping to the floor or anything like that. There also seems to be a bug that occasionally causes bodies to jump around a bit, moments after apparently settling down. You've surely seen it.
This grievance has to be near the top of my list because it so constantly spoils things. In a shooter, death animation really needs to be nailed.
I just didn't enjoy using the old weapons as much. They all have a different feel, and overall I'd say that combat wise (which includes also grenades and melee attacking), Bungie has not 'nailed it' like they did with Halo. Old weapons even have different associated sounds. But why change even the sounds? This seems symptomatic of the whole problem; it's as if Bungie felt obliged to re-invent everything, including all the little nuances we loved.
Incidentally, despite being a big fan of the old 'pistol', I understand and support Bungie's rationale for leaving it out; so don't think I'm complaining about that. I consider the 'magnum' a completely new weapon, rather than a revamped version of the pistol.
It seems to me like the needler has been ruined. The rate of fire is greatly reduced, giving it a lethargic feel, which also makes it harder to quickly send out enough of a stream to cause an explosion. But that's another problem; needler explosions are no longer the glorious events they once were. They seem to be much more subdued affairs, if you can get a bang at all. For me this used to be the most fun weapon to use, but it's no longer the work of art it once was.
The plasma pistol likewise seems to've been ruined. In particular the homing quality of its overcharge shot seems almost absent when relatively distant, or at least nothing like as usable as it once was. Actually it was only when a Jackal used it on me that I was sure there was any homing at all. Yet the homing aspect used to be one of the weapon's key features, forming a significant part of its tactical value!
In any case the value of its overcharge shot seems much less because other weapons are quite effective on shields this time; and I notice that the shot doesn't always bring down a Jackal's shield anyway. The charging-up animation also looks vastly inferior to what it used to be, and makes me feel like my aim is being diverted.
The weapon's normal mode of fire has a weak feel to me, and we've also been robbed of the weapon's satisfying old melee attack. All in all, I pretty much gave up on this weapon after a while. This time around, the plasma rifle seems to be by far the more effective of the two plasma weapons.
In regard to completely new weapons, I loved the new battle rifle, and in fact it's been the main draw to getting me to play at all. But the darned thing is forever running out of ammo, forcing you to swap for something else after maybe a minute's use, or go searching for ammo. In a few levels such as 'Outskirts' you can find spare clips lying around if you care to go looking whilst your Marines are busy getting killed, but in other levels you're pretty much obliged to swap weapons. When you think of it, it's entirely unrealistic that MC carries so few clips for the weapon, especially when running out can be so tactically costly. What's a few extra clips to a 7ft cyborg?
The plasma sword seems to suddenly jerk you forwards when you use it, which is both disorientating and physically inexplicable. The Brute shot looks good but was disappointing to use; it's too hard to hit what you want, and the explosive effect seems weak anyway.
Plasma grenades come with a new explosion effect when the old one was already perfectly good. Again it's a case of changing the character of something for no good reason. The blast gives me the impression of being weaker, and their new muted dark blue appearance makes them harder to spot on the ground. I'm wondering whether the blast from frag grenades is weaker too. At any rate, I get the impression that Grunts and Jackals just don't go flying through the air as much as they used to; and chain reactions don't seem as clear and spectacular as before.
Ah, the pleasures of administering a good whack to an alien skull! Sadly, I'm only referring to Halo there. In Halo 2 melee attacking feels much more awkward and can jerk your vision somewhat (especially with the SMG), which is disconcerting and makes it harder to do whack after whack as you have to keep refocusing.
Another unwelcome new aspect is that the actual style of melee attack seems to vary at random for some weapons. This means that you're never quite sure what you're going to do when you hit the melee button; and this inevitably weakens your sensation of control. It violates what should be a basic rule of video game design: that in general the player should know what to expect when using the controls. It also means that you can't match your motion and positioning to the forthcoming unpredictable melee attack. This is something I used to do with some attacks such as the old plasma pistol's right hook; and very satisfying it was too, adding an extra dynamic of precision and control.
Further, the sound effect for the impact seems to lag slightly behind the graphics, giving a distinctly out-of-sync feel that weakens any feeling of delivering a good crisp whack. So even when I do manage to connect, it's not as satisfying as before.
The long and short of it is that melee attacking has changed for the worse and I'm just not enjoying using what used to be one of my main combat tactics.
There are three aspects to my grievance in regard to vehicles.
Too much vehicle combat
Firstly, I've been quite struck by what I see as way too much vehicle combat, and I think that it makes levels less interesting as such combat tends to be just a chaotic and forgettable affair, to me at least. In some places you have to deal with what can seem like a never ending stream of enemy Ghosts. It might be more interesting if their drivers looked like having any intelligence, but they mostly zip about all over the place, adding to the general feel of mindless chaos.
If I had the opportunity of dealing with enemy vehicles on foot, perhaps I wouldn't mind so much. But in Halo 2 this doesn't always seem viable like it was in Halo (partly due to those Ghosts that just keep coming, after you've used up all the rocket ammo you can find).
Poor driving AI
Secondly, the ally driving AI is very poor. On Heroic it took me precisely one ride to realize that on no account should I let myself be driven into battle by Marines, if I want to stay alive. I can still vividly remember being driven around crazy-style with no clear strategy, much less an intelligent one (such as: when MC's shield is blinking like mad, get him the heck out of there for a while!). And another time when I was on the ground, a Warthog was zipping around all over the place, way too close for me to be able to concentrate on fighting the enemy.
As you've doubtless also noticed, Marines often end up overturning their Warthogs, requiring you to go over and right it. It makes them seem like kids who can't be trusted not to break their toys.
Another example of poor driving AI occurred when playing as the Arbiter, manning the cannon on a Spectre (which drives extremely poorly). My driver merrily ploughed his way down a tunnel, clumsily pushing a sideways-on ally Ghost all the way along (it didn't seem able to get out of the way), until it blew up. Nice one, squid-face.
Thirdly, I'm unhappy with how many vehicles drive or fly. In particular the Warthog now has less realistic dynamics due to the twitchy way it responds to control, in a way that a heavy vehicle simply should not. It accelerates and turns too fast to be believable. It controls more like a remote-controlled toy car in that respect. The same goes for Ghosts, and it all reduces the realism.
As for the Banshee, that seems to've become sluggish. The first time I took off in it, my reaction was "Huh? Why isn't it going?". A Halo contact of mine felt just the same way. It also doesn't seem able to hover stationary any more; hovering is accompanied by a slow forward motion, which can be annoying. Of course, it can do some new tricks and has a boost function, all of which is welcome; but still, why change the basic dynamics?
Campaign structure and story
A major aspect of Halo 2 is that about half the gameplay is done as the Arbiter rather than MC. I didn't like this at all. Not only did it make MC's campaign unsatisfyingly short, it also broke the campaign up and made it much harder to identify with being MC, which is all I wanted. It really weakened my sense of involvement, and actually it felt like the Arbiter was the main focus of the game. If you care to discount the bits where you're running around in hooves doing things you really don't care about, it's only a 7-level game that covers just 5 missions.
Disappointingly, among MC's levels only 'Delta Halo' features much naturalistic scenery to fight in. And there, much of the combat is vehicle-based chaos, rather than interesting and skillful foot-based soldiering. His final two levels were fairly tedious I thought. Heck, even the enemies were more interested in fighting among themselves half the time.
I'm not a one for involved storylines, and especially in shooters. As far as the Halo series goes, I wish it had all simply been a straightforward 'Humans vs Covenant' business. But in Halo 2 there seems to be all sorts of galactic intrigue going on, which I got precious little out of. And where the heck did that oversized triffid in the library come from? Maybe the Forerunners got a bit too ambitious with that flower garden? Seriously though, I really wish the game had just focused on MC battling away on Earth. But despite all the hype, he only had one 2-level mission there.
And then there's the matter of the ending, which makes you want to snap the game disc in two! Or at least march back to the shop to demand a refund. Just when I thought MC was going to go kick some alien ass back on Earth, it ends, in classic 'annoying movie' fashion. An unbelievable let-down. Well, perhaps I wouldn't have minded quite so much if I'd had a satisfyingly good time up until then, but I hadn't. Things had never really kicked into gear for me, what with all that Arbiter business holding things up, so the anticlimactic ending just felt like the final straw. A sorry ending to a tepid campaign.
If you've ever read my Soapbox page, you'll already know my opinion of typical boss battles. We were thankfully spared any boss battle madness in Halo, but with Halo 2 Bungie has inexplicably backtracked into primitive 'annoying game' territory.
Perhaps the one that annoys me most is the way MC is apparently supposed to dispatch the Prophet of Regret, by jumping up onto his floating throne and repeatedly melee attacking. Boy did I feel silly having to do that. What a miserable end to the mission. Knowing that the end is so stupid, it's hardly an incentive to start out in the first place, which is a great pity when you bear in mind the terrific scenery.
If I was interested in playing Arbiter levels at all, maybe I'd hate the Tartarus battle even more. I got the distinct impression that there was simply nothing you could do to kill the guy, until Sarge starts calling out that the fellow's shield is down. If that's really true, it's classic boss battle nonsense. I mean, there's me blasting away with plasma rifles and swinging my plasma sword, and none of this can rival the magical effect of Sarge's sniper rifle? Give me a break.
I don't lump the Scarab battle with the annoying boss battles, incidentally. I actually enjoy that one, and it gives you the chance for some unusual and interesting gunplay. But it was embarrassingly convenient the way that weapons and ammo were laid out all along the walkway! Heck, I'm surprised the Marines hadn't put signposts up as well: 'Attention All Cyborgs: Giant Steel Bug This Way'.
The addition of snipers to the enemy ranks may be realistic, but there are some types of realism I'd rather do without. The trouble is that particularly on Heroic or Legendary, their severity takes away too much of the pleasure of fighting.
On Legendary it only takes one shot to kill you, whilst on Heroic a hit will at least put you on the verge of death. It basically means that if you want to stay alive, you have to take care of snipers first and you can't afford to engage the other enemies as normal (although your Marines will typically bluster in foolishly as usual; so much for the new AI). It's just a pain. For the sake of gameplay, I wish snipers were either absent or at least not so deadly.
All too often, cutscenes happen at unexpected and unwelcome times, such as when you're merely moving across an open area. This has been a frequent annoyance to me as gameplay is interrupted and I suddenly lose control of the character. It's poor design. Cutscenes really ought to only kick in when you do some particular action or when you reach a door or suchlike; not when you're out in the open or exploring.
Right at the end of the Scarab mission is a good example. You kill the last Elite at the controls and start to move forward to take a look around, and then things just blank out. Bungie could've arranged that you had to press something to power-down the Scarab or something; and then the cutscene would cut in. Or it could kick in after MC comes up from below, or jumps back onto land. Any of these would've been better.
Another annoyance is when a cutscene leaves you in a dangerous situation that you simply wouldn't have let yourself get into. Maybe the best example is when you have to kill the Heretic leader. All of a sudden you find yourself locked in a room with hovering Elites a few feet away. Naturally, the first time you play this, you're almost certainly going to get cut to ribbons inside around two seconds, even before you've fully oriented yourself. And that's a sure sign of bad design, straight out of the 'annoying game' handbook.
The 'annoying game' factor
This time around I think there's quite a strong 'annoying game' factor, which is a serious disincentive to me. It's sad to see the Halo series losing some of its original intelligence this way. Some specific aspects are mentioned in other sections of this article: boss battles, enemy snipers, and cutscenes suddenly putting you in positions of extreme danger. Perhaps you could also add the new hugely increased effectiveness of Hunters; not just their cannon fire, but also their swiping, which annoyingly seems to cause damage even when you're clear by a few feet (or at least, that's the impression I've got a few times; maybe I'm mistaken).
Based on my experience with Normal and Heroic, difficulty has also been upped considerably. I'm not complaining about that in itself, but in general I feel that things have been poorly balanced in the sense that danger spikes are too high, which tends to lead to elements of frustration, of the 'repeated death' variety. Goodness knows what Legendary is like, but heck, surely it was hard enough last time!
In Halo I was able to cope with Legendary fairly consistently, with effort. But with Halo 2 I'd have to consider Legendary a no-go area due to the frustrations I'm sure I'd have with the 'annoying game' aspects already mentioned. I suspect that Legendary is now something only for gamers who are happy enough to get through a level after being killed multiple times. But for me that just doesn't constitute good gameplay, or at any rate it's not something I'm interested in. I like to battle like it's real; so dying means game over. Games that smack of a 'die and retry' mentality repel me.
Even Heroic is aggravating in places. Actually, in what limited amount of gameplay I have been doing, I seem to've settled into just having casual fun on Normal, to keep the annoyance level bearable. Hardly ideal, but it seems to be the best experience I can salvage. Besides, Normal also has the benefit that I can often kill the new Elites before they open their mouths and start hamming it up; and that's got to be good!
Well, maybe not promises; but there were many features we'd been led to expect, that were simply not there. In particular, MC only had a single 2-level Earth mission, despite all the hype about the Covenant taking the battle to Earth. And hey, no ATV after all; I was really looking forward to that! Also, I can't recall any enhanced new driving experience for the Warthog; in fact it was significantly worse. So what was that hype all about? I was also looking forward to melee combos; but no, there's none of that. I could go on, but you get the general idea. Note to self: completely ignore developer's PR in future!
Bigger battles please
I was also expecting significantly bigger battles. What I really wanted were battles that could at least rival Halo's rockslide megabattle, which was a significant step up from normal Halo encounters, both in its intensity and the degree of tactical opportunity available. But there wasn't a single one, and even in large areas, groups of enemy were quite small. It was generally a case of working through one small group at a time, just like in Halo.
Actually it makes me wonder whether anyone at Bungie has even played the rockslide megabattle. If they had, maybe they'd realise how good things could be; and that's even without the benefit of any new game engine (the benefits of which I have to question, in view of the final game). In the Halo 2 I fondly imagined but never got, there were at least a dozen such glorious and flexible battles. Guess I'll have to keep on dreaming.
Finally, here are a few relatively minor annoyances in no particular order.
The support for widescreen is a relief, but oddly it doesn't seem to extend to the HUD. The motion tracker and reticles that are surely intended to be circular, come out squashed. If that's just a bug, it's a rather obvious one that should have been fixed. Widescreen also doesn't seem to extend to the view of your character and emblem when editing multiplayer appearance; things are squashed. Ditto with some other imagery outside gameplay, such as the action footage that kicks in automatically after a while.
The old Marine lines seem to be mostly absent, though I've at least heard a re-recorded "Cancel Christmas!". But as with Grunt lines, why not keep the original lines and add to them, rather than delete stuff we loved? Save yourself some work, Bungie folk! It was nice to at least hear some of the same accents, but the new Marine lines have seemed a bit less amusing overall. Also, I've done big Warthog jumps a couple of times but I still haven't heard a whoop from the passengers! Maybe you have to jump higher this time?
Sometimes you see objects materialize when you turn around or enter a room.
When objects switch between low and high resolution textures (depending on your distance from them), it's sometimes very noticeable; much more so than in Halo I thought.
In cutscenes, objects are often untextured for a fraction of a second, which is very noticeable and makes things seem unfinished.
I feel that sound is not quite as well implemented this time. Enemy voices seem less clear, and in 'Uprising' I had a recurring problem with phantom footsteps, causing me to turn 180 with guns at the ready, only to realise that the noise was my own footsteps trailing behind me.
MC's flashlight seems to fade out after a short time in some situations. At first I took this to be a bug, because in other situations it happily stays on. But apparently it's intended as an intelligent reaction that kicks in when the flashlight is judged unnecessary. However, that judgement can't match your own, and sometimes when I want it on, it insists on turning off; which is annoying of course. It should really be left to your own control. In any case the behaviour seems fickle. For example, at the start of 'High Charity' the torch stays on happily, even though you're in a rather brighter area than at the start of 'Gravemind', where it turns off.
When zoomed in for sniping, your motion tracker disappears. I see no reason for that, and in some situations it's quite possible that enemies are near enough to show up on it (e.g. Ghosts whizzing around you whilst you're trying to pick off distant enemies), hence it would be useful to see it.
The ability to swap weapons with allies is welcome (if occasionally awkward when you have to chase after them shouting "Gimme that rifle!"), but it seems inconsistent that they won't accept an empty weapon. One round left? That's fine! No rounds? I guess they consider that just too mean.
This time I really felt more distant from Cortana, and Bungie did little to build her relationship with MC. It seems a waste of a very popular character.
Don't get me wrong; it's not that I wanted Halo all over again in different packaging. But I did want aliens to retain their original character and behaviour, and for any reappearing weapons to retain their original feel and sound, and so on. This seems entirely reasonable; and obviously you could extend things from that foundation (including adding extra alien abilities in a consistent manner) and have a great second campaign.
But the perverse degree of re-invention in Halo 2 makes it hard for me to reconcile things with the 'true' Halo universe Bungie had already established; particularly in regard to the Elites, which are just no longer Elites, if you see what I mean. For me it has also lowered the actual quality of gameplay; which is perhaps inevitable, given that the original game crafted things so unbelievably well. Accompanied by the weakness of MC's campaign, and some annoying gameplay aspects, this re-invention has been the basic trouble for me.
Sadly I find myself already thinking of selling the game, to at least get some of my money back. One thing I can say for sure is that if there's ever a Halo 3, I won't be queueing up this time. Maybe I'll rent it just to check, but to be honest my faith is broken and I can't really hold out much hope for a return to form. I'll always have the original Halo to play and treasure, but beyond that I think it's probably 'game over' for me.
Postscript, 29th November: Put my copy of Halo 2 up for sale, restored Halo to its natural resting place in my Xbox, and loaded up some good old rockslide megabattling. Ah… blissful relief! Jackals that point and roll. Grunts that are truly grunty. And when an Elite bounded up and greeted me with "Wort Wort Wort!", I almost went over to give him a hug (but no don't worry, I quickly regained my senses and blew his ugly great head off). Just like old times. And wow, this gameplay is so much more enjoyable, it's like a breath of fresh air after the last few weeks. Makes Halo 2 seem like a bad dream to be forgotten. Yep, this is the stuff alright. Game on!