The obligatory Halo 2 partial review and thumbs up.
I learned my lesson with Fable, so I'll try desperately not to start a flame war of any sort here. Up front, I'm giving the game a definite thumbs up. If you are the kind of person that likes to flame, then leave now knowing that I've given your favorite thing my personal approval.
Let's start with the good. The campaign and story is pretty nice. The cinematic effect is definitely there, something I don't approve of in games most of the time. In this case the cinematics were rather short and they appear to have answered all of the questions from the first Halo, about what in the hell is actually going on in this universe. Don't expect a major story though, in all there is about 30 minutes of video (maybe someone will time that eventually). It appears in most cases that the actual game engine was used to produce cinematic sequences. I'm a huge advocate of this process, since it generally reduces the size of the game even if it doesn't allow for as much eye candy through complex, non real-time, shaders.
Playing from both sides of the story is another great feature even if the movement features are identical between the arbiter and the master chief. Of course you get to use all of the weapons no matter which side you are. A couple of the new weapons are even pretty nice and if you add dual wielding then you can really do some drastic damage. Getting used to the new weapons is a short process, but for the most part, just realize everything is going to take a good amount of shots in order to take down. Nearly every enemy has energy shields now, so making use of a good pairing of weapons is almost always required (for a good run-down of the weapons, head over to GameFAQs where someone has posted a huge review of all of the weapons, relative damage, recommended threat ranges, etc...)
Movement has been speed up a bit from a basic land speed metric. The jump has been increased as well. Most of the same movement considerations from the first Halo are in place and the game still has the same feel, while at the same time having an increased level of agility. I noticed that my look sensitivity 10 from Halo one has been dropped to 8, and the new 10 is fairly insane. I've managed to work my way back up to 10 and I have to say it is much closer to the look sensitivity in UT now. Thats definitely a good thing since I'm tired of getting punked in the back by a lamer while I'm trying to turn around. Now my more precise shooting abilities will take them out while they wing half their shots by my head.
We'll do 3 good paragraphs and 3 bad ;-) Not all of these are bad, just things I'm not all that happy with. While all of the new weapons are great they feel drastically underpowered most of the time. I think this was a balancing issue and I definitely agree that some weapons in Halo were far too powerful in multiplayer. Losing my pistol is hard though since that was definitely my primary weapon. I loved picking off people with that weapon. It is now a closer quarters weapon and a few weapons have stepped in to take it's place. They didn't add any more grenade types, something that would have been extremely nice. The usage of the flashlight has been minimized drastically and it now lasts indefinitely. I'm not sure why they kept it in, if for nothing more than to add a parity feature with the temporary invisibility you get as the arbiter.
I think the explanation of the story is great, but I'm not all that happy with the wrap-up. Halo in itself was an epic FPS which is something I'm not getting from Halo 2. Maybe this is the curse of the sequel. More importantly, most of Halo's intrigue after the initial month was driven by its multiplayer. I haven't gotten a good chance to play a few thousand hours of multiplayer yet, so I can't judge whether or not this game is equivalently interesting. The epic value may still be there, especially as the tournaments and ladders start to form. All in all, the basic campaign was a bit of a let-down for me.
Now for the flat-out bugs. The physics engine is better, but in many cases broken. There are cases where the environment is moving and in turn the movement drastically impairs your ability to aim and fire. I'm not sure if that was meant to be or a side effect of a real physics engine in play without the proper controls to ensure realism. In general though, only accelerating bodies would apply forces that might throw off your aim. All of the moving platforms in Halo 2 are massive enough and travel at constant speed, that the aim issues shouldn't come into play. Even more odd is that it only happened to me in one location. In general, I think many of the vehicles fall prey to some poor physics as well. Apparently getting run over by a ghost now just pushes you out of the way, many of the flying vehicles are cumbersome even with the new boost tricks.
One more good paragraph. I've written quite a bit on AI, and I have to say that the AI in this game is pretty good. The allied unit code works well most of the time, something you don't see in many games, even if they do shoot you in the back. I'm supposed to run in damnit, I'm the master chief, so quit shooting me in the back! The mission guys should get shot in a few instances where they provide challenges that are nearly impossible if you've lost most of your allied group. In some cases the allies just disappear or fail to follow you, something else that I think could dearly be fixed. The path-finding, beast aggro, cross side fighting, and tactics make up for everything wrong with the allies. I'm still thinking about what the best way would be to handle the battle between the brutes and elites where the two hunters come out. I played just that spot 8 times beating it different ways and trying to work out the appropriate weapons to minimize my ammo usage and leaving me with the least number of enemies to fight when the battle was over.
All in all the game is a graphical beauty, definitely a tribute to the amount of time it took in production (this is how a 4 year development process SHOULD end). I have some goodies to go along with it. I managed to produce a series of custom controls that mimic portions of the Halo 2 UI. I'll try and get them up on Project Distributor. I know that I made a Form, ListBox, and GroupBox, but I'm not sure if I finished any others. They don't allow much customization, so I'm adding the ability to change colors and simplifying the asset production code (I currently precompute the images used by the controls and need to change that over to dynamic creation at run-time based on properties). Give me a heads up if this type of control is interesting to you.
Enjoy your Halo 2 and feel free to invite me over to any gaming parties. Address and telephone number are in the resume link ;-)