I finished Halo 2 this afternoon. It seemed rather short. Overall, it started out pretty amazing, but the ending and last few levels fell a bit short of my expectations.
I know there has been a lot of hype surrounding the game, especially its multi-player Xbox Live ability. I agree, it sets a new standard. However, what really separated the first game from all other shooters before it was the story. It was a really fabulous story, and the only games other than Half-Life and Max Payne that made me think, "Wow, that was an interesting story."
The problem with the story telling here is two-fold (although here's a good summary). The first problem is that the cut scenes are not made clear enough. It's hard to orient yourself after blowing shit up for 30 minutes and understand where you are, which characters are there, and where you've left off. It's even more difficult if you aren't playing through the entire game in one sitting.
The second problem is that critical stuff can happen while you're fighting, and you'll miss it. I don't know how many times Cortana or one of the profits are blabbering about something, and you can't tell what they're saying because something is blowing up. In the last boss battle, I fell to a lower level of a set of platforms, while my buddies were still hacking away at the boss. Meanwhile, Miranda Keyes is talking to the Oracle guy about how to shut down Halo, and I have no idea what they're saying over the explosions. I finally get back up to the higher level, find the boss, and two shots later he's dead. Worst last action moment ever.
I can deal with the fact that they wanted to setup Halo 3 (and with the first day sales alone of Halo 2, you know there will be a third), but the ending left a lot to be desired. Cliff hangers are fine if there's some kind of story closure and a whiz bang moment, but this had neither. Granted, the destruction of the first Halo in the first game was pretty hard to top.
The first game had a real sense of wonder about it as you started to learn about Halo and what it was for. You could even overlook the ridiculously repetitive level design (which wasn't quite as bad in 2). But this time, the story largely revolves around the growing civil war among the Covenant, and has something to do with some big talking plant that is introduced without warning or explanation. Without some clues about the plant, there's not mystery as there was in the first game, just distraction.
Story telling is what sets games apart these days. You can go all the way back to the original Sierra games like Kings Quest and Space Quest to understand that. Halo 2, while a lot of fun, fell short in the story telling department. They had a good story too, it just wasn't told very well.
Oh well. When the third game comes out (hopefully we won't have to wait for Xbox 2), I'm sure I'll buy it. I'd love to see this series made into a live action movie, because the story is really pretty good, even if the second part wasn't translated to a game very well.