Bigger, better, badder. Thus seems to be the thinking behind Halo 2. Bungie's seminal system-selling shooter will return this November with a series of new additions and refinements to the original's already acclaimed ethos. Cue the mandatory hyperbole of blanket media coverage and sensual assault led by the specialist press; that both GamesTM and EDGE gave over covers in the same month to one title is confirmation enough of a label at the forefront of the industry. The most anticipated game ever? Quite possibly so. And we've played it.
Of course, any game that creates an hour-long wait for a five minute play has peerless hype to justify. But then, Halo was no ordinary game. Bungie's statement of intent to outdo the original in every conceivable way renders significantly more context for queues at Gamestars Live than it would for any other FPS. That we managed to jump the line after a mere fifteen minutes merely added to our anticipatory grin.
The intermittent quarter-hour did, however, provide us with ample time to digest the rolling video introduction, looping over on a large screen, replete with cheesy American commentary. The map we were to partake in was Zanzibar, or, as we were informed the game's marines referred to it; "Hell on earth" - a sandy, broken fortress with several entry points. It would be a team CTF; Master Chief style Spartans Vs Covenant Elites. And in it we would be able to grasp, for the first time, the several alterations that make Halo 2 a considerably more advanced rendition of Combat Evolved.
The first of these, the laser sword, is easily the most balletic weapon in the Halo arsenal. The ability to swing freely or lunge at an opponent, sending them sprawling with one hit, will surely see many a Halo veteran carving new arcs through falling enemy corpses, using undoubtedly the most powerful weapon in the game. As the video ruefully advised; "if you see one of these coming, take 'em out, fast!"
Another weaponry addition was the rocket launcher's new tracking function. By keeping the target within the weapon's red scope post-firing, a rocket will now home in, even on a target moving at high speed - demoed amply by the Elite-driven Warthog taking several hits from some gracefully weaving missiles. This also offered demonstration of vehicular destruction; a close-range direct hit (accompanied by an over-excitedly narrated American shriek of "Take it!") on the 'Hog obliterating it to pieces, one wheel noticeably flying through the air, coming to a pleasing stop several virtual meters from its point of origin.
Not that the innovations stopped there. Aforementioned Elite, fully re-spawned, then took to a Ghost (now more graphically intimidating than before) in order to demo the driver-outsing function; a slower-than-usual fly-by seeing the Covenant warrior kicked from the machine as the Spartan took control.
Following this was the addition that interested us the most; dual weapon wielding. With fears that a second firing trigger would necessitate a second weapon-select key for that trigger (thus potentially overcomplicating the fine balance of control from the original) we were relieved to have our fears dispelled by what proved an inspiringly simple solution. Carrying one weapon type in the usual firing hand, a second, different weapon can now be added by way of the Y button. This second gun can then be fired independently of the first with the L trigger, or sacrificed as a second weapon for grenades as with the original - switching between styles at will, on the fly, with Y.
In the video, this was represented with a new human machine gun and Covenant Needler - the latter of which the commentary commented on, saying "which, in Halo 2, is worth picking up, by the way". Such tongue-in-cheek humour raised a smile to all who had voiced criticism of the original Needler - but also belied the importance this comment represented; that in Bungie, Halo 2 has a developer willing to listen to criticism, to appease its fans; to make the best game it possibly can.
And hands-on, this very much showed. In motion, action proved frantic as ever, yet with a considered clarity and depth to visuals unseen in the previous outing. Halo 2 is both a graphical showcase for the console and its genre respectively.
Yet in control, the initial impression was not good. Why the option to invert - the mostly widely used FPS control scheme - was disallowed to us by the show staff, who were adamant no control alterations be allowed, was something of an annoyance for all concerned. Never the less, using our inherent ninja abilities, in the blink of an eye, we changed them anyway... while no-one was looking, with the handy pause menu.
Sadly, this gave us little of an edge, our system link game against the marauding alien hordes (controlled by people in the next room) quickly descending into random carnage. So much for CTF - basic rules rendered null and void on a map that no-one playing have ever experienced before. No, it was more like measured slaughter, players on both sides pitching bloodlust against the desire to try all new functions in the rapidly decreasing time. While we ourselves were disappointed to not find a laser sword (and, destructive as we are, by the lack of option to wield two shotguns) we did delight in dispatching one flag-bearing foe, following a drawn-out Warthog chase, using a deadly Plasma rifle/Needler combination to the back on dismount. And, with time all but out, that about brought the game to an end.
Ultimately, what we had gotten from five minutes hands-on with the game was debatable. However, what we had learned, from the combination of video demo and experimental play, was more than enough to pique our interest - and centrally, to justify the laudable hype. Halo 2 is coming, this November. "Mankind is not ready", said the trailer. "He [the Master Chief] is". We advise that you are too.