The maps range from the enormous to the intimate. The biggest are Containment and Terminal. Containment is a vast, snowy valley with fortresses at either end and tunnels running the lengths of the mountain walls. This is a map that makes one wish the multiplayer limit was greater than 16, as even the biggest parties can all but disappear in here. Its size does make it the map most amenable to vehicle combat outside of Coagulation. Terminal, on the other hand, is an urban environment reminisc…nt of Zanzibar and Headlong, only on steroids. Asymmetrical, and set up very deliberately with the idea of one team attacking (armed with Warthog and Ghost) and one defending (with Wraith), this map also features the most exciting dynamic addition of the set: a lightning fast and utterly lethal train that hurtles along the tracks every few seconds. The train is an important factor, given that the energyh sword is located over the tracks, and the hill in Crazy King often places itself in the path of the train.
Middle-sized maps are Relic and Sanctuary. The former is still pretty big, but its wide-open design (an island with a towering structure in the middle) means that combatants have a high degree of visibility for each other. Though, on the surface, a sniper’s paradise (with a levitating capsule for just that activity), the default weapon placement balances things out nicely, with countering rocket launcher and carbines located behind shelter from the snipers. Sanctuary is perfect for team battles, with two identical temples interconnected on multiple levels, with an energy sword located in the centre, and shotguns in the tunnels.
In sharp contrast to the bright and open Relic are the gloomy Warlock, Gemini and Backwash. Warlock revisits Wizard from Halo, and its constricted space makes for extremely chaotic Slayer matches. Backwash echoes the swamp setting from the first game, but the voice you hear (the booklet informs us) is not 343 Guilty Spark, but Penitent Tangent on Delta Halo. Gemini, on the other hand, is set on the Covenant home world. Players in dark armour will have a considerable edge in the very shadowy environments away from the centre of Backwash, and in the middle of Gemini.
That leaves Turf, another New Mombasa setting (like Terminal), and a prime slice of urban warfare. If ever you wanted Halo 2 to play like Blackhawk Down, this is your map. Most battles wind up playing out in very close quarters (though there is a Warthog on the map, it rarely travels very far, and ends up being used more as a turret than as a vehicle), making the two Brute Shots on the map invaluable.
All of the maps have their joys, but some are clearly designed for one game type over another (Relic is great for team battles, but those games on Gemini and Backwash very quickly become completely chaotic). The other important aspect to the disc is the patches it introduces to the game (patches which anyone playing Live has already automatically received). These eliminate many of the loopholes used for cheating, and rebalance the weapons (the plasma pistol and SMG are less powerful, while the grenades are much more so – a plasma grenade can now kill through sheer proximity).
The non-gaming extras on the disc are a (very) short cut-scene movie, “Another Day at the Beach,” which shows a skirmish that takes place while the Master Chief is off dealing with the Scarab in New Mombasa. The behind-the-scenes feature is interesting, if largely promotional. Finally, there is the original trailer for Halo 2, and the original E3 presentation film for Halo. This last is a fascinating trip back to the past: most of the familiar elements are present, but not quite in the form we have come to know and love. There’s also an amusing, Grunt-led surround sound test.
The graphics are absolutely up to the Halo 2 standards. These are living, breathing environments. The beaches of Relic invite a (suicidal) swim, Turf’s every gritty detail is real enough to touch, and one can almost smell the creosote in the parking garages of Terminal. Dark as some of the maps might be, they are never murky. The integration of these new playgrounds into the existing game is completely seamless, and I have yet to encounter any frame rate issues.
Again, this is the Halo 2 surround sound, and immersive, explosive experience it is. The sound design on the levels is most impressive, adding to their individual identities. Snow crunches underfoot in Containment and wind howls, waves lap against the shore in Relic. Backwash has perhaps the most active aural elements. Not only is there the squelch of mud, but the constant calling of swamp creatures. Watch out for the occasional happy utterance of “I am a genius” from Penitent Tangent – this startling distraction coming one ear or the other (the placement is excellent) can be just as deadly, in its own way, as Terminal’s train. As ever, the location of the sounds is very accurate, and most helpful in identifying where the gunfire is coming from.
It need hardly be said that the whole reason for being behind this pack is replayability. Thanks to its magnificent multiplayer options, Halo 2 has been a permanent fixture in millions of Xboxes long after the single player mission has been beaten. The nine new environments here bring enough new variety and excitement to fuel many slaughterfest for months to come. As of this writing, they are part of the Optimatch service, but that still leaves room for endless private party campaigns.
Buy the disc or not? The question is not whether to get hold of the maps – they are an essential addition to the Halo 2 experience. Those who have already downloaded them need not feel they are missing much – the short feature does not advance the plot of the main game in any way, and though the maps included in the booklet are useful, most downloaders will probably already be familiar with them. Players who aren’t on-line will definitely have their multiplayer experience enhanced, but it really is on Live that these creations find their greatest shine.