Halo 2 was the very first multiplayer game I ever played on a console. I remember getting my broadband internet hooked up for the first time, then immediately heading on to Xbox Live to see what all the fuss was about. I lost several hundred hours of my life to shooting fellow Spartans in the face, mowing them down with Ghosts, and bashing their heads in with the butt of my rifle. It remains one of the best experiences I’ve had in a multiplayer game to date, and some of the friends I met online while playing still play games with me to this very day.
With all that out in the open, I must confess to a bit of apprehension for playing Halo 2 multiplayer again this fall when it launches as part of the Halo: Master Chief Collection. As you may know, the collection includes all four main entries in the franchise, with Halo 2 Anniversary in particular a much shiner version of its ten year-old counterpart.
With that also comes a mostly faithful revisit to Halo 2 multiplayer. Yes, even though the maps are a lot prettier and the lobbies will look completely different, the gameplay portion of Halo 2 is said to feel mostly the same as it did back on the original Xbox, and even though nostalgia is telling me that this might be the single greatest thing to happen in video games this year, the logical side of my brain is telling me that nostalgia might just be wrong.
Multiplayer gaming has evolved a lot since 2004. Back then, people were happy just to get a game that worked, let alone included a whole stock of interesting game modes and addictive progression systems. I remember playing a lot of broken multiplayer modes across many titles and always returning to Halo 2 for consistent multiplayer that nearly always worked flawlessly. Sure, the game handled better than almost any shooter out there at the time, but back when console multiplayer was still mostly in its infancy, it was the consistency and that new feeling that kept me coming back for so long.
What if that’s not enough anymore? I recently played through Sniper Elite III, and once I finished the mediocre campaign with a friend, we headed off to check out the multiplayer. There were several game modes and an XP-based progression system that included unlocks and a class system, but I put it down after just a few matches because I didn’t think it was anything special. What if I’d played that same game ten years ago? I might have thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread and lost a year of my life to it, yet today it feels like an uninspired experience.
Putting Ghosts aside, I’ve almost always loved Call of Duty multiplayer for its practically endless challenges, unlocks, and ranks. Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay is top notch and still one of the best in the business, but I don’t think I’d play it for very long if all the bells and whistles were stripped away and I was left with only the core gameplay. Battlefield might last a little longer in my library thanks to the extremely diverse experience it offers, but without all those fancy weapons, attachments, and service stars to strive for, it probably wouldn’t feel the same. Even a unique multiplayer offering like the Last of Us is loaded with unlockable weapons, perks, and a progression system. Halo 2 has almost none of that.
There is something to be said for the skill rank that’s returning to Halo 2 in the anniversary edition, but outside of that there’s really nothing pushing you forward if you’re not absolutely in love with the gameplay itself. There’s no XP and subsequent ranking system that gives a visual representation of your time spent with the game. There’s no unlocks, new weapons, or perks to pursue from continued play, nor is there loadouts to toy with. Back in 2004, I didn’t need any of those things to love Halo 2 for a long period of time, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe that’s not the case anymore.
What all that leaves to wonder is whether or not I can enjoy a multiplayer game like Halo 2 today without all those extra features. Nostalgia says yes, absolutely, the gameplay will likely still be amazing and I’ll remember all the great times I had and that’ll keep me moving forward. Another part of me knows that nostalgia often enhances a memory, and worries that maybe it’s not as great as I remember. I worry that I’ll end up thinking less of what is currently one of my favorite games of all time after I get tired of repeatedly gunning people down with the same two weapons. It worries me almost enough to keep me from playing it. Almost.