By Joe “Dyslexia” Renaud

To be honest with you, I didn’t know what to expect. I was wide-eyed, excited, and more than a little nervous as I walked onto the 12,000 square feet of tournament floor at the Sheraton National in Washington DC. A massive, reverberating formal hall surrounded me with its empty, desolate silence. This, of course, was the day before the tourney, and before four of us staffers unloaded and set up the 75 brand new televisions that MLG purchased for the new season to save Halo 2 players from the infamous “tunnel vision” caused by four-player split screen. I stood there, just gazing around, wondering what the place would look like when it was filled with close to 400 gamers. I wondered how the first massive Halo 2 tourney would go-if it would captivate obsessive gamers in the same way Halo: CE did, making them take mental note of every slick move and nasty trick they discovered by watching the best of the best duke it out. I wondered if Halo 2 would be dear enough to the hearts of gamers to warrant the perfecting of its art-form, and even if it did, a small part of me wondered if it would be as magical.

As I’m sure you’ve already heard, all this worry was for nothing, as the event was a great, mercilessly sweet success. Over 50 teams showed up for Halo 2, many fresh off of 12-hour drives or overnight plane flights, anxious to find out where they stack up against the country’s best players. Along with Halo 2′s strong attendance, MLG celebrated its largest ever Smash Bros. tournament, boasting an impressive 95 competitors, ensuring that nobody would have an easy road to the finals. In the end, this tournament’s rabid turnout foreshadowed a bright and prosperous future for the sport of pro-gaming, and proved more than a thing or two about Halo 2′s capacity as a competitive game.

If Halo 2 is so “noob,” why is it that the top two teams of the tournament consisted entirely of top tier Halo: CE players? The same exact people who were masters of the original also proved to be a cut above the rest in Halo 2.

Many of Halo 2′s detractors’ arguments revolve around how “noob” they perceive the game to be. They gripe on and on about the game doesn’t take any skill, what with the “spray and pray” dual wielding, easier sniping, auto-killing super sword, and the darn-near-unstoppable plasma pistol/BR combo. What I would ask these people, though, is this: If Halo 2 is so “noob,” why is it that the top two teams of the tournament consisted entirely of top tier Halo: CE players? The same exact people who were masters of the original also proved to be a cut above the rest in Halo 2. Just look at the rosters: First place team StK (Ogre 1, Ogre 2, Saiyan, and Walshy) and the second place lineup of Check Six (Zyos, Tsquared, Sergio, and Tupac) were all highly successful and prominent in the Halo: CE community. Now if any old noob could tear it up in Halo 2, wouldn’t the results have been a little different? Sure, the weapons require a little less precision, but there are still many elements of the game to master, which can give you an edge over the competition. I think more than anything else, StK proved that, winning even the championship match in a straight 3-0 set.

I think what people most often mean with their “noob” accusations is that since there are so many powerful weapons and combos, it’s possible for a moderately skilled player to kill a great one, supposing he has a better weapon setup. This was seldom the case in Halo: CE because everyone usually had a pistol, leveling the playing field, and granting victory to the most accurate marksman. What we discovered last weekend though, is that while this is occasionally true, the great players will still always dominate, because they will be the ones who know how to control the powerful weapons and the sections of the level that are most vital to victory. While some individual battles may be a tossup, even between great and intermediate players, we witnessed with our own eyes that justice is still served in the end. The smarter, craftier, and better players always won (unless of course they choked, but that’s not Halo’s fault).

As the tournament got underway, I was really looking forward to seeing what the nation’s best players would do with this new game, what strategies they would employ, what nasty little tricks they had figured out, and yes, how they would overcome the dominance of certain weapons. There has been so much talk about the poor weapon balance in Halo 2, such as the overpowering close range mayhem of the energy sword and the absolutely ridiculous plasma pistol, with a charged shot that can practically boomerang around corners to follow you like some attention-starved puppy, suddenly putting you within an inch of your life. However, I was thrilled to see the way the top players not only utilized such weapons, but had counteractive measures to their power. Cover was used effectively to absorb the devastating shield drain of the plasma pistol, and careful distance was kept to slaughter sword swingers. The MLG choice to spawn with battle rifles even gave players a prayer against snipers, finally having a way to keep them out of their zoom scope at a reasonable distance, which is something the XBL playlists don’t offer, further unbalancing the weapon system.

In fact, in allowing players to spawn with the battle rifle MLG has caused a near-fundamental shift in the way the game is played. With the SMG spawn that most are accustomed to because of XBL, you start out halfway to a dual wield, which makes it easy and logical to complete the process and run around with two powerful, but short-range weapons. This leads to a lot of close-quarters “saucing” and also fierce battling over the precious few BR spawns on the maps, as each player wishes they had a way to kill others from a distance. However, with MLG’s BR spawn, you instead start out halfway to the plasma pistol/BR combo that players so fear. This way, you see a lot more players running around with the fabled instant death “combo” and far fewer toting dual wields. This is because you would have to pick up two separate weapons in order to have a dual wield, and at mid-to-long-range, they lose out to the BR’s that everyone has anyway, so most players simply don’t bother.

While it can’t kill you as quickly as the Halo: CE pistol, having every player starting with and using a battle rifle made the game play much more like Bungie’s previous masterpiece than the XBL playlists do. Players kept each other at a distance when possible, trying to pull out their opponents from behind cover with grenades and then finish the job with a quick head shot. Since the enemy was no longer always at close-range, there was much more diving for cover to let shields recharge and continue the battle-another throwback to Halo’s heyday. And while a BR battle doesn’t quite have the same inherent excitement of a pistol duel because of its slower pace, it was still impressive to see the innovative angles and inch-wide openings through which the better players shot, lending some credibility to a weapon so often thought of as a “poor man’s pistol.”

Despite many memorable moments of gameplay, two in particular stick out in my mind more than any. One was witnessing the kind of brilliant moment that really makes you appreciate the strategy, craft, and excellence of the upper echelon of players. On a tense CTF Beaver Creek battle between Str8 Rippin and FinG BLiPPeD, I saw Great ColoSSuS do the kind of move that is so genius in its simplicity that you kick yourself for never having thought of it. He had the enemy’s flag back at his own base, and he was waiting for his team mates to return their flag so he could score the point. Of course, Str8 Rippin was thinking the exact same thing, so they sent a player in to kill ColoSSuS and return the flag. When ColoSSuS sensed the attack, he deftly jumped up toward the hole in the ceiling of his base and perched the flag safely above the base, allowing him to fight without the worry of letting his attacker touch the flag without going through him first. Once he dispatched his enemy, ColoSSuS casually jumped back up toward the hole and pulled the flag back into the base. Moments later, his flag was returned and he scored the point, leaving the crowd in awe.

The other moment was more emblematic of the differences between Halo: CE and Halo 2, rather than a display of sly tactics. During one of the FFA matches I refereed, I actually saw someone drop a full rocket launcher when he came upon a green gun next to a fallen enemy. While my jaw dropped at first, after thinking about it, I didn’t even think it was too dumb of a move. I mean, either the rocket or the “combo” can kill you instantly at moderate distances, and you get more shots out of a plasma pistol anyway. Besides, the Halo 2 rocket isn’t quite the death machine that it’s Halo: CE predecessor was, what with the reduced splash damage and all. Sure, you can shoot it faster, but that was added because each shot is less effective-you may actually have to shoot twice to get your kill unless you’re dead on, which was rarely the case before.

I really enjoyed seeing some fresh faces poking into the top four of the tournament, most notably Str8 Rippin’s team, consisting of Foulacy, Sad Panda Eh, AYB Fonzi, and Synergy, who lost out to FinG BLiPPeD for the third place spot. While all of these guys were reputed Halo: CE players, they were not previously prominent in the MLG tourney scene. But true to their exceptionally high rankings on the leaderboards, they have emerged as some of the better Halo 2 players, as they proved last weekend. Also, it really must be noted that Strange Purple continues to place near the top of every tournament he attends, despite the fact that he plays with a different team at practically every event. It’s a testament to his longevity as a great player, and I’d love to see what could happen in the future if he stays with his current (and amazing) lineup of himself, Pray4U, Great ColoSSuS, and Red Alert as FinG BLiPPeD.

Not to be overlooked in the slightest was Check Six, which valiantly fought its way out of the losers bracket to meet back up with the team that put them there in the first place: StK. Check Six ousted some exceedingly strong teams to make it to the championship round, and the players’ communication and coordination was impeccable, with teammates saving each other’s lives constantly as they pushed through the tough bracket. Zyos, Tsquared, Sergio and Tupac showed up in a big way, employing devious strategies to keep opponents at bay and victory close at hand, finally finishing second in the tourney to much fanfare. It’ll be interesting to see what this team will do after a little more time spent together, as they’re obviously a powerful squad already.

Of course in the end, top mention at this tournament justly goes to StK, who only seem to have strengthened since last season. Whether it was the dynamics of Halo 2 or simply the fact that the four have played so much together for so long, it could be argued that StK has never seemed more dominant than it did last weekend. Consistently brilliant teamwork, combined with unorthodox and unpredictable fighting methods and razor sharp shooting ensured that the Ogre twins, Saiyan and Walshy would burn right through to the first place spot in DC. This is not to say that they’re completely invincible, as I saw a great deal of fantastic play from all of the top placing teams, but damned if they haven’t got a solid grip on that first place spot for now. All of this action has me ecstatic for MLG San Francisco at the end of the month, and I think we can all rest comfortably in knowing that while Halo 2 is quite a different beast from Halo: CE, it’s still one hell of a competitive game that promises countless thrills throughout the 2005 season.