When trying to sell your latest and greatest operating system, it's generally a fairly sound business strategy to make it so an upcoming and high profile game release requires the installation of said operating system to function. Microsoft has done just that, and to play Halo 2 on the PC, one must first have Vista installed; the game simply won't run under XP. Halo 2 was, and remains, a great game, and if you haven't yet played the title and have Vista, the purchase should already be a no-brainer, but years after its release and coming from the console to the PC, Halo 2 definitely has not aged very well.
At this point, the story of Halo should be known by most gamers on at least a topical level, whether or not they've played it. You play as the Master Chief; a genetically enhanced, powered armor-wearing, casually hardcore super-soldier. In Halo 2, you continue the storyline started in the original Halo, where humanity stumbles across ancient orbital installations called halos that are all part of a doomsday super weapon. Mankind has been fighting for control of these installations against a force known as the Covenant, a loose organization of aliens bent on triggering the halos' weaponry to wipe all life from the galaxy in order to fulfill one of their most sacred religious prophecies.
Two and a half years ago, Halo 2 had excellent graphics for a console offering and really put the original Xbox console through its paces. One of the downsides of Halo 2 on the PC is that it looks almost exactly the same and is reminiscent of a three-year-old console title. Granted, the resolution can now be set to numbers that would make an Xbox melt in comparison, but the models, textures, and special effects all look rightfully dated. Details can now be made out much more clearly and at much greater distances, such as the Admiral's medals in one of the early cut scenes, but there really haven't been many other upgrades past that.
On the positive side, Halo 2 does make good use of the keyboard and mouse support that the PC has to offer. The title feels like it was designed for that particular pairing of peripherals in mind and neatly sidesteps the same issues that plague other console-to-PC ports, where one can still tell that the title really works best with a gamepad. The keys are fully bindable, of course, and mouse sensitivity can be tweaked to best suit the player. For those who are used to controlling Master Chief with a gamepad, using a keyboard and mouse to play Halo 2 will feel a bit awkward at first and take a little fine tuning, but once you get your settings cozy, it controls just fine on the PC. Only small issues remain, such as how to control a warthog; your throttle is the "W" and "S" keys, while steering is done with the mouse, although using "A" and "D" for the same action would feel a bit more natural.
The PC version of Halo 2 comes fully equipped with a level and asset editor, allowing everyone from hardcore to fledgling modders change everything from models and textures, to crafting entire new maps, to simply changing colors or making the assault rifle have a 300-round magazine. The title also has a rather nifty "tray and play" feature, where you can start the install process and essentially begin to play the game immediately without having to wait for it to finish. The feature didn't work incredibly well for us in our testing, but it was later found that the retail build would have a more polished version of the feature in place, so one can only hope the final build has it working well. In either case, while waiting the five to 10 minutes for a PC title to install isn't exactly a death march, it was also rather nice to plop the disc into the tray and be on the title screen within a minute.
Halo 2 for PC also makes use of the PC version of Xbox Live, allowing you to earn Achievements, chat with your Xbox Live friends, and join up with them to form Halo 2 parties just as it works on the Xbox 360. Instead of the "Guide" button found on the Xbox 360 controller to access the Xbox Live slider, you simply press the Home key on the keyboard. If you have an existing Xbox Live account, you can associate your PC with your account and have the same identity, friends list, and gamer score work for both your Xbox/Xbox 360 and PC. It works well, and if it takes off and non-Microsoft games begin to incorporate the PC iteration of Xbox Live, the service stands to be in a decent position to really unite PC and console gamers in a way that hasn't quite been done before.
Multiplayer is probably one of the bigger draws of Halo 2 for most people, and the PC version doesn't disappoint. Though there are no new maps for the PC version, all of the console maps make an appearance, in addition to the stock gameplay modes and, naturally, the ability to create your own. Given the addition of a capable editor alongside the PC release of Halo 2, one can only wonder how long it will be before game modes will begin to incorporate real changes, such as different weapons or models. This is definitely a big selling point for the multiplayer component, assuming the mod community picks up on it. Sadly, Xbox-based Halo 2 players won't be able to play with PC-based players, but if Halo: Combat Evolved is any indication, players won't have a problem finding servers on which to play a few rounds of Halo 2 after launch.
So, is it worth it to go out, purchase Vista, and pick up Halo 2 for the PC? If you already have the title on the Xbox/Xbox 360 console, there isn't a strong incentive to drop everything and nab the PC version. To that end, there's definitely no reason to spend a few hundred dollars to upgrade from XP to Vista just to play Halo 2, unless you simply haven't played it before and are looking for an excuse to upgrade. If you already have a Vista-equipped computer, the fact that the PC version of Halo 2 has a level editor and full keyboard and mouse support can be a decent selling point. If you are one of the seven people on the planet who somehow haven't yet played Halo 2 and yet genuinely want to, this title is an easily recommendable purchase, aged graphics notwithstanding.
In short, Halo 2 on the PC is a lot like Halo 2 on the Xbox, only now with higher resolution graphics, a level editor, and the ability to aim a sniper rifle with a mouse rather than the right analog stick. If you are running Vista and Halo 2 isn't yet in your games library, you may as well earmark the cash for the PC version right now, whereas people who are still on XP and own the console version are going to be hard pressed to find very compelling reasons to go through all of what needs to be done to play it on the PC. If you own Vista and the console version, you simply have to stare at the price tag for a while and figure out how much a level editor and enhanced controls are worth to you. Regardless of which one of these scenarios fits you best, Halo 2 on the PC is still a worthwhile title despite its age, and it's a prime example of how a console-to-PC port can be done properly.
More articles about Halo 2