Two months ago--in DOOM 3 Arrives: Technology Apex or Video Game Porn?--I wrote about the amazingly realistic experiences that the DOOM 3 PC game offers. I wasn't intending to cover similar video games again so quickly, but with this month's long-awaited releases of Microsoft's Halo 2 for the Xbox console and Valve's Half-Life 2 for the PC, I'm in a curious bind. Both of these games are, at least superficially, similar to DOOM 3, offering realistic and fun environments in which to run around, destroy aliens, and thwart otherworldly attempts to subjugate Earth. But there are some serious differences between each of these games. And in at least one case, the bar has been raised, quite dramatically--even in the short couple of months since DOOM 3 was released.

If you're into the kinds of interactive escape you can only get from video games, there's never been a better time to be a gamer. And make no mistake: This is big business. For the past several years, the video game and PC game industry has raked in more cash than all the Hollywood movies released in the same time frame combined. And this month's launch of Halo 2 was the biggest video game event of all time: In its first day of availability, Microsoft made over $135 million on Halo 2, far more than the opening weekend draw of any Hollywood blockbuster in movie history. Video games aren't just popular; they're a worldwide obsession. And it's getting bigger every year.

Part of the reason for this popularity is that video games themselves are breaking out of their geeky niches. You can now find game titles for virtually any personality type or age group. Also, gaming environments are more realistic and interactive than ever before, and you don't need to squint at large blocks on the screen and imagine than they represent baseball players or trucks. Now, game graphics rival movie special effects, and game stories boast fleshed-out characters and realistic locations. You can witness these advances clearly in Halo 2 and Half-Life 2, both of which push the limits of what's possible today on the Xbox and PC, respectively. Let's take a look.

Halo 2: The single player experience

The prerelease hype leading to the release of Halo 2 had game fanatics in a tizzy, culminating in Midnight Madness events at retailers throughout the United States. Gamers lined up for hours to be among the first to buy the game. Many of these people then went home, played the game all night, and stayed home "sick" from work the next day. I can't remember this kind of nationwide geek event since Windows 95 shipped almost a decade ago, and arguably the Halo 2 release was even bigger.

Better graphics, enhanced game play, and a continuation of the wildly popular Halo storyline greet gamers who boot up the Halo 2 disc on their Xboxes. In the first Halo, humankind is racing against an alien race called the Covenant to discover the secrets behind the mysterious Halo device. Over time, you discover that Halo is a doomsday weapon which was designed by an ancient race called the Forerunners to destroy the Flood, a parasitic being that infests the galaxy. The location bears more than a little resemblance to that of Larry Niven's Ringworld. You play the ill-named Master Chief, an armor-suited ass-kicker who proceeds to take on both the Covenant and the Flood single-handedly, and wins. Of course.

As Halo 2 opens, Master Chief is receiving a medal for his acts of bravery, while the Covenant commander he bested is being humiliated for the defeat. Then, the Covenant attacks the Earth, and it's back to work. The settings in Halo 2 are stunning, and the ability to better interact with 4x4 trucks, tanks, ships, and other conveyances in the sequel add greatly to the experience. There are some new weapons, some colorful graphical improvements, and the aforementioned new environments, which are wonderfully rendered.

Unfortunately, the sum of Halo 2's parts doesn't constitute a huge win for most players. Where Halo 2 really falls apart is in the repetitiveness of the game play. It's just too similar to the first game. And the ending of Halo 2--which comes in a disappointingly short time, compared to the original--is like a slap in the face. I won't give it away here, but suffice to say, it comes suddenly, with no indication that the game is about to end. You're left staring at the screen with a "Huh?" expression on your face. You'll think, that can't possibly be the whole game. But it is.

Halo 2 multiplayer

Halo 2 multiplayer, however, is quite nice. The original Halo permitted as many as 16 players to compete against each other on a LAN, but the game predated Microsoft's Xbox Live service. That's been corrected with Halo 2, and now millions of fans are gleefully blowing each other up, worldwide, in virtual matches that pit Xbox against Xbox. Sounds great, right?

It is great.

Once a month, in a house just up the street from my home, I get together with about 10 guys to partake in the latest form of male bonding. It's called deathmatch. And the game we play is Halo 2, for the Microsoft Xbox.

The notion of multiplayer deathmatch--in which individuals pit their skills in first-person shooters against other live opponents--is nothing new. A decade ago, I used to gather with three other compatriots in a local college's computer lab after it closed for the afternoon each Saturday. The game of choice was DOOM, a DOS-based title that was painfully hard to set up for deathmatch events because it relied on old-fashioned networking technology (Novell Netware, which the lab used) and some mind-numbingly silly pregame calisthenics--that is, everyone had to log on to each game session simultaneously or they couldn't play.

I've played many games online over the years, and as each game generation comes and goes, and as Internet access and networking speeds improve, the process gets easier and easier. Today, multiplayer game servers are available all around the globe for both PC and some console-based titles. But playing against people virtually is one thing. Playing against your friends while in the same room is another experience altogether. There's screaming, of course, and the inevitable taunting. Players name their game personae after the host's ex-girlfriends ("Crazy Julie," "Kate") just to get under his skin. When someone scores a "Killtacular" (four enemies vanquished simultaneously), the cheers and groans can be heard out in the street. And when each match ends, we compare medals and other statistics in the same way that baseball fans can quote team records and individuals stats.

What's amazing is that none of these guys--with the exception of a graphic designer and me--are particularly into computers. They're not geeks at all. But we can handle the networked gaming scene solely because the Xbox, unlike the PC, makes it incredibly simple to set up these kinds of matches. And if you have a modern game--such as Halo 2--that can take advantage of virtually unlimited numbers of players, all the better. The more the merrier.

With the Xbox, Microsoft should be credited with making the arcane process of setting up multiplayer games virtually foolproof. Before Halo and Halo 2 on the Xbox, you almost needed an advanced degree in networking technologies to figure out how to get the best experience. With the Xbox, it's just plug and play. We use an 8-port switch and a bunch of Ethernet cables, and each month the guys just show up with their Xbox consoles and, in some cases, their TVs. I bring two Xbox units to each event, as well as the small 13" TV that's part of my home office's media center setup. Some people share TVs (and Xbox consoles) in split-screen arrangements. At the most recent event, for example, we had 10 people on seven screens. Getting everything going required no configuration. We just plugged in our machines and dove into the mayhem. Pizza and beer are optional.

While I'm on the subject, I'll get you next month, "El Jeffe." Who the heck fires off 2098 rounds of ammunition in one level, anyway?

Conclusions

Halo 2 is flawed, but impressive. While the single player game is woefully short and not remarkably different from the original Halo, the multiplayer game is outstanding, and great fun. Halo fans couldn't care less what I think: They're going to snap up the game in record numbers anyway. But casual gamers or those just getting used to first person shooters can save a lot of money--and get a better storyline--by checking out the original Halo first. Multiplayer afficionados, there's no time to wait: Halo 2 multiplayer is a blast and you simply must hop on Xbox Live or start your own LAN-based deathmatches. You won't be disappointed.