Halo 2
dev. Bungie Studios
Now available for Xbox.

There's a videogame design philosophy that says if you can make about a minute of genuinely fun play, you can build an entire game around it. Think of a minute of Tetris, rotating blocks and dropping them into satisfying coherence; or a minute of Pac-Man, zipping around a maze avoiding ghosts and eating dots. You could play those games for hours, but you only needed a minute to know they were great.

The first Halo got it right. The definitive minute of Halo fun went like this: Enter a chaotic battlefield and open fire, get beat up, duck behind cover for a few seconds while your shield recharges, and then do it again. It really was that simple. For that minute to be so good, though, Halo had to do several things really well. The enemies needed to fight intelligently; the weapons needed to be varied; and within that minute you needed to make tactical choices that involved tradeoffs. Bungie Studios, the creator of Halo, succeeded. That core minute was so good, so satisfying, and so varied, that the game just needed to string several hundred of them together and break them up with moments of story.

Bungie's challenge for this new sequel was easy to describe: Don't fuck it up. It sounds easy, but people fuck up sequels all the time. The Wachowski Brothers fucked up The Matrix, George Lucas fucked up Star Wars, the American people fucked up the last election. But the boys at Bungie came through. They took that minute of good clean fun and decided what it needed was more guns. And they do guns well. Halo's arsenal was way more interesting than the canonical weaponry brought down from the mountain by the creators of Doom. The mix of human and alien firearms, each with its own eccentricities, energized the first game and made it possible to play the same battle multiple times in wildly different ways just by picking up two different weapons. In Halo 2 they've add some new ones and give you the ability to operate two single-handed weapons at a time. This takes the existing set of tactical options available to you in the space of that golden minute and increases it by an order of magnitude. Needler and brute rifle? Magnum handgun and submachine gun? Or do I want to wield that unbelievably badass energy sword that lets me lunge from across the room and cut some alien fuck in twain after plopping a sticky plasma grenade on the back of his buddy?

Oh, sweet, sweet minute, how I cherish thee.

There's more to these games than that minute. Vehicle combat in Halo was a blast, and now they've added jacking: You can jump on an enemy vehicle, bash open the cockpit, chuck a grenade inside, and jump off to watch it go boom. Or just yank the driver out, hop inside, and lay some waste yourself. It's a minute of golden, perfect fun all on its own.

The story works. Bungie has always had a weird knack for making its dopey sci-fi/fantasy concepts sound better than any other game's dopey sci-fi/fantasy concepts. When Cortana, the artificial intelligence who lives in your head, tells you that the massive alien battleship hovering over the city contains the Prophet of Regret, you think oh wow instead of I hope no one sees me playing this. And the music kicks ass: big orchestral stuff with a choir of voices, a powerful thrum of violins, and a sound that soars. Three years after I last played Halo I can still hum that damn theme, and Halo 2 brings a new sense of urgency to the mix.

There's also online play, which genuinely rewards obsession. For example, you can view play-by-play diagrams of every single online session on Bungie's web site, so you can study the tactics of advanced players (as well as your own) and improve your play.

I have some nitpicks, however. The online matchmaking is too slow; the human characters look kinda crappy; the sound mix buries important dialogue; and the cinematic scenes have an unfortunate graphical glitch. Still, Bungie really got this game right. The developers took their golden minute of joy and made it shine. Grab your guns, jack a hoverbike, and let fly: Halo 2 is firing on both barrels.

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