Craig? What's that hissing noise?"
We look around for the source. Tim crawls under the Halo 2 demonstration table, upsetting an incongruous empty bowl on the desk. PC Format's James Carey and Play Faster guru Jon Hicks lend a hand as well. For some reason, Carey holds a thick block of clear glass and Hicks has a dead rat in his hand.
"Found it." I hold up a flaccid balloon. "It's my sense of excitement deflating.Look: yours has evaporated, Tim. And Carey, yours is disappearing. Jon, that's just... ew."
We're all suffering. Maybe it's the fact that, just five minutes earlier, we were all playing Crysis, but jumping into Halo 2's multiplayer (we've been kept at arm's length from the singleplayer) is like stepping back in time. It's painfully clear it's an Xbox conversion, not a PC game. We've met old-school textures and a TV-sized viewing PoV so the screen looks coated in GENERIC PETROLEUM-BASED JELLY and clipped.
Our sojourn is to Battle Creek, a map held over from Halo: Combat Evolved. A small map with two bases facing across a pool of water, beneath a rock arch. Halo 2's action has been tweaked: the Master Chief can now dual-wield certain guns, the idea being that different weapons have different effects on the shields that surround each player. A plasma rifle and SMG combo enables you to damage the shield with the rifle while the SMG makes short work of the meaty flesh beneath.
It's a beautifully designed map, and to be fair a lot of the Halo multiplayer maps are, with many entry holes into the base, two sniper points at the sides, a hidden rocket launcher. It's compact, ideal for deathmatch.
Halo 2 is slow, just like the first game. It had to be on the console, as joypads don't make for accurate and speedy FPS reactions, but the PC conversion has kept that aspect. The Chief jumps like gravity is something that happens to other people. The slow sweep of the gun only ever speeds up with the kick of the bullets.
It makes for an interesting dynamic: one-on-one fights are strangely balletic, the lumbering cyborgs twisting through the air as they try to outdraw each other. With a wide variety of levels, destructible vehicles and a myriad of server configurations, Halo 2's multiplayer can be a heady mix of interesting battles (deathmatch is the tip of the iceberg: ever heard of Shotgun Don, Swordball or Fiesta?). But 'interesting' doesn't necessarily mean 'fun'. For the most part our time on Battle Creek was pretty joyless: there's no getting away from the fact that this is an old game.
So why have Microsoft bothered with Halo 2 on the PC? They're using it to show off what their online service, Live!, means to gamers. You want skill-based match-making, achievements points, voice chat? Try Halo 2. Ignore the fact that we've attacked the beautiful soundtrack of the first game with electric guitars, messed with the balance of the combat, and half the time you're not even playing the Master Chief.
Some of the technology in Halo 2 is definitely worth getting excited about: this is a Windows game that doesn't need to be installed to play it. If a server host quits, the game is simply transferred to another player's PC. There's exciting stuff going on beneath the surface. Microsoft just need a better poster child for their multiplayer revolution.