Console shooters have always been treated with a degree of derision by gamers whose tastes lie predominantly in the realm of the PC. Diminished graphical capability, lack of precision mouse-guided controls, and the absence of mod-ability are just some of the complaints levied by this particularly critical community. Historically, innovation has always occurred on the PC side of the divide before being ported down to consoles. This is still true to an extent, as the 360 has already seen ports of popular shooters like FEAR, Far Cry, and Prey, to name a few, in its relatively brief lifespan. But the dynamics of the games business has been changing rapidly in the past decade, and more than ever the big money lies in console development. It’s increasingly common to see games that were developed with consoles in mind being brought to the PC, instead of vice versa. Halo 2 is the most prominent example of this in recent memory – as Microsoft proffers their premier Xbox franchise in the hopes that it will sell PC gamers on Windows Vista and Live for Windows.
Originally released in 2004 for the Xbox, Halo 2 is the second entry in Bungie’s landmark shooter trilogy. Starting off in the immediate aftermath of the destruction in the original, Halo 2 doesn’t just put the player in the shoes of Master Chief, but also seeks to expand the scope of the story by including the Arbiter, the disgraced Covenant commander held responsible for their loss in Halo, as an additional playable character. The game starts off on Earth, but quickly expands in scope, as shooters of this sort are want to do, in a pan-universal quest to prevent the destruction of all sentient life.
For a game that was released in 2004 for the original Xbox, Halo 2 sports some incredibly hefty recommended system specs. Ostensibly, the reason for this is that the game has received a significant face-lift over its aging Xbox brethren. While this is something one learns to tolerate in certain cases, it doesn’t appear to yield terribly significant results in the case of Halo 2. There are new, high resolution textures, slightly larger numbers of character models during cut-scenes, and new, dynamic lighting. Unfortunately, these are all tacked onto a game that nonetheless still looks like it’s over two years old. Moreover, Halo 2 doesn’t take advantage of Vista’s DX10 architecture, a curious choice given that the game is supposed to be the flagship title for gaming on Vista. It’s also difficult to accurately convey how frustrating it is when your normally capable gaming PC has trouble keeping up the framerate for an Xbox game on modest settings. It reeks of poor optimization.
The difficulty also apparently wasn’t optimized for the PC audience, as playing Halo 2 with a mouse and keyboard, even on legendary difficulty, is an absolute breeze. The game was designed with the relative imprecision of a console gamepad in mind, meaning playing with a mouse is like shooting grunts in a barrel. The fact that the auto-aim is disabled is almost meaningless, as the enemy encounters themselves are too easy for mouse and keyboard play. Of course, this can be remedied by using the Xbox 360 pad to control the game, but one has to wonder what kind of person is going to have the ubiquitous console pad handy without owning a 360. Anybody in that position would be much better served by simply playing the Xbox version of the game, which can be had much more cheaply at this point.
The multiplayer component has survived intact, and is probably the games single most marketable feature. All the standard multiplayer modes and options are included, on top of the downloadable maps for the Xbox and two new maps by Hired Gun, the internal MGS studio who managed the port. What makes the multiplayer intriguing is that they have once again included the full suite of mapmaking tools that were used to develop the game. So while it isn’t completely moddable down to the source code, casual players can try their hand at cobbling a level together, which is a significant utility for wannabe game designers with limited technical know-how.
And of course, Halo 2 is the proving ground for the Games for Windows Live service, which will purportedly bring the unified Xbox Live experience to PC gaming in the near future. It’s only implemented in a limited capacity at this point – since you can’t actually play with Xbox Live users, so one hesitates to cast final judgment. It’s a neat experience for those already equipped with Xbox Live accounts, but the likelihood that there will be significant numbers of PC gamers willing to not only migrate to Windows Vista and buy Halo 2, but then subscribe to a pay service on top of that is extremely slim.
For most, Halo 2 is only really worth your time if you receive it as a pack-in with your new Vista-enabled PC. The perceived advantages over the Xbox game are negligible, and gamers with a choice should always opt to plop down on the couch and play it on a huge HD set. But for that relatively small niche of PC hold-outs who haven’t seen much of the game except in the media, Halo 2 might prove to be a worthy curiosity. It doesn’t show nearly the polish of the myriad of shooters released for the PC since 2004, but Bungie’s cinematic flair is such that it can be enjoyed by all, regardless of the platform.