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17 Features

History Lesson: How Halo 2 made online multiplayer a console standard

By Matt Sakuraoka-Gilman on Sunday 20th Jul 2014 at 8:00 AM UTC

Three years after Halo: Combat Evolved and we were still lugging our stonking great (non flat screen) TVs about, trying to set up local multiplayer.

It was an innocent time, before Call of Duty and Battlefield. Before huge MMOs and digital downloads. It was a time when the simple act of playing a game with your mates was about as easy as sticking a tree trunk-sized cigar in your cake hole and attempting to out badass Sergeant Avery Junior Johnson himself.

Then along came Halo 2. More of the same would have been enough, but we got so much more. This time around Bungie and Microsoft were getting set to change the landscape of online multiplayer forever.

It wasn't just that Halo 2 brought first person shooter-based online multiplayer to the console owning masses (it had been done before on the likes of the Dreamcast but this was the first time it would be widely adopted). It's that it managed it with so much panache.

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Take Lockout, for example. Possibly the most revered and well remembered of all of Halo's multiplayer maps. This frozen facility was, at first glance, a simple collection of outposts, set in the side of a blustery mountain, joined together by a larger square central platform. It was a cold, hard place, filled with severe edges and overseen by an iron grey sky.

And yet, begin playing a game of shotguns and swords with your pals and the genius behind its design becomes quickly apparent. It contained such a mix of both tight, closed spaces and areas of wide lines of sight, that no one second playing was the same as the next.

Likewise, other maps were implemented with equal measures of consideration. The series of abandoned, half built structures in Headlong rewarded both sneaky, long range snipers and daring run and gunners alike. We felt spoilt by the array of vehicles which our team always spawned near during Capture the Flag matches.

The list of quality maps goes on. Sanctuary, Zanzibar, Midship and Burial Mounds. Some of them were twiddled with and implemented in later games, such as Lockout itself (appearing rejigged as Guardian in Halo 3) but nowhere were they fresher, nor as ground-breaking, as in Halo 2.

Gameplay was a whole new kettle of Grunts too. Gone was the health bar, replaced by a rechargeable armour gauge which ensured that at all moments you had to be aware of the battlefield and where your nearest bit of cover may lie. The beeping warning noise that your armour was down became synonymous with soon-to-come death, and made those moments of survival against the odds more sweet.

Dual wielding made us weep with joy, even if the plasma pistol + anything combo (known lovingly in online vernacular as the Noob Combo) was satisfyingly overpowered. But it wasn't just with new multiplayer and gameplay elements that Halo 2 went about branding its potent form onto our nostalgia lobes.

After the relatively plot-light Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2 was brimming with juicy narrative. From the very first moments of the campaign we were made aware that Halo 2 was telling us a story, not just slapping us in a series of Covenant-filled death arenas.

It split opinion at the time, but the inclusion of the Arbiter (otherwise known as Thel Vadamee) as a playable character gave Halo 2 a narrative edge over its FPS peers. Other shooters were mainly tasking us with blasting empty husks in the form of other humans, but being the Arbiter let us discover the motivations, strengths and weaknesses of our strange alien enemies from the inside.

Early on, as Miranda Keyes clutches her deceased father's medal to her chest, the Arbiter is seen suffering in a dungeon, as a fiery hot brand is seared into his bared flesh. The neat switches between the unfolding twin narratives continue until the Chief and Arbiter meet finally in the pit of the Gravemind. It also helped that Keith David, the legendarily deep voiced actor famed for surviving John Carpenter's The Thing, provides Thel Vadamee with his iconic throaty brogue.

The levels themselves made way for some palpable moments of tension too. Watching the raging scarab slowly approach your woefully exposed platform in Metropolis. The chaotic task of staying alive as The Flood rampage onto the painfully slowly moving lift in The Oracle. Riding the mechanised gondolas across the gorgeously rendered lake in Regret.

Barrel rolling around the skyscape of The Arbiter in a Banshee. Fighting Brutes for the first time deep in High Charity during Gravemind. And, of course, the final levels, which split so many opinions and drew so much controversy at the time.

Other characters began to truly make their mark on the franchise in Halo 2, significantly Cortana. Your constant AI companion quips throughout the campaign, so much so that when it came time to leave her behind it very much felt like leaving a part of yourself. "Don't make a girl a promise if you know you can't keep it," she says sadly, as Master Chief turns his back on her. The fact that the last few levels were played in the Arbiter's two-toed shoes angered more than a few, having to wait three long years before Halo 3 came out to resolve the story and "finish the fight".

Halo 2 was one of the first titles to utilise Xbox LIVE and set it on the path towards becoming the bastion of online console gaming it is today. It's telling that for two years after its release Halo 2 was the most played game on the service, until Gears of War made an entrance a whole generation later on the 360. Dipping into it 2014 reveals a game which may look a generation older but bubbles yet with the spirit of innovation.

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