"Errrm, hey, guys?" crackled an unmistakable Western American accent through my Xbox headset – one of the 15 multinational dialects I'd soon be taking trash from in the post-game lobby. "Could y'all say what's up to my 'lil bro? He doesn't believe this is real."
It may seem daft in an age where '20 million people are doing it' on Modern Warfare 2, but weeks after launch in November 2004, that was exactly the response elicited by Halo 2's staggering online multiplayer suite.
I remember the map and playlist like it was yesterday. Headlong, an embattled, New Mombasa building site that played host to some of the finest Single Flag CTF and One Bomb matches ever to grace Halo 2's 16 person Big Team Battles.
The attacking team, spawning in a small warthog garage, would attempt to assault a daunting four-floor tower. The route on their left meant navigating a building rife with ambush points, made all the more dangerous by the energy sword lying within, which the enemy would almost certainly get to first. To their right lay a covered walkway and an exposed ramp, leading to a building adjoining the tower by a narrow walkway. Or they could always rush the tower in the 'Hog and risk getting gunned down in open ground.
The first solider choosing the right path would more than likely opt to wield a sniper rifle under cover of active camo, but awaiting them would be an eagle-eyed adversary packing the Covenant's own sharp-shooter, the bright pink plasma-powered Beam Rifle. Behind him (and let's be frank, it invariably was a him) was the topmost entrance to the hallowed Flag or bomb plant point – patrolled by the insta-kill explosive power of a foe inevitably packing a rocket launcher. Not that you couldn't take him out, mind – particularly with the help of a BR-toting teammate. Or three.
Yes, looking back, it's easy to see the reason for the disbelief from my Texan pal's wide-eyed sibling. Halo 2's online multiplayer was a remarkable achievement; so far ahead of its time that even Bungie has struggled to match it. And now it's gone; purged from Xbox LIVE due to necessary server changes. No doubt it's a shift that will reap great rewards (that 100 friends limit is a pain, isn't it?), but today is a time to take stock and reflect on the game that changed the service – and indeed, console shooters – forever.
Those first thrilling few months with Halo 2 online were all about discovery and experimentation especially for final year students with time to burn (which back then, included the staff of this very site).
There was something new every day: working out the best dual wield combinations; finding you could fly the Banshee up into the rafters to spawn snipe the enemy base on Waterworks; practising your timing for the new vehicle hijacks; discovering that you could throw the flag up through the sword spawn to a waiting teammate in Lockout; happening upon a level design quirk that let you contest a dropped flag by standing a floor beneath it on Ivory Tower; or perfecting your jumps to let you leap from Zanzibar's sniper wall, across the broken pillars, all the way to the windmill's access bridge, with a well-timed crouch landing – a handy trick which saved me personally from many a shotgun-shucking pursuer. You could even take three guests online with you on one Xbox, all enjoying unranked Social matches!
Sufficed to say, we were still finding new things, months after launch.