As I settled back into the day-to-day work routine at IGN to start 2024, it randomly occurred to me that Halo 2 will turn 20 years old later this year – specifically, on November 9. That got me reminiscing about one of my favorite games ever – and probably my single favorite multiplayer game ever – a little bit early, so I thought I’d put those thoughts to virtual paper and share them with you because, quite frankly, there’s never a bad time to talk about the glory days of Halo 2 multiplayer.
I’m so grateful I got to be in the right time and place in my life, professionally and personally, to have soaked up that experience to the absolute fullest. I was 24 with no spouse, kid, or dog, thus allowing me to spend most of my free time playing Halo 2 multiplayer on Xbox Live. My life is very different now, in an equally great way, and I wouldn’t wish it any differently. And as also been pointed out to me, in 2004 there was no Call of Duty as direct competition for your online gaming time, not to mention the lack of social media, smartphones, and Netflix. Halo 2 was The Thing™, but it would’ve earned the lion’s share of my attention even if those other things had existed back then.
If you were too young for Halo 2, I promise you it was THAT GOOD. Not just the game, which was incredible (more on that in a bit), but also the Xbox Live ecosystem. You could send game invites with voice messages, which was neat. Even better, party chat wasn’t a thing yet, so people COMMUNICATED in-game. Proximity chat was used as a complement to team chat. Meaning you could broadcast to just your team or to anyone around you, which had both fun and strategic applications. And its then-revolutionary “virtual couch” online lobby and matchmaking system was light years ahead of anything we’d seen on console or even PC, making it easy and fun to get games together with your friends. Not only was there not a single dud [map] in the entire lot, they were all truly awesome.
But of course, the most amazing online infrastructure in the world (which Halo 2 had!) wouldn’t have mattered much if the game wasn’t incredible. And holy cow did Halo 2 deliver in the multiplayer department. It took everything great about Halo 1’s multiplayer and built on it. More vehicles, improved physics, dual-wielded weapons, the ability to board (read: carjack) enemy vehicles, and a collection of maps that I would put against any online multiplayer shooter in history. Bungie’s map designers were absolutely in the zone for Halo 2: Lockout, Midship, Ivory Tower, Ascension, Zanzibar, Colossus, Burial Mounds, Waterworks, Foundation, and the phenomenal remakes of two great Halo 1 maps: Beaver Creek and the evolution of Blood Gulch, known in Halo 2 as Coagulation. Not only was there not a single dud in the entire lot of them, they were all truly awesome. That Bungie allowed easy customization of the maps in the form of tweaking weapons, vehicles, etc. allowed every Halo 2 match to be whatever you wanted it to be.
Halo 2 in 2004 really was a perfect storm. In fact, if I could travel back in time to re-experience any gaming “eras” that are gone forever now, it would be the Halo 2 Era (i.e. the year between its launch and the Xbox 360 launch) and the Rock Band Era (2007-2009 or so – but that’s something to write about another day…). Yes, these games still exist and are still playable, but it isn’t and can never be the same. So happy early 20th anniversary, Halo 2, I don’t think there will ever be another multiplayer game like you.
Ryan McCaffrey is IGN’s executive editor of previews and host of both IGN’s weekly Xbox show, Podcast Unlocked, as well as our monthly(-ish) interview show, IGN Unfiltered. He’s a North Jersey guy, so it’s “Taylor ham,” not “pork roll.” Debate it with him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan.