Everyone knew it was coming. A game as unstoppable and ubiquitous as Halo 2 has been was going to get follow-up content. The first of such comes in the form of nine new multiplayer maps and a patch that fixes a few bugs, plugs a few holes, and makes the gameplay a little more balanced. The justification for a twenty dollar retail disc is still a bit odd, however, as the bonus content on the disc over and above the maps is far too sparse and what is there is, well, brief.
Let's get this out of the way: if you're an Xbox Live subscriber, the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack disc is irrelevant. Four of the nine maps are now available for free download over Xbox Live, and the remaining five are available for $11.99 until the end of August when all of the maps will be available as free downloads. Upon first glance of the retail package, one begins to wonder why they bothered at all... and then it becomes obvious.
The number of copies of Halo 2 sold far outweighs the number of Xbox Live subscribers. For those who host Halo 2 LAN parties or strictly play box-to-box and split screen, this is the disc for you. The game enhancements that have been released since Halo 2's street date are essential to enjoying the multiplayer experience (that's not even mentioning how fabulous the new maps are), and not everyone will be able to log into Xbox Live to download them. In short, one could use a single disc to bring every box at a LAN party consisting of fifteen Xboxes up to current spec. Bear in mind that the first time you put this disc in your box is going to be the last, as its entire content save for the videos is transferred to the hard disk.
Among the various cheat-defeating improvements and bug fixes, Bungie has also balanced out some of the gameplay features. The most welcome of these improvements is the enhancement of melee attacks. Bungie felt that in a typical multiplayer showdown, the person with the most powerful weaponry (either by sporting a heavier gun or dual-wielding) was going to emerge the victor. This tipped the gameplay balance in favor of ordinance rather than individual player skill, so Bungie decided to beef up the power of the melee attacks. For example, an airborne bash to the opponents head, if timed correctly, will result in an instant kill. The typical melee strikes have been made more powerful as well, and the Brute Shot's strike has been tweaked to be the most powerful of all. These enhancements give a skilled player a fighting chance when their opponent is unloading full clips at them and they've been faced with the disheartening click of a spent ammo magazine.
Another crown jewel of the Halo 2 enhancements is the strengthening of all grenades. The original version's grenades were more like cherry bombs, most of the time only wounding an opponent. This made a significant gap in efficacy between a player using the weapon/grenade loadout and one going "Chow Yun-Fat" style with the dual-wield method. Not anymore. The "tick-time" (fuse time) of all grenades has been shortened as well, and players can use this to their advantage... go ahead, cook your grenade before throwing and watch as it sends your opponent flying before they have any time to react. The dead-on fast lethality of the magnum has also been toned down, and so has the SMG/Plasma dual-wield configuration. As mentioned before, all of the most famous cheats (vehicle ghosting, sword flying, modem standbys, and throwing flags through walls) have all been fixed and/or deactivated. Bungie states firmly that anyone logging onto Live with modded content of any kind will automatically be banned.
The maps themselves are of the quality players expect from Bungie and their Halo titles, which is fabulous. There's been a slight bump up in graphical details as well as several new environmental audio effects (great surround channel activity). This retail package also includes something seen very rarely these days: a very informative and totally relevant user manual. That's right, folks, the paper-with-the-staples inside your green case is very worthwhile. It gives players a run down of each new map (with visuals) and the weapon locations. The other non-map extras on the disc consist of a bonus cutscene and a short documentary on the making of these new maps. Very entertaining, but short.
The nine maps contained in the package are: Containment, Warlock, Gemini, Turf, Relic, Elongation, Terminal, Backwash and Sanctuary. Each one is a more than worthy addition to the Halo 2 legend, and players are bound to find a new favorite map within this pack (Turf gets the vote in many circles). So, should everyone run right out and purchase the multiplayer map pack? Well, no. To bring the whole thing into final perspective, all of the maps contained on the disc will be available for free download shortly. Those on Live are better suited to just download the available maps as they become available. If, however, you are not a subscriber and wish to be brought up to speed on your box, then by all means go right ahead. Maybe you can even find a used copy for less than the twenty dollar retail price.
Note: The Final Score is indicative of content quality and not the package itself.