t might seem strange in retrospect but Halo: Combat Evolved's rise in popularity was a slow burn as not many gamers initially owned Microsoft's first home console. In contrast, Halo 2's ascent was meteoric.
The amount of hype it received on the run-up to release was unprecedented for the time. Microsoft cranked their marketing machine to new levels, producing not only international television, billboard and internet advertisements but also the infamous alternate reality game called I Love Bees.
But of course it wasn't just the marketing blitz and the goodwill fostered by Combat Evolved that made Halo 2 a success story. This second part of the trilogy somehow managed to exceed its hype, setting a new standard for console shooters and changing the face of online gaming.
Its graphics were significantly improved, sporting textures and polygon counts that pushed the Xbox to its limits. The controls were tightened up, allowing for a more responsive play experience (explained in canon as the effects of Master Chief's new armor) and game-changing abilities were added such as the means to hijack piloted vehicles and dual-wield weaponry.
Into the fire: Master Chief had only enough time for a debriefing and a quick change of armor before the Covenant found Earth.The premise of its campaign was simple. Master Chief and Cortana had made it back to Earth after barely surviving the events of Combat Evolved. But there was only time for a debriefing and a quick change of armor before humanity's worst fear was realized — the Covenant had found Earth. Initially, Master Chief was tasked with defending humanity's last holdout from this seemingly insurmountable invasion but he would soon become caught up in a much more far-reaching plot.
Much to the surprise of many gamers, a large portion of the campaign wasn't played from the perspective of everyone's favorite Spartan. Halo 2's story was very much a Covenant political affair and to reflect this it places the player in the shoes of a member of the Elite species called the Arbiter.
Though many didn't take too kindly to this, it served to tell an important chapter in the saga. The Covenant is revealed to be a fiercely religious alliance who believe that the activation of the Halo rings will bring them enlightenment. Through the Arbiter's eyes we witness the internal strife that would cause a dramatic shift in the war.
Another point of contention for many players was the notorious cliff hangar ending of the campaign. Though never explicitly stated beforehand by the developer Bungie it was obvious that there were to be more games in the series so the ending (abrupt as it was) wasn't all that surprising.
As much as some fans raged on about these story elements, most were still completely satisfied with Halo 2 because of the strength of its multiplayer component.
On the surface this looked and played like a more polished version of Combat Evolved just with new maps, weapons and abilities.
But it was the integration of Microsoft's then-new online service Xbox Live that really made it something special. No longer did players have to assemble large numbers of friends, televisions and gaming kit to play full-sized games of Halo.
Bungie's use of Xbox Live was pioneering in so many ways. Most notable was the invention of matchmaking, which provided a streamlined framework for finding matches whilst doing away with the clunky lobby-based systems of the past. Players now chose from a range of playlists, which would match them up with preferred game types and opponents of similar skill. A key component of this was the "virtual couch" system that allowed groups to party up and effortlessly move together from match to match. The game even let multiple friends play splitscreen on Live on one console, a feature that's sorely missing in modern online games.
The game would also capture a staggering amount of statistics from every match played online. Everything from detailed score sheets to the medals awarded were recorded for viewing on Bungie.net. The site would even generated maps of the levels showing the positions of every player's kills and deaths.
The integration of Microsoft's then-new online service Xbox Live made Halo 2 something special.Most of these features would go on to become commonplace in online games particularly on consoles. The matchmaking system would be borrowed from by many developers, and its ranking system would go on to inspire the "TrueSkill" system used in Xbox 360 Live games. The "virtual couch" would also appear on Microsoft's next console transmogrifying into the party system that allows groups of friends to stay in touch even across different games.
The soundtrack has always been one of the most iconic elements of the Halo saga. While many of its most memorable motifs were present in the first game, an increased sense of scale can definitely be heard in Halo 2 with a fifty-piece orchestra hired to score the game as opposed to the original's primarily synthesised sound. Composers Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori even collaborated with famed guitarist Steve Vai on a number of tracks including the new arrangement of the Halo theme.
On the whole, Halo 2 stands up better than its predecessor when revisited today largely thanks to its various graphical and game play enhancements. However, the focus on narrative means that its campaign lacks the memorable open battlefields of Combat Evolved and leans heavily on linear, Library-like slogs especially later on. Also, Live support for original Xbox games has since been axed, so its multiplayer is all but superfluous unless you can corral a group of friends into playing across splitscreen and LAN.
Retrospective gripes aside, Microsoft's marketing blitz, strong fan anticipation and unanimously glowing reviews allowed Halo 2 to break launch sales records. Not only did it emerge as one of the most pre-ordered games in history (over 1.5 million copies reserved before launch) but it also became the highest grossing entertainment release in history at the time, earning $125 million in its first 24 hours on sale. Furthermore, it was responsible for Xbox Live's early success and remained the most played game on the service for two years.
Halo 2 holds the crown of bestselling title for the original Xbox with eight million units sold and is ranked fifth on the NPD Group's all-time games sales chart. It would take its sequel — the last in the planned trilogy — to match its phenomenal success.