With some time to kill recently, I browsed through my movies folder and looked for a few small things to watch. I came across the Halo 2 announcement trailer and the Halo 2 Realtime Demo.
Having watched the latter, I was especially struck by some of the themes I explored when comparing Halo 2 and Half-Life 2, as well as some of the contrasts between Halo 2 and Halo 1 with regard to the use of cutscenes versus interactive portions of gameplay for the purposes of relating story.
Much was made of the fact that the realtime demo was just that: a portion of a level played out by Bungie staffers doing a live demonstration, bookended with two cutscenes. The opening cutscene shows a Pelican carrying Sergeant Johnson and the Master Chief down to New Mombasa and landing; in the analogous sequence in the game, that Pelican crashes. The cutscene ends when the Pelican lands and the Master Chief disembarks; the change in the screen's aspect ratio signals this change.
However, the non-combat interactivity doesn't stop there. The Master Chief passes medics assisting injured marines and overhears their comments, and observes as Cortana, through the Chief, interacts with a corporal presiding over the death of the lieutenant at the scene, who then directs the chief to the new officer in command, Sergeant Banks. Sergeant Banks greets you, and then we see him call in an airstrike on a nearby Covenant artillery piece that has Banks' men pinned down. As we watch, three Longswords swoop in overhead and take out the artillery.
All this occurs during normal gameplay. As with nearly all such sequences in Half-Life 2, the player could have wandered away and missed part or even all of it. Valve seemed unafraid of this possibility, as they included virtually no cutscenes in Half-Life 2 at all.
Bungie made much of the difficulty running the demo, as the employee running the demo had to execute a number of things properly or the demo would go "off the rails" and the audience wouldn't see everything they were meant to. This included things like nailing the Ghosts with the Gauss cannon just right to get the dramatic flip, and the Ghost boarding sequence, which apparently caused some a bit of trouble.
Most of the "story" of this demo unfolds during gameplay. You see the state the marines are in at the location; you see the situation with the Covenant artillery and the threat it poses, and you witness it being dealt with. Marines arrange for covering fire for you as you move out to meet Sergeant Banks. You take on groups of Grunts and Jackals, board a Warthog and take the gunners position, and get attacked by Brutes dropping down from Phantoms overhead.
The demo ended was the Master Chief eludes the pursuing Brutes only to be ambushed by sword-wielding Elites who rain down from the sky in pods, in the final cutscene.
There is more interactivity with marines, more dialogue, and more plot in that few minutes than there is in whole levels of Halo 2. Perhaps it was just so dense that the game couldn't possibly keep that pace up for 10 hours of gameplay. And while Half-Life 2 has physics puzzles to break up the interactive sequences and the run-and-gun, Halo 2 is solidly an action title; you get a few spots to catch your breath and admire the view, but that's about all.
With a few exceptions, though, most of the analogues to events from gameplay in the realtime demo occur in cutscenes in the actual game. The Covenant artillery piece was removed; there are no air strikes as such in the game. More's the pity. The Scarab battle seems to have replaced this encounter, and while you're more involved in that, at least in the beginning, the resolution I always found somehow unsatisfying in comparison.
While the situation at the start of the realtime demo is certainly desperate, we do get to see human forces fighting back with some authority with that airstrike. Nothing comparable happens in Halo 2 without the chief's direct involvement. Even so, the involvement in the scarab fight is little more than symbolic, as it is only used as a platform to hold units that you've already fought against in the past: Grunts, Elites, Jackals. The Scarab doesn't use its own weapon in that sequence except to destroy a symbolic tank (although you can save it should you choose to). No weapon in your arsenal can actually harm the Scarab itself. And once you've defeated the crew and boarded it, the game immediately switches to a cutscene showing the Scarab being destroyed. How was this achieved? We'll never know. It seems that there is something missing there, and the result is that the player's action and the Scarab's destruction are merely coincidental. One also wonders how bright the Scarab pilots are, despite Cortana's warning that they are "no pushovers" given that they seem to stop at a barrier that they really should be able to circumnavigate, and once trapped they do not attempt to turn around, get away, or fight back at all.
The first Halo fans saw of dual-wielding was also in the realtime demo, as Sergeant Banks hands you an extra SMG. Certainly, marines do offer you weapons during gameplay, most notably after the bridge in Metropolis when you get the shotgun. But there is nothing comparable to the scene of marines milling about the medical tents from the realtime demo, nothing comparable to the sequence where Brutes drop from Phantoms and board your Warthog.
Even the Ghost boarding sequence has no analogue, as there is no place within the game where it is actually preferable to face Ghosts without a vehicle unless you're doing it because you're bored and just want to. By the time Ghosts show up in Outskirts, you're given a Warthog and crew at about the same time that can carry you all the way to the bridge. There, you start out with a choice of a Scorpion or a Warthog. One wonders why that dramatic sequence, with soldiers dropping down onto a Warthog to board it directly from an overhead Phantom, is never used. Without that, Covenant troops during the game usually have little chance of boarding your Warthog, unless either your gunner or your driver is out to lunch. And even in those situations, at Heroic or Legendary you're more likely to be blown to bits before anybody has a chance to board you.
There is clearly a strong desire at Bungie tell a sweeping story in a cinematic way; however, at times it seems to desire to create strong cinematics is detracting from the impact that the story has on gameplay.