The value of any durable good lies not in the initial satisfaction of buying and using it, but in its worth over time. That's why people don't only rent music, movies, and games-- they buy them to keep forever (or at least as long as the media lasts and there is compatible hardware around).
As has been pointed out elsewhere, for three years Xbox gamers had naught but thirteen mostly monochromatic multiplayer levels to keep themselves entertained with after they'd played out the single player scenario for the umpteenth time. The title didn't support Xbox Live, so the only deathmatch action you could get required collecting people and hardware together for LANfests; an enjoyable, if not altogether convenient, state of affairs.
So what now for Halo 2?
From a multiplayer perspective, things look pretty rosy for the sequel. With Halo 2 carrying the Xbox Live flag, users now get a combination of the best from console and PC gaming worlds in recent years: they've got the ease of use, comfort and convenience of console gaming on the TV screen of their size while relaxing on the couch, but a wide range of online opponents that before could only be had from a computer. Throw in the studious attention that Bungie has given to online statistics, and you've got a really nice package; it's no wonder that the game has drawn as many accolades as it has, regardless of how well the campaign mode was received in certain quarters. And the tantalizing possibility of downloadable content means that Bungie could, should they choose, to refresh the online experience by providing new maps here and there to keep people from getting bored.
But what about those without Xbox Live? What about those stranded without broadband, or those without Xbox-owning, Halo-playing friends to engage in local area carnage? What about those for whom the most important part of the game really is, as Bungie always says, the story? In short, what about me? What am I going to do until Bungie creates another game?
Excuse me, forgot to take my medication this morning.
Whether out of addiction, codependency, boredom or possibly even just free choice, I played the single player campaign of the first Halo game quite a large number of times, and at all the different levels of difficulty. I completed it the first time through on Heroic in cooperative mode with my brother, and later tackled Legendary. There was an immense sense of satisfaction to be gained crawling through the campaign on Legendary, fighting tooth and nail for every checkpoint in the tougher areas like the gravity lift room in Truth & Reconciliation.
Halo's story was written in such a way that there was a change of time and location between each of its ten levels, and the loading screen was a welcome chance to wipe your brow, heave a sigh of relief, and perhaps realize that you're actually at home on your couch and you can get up and get a drink from the fridge any time you want because you aren't really humanity's last bastion of hope against a vanguard of ruthless aliens. This is sometimes a difficult fact to remember, and that difficulty varies proportionally with the size of your screen and the volume of your surround sound system, which is probably why I don't really remember much from the first few months of 2002.
Of course, after having played through so many times, playing through all the levels in order is a project you reserve for special occasions; more often you'll just choose a level or two, and invariably one develops favorites.
Eventually you get the game down to a routine; skip Pillar of Autumn because it moves a bit slowly; instead, start off with Halo because of its brilliant set-piece battles. Flip a coin and decide whether or not to tackle Truth & Reconciliation because that gravity lift room is a pain, but the hangar battles are magnificent and because you get a kick out of seeing Captain Keyes wield a Needler.
And this, of course, is where the game heats up, where Halo really begins: Silent Cartographer, Assault on the Control Room, 343 Guilty Spark. If I start out that sequence, I'm going to finish it. These three levels are the heart of the game; all three offer challenging play in varied environments without any one part being so hard to cause frustration, and even when things get too easy, the game makes up for that in atmosphere. There's no real reason ever to skip one of those levels except that you just played them yesterday.
And then there's the Library, the level so oft-maligned that its ills scarcely need repeating: dark, linear, repetetive level design, only Flood to fight, and the most interesting thing in it is Sparky's dialogue which is often barely audible.
Some of the audience drifts away after this; I know that some complain about the repeat of geometry in Two Betrayals and Keyes. For me, the former is just as good a level as the first version; now with Flood thrown in, having to traverse the same territory backwards with a different selection of enemies and vehicles was a lot of fun, and as usual Marty's music made the whole thing feel so damn melodramatic and desperate that I gave nary a thought to the idea that Bungie got two levels out of one. Good for them!
Keyes, unfortunately, I put in the same bin with the Library; although it's not just Flood, it is predominantly Flood, and the level is rife with the old enemies-appear-from-behind you trick that was old when Doom did it ten years ago. Add that to the knowledge that you have to play through the whole level because you can't get a door to open, and that leads to me skipping through this to the end: The Maw.
Again we're repeating geometry, this time from the first level, but since I already skipped that, I don't really mind. Plus, there's plenty of unique geometry here, too-- the engine room and the Warthog racetrack, for instance. Even were it not for that, the game's ending-- where Halo is destroyed and you escape alone with Cortana on the Longsword-- is viscerally satisfying in a way that is hard to articulate.
So out of Halo's ten levels, what I get in terms of replay value really amounts to six, or a little more than half the game-- perhaps more than that when you figure in that AotCR and TB are two of the larger levels in the game, and that Halo isn't that small, either.
So what of Halo 2? After we've seen the ending-- love it or hate it-- what next if you don't have Xbox Live, and if skull-hunting just isn't your cup of tea?
Speaking of which, it seems to me that the inclusion of the skulls in Halo 2 was done specifically to try and appease the trickster mentality; give them something within the constructs of the game that allows users to wildly alter the engine's behavior, perhaps to compensate for some of the new restrictions that the game imposes-- the invisible walls, for instance, that stop players from entering areas not intended for play, some of which apply only to certain vehicles to prevent them from going to areas where they aren't intended.
The search for the Megg I think indicated that they had in their fanbase an audience for scavenger-hunt type activities within the game, and perhaps they thought that would forestall true tricksterism or perhaps even modding. Time will tell.
But in the meantime, which parts of Halo 2 are worth playing over and over again?
Well, for me, Cairo Station is eminently more replayable than Pillar of Autumn. In the second outing, Bungie is largely able to drop the level-as-tutorial approach and throw you right into the game, and this level gives you a lot of great stuff: outdoor vacuum areas, moving geometry, incredible detail, flying Elites and Drones. The only problem really ends up being difficulty: at Legendary, that second hangar can be a real pain even when you know exactly what's coming unless you're a virtuoso Halo player. However, at Heroic, after you've played it a few times it almost becomes rote, and you're no longer relegated to cowering behind crates and returning fire-- instead you can waltz right in and mop up with a few well-placed stickies. And if you're among those who've mastered Halo 2's plasma pistol, then Heroic poses no problem for you here.
In fact, the heart of Halo 2 starts right here and stretches through three levels: Cairo Station, Outskirts, and Metropolis. At first, the linear nature of the tunnel at the end of Outskirts followed by the bridge at the start of Metropolis had me fuming. Bungie had made lavish claims about the size of their environments, and it felt like a tacit betrayal to find out that no matter how large the environments were, it seemed as if most of that area was unplayable, and that the player had no choice of path to take, except perhaps the choice of stopping to fight or just driving straight through-- which is a valid option through much of the game.
What I've found, however, is that it is those areas that actually provide a lot of the enjoyment and a lot of the variation in Halo 2's gameplay. Most of that variation comes in the choice of vehicle. You can tackle those areas on foot, in a Ghost, as a driver, passenger, or gunner of a Warthog. Once you reach Metropolis, you can use any of those, plus you have the added choices of using the Scorpion tank or even highjacking a Wraith or Banshee. The geometry may be limited, but the gameplay isn't.
What these areas do make me wish for is networked cooperative play. It was disappointing that marines couldn't drive Warthogs in the original game. However, while being a Warthog gunner in a single-player game can be fun, many times it's just asking to be killed. Marine drivers don't ever seem to get the 'hog up to top speed, even when driving in a straight line with no traffic or obstructions. When faced with obstacles in the road-- especially those like crashed vehicles that are not part of the level's static design-- they tend to have extreme difficulty navigating, which is disastrous when under fire.
What's really fun is when you've got a human driver and a human gunner-- but I'm also greedy, and I don't want to give up my screen real estate for this experience. And then I think, what if you could get four players in a game-- a driver and gunner for each of the two Warthogs-- with perhaps some marines scooting around on Ghosts? That seems like such a sweet idea to me that I can scarcely imagine that the designers didn't intend it-- but that it simply could not be implemented for no doubt what are solid technical reasons. More's the pity.
Where Halo's levels were contained in time and space, and made you wait while the next level loads, Halo 2 doesn't do that at all. Regardless of how long it takes you to get from In Amber Clad to Earth's surface, the only thing you have to do is wait through the cutscene in order to play it. The transition between Outskirts and Metropolis is also nearly seamless; the cutscene starts when you reach the end of the tunnel, and Metropolis begins in that same place. Only the locked tunnel door behind you gives you a clue to the fact that you've just now changed levels, and not just chapters within a level. The game is approaching the original design claim of "seamless". This is good in that it allows Bungie to string a series of large locations into a single plot progression without a level load. The advantage is a little less clear with other transitions, as when the story changes time and place or even point of view.
Speaking of which... I applaud Bungie for taking what I think was a bold step, expanding Halo's story to encompass the Covenant perspective. I think the Arbiter is an interesting character, and I've enjoyed playing alongside Covenant units.
But even with all that, every time an Arbiter level pops up, I'm sorely tempted to skip through it, especially the first two, The Arbiter and The Oracle. There's nothing really wrong with The Arbiter, but the Oracle combines fighting Flood in the dark with a boss battle, and while the Banshee sequence is novel, the large play area just makes everything feel like it is in slow motion, and my mind skips ahead to the landing zone of Delta Halo and the lake platforms of Regret so realistic I swear I can smell the water. Those five levels, that comprise the Master Chief's plot arc before he encounters Gravemind, are the heart of Halo 2.
The second pair of Arbiter levels are better than the first, and are quite playable for a change of pace; Gravemind reminded me unpleasantly of the Pfhor ship levels from Marathon, and together the two combine to make me wonder if aliens in the Bungieverse might not be homicidal maniacs due to overexposure to the color purple. Bungie clearly put a lot of thought and care into the more curvaceous and organic look to the architecture on High Charity, but somehow these levels just don't seem as fun as their Halo 1 counterparts or the other levels in Halo 2.
And then comes the last problem: where in the first game I can always skip through to the Maw and have a last bit of fun and feel satisfied at having completed the game, Halo 2 doesn't seem to offer a clear choice to give a gamer enough closure to put down the controller and go back to real life. High Charity, putting you back through the same level except now with Flood, doesn't work nearly as well as the same trick did in the first game, mostly because the setting wasn't that interesting the first time around. Uprising, while very pretty, doesn't really seem to have a purpose: we're supposed to be looking for the Index again, but the whole taking-revenge-on-the-Brutes subplot completely takes over, and the fact that you've nothing but Brutes and Jackals to fight doesn't help. Add in a few Ghosts and the whole level almost seems to beg you to speed run through it to get to the next bit. And then you get to the next bit which turns out to be a rather nice vehicular battle that teases you with a Scarab you don't get to drive, and ends with another arbitrary-seeming boss battle that only makes you wonder what kind of magic bullets Sarge puts in his sniper rifle.
Even this might have been overlooked by everyone if Halo 2 had one or two more levels, where the Master Chief wades through throngs of Drones, Jackals and Brutes to make his way to Truth and finally learn-- the truth-- but it isn't there.
Replaying the good bits of Halo 2 feels much more like being in a rut than replaying the good bits of Halo 1. And while Halo 2 has more "levels" so to speak, territorially the game just feels smaller. This is most likely due, at least in part, to the inclusion of more vehicles; but even when comparing vehicle-heavy levels like AotCR, Halo 2's play areas just seem smaller, and fewer of them seem to really warrant repeated play.
Xbox Live and downloadable content will most likely keep many Halo 2 players satisfied in the meantime-- but for those who want to live inside the Halo universe and play out that story, re-reading their favorite chapters from the sequel seems like a poor substitute for the original, and no substitute for a real conclusion.