The original Halo was a frustrating first-person shooter: excellent outdoor environments and solid combat let down by stodgy pacing and exceptionally poor level design. The game has not aged well and, after my experiences earlier this year with a solid but not particularly exciting Halo: Reach, made me wonder if this was one franchise that is not for me.
Halo 2, fortunately, is a hugely superior game to its forebear. It has a great deal of mission variety, as the game follows Master Chief fighting Covenant forces in New Mombasa and the Arbiter fighting the Flood on a second Halo. The game's combat has been dramatically improved, with an elimination of the original game's endlessly copy-pasted rooms and replacing them with more dynamic combat areas. You can now dual-wield weapons (at the cost of not being able to easily melee or use grenades), allowing some excellent weapon combo tactics (using a weapon that's good against shields in one hand versus one good against armour in the other, or combining human and Covenant weapons together). There's a greater variety in enemy unit types, and more missions where allies help you out.
This is backed up by a much more involved storyline, taking in the Covenant's religious beliefs, their internal politics (including ostracising one member race and a resulting civil conflict) and the interaction between the Covenant, humanity and the Flood.
The Flood also return and are also improved beyond their Halo: Combat Evolved appearance, with them being far less annoying and more entertaining to fight. Giving the Flood a voice and intelligence to reason with is a bit of a misstep though, removing much of their formerly implacable, unreasoning menace (the same problem with the Borg in Star Trek).
Missions alternate (more or less) between Master Chief and the Arbiter and this gives rise to a reasonable amount of variety in gameplay. Keith David is particularly noteworthy of praise for his performance as the Arbiter and helps the player get invested in his story.
There are considerable improvements over the original Halo that make this sequel far more worthy, although a few weaknesses remain. Vehicle handling remains problematic (Banshees getting caught on scenery and flipped around is irritating), and friendly AI is decidedly weak. On several missions the friendly AI just switched off, leaving my allies standing around completely oblivious as they were gunned down by enemies. The new enemy types are mostly challenging, but the Brutes are annoying, being just massive sponges which take an immense amount of firepower to bring down and are not very fun to fight.
Also bewildering is the game's ending. Infamously, Bungie had to terminate Halo 2's development for time reasons, leaving the game not so much on a cliffhanger as just interrupted mid-flow. The Arbiter's story arc does get a satisfying conclusion but Master Chief's does not and his story is left bewilderingly hanging. Obviously this isn't so much a problem now when you can proceed immediately into Halo 3, but I can only imagine the rage that took place when the game originally came out fifteen years ago.
Otherwise, Halo 2 (****) is an enjoyable, well-judged first-person shooter with a good balance between action and storytelling. The game is available now on X-Box One and PC as part of The Master Chief Collection, which also includes a remastered version of Halo: Combat Evolved and graphically-updated versions of Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach and Halo 4.