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Since the beginning of time, one major aspect of gaming that existed on PCs but not consoles had been the expansion pack. A PC, with its vast amounts of permanent storage, could support games that could be modified or updated with new official content well after they had been released; a console was lucky to have a few hundred kilobytes of flash memory with which to prevent data from disappearing when the unit was powered off. Barring the occasional compilation or reimagining, a published console game was set in stone forever.

In the current generation of consoles, this limitation was lifted. Both the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 can use a hard disk to store data; this not only removed the need for gamers to deal with expensive and temperamental memory cards but also allowed additional game content to be loaded into the console PC-style (at least in the case of the Xbox, which comes with a hard disk from the factory. The PS2's disk is an optional accessory, and thus rarely used by developers.).

With the launch of Xbox Live, Microsoft introduced a feature called DLC- downloadable content. Game studios could produce new content for their games and have Microsoft make it available for download through their servers. As the Xbox platform is a proprietary, closed system, this process was made virtually seamless- rather than searching the democratic tumult of the PC mod scene, Xbox players simply click a download button and the game handles the rest. However, despite Microsoft's best efforts, only a small fraction of their users have signed up for Live- as of right now it's somewhere around two million Live accounts out of 17 million Xboxers. When Bungie Studios began working on an expansion pack for their flagship franchise, they decided to have it available through retail as well as DLC. And, since buying the disk would be more expensive and less convenient than hopping on Live, they decided to include some extra incentives.

The Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack

Released on July 7, 2005, the expansion combined several different projects and goals that Bungie had been considering. Most importantly, it made the maps and game updates available to players who did not use Live- system link and split screen multiplayer are still popular. It also gave non-Live multiplayers access to all the game's patches that had been released so far (another PC trick duplicated by the Xbox, although one with more mixed implications). Always one to channel spare resources into making cool stuff and having fun, Bungie also included two extra features that were not available over Live- a documentary-style overview of the maps and their creation process, and a new cutscene telling a "side story" in the Halo universe.

The Autoupdates

There have been 4 major updates to Halo 2, something unprecedented in the console world where until the current generation modifying a released game has been a very expensive and time-consuming proposition. 3 of the updates were included on the map pack DVD.
  • The first update, released mere days after the game itself, corrected some relatively minor problems. Matchmaking was greatly sped up, in response to complaints of multi-minute waits. A bug which interfered with the HUD when running in 480P widescreen mode on certain HDTVs was corrected. The secret bonus map Foundation was unlocked for all players, as compensation for a bug in the game that made earning it much more difficult than Bungie had intended (this also meant that for players hit by this bug, the map pack effectively included ten maps instead of the promised nine).
  • The second update, released on April 17, 2005, was a major overhaul of the game. The primary purpose of the update was to close various exploits in the game that were being used for widespread cheating over Xbox Live; further details can be found at the game's own node. Most of these fixes were unimportant for offline players- if your friend is cheating in a splitscreen game, just lean over and hit him. The patch also answered complaints that had been raised about the game balance by tweaking several of the weapons and generally changing the feel of gameplay to something much closer to the previous game. Bungie considered the changes so significant that the game's version number, displayed on the main menu, was bumped to 1.1.
  • The third update is one I could not find any information about. I'm only aware of its existence because the next update is labeled "Autoupdate 4".
  • The fourth update was not included in the map pack, but, again, most of its changes would not be of interest to offline players. The primary purpose of this update was to combat cheating on Xbox Live and implement fully automatic methods for banning those guilty of it.

The Documentary

Like the extras on the Halo 2 Special Edition's second disk, this feature is a look behind the scenes at Bungie's creative process and the progression from post-release attitudes toward the game to the development of nine new maps and a scripted cutscene. Most of the video is spent examining the new maps, in segments narrated by those responsible for them. If the videos on the special edition hit the spot, this is an enjoyable addition and impetus to buy the maps offline instead of on.

The Cutscene

Early in the game's single-player campaign, a squad of three Pelican dropships is attacked by a Covenant war machine. The one carrying the Master Chief crashes into a building and provides the lead-in to the level proper. A second Pelican is forced to flee but survives the encounter and escorts the player for the rest of the level. The third is shot down and buys the farm on a beach the player reaches midway through the level. The cutscene, entitled "A Day at the Beach", follows the adventures of the troopers who survive the crash and try to locate friendly forces. The movie was rendered using the game engine (although it's been flattened out to a video file on the disk), and is generally indistinguishable from the cutscenes in the game- it's not even noticeably longer. This is the low point of the disk.

The Maps

The expansion pack includes 9 maps, which are copied to the hard disk and then become available when Halo 2 is loaded. Four of the maps- Containment, Warlock, Sanctuary, and Turf- had already been made available as downloadable content; they are described under Halo 2. Five of the maps were brand-new: Terminal, Relic, Gemini, Elongation, and Backwash.

Terminal

Terminal is a large map, meant for big CTF or Assault games, set in a train station. It's large enough to contain a parking garage, a stretch of highway running through the map, and the terminal building itself complete with ramps, overpasses, a landscaped plaza, and a train platform. But the most interesting part of the level is the train itself. There are a pair of elevated tracks running from one end to the other, and the best routes through the level run across them. Running along this track, in both directions, are out-of-control maglev trains, at staggered intervals of about thirty seconds. If these trains hit you, you die, even if you're in the Wraith. It's an interesting deathtrap capable of creating all sorts of chaos and forcing players to actually stop and look both ways before crossing the tracks and avoid them completely to be safe- but sometimes they can't be avoided because there are important things sitting in the middle of the tracks like the overshield and energy sword, a capture point in Territories, and sometimes the hill in KOTH games.

Relic

A beautiful level set on an island containing a large, squat structure with a huge tower sticking up from the center, reminiscent of the beacons from a level in the previous game. The structure is surrounded by various other features, such as a floating sniper nest (which can be destroyed with the rocket launcher), a crashed human transport, and other wreckage and obstacles of various types. At one end of the level is a switch that opens a pair of teleporters that go between the inside of the structure and the opposite end of the beach. Unlike Zanzibar and Halo PC's Death Island, you can't be cheap by running out into the water and hiding there or sniping- walk out too far and you fall off the continental shelf and die. Even more so than Zanzibar, this level is entirely designed around playing one flag CTF, to the extent that that's the only truly balanced and fun gametype for it. A bug in the shipped version of this level allows players to pass through the teleporters before the switch has been activated; this was also fixed in autoupdate 4.

Gemini

The only Covenant-themed level in the map pack, Gemini takes place on the space station High Charity, in some sort of hall of worship dominated by an uncannily Earth-like tree and a huge stone statue of a Prophet. It's small, cramped, and dark purple, so it can be rather hectic and isn't really suited to objective games. Gemini was originally a remake of the classic Marathon Infinity level Duality, but it's been heavily modified and adapted to the gameplay of a modern first person shooter.

Elongation

A remake of the Halo level Longest, this time on board a transport ship orbiting the Earth. Despite assurances that the overall size of the level has not been altered, it feels much larger and looser than the original; this feeling is helped by the huge windows opening out into space. The two team bases at the end have been filled with piles of crates, both to make combat more interesting and allow players to jump to the upper catwalks. The biggest change that has been made is the presence of two conveyor belts running down the long halls, moving crates along the level. This creates constantly varying environments to fight in, as the crates can be used for jumping, cover, and even sneaking through the level as players being swept along by the conveyor belts do not appear on the motion tracker.

Backwash

The most radical aesthetics belong to this level, which takes place in an area similar to the final encounter of level 6 of Halo 1. Swampland and twisted trees surround a tall column, with mysterious machines poking through the ground all around the perimeter. Dull green light filters through the unseen canopy above, and the region is filled with drifting fog that limits visibility and gives the level some interesting tactical aspects. For example, Covenant weapons tend to have little glowy things all over them, while human weapons do not; this means that if you're armed with the former you're much easier to see (and the energy sword will draw fire like a signal flare). The clouds of fog produce constant movement in your peripheral vision as level features fade in and out. Despite the level's small size and open design it's impossible to see all the way across it at any time. There are tons of nooks and crannies in which a player is virtually invisible until you're close enough for them to jump out and kill you. The only chink in this level's armor is that, for performance reasons (according to Bungie), players do not spawn with grenades- only an SMG, easily the weakest weapon in the game. There are grenades to be picked up on the level, but free grenades and the accompanying chance to fight effectively fresh off a spawn are sorely missed.



Microsoft is treading a dangerous path with this expansion pack. On the one hand, it extends the life of the game and gives gamers a renewed experience for less than half the cost of a new game (and it only took about six months to develop). And it's good that flaws that could have killed the game in the long term have been corrected. But, one of the major advantages of the console world over the PC world has been its tendency towards an extremely strict and thorough QA process. A console game, so the rule went, could not have a single bug, because it would affect the game for its entire usable life- and while things occasionally slipped through the cracks this rule generally kept the console world entirely free of game-breaking problems. With the advent of remote updates and patchable console games, Microsoft must not think of relaxing this standard to buy a short-term advantage. In the PC world, triple-A titles are shipping with patches for them available within days of their launch dates, sometimes patches that fix problems that ruin the game for a significant number of players out of the box. Any console that ends up in such a state will be rightly shunned by gamers. But enough doomsaying- the Halo 2 expansion pack is a great thing for anyone who owns the game and wants all-new places to kill their friends in.

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