It is every man’s nightmare: The dead have awoken, crawled out of their graves and ruined your favorite game.

The easy questions (How did they get here? How do I work this? Is that my beautiful wife?) are irrelevant – the undead are here, and they must be dealt with swiftly. Thankfully, you are not alone. A squad of up to 14 of your brothers in arms walks beside you, and you are all armed to the teeth. A shotgun may not be the best tool for the job, but it’s what you’ve got, and one or two shots to the head will usually bring down anything – even a zombie. It’s a good thing, too, because one or two shots is all you’re going to get.

Forget what you’ve seen on TV. These zombies are fast. Really fast. And they’ve got swords. They can sweep in over your barricades, “lock on” to one human target at a time, and wipe out an entire squad before you even know they’re there. And that’s just the beginning: These zombies don’t just kill their human foes, they infect them with their insidious ailment, zombifying them instantly. Your fellow warriors – men who had once stood bravely by your side, repelling the undead swarm and telling dirty jokes about your mother – can turn to foes in a heartbeat. You like to think this keeps you on your toes, but in truth it terrifies you; mainly because you could be the next to go.

The beginning is always the same: A lone zombie appears on the horizon, hungry, mean and ready to ruin your day. It takes him a minute to get his bearings, but after that he’s all about the killing. You can use that precious moment to your advantage by finding a place to hide and barricading yourself in, or you can stand out in the open, gun at the ready, hoping you’ll spot him before he spots you. You’ve seen what happens to the guys who choose the second tactic. They usually realize their mistake just before it’s too late, and then there are two zombies. That way isn’t for you. You’re smarter than that – this time. Instead, you book it to join the rest of the squad in Room 4, where they’re already hard at work erecting a barricade. Having seen the zombies in action, you’re not as confident as they are about its effectiveness, but you lend a hand anyway. It’s all you can do.

The zombies hit the barricade before your line is fully formed, but a handful of shotgun blasts take them down pretty quickly. You start to feel confident, like you might actually make it out alive this time.

The first few times the zombies hit the wall. They’re careless, charging headlong into a solid wall of buckshot. After a while, though, you realize that they’ve been testing you – searching for your blind spot. “Cover the left hallway!” you start to shout, but it’s too late. A zombie has locked on to one of your squad mates who was looking right when he should have been looking left. It’s a mistake he’ll never make again. You can’t tell who it was, but now he’s one of them.

The two zombies then begin a systematic execution of your squad, picking them off one-by-one as they make simple mistakes or grow impatient, charging out from behind the safety of the barricade to engage the beasts in melee. Within minutes, your squad is down to three men, facing off against more than a dozen of the undead. They could easily burst through the barricade before you’d even have a chance to kill half of them, but they don’t. They bide their time, waiting.

As the minutes tick by, you slowly start to go insane. You can usually hear them moaning or taunting you, but now it’s quiet – too quiet. “They’re up to something,” you think. But what? Suddenly, it becomes clear, the zombies, using their swords as tools, have uprooted an energy container and rolled it in front of your barricade. One of the walking dead slices the container open with his sword, sacrificing himself, and blowing your barricade to pieces. The rest of them are laughing as they charge through the breach and begin hacking away your limbs. Your squad falls in seconds. Your vision starts to fade. Just before it all goes to black, you watch the last man fall to the ground to be eaten, or, depending on the night, teabagged.

The end, like the beginning, is always the same. The Alpha and Omega of an invasion of the undead: The zombies are relentless and no matter how many times they fall, they will always get back up to come after you again. You, being human, do not share this resilience. You will, therefore, perish. But it’s OK. That’s the way the game was designed. First you lose, then you win. It’s a classic “break you down, build you back up” scenario, and it’s a hell of a way to spend an evening. Besides, the zombies are your friends.

There are many reasons for the popularity of Bungie’s Halo 2, and I will not attempt to capture them all here. Released in November of 2004, the game sold almost 5 million copies by the end of that year alone; essentially, one copy of Halo 2 for every three Xboxes on the market. A year and a half later, the game still rests at or near the top of nearly every sales and rental chart in existence, and has been widely credited with single-handedly saving the Xbox brand from an early grave. With so many copies in so many hands, it’s been no surprise that enterprising gamers have taken to creating their own multiplayer variants.

Halo 2 ships with seven basic multiplayer game modes, each of which sport a dizzying number of configurable options. This makes creating and saving a new Halo 2 game mode easier than getting off of the couch and buying another game. A player hosting a Halo 2 multiplayer game on Xbox Live can then share his new variant with his entire party simply by selecting it from a list. It would be hard to track the spread of custom game variants from the game’s release date through today, but having purchased the game in November of 2004, and begun playing customized multiplayer variants the very same day, I for one can attest that it didn’t take long for them to propagate.

The zombie vs. humans variant was one of the first to spring up. It’s been called “Day of the Dead” or “Zombie,” but my friends and I in the Gamers With Jobs clan call it “Zombie Skate,” which, like “Adult Swim,” is a reference to the good old days when adults were entitled to a few brief moments of kid-free access to the skating rink while the kids were asked to cool their heels and watch how it was done. Having been there, I can attest that it sucked. Thank (insert preferred deity) there were videogames. Moon Patrol alone saved me from countless hours of “adult skate” boredom.

Now, we’re the adults, and having adopted the wisdom of our forebears, we’ve reserved a tiny corner of the Xbox Live skating rink for ourselves, away from the general asshattery of the anonymous online hordes. We play lots of Zombie Skate, and a few other variants, most involving some bending or modification of the game’s rule set. Called “house rules,” these stipulations state which weapons players can and can’t use in certain variants of Halo 2.

One house-rule-heavy Halo 2 variant, for example, is called “JFK.” Played on the “Coagulation” or “Blood Gulch” map, JFK pits two teams of any size against one another using the single bomb Assault game mode. One team, “The Assassins,” plays defense, guarding their base against destruction from the offensive team, “The Secret Service.” The Assassins are armed with sniper rifles, Secret Service with pistols. The Secret Service must take the bomb from one end of one of Halo 2’s largest maps to the other, all the while attempting to not get shot by the long-distance weapons of their opponents. As if that weren’t challenging enough, they must do it while driving as slow as possible in one of the game’s ground vehicles, the Warthog. The player holding the bomb must sit in the passenger side of the Warthog (which is like a large jeep) – he’s JFK – and any other team members who aren’t inside the vehicle must walk alongside. It’s practically a no-win scenario for The Secret Service, which, ironically, is what makes it so much fun.

When a single-player game is too hard to beat, it can be a terribly frustrating experience, and one the player is not likely to want to repeat (see: Ninja Gaiden Black, or Aliens Vs. Predator), but online, with friends, a challenging scenario like JFK spurs creativity and excitement. If you can figure out how to beat the no-win-scenario, it’s not some nameless level designers you’ve stuck it to, it’s your friends and you can rib them about it all night long.

Author’s Note: For a nearly-comprehensive list of the most popular Halo 2 player-made variants, check the GWJ Halo Variant Book Page, Broken Thumbs and Halo 2 Game Types.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for [i]The Escapist[/I]. He likes deadlines and long walks on the beach.

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