Halo 2 Online Play In-DepthAt the Bungie office in the Microsoft Game Studio complex, a team of 70 full-time employees and over 40 contractors have been working around the clock for the better part of this year to bring Halo 2 to store shelves on November 9. With the anticipation of this game comes secrecy. In fact, Bungie operates as a self-contained unit within Microsoft with its own computer network and security codes to keep Halo 2 safe -- especially in the wake of the Half-Life 2 code theft incident last year. This secrecy is also the reason you wont be reading much about the single-player Halo 2 game. Bungie Studio Manager Pete Parsons likened the new game to a Hollywood sequel, thanks to the intricate story line with twists and turns. Because the team doesnt want the full experience of the game ruined by press leaks, Bungie has instead focused solely on the multiplayer game -- a completely separate game within the game for Halo 2. There are some basic facts about the single-player game that have been revealed through E3 cinematics. The game takes place in 2552 with the Covenant invading Earth. In keeping with the war universe of the first game, youll have allies fighting along your side, trying to keep the invading aliens at bay. The game opens in the East African protectorate of New Mombasa, an urban area overrun by Covenant. Cortana will once again be your sexy female computer guide. Anyone who has tracked the game online has also read the rumors about the games story starting on Earth but eventually moving to the Covenant world and a second Halo. There has also been talk about a pair of new enemies called the Brutes and the Prophets. But for now, well focus on what we do know. And thats the multiplayer Xbox Live game. Some of the team members took some time out from working 24-7 to play Halo 2 online over Xbox Live with a group of international journalists. Technically, the Bungie guys were working, since we were playing five levels of the online game with a full roster of 16 players. There are approximately 8,000 Microsoft employees play testing the 16-player game in its various modes on Xbox Live. Its hard work, but somebodys got to do it. The first thing you can do when you load up your Halo 2 multiplayer, after youve plugged in your new Plantronics GameCom Halo 2 Edition, is choose to play as the Covenant or humans. Then you can go in and customize your in-game alter ego, changing the color scheme and selecting from a large number of insignias -- perfect for creating clans. Clans will be a large part of the Halo 2 multiplayer, but well get to that a bit later. Online There are a lot of options to multiplayer. The two main categories are Matchmaking Games and the Party System. With Matchmaking, Bungie will have a variety of Playlists, which theyll change up from week to week. These lists will vary depending on fan input and will include specific types of games like "Warthogs on WaterWorks" and "Swords Only on Lockout." The Playlists will be divided into categories like Free For All, Small Group and Large Group with each category featuring about a half-dozen games. Bungie.net Community Manager Brian Jerrard said that when they go Live November 9, there will be between three and 15 Playlists available. "Through Bungie.net, well constantly be getting updates from players, so if a lot of people want to play WaterWorks with shotguns and grenades, well add that to the Playlist," said Jerrard. The game can be played in Free For All, where its every man for himself, or small teams of up to eight people total (four on four, four teams of two) and large teams of up to 16 players. The Matchmaking Playlists will require even teams. We played a lot of Free For All and Large Team games throughout the day. Some of the larger maps are only available for Large Team gaming, including the underground cavern level Waterworks, which features two team bases and has plenty of room for Scorpions, Warthogs and Banshees. Other Playlists include Capture the Flag, Assault, and Slayer. The second major online gameplay element is the Party System, which essentially recreates the LAN gaming experience through Xbox Live. These Party games allow a Party Leader to control the game. It can be open for anyone to join and play, or it can be closed to invitation only. Once a party has been formed, members can continue to play with that party until their Xboxes are turned off. If the leader leaves, the game automatically chooses another leader. This allows you and a group of friends (you can invite friends not playing Halo 2 to play through Xbox Live) to recreate the couch experience without having to find each other after each game is over. Also, the Arranged Games are for fun, so theres no stat tracking. Statistics will play a large role in the online world of Halo 2. Parsons said its important to the Bungie team that all players have a fun experience online. To ensure that newbies dont become easy pickins for veteran gamers, a ranking system will be used. After every game, each player will be able to find his stats at Bungie.net. Bungie will track a number of stats that go beyond the number of frags. You can track stats like the most number of melee kills. Each player will be able to create a customized page on the Web site, which other players can read to gain some knowledge of their opponent. These Web sites will also be available for clans and they allow players to customize their page. The idea is to drive players to Bungie.net on their PCs to help them get better at the game, as well as to build a community base. With each game played, players will receive a ranking. In Matchmaking games, only players of the same ranking level will be allowed to play against one another. This ultimately avoids any type of cheating, which usually comes in the form of veterans picking off new players for higher stats. It also ensures, in Parsons words, that anyone, including those new to online gaming, will be able to have a fun time online. "Most people will be left behind for the number one ranking on Halo 2, but because youre playing against people in the same skill level, youll get better," said Frank OConnor, content manager, Bungie.net. "If you pick up Counter-Strike now and try to play as a new player, youre doomed. We want the millions of players who pick up Halo 2 to have a fun experience." In the case of clans, up to 100 members can join a clan. Each clan will be tracked as if its a single person. Clan members will have their own Web page to post news, edit membership, and host private forums. The Clans can decide who has access to the info on their site. Again, the idea for Clan play is for players to play together online and then meet on their PCs to check stats and news and become a more cohesive unit, said OConnor.