The best game on its system. The best of its kind. The best this era. The Best Game Ever. While the sound bites rolled on, once the dust had settled on the hype train of the original Halo, we were undoubtedly left with a title that changed perception for genre and generation. Few games inspire such devotion upon the mere mention of a name - Master Chief, Cortana, Keyes - or the label attached to any one of its hallowed multiplayer arenas. Players partook. Catchphrases coined. Stories swapped. Memories immortalized. In the eyes of most, ten out of ten.
Halo was not, however, a flawless masterpiece; early illusions of roving exploration and open terrain combat degenerating to disappointingly linear corridor shooting with unfortunate frequency. Twinned with this, the move from initially intelligent and entertaining aliens to the now infamous parasitic hordes bound within installation zero-four. And augmenting both was the game's twisted subversion in making the player battle through previously traversed terrain at its tail end, albeit in reverse. Moreover, the lack of Xbox Live multiplayer denied what many desired straight from the off: a reason to buy into Microsoft's networked vision; that undeniable online killer app.
Recognition of these flaws is important - they provide a starting point for the sequel, for justification of peerless propaganda and laudable hype. Paradoxically, it is the way in which Bungie have exceeded addressing some of these issues, only to take steps backwards in others, which prove the ultimate barometer, both for the franchise, and development of the console on which the Halo brand is iconic.
'When we rejoin the series' narrative, however, it is not with the Spartan we find ourselves'
In Halo 2, the centre of this iconicity - the ring world Halo of the first game - is a distant memory. Its heroic survivor, the Master Chief, has fought his way back, a trillion miles across the void, to protect the dearest prize of all. Earth. When we rejoin the series' narrative, however, it is not with the Spartan we find ourselves - or even on humanity's home world at all - but looking upon the fragmented floating ruins of his greatest victory, Halo itself. And floating alongside it, in the first of many of the game's nods to sci-fi lore, is the Deathstar-like Covenant Holy City, High Charity.
This intro is designed to hint at the over-arching narrative sway of Halo 2 that expands on the Halo myth, lending depth to both human and Covenant perspectives of its inter-stellar war. When the initial movie ends we have begun to understand the motivations which drive the Covenant hierarchy and the effects of failure on its warrior civilization, all before we join our central protagonist in conversely high spirits on Earth Defence Platform Cairo.
The contrast of viewpoints here will play out over the course of the game, evolving to form as compelling a plot as ever seen in the genre, and demonstrating the developers' drive to fuse sophisticated story arcs to the series' signature shooting mechanic. Though somewhat underused, the fact that it ups the ante from the original is unquestionable, spinning a yarn encompassing Halo's happenings and weaving them through the framework of Covenant prophecies and religion. In Halo, you understood what was happening, and how you could combat it. In Halo 2, you uncover why; the mystery of the rings and the fate of the Forerunners. This adds scale to proceedings, consequence to conflicts, movement between cause and effect of both human and alien actions, and creates a wide array of arenas in which to do battle.
That also means a hell of a lot of action. Indeed, a sense of scale has been carried across from story to setting, heightening Halo's hectic battles on all manner of new terrain. Initial levels, from defence of the orbiting space cannon on which we first take charge of the 'Chief, to battling on the planet surface, really do capture the feel of their locales. Heated fire-fights occur in space station engine rooms and ranged gunplay turns to all-out warfare on the beaches, buildings and city streets of planet Earth.
Later on, urban warfare is swapped for the mystique and natural beauty of a second Halo ring and more besides, altering scope and battle tactics of both enemies and allied troops and casting perception across time and space to wreak havoc wherever plausible. With Halo 2, then, more than ever before, we actually feel like the pivotal player in a war of epic proportions.