He's back, with both guns blazing

Times Staff Writer

The "Halo 2" hype engine is hitting on all cylinders. Peek at any gaming website or the gamer TV network G4 these days, and all you'll see is how this latest installment is the best thing to happen to pop culture since Heather Locklear returned to prime time.

Come on. Really. That good?

In a word: absofreaking- lutely.

"Halo 2" sucks you down into its futuristic vastness and doesn't let you up for air until its beauty is burned into your mind's eye. Once you pick up the controller and assume the persona of space Marine Master Chief, you'll be unable to let go.

"Halo 2's" environments are quite possibly the best ever programmed for a platformer. Yet play stops for less than a second as the Xbox loads one richly detailed area after another, meaning no wait times.

The narrative cut screens are so breathtaking, they put some big-budget sci-fi movies to shame.

Game play couldn't be easier or more addictive. Master Chief has two hands — and unlike most game characters, he can use them both. Meaning: He can hold two guns controlled by separate triggers.

This helps when an alien Sangheili is charging hard but the plasma rifle has overheated. No worries, just squeeze the left trigger and the M7 submachine gun mows him down.

And if not, thankfully "Halo 2" has plenty of checkpoints and other opportunities to save your progress. There's nothing more painful to a gamer than getting killed toward the end of a level, which means starting over.

Not here. Grab a gun and get back in there, soldier.

The voices of your fellow Marines might sound familiar: well-known actors like Laura Prepon ("That '70s Show"), Michelle Rodriguez ("The Fast and the Furious"), David Cross ("Arrested Development") and Orlando Jones ("Father of the Pride") lend vocal talent.

If the single-player mode isn't all-enveloping enough — and trust me, it is — Xbox Live subscribers can join fellow addicts online. Up to 16 players, matched for skill levels, can compete at capture the flag or every-man-for-himself seek and destroy.

Luckily, your skill level increases with each completed single-player mission. As if you need motivation to play some more.

Go ahead. Give in to the hype.

Details: Xbox platform; $49.99; rated mature (blood and gore, violence, language).

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