I Hardly Knew Thee…
Snow flakes dance and glisten as they silently fall through the dense, thick air landing mutely on cold, faded surfaces. The salty water ebbs and flows rhythmically on beaches no longer stained by bloodshed. The war has moved on new theatres leaving older battlefields to live on in the memories of the soldiers that fought across them.
An online era primarily defined by the release of Halo 2 has ended. Everyone has had a chance to say goodbye and pay their respects.
Communities reformed and met up once again in Halo 2’s lobbies and jumped back into the thick of the action. Bungie encouraged the fans by promising players something to remember their times from Halo 2 when they finally get their hands on Halo: Reach and some staff members jumped online to face the community one last time.
Celebrations abound of the friendships formed, battles lost and won and the huge impact one single game made on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, with gaming fans in different corners of the globe.
I sat down in front of my Xbox 360, put in the Halo 3 disc and proceeded to download the various map packs Halo 2 had to offer. I was getting ready to join in on the farewell activities that practically everyone on my friend’s list was set on doing for Halo 2’s final night.
With my original black Xbox console now gathering dust in some forgotten part of the world, I was aware that by playing this game on my 360 that some of the original magic would be absent. No over sized “Duke” controller for me. I was fully prepared for this as I was also lacking another important factor shared by many of my fellow Halo fans – nostalgia.
When Halo 2 was released all those years ago, I wasn’t a fan. I didn’t even own an Xbox and I hadn’t the means to join in on the fun. I didn’t know what I was missing out back then as I clutched my GameCube controller and waited patiently for the next Nintendo release.
One day, around the time after the Xbox 360 launched, I decided to purchase an original Xbox second hand with a copy of Halo CE. From that moment I became a fan.
Without the internet I was restricted to single and co-operative play. I dived in deep with Halo CE’s Campaign both alone and with a friend and jumped straight into Halo 2’s Campaign shortly thereafter. Fun times were plentiful as hours were lost fighting against the Flood and the Covenant. There was one area that remained untouched, competitive multiplayer. I was unfortunate to have friends with a lopsided interest; they liked Campaign but not the proper multiplayer. I never had the chance to try out Halo CE or Halo 2’s main multiplayer components even though I had a healthy number of friends and controllers. I was never able to convince them.
The release of Halo 3 drew near and after a friend had brought his 360 to my home so that I could experience a few games in the Halo 3 beta, I was sold on the new generation of Xbox and Halo 3. I happily purchased my 360 just before the release of Halo 3. Many of my nights were spent playing other games including Halo CE’s Campaign in anticipation of Halo 3’s release. When Halo 3 released, the Campaign was hungrily digested and I finally went to try out the multiplayer component properly in the online corridors and fields of Halo 3. Days, weeks, months and years would pass and I would return constantly to Halo 3’s online multiplayer.
Then I had an itch to scratch. Halo 2. Out of curiosity, I had convinced a friend to hop online with me on Halo 2. Around this time my online multiplayer was almost exclusively split screen with my friend, I still hadn’t gained independence – I was having too much fun tethered with my friends to care.
Going back to Halo 2 from Halo 3 was a total shock. Vertical split screen(I couldn’t remember how to change it)? No AR? Dark and unfamiliar levels? My first Halo 2 experience was poor. I was so shocked by how much more poorly it played compared to Halo 3. I guess I couldn’t handle it and I wasn’t willing or able to give it the time it needed in the proper context to appreciate it.
So I turned my back on Halo 2 online. I was almost glad to never touch it again.
Time changes people and their habits. I’ve moved home once or twice and my gaming habits have changed. I went from almost exclusively playing with at least one other person in real life via split screen to playing one by myself with online parties. This was a pretty big change as it allowed me to get a better feel for the game types, strategies and other applications that were relevant to me across various games, particularly Halo 3.
After years of play, I can confidently say I have an idea of the flow of an average game on pretty much any Halo 3 map and match. I can spot certain behaviours in players across various game types. It’s less academic and more instinctive and it’s something you gain from just playing a lot over time. It’s not some exclusive skill that I have; lots of other players will also develop a “feel” for any game they play over a long period of time.
A friend approached me a few months back and proposed to show me around Halo 2 online after I had confessed to be more or less ignorant with just one really bad previous experience to go on. I had the screen to myself this time and he showed me around a few maps in a private custom game including some of the common cheats that players had discovered like the “super bounce”. After a few minutes of jumping dozens of feet into the air I told my friend that I was bored. Cheating like this is pointless and I couldn’t really see myself attempting to employ such a tactic in a proper game. My friend was also quick to regale me with tales of cheating and standing that pervaded his Halo 2 online games. Again, I shunned away from Halo 2 online. It seemed as if I’d never give the game a proper chance.
A few months ago it was announced that Halo 2’s online component was going to be shut down with the end of Microsoft’s support for original Xbox titles over Xbox Live. I decided that I would give Halo 2 its final chance. However my previous experiences and the lack of interest from my online friends pretty much ensured that it wouldn’t be any time soon. It wasn’t, I waited until the last few days of Halo 2’s online life to give it a last try. I almost missed the boat.
My pre-existing bias against the game lasted much longer than I thought it would. A few games here and there but I quitted out of the lobbies shortly after a few games not wanting to put up with it. The clock was ticking down and here I was squandering my final chances.
I jumped back into Halo 3 and immediately fell victim to the change in controller options – I have my Halo 3 controls configured in the “Bumper Jumper” layout and after a few games of Halo 2 I was pressing the wrong buttons at the wrong moments on Halo 3.
The countdown continued, the window of opportunity got smaller and smaller so I jumped back into the fray with my Halo 2 disc ready to play my final games.
It was then something inside me clicked. I played some Customs with little joy and less enthusiasm. I was all but ready to give up and put away the disc for good. I decided I’d play one more game, some matchmaking. It was then that my perspective changed.
I was running around a level, Desolation, like I knew it from some place before. It was familiar, the geometry, the jumps, the general layout – I had played Customs matches on a Sandbox remake of this very map on Halo 3 very recently. Looking back, it was by no means a perfect reconstruction but it served as a fantastic template for learning the layout and the general flow for the original Halo 2 map. The match was BR starts in a simple arena environment, it felt familiar and I was actually holding my own with confidence. It was fun, I was dying infrequently and each kill painted a faint smile across my face as I clutched my controller in a firm but determined grip. I was so late to the Halo 2 party. Not only was it over but the venue itself was hours away from demolition. I put on my party hat and started dancing – better late than never.
I finally got to experience the thrill of running around Lockout with a BR blazing, jumping around Midship like a crazy fool processed and making a flag run from the passenger seat on a Warthog under heavy fire and my shields flaring out on Coagulation. It was exhilarating and so very typical Halo.
My established Halo 3 bias allowed me to see how certain maps defied or fulfilled certain expectations. Lockout played so differently than Blackout – its Halo 3 remake. The flow of a game on the map was startling different. Midship played almost identically and I felt at home immediately running around the recognizable violaceous walkways.
A topic that has been brought up numerous times over the years in some of the discussion forums I frequent is the BR, specially the function of the weapon and how it was changed from Halo 2 to Halo 3. Many folks had verbally lamented the loss of hitscan time and time again; it was a function of the Halo 2 sandbox that I had never truly looked at before. Here was my chance.
As I was enjoying my time playing Halo 2 online during its dying hours I took the last chance I had to look at this beloved function – which I felt was going to be increasingly relevant to me as a Halo player. Bungie had been discussing the Halo: Reach sandbox over the past few weeks and had confirmed the return of the hitscan with most of the human arsenal available in the game.
In Halo a player quickly learns to properly use the available weapons. The BR is one of the most versatile weapons but also one of the most hotly discussed. A player wishing to engage another in Halo 3 must usually lead his shots when aiming with the BR – meaning that the player must try to predict where the other player is going to be a split second ahead of time and aim there instead to compensate for the time it takes for the BR’s projectiles to reach its target. Couple this with a wide fire spread, the three bullets in each BR burst hit an approximate area in the direction that a player aims and not all bullets may connect, you begin to see how difficult it is to use the weapon. When online latency, lag and hosting issues creep into the equation, the results don’t always add up the same way.
Armed with this knowledge, I took at closer look at the Halo 2 BR. It uses hitscan, a specifically designed function that means that when a target is directly in the line of fire when the weapon is triggered, it immediately registers a hit. There is no travel time for a fired projectile and the spread is limited and identical each time.
Some habits are hard to forget and I attempted to lead my shots each time with my BR even though I knew that it was incorrect to do so. Some mental effort later and my BR would only fire when the reticle lit up red – a certain hit each time. That was how it was suppose to work. It did work, most of the time. There was one thing stopping it from working flawlessly and I seen it coming – lag.
Lag, latency and hosting issues are no strangers to the average Halo player. With my short time with Halo 2 it was these issues which stood out many times for me.
Overall I found that my BR skills in Halo 2 were about more or less the same as Halo 3 but I think there were some other issues at play. Despite my familiarity with Halo, I am and will forever be a “noob” Halo 2 online player. I’ll never know each map inside out. Never be equal with similarly skilled Halo 2 online players. Halo 2 has a slightly more generous auto-aim than Halo 3. I could feel it when aiming with the BR or Sniper Rifle. Whilst no Halo game has full auto-aim, each of them has a bit of auto-aim to some degree. I believe Halo 2’s auto-aim is a lot more forgiving than Halo 3’s. Even with my unfamiliarity and slight twitchiness, I was mostly successful in tracking players and lining up shots.
One thing I found was that strafing when using a BR, ducking and weaving, was a lot more useful and I survived quite a number of encounters thanks to the precision needed to land some BR shots; I was lucky or maybe even skilful enough to survive whereas in Halo 3 and the increased spread I probably would have died.
My Halo 2 experience certainly wasn’t limited to holding a BR most of the time (although honestly I felt much safer when I did have one). I had the absolute pleasure to experience the wonderfully celebrated SMG starts that have been recalled countless times as people’s favourite memories of Halo 2 (Well, no, not at all!). I also had fun times driving around in a Ghost (with real boarding action!), flying a Banshee or two and hopping into a Warthog or seven. It was the vehicle play that drew my attention back once again to latency, connections and lag though.
I could forgive the poor animations in the game as I was coming from one console generation with Halo 3 to another on Halo 2 but the connection issues presented some interesting and frustrating encounters. The warthog was host to several of these issues. When a player’s connection differed to mine, they would be out of sync with me in a Warthog and I’d see a passenger or gunner move very poorly, jerking around violently. When using the Gauss or turret on the back of a Warthog my shots usually failed to register correctly even when everything appeared as it should on my screen.
These issues served to highlight the fantastic jump in quality in the netcode that Bungie made from Halo 2 to Halo 3. Although the same old problems can never truly go away until we’re in some kind of super LAN future, Halo 3 does a better job of compensating masking these issues. But they had to start somewhere and overall the Halo 2 online connections issues held up well for their age.
I enjoyed my brief fling with Halo 2, it was short and sweet and a long time coming. I finally got the chance to understand some of the critical comments from fans when they compared online Halo titles. I was finally able to appreciate the wonderful, flowing level design and the tight corridor firefights. It looks like I avoided getting “standby’d”, I encountered no cheaters. Some of the spawns were really bad, often enough I’d spawn facing an enemy already opening fire on me or I’d spawn facing a wall for no particular reason. Occasionally in Big Team Battles not everyone would spawn at the same time at the start of the match, I’d have to wait a few seconds staring at the list of players in each team. I tried out a few button glitches and insane mad lunges and jumps. I broke out of maps with effort and sometimes I glitched and clipped through geometry.
It was undeniable fun. A part of me is sad that I missed out on the years of fun this game gave its players but another part of me is happy that my online Halo antics started with the game that came after – a game that was built on the hard lessons that must have been learnt developing Halo 2.
My hand was raised; glass in hand, to toast the end of Halo 2. I may not be one of the many drunk with years of pleasant memories but I celebrated the end of Halo 2 with everyone else. Grateful that Halo 2 came to be in the form and time that it did, to shape the games I play today and games I’ll be playing years from now.