Leave it to Bungie, the folks behind the original Halo, to make a followup that actually simplifies aspects of its predecessor. Conventional wisdom for the video game sequel is pretty well established: give it better graphics, more weapons, and some extra things to do. If it’s been a while since the first one, technology may have progressed to the point where you can throw in better AI too. The rule of thumb, though, is simple: more is more.
I made an iPod-Halo analogy recently to illustrate the notion that sometimes less is more, and this is clearly a lesson that Bungie has kept in mind when designing Halo 2. Sure, the graphics are better, and so is the AI. There are more weapons—but they’ve also taken some out. And the most significant change is a simplification: instead of having both recharging shields and non-recharging health points, in Halo 2 you just have the shields, and some indeterminate-but-tiny amount of health once they’re gone. The shields also recharge faster. The result is a different style of play, but not a more complicated one.
Similarly, you jump quite a bit higher in Halo 2, but this isn’t just a ramping-up of ability—there’s a tradeoff between the added height and distance you can move and the fact that you’re vulnerable for a longer period of time without being able to control your movement. Even the ability to wield two guns at once comes at a price—no grenades, and no punches without losing one of your weapons—so it becomes a matter of tactical choice and not just one of more firepower.
All these things point to a mature design philosophy, but in and of themselves don’t make a great game. So it’s worth nothing that, yes, Halo 2 totally and utterly rocks. Cool levels, frenetic action, beautiful visuals, elegant movement. This is all the more impressive when you consider that it’s a game built for the Xbox, a console system that is three years old. And I’m speaking just based on the split-screen multiplayer experience—by all accounts, the single player game is very strong, and the multiplayer options on Xbox online are even better.
Of course, I don’t even own an Xbox. Yet. Fate has conspired to present me with a daunting choice. The ol’ PC gaming box is getting old. The fan on the graphics card creaks and whines; the processor and memory just don’t measure up to the demands of the latest iterations of Doom and Half-Life. But even if buying an Xbox and upgrading the PC was an option financially (ha!), it wouldn’t be a realistic one—I don’t have as much time for video games as I did in days of yore. It only makes sense to do one or the other. Financially and socially, Xbox is the clear choice, but PC gaming and computer building have been hobbies of mine for years—would I be giving them up, or simply acknowledging that, free-time-wise, they’re hobbies whose time had come anyway? Decisions, decisions . . .