Xbox 2 Pics

Halo 2

Dan Hsu

Halo 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Metroid Prime 2, Doom 3, Half-Life 2. Sound familiar? It's a typical list of what every gamer is excited to see at the 2004 Electronic Entertainment Expo. Unfortunately, all of these games were on the same list back in 2003. The only difference is, now we get to see these games much further along in the development cycle as they prepare for their fall and winter releases—assuming they don't get delayed again.

With Halo 2, we got to play one multiplayer level in its entirety. That may only be a speck in the Halo 2 universe, but it's a pretty significant speck considering what little info is out there right now. Here's a closer look at what our hands-on time has revealed.

Halo, nice to meet you

The level Bungie's allowing the press to play is called Zanzibar, and it represents a contested African beachfront between the human race and the alien Covenants. (Yes, the multiplayer action now has a backstory.) The game of choice was four-on-four Capture the Flag. In Halo 2's version of this mode, one team's on offense, trying to capture the enemy's flag while the other team defends. After three minutes, the sides switch.

The very first impression we got is how floaty Halo 2 feels. Remember those early screenshots, featuring multi-hued Master Chiefs jumping way up into the air? Those pics were no exaggeration. A simple press of the A button sends you flying high, prompting us to ask two different product managers whether we were playing on a low-gravity stage (we weren't). It felt so airy that we tried fidgeting with the look sensitivity to adjust for the seemingly sluggish movement. But after a few rounds, we got used to the air up there and were able to use it to our advantage, jumping over walls you wouldn't think you'd be able to jump over. The developers attributed the new vertical leap on the Spartans (the armored-warrior unit of which main protagonist Master Chief is a member) to their "improved Mark VI suits."

Halo... have we met before?

Next, we see some reminders that we're still in Halo's world. Except for the new submachine gun in our right hands, it all looks very familiar. On offense, we see a Warthog jeep and two Ghost single-pilot hovercrafts on the beach, waiting to take us into the enemy base. After we climb in, we see all the changes. The Ghost, for example, now has a turbo boost, activated by the left trigger. Hit it and you'll go zoom-zoom -- but you can say goodbye to quick handling, or your forward-firing lasers, while boosting. If you hop on the back of the Warthog, you'll see that the mounted gun is no longer a machine gun -- it's a slow-firing rocket launcher that's useful for knocking out the guys on turrets guarding the defensive team's base.

On the way to the flag, we pick up some familiar old weapons, like the needler pistol (which one developer said was much more useful now), the sniper rifle, the shotgun, frag and plasma grenades, and so forth. We also find the new but not necessarily improved assault rifle -- as you may have heard, it now features a scope for some simple but relatively weak single-shot sniping. Definitely more versatile, yes but if you're zoomed out, you're no longer fully automatic -- you fire in three-bullet bursts. You don't get to burn full clips as quickly as you do with the SMG, but you get better accuracy at medium to long ranges, thus saving the SMG for short-range skirmishes. The defenders get immediate access to the rocket launcher, which can now track vehicles on a limited basis. "It's not fire-and-forget," according to Bungie studio head Pete Parsons, but it will follow moving vehicles for a while if you locked on to them while zoomed in.

During the fighting, we see some examples of the new physics that govern Halo 2's Earth. For example, you can destroy individual parts of all vehicles -- clip a wing of the Ghost or shoot out a Warthog tire, and you'll see the damage and notice the affect it has on handling. Launch a rocket at a base turret, and you can demolish the walls surrounding the fixture. Everything has this new layer of detail, making the already immersive environments seem all the more lifelike.

The levels also have interactive bits that affect strategy. The enemy base's second floor in Zanzibar hosts a control panel that, when activated, raises a large gate on the ground floor -- like lowering the front gate over the moat to let your army storm a castle. This allowed us to move in en masse, or even drive our Ghosts right into the base, causing a lot of havoc that sometimes hurt us more than it hurt them.

On the way to the base, we noticed a shiny plasma sword up in the axle of a giant, Ferris-sized mechanical wheel outside the defenders' base. There's no immediately obvious way to get to it, so a producer showed us a windy path up to a seemingly innocuous metal fixture. When you shoot it, it lets loose a giant metal bridge that leads to the top of the wheel's axle -- once up there, if you wait till the right moment, you can find an opening to jump into to reach the sword. It's another example of the interactive spots dotted around the map, and it also reminded us of games like the Quake series, where you'll see those valuable Quad Damage pickups just out of reach and you need to find the not-so-obvious path to get to them.

There are two major gameplay moments in Halo 2 that will get fans riled up, and one of them is wielding this plasma sword, last seen in the hands of the Covenant Elite in the first Halo. You can use your normal melee attack with this blade, but if you line up an enemy and get close enough (indicated by the reticule turning red), you can pull the R trigger to do a lunging uppercut attack for an instant one-hit kill.

The other moment is when you pull off your first "carjacking". In last year's E3 Halo 2 demo, Bungie showed Master Chief hopping onto a moving Ghost, kicking the Covenant pilot out, and taking the ride over for himself. This time, we got to try that ourselves in multiplayer. If an enemy riding a Ghost approaches you slowly enough, you can hit X to jump on and kick him off. It's funny, though -- no matter how many times we pulled this off, we couldn't help but yell out an "aw yeah!" like it was our first. A Microsoft product manager told us that you can also kick people out of the mounted turret position from the back of the Warthog, but we didn't get to see this for ourselves.

You had me at Halo

Halo 1's multiplayer was incredibly fun, and plenty of fans would've been happy for some online Xbox Live support for the old game. But Bungie's going all out to make Halo 2 a great online experience that blows away what the original did for networked and split-screen play. Here's a bullet list of what we know so far, but naturally, everything's subject to change before the November 9 release:

16-player support, possibly more, with many different combinations of team play. Instead of two teams of eight, you can divide players into four teams of four, or even eight teams of two.

When a host drops out, the game won't stop -- host duties will simply transfer to another player.

You can play as the Covenant in multiplayer. Depending on whom you ask, this will or won't make a difference in actual play. Once producer said the Covenant player model is different from the Spartan player model in looks only. Another said that there will be slight variances in speed, armor, or jumping height -- for example, a Covenant player may jump more quickly, but will have a slight pause when landing due to his heavier weight. Yet another said it's all up in the air, which seems to be the proper answer for the time being.

Covenant and Spartan players can mix and match. It doesn't really matter, as the armor color will change to reflect the right teams.

Players will have icons over their heads to help represent teams, clans, personalities...whatever the players want. These also change color depending on whether your teammate is near or engaging an enemy.

Other helpful icons will appear on-screen as needed, like a low-ammo symbol or different colored flags. In the game we played, a red flag icon meant the enemy is currently running away with your flag, and a yellow one meant he dropped it and it's free at the moment (but not yet returned to the base). This not only tells you what's going on in areas that you can't see for yourself, but it'll help cut down on unnecessary shouting. Now, a bunch of excitable teammates won't need to scream out "They got the flag! They got the flag!" because this persistent icon (not just a one-time message) will be telling everyone that.

Even though we only played one mode on one map, we know we're going to like the game very, very much.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in 1UP.

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