When last we left Master Chief, he was headed towards Earth, determined to stop the Prophet of Truth and his cadre of Brutes from destroying the universe in a blaze of zealotry. Cortana had been captured by the Gravemind, a disgusting creature intimately tied to the Flood. The Arbiter and his Elites, once bitter enemies of humankind had made an uneasy truce in order to conquer a greater evil. Frankly, things didn’t look so hot for Earth and its inhabitants. For three years fans have been waiting to find out what comes next. Most won’t be disappointed, as the story eschews some of the ambiguity of Halo 2 and tells a more straightforward narrative. Events play out like a sci-fi action blockbuster.
Lost, though, is the intriguing side-story of the Arbiter and his Elites. The focus is clearly (and perhaps deservedly) on Master Chief. That means in the single-player campaign you will be Chief and Chief only. The Arbiter is just a dude with a weird mandible and a cool sword. While keeping players locked in as Master Chief is a wise decision on Bungie’s part, it’s a shame that the Arbiter’s story fades so far into the background. That’s not to say I want to spend half the adventure following the Arbiter and leaving Chief to twiddle his thumbs, but it would have been nice to see such a prominent storyline from Halo 2 have more weight in the cinematic telling of Halo 3.
Clearly Bungie was listening to the criticisms of Halo 2. Not only is Chief in the driver’s seat once more, but the environments are varied enough that each level feels distinct. Though you will still need to backtrack in a few areas, it’s not as tedious as in previous iterations. The levels in Halo 3 lend to spectacular pacing that weaves from close-quarters, intense battles with Chief and a few soldiers, to more epic arenas. It does feel as if the marine presence is lighter than it should be, but there’s enough chaos in the field to at least make it appear as if Master Chief is part of something grander.
Most of the nine levels are hunky-dory, but the penultimate chapter is so bad, just thinking about it puts a rotten taste in my mouth. It’s the kind of level where, if playing through Halo 3 again, I might just stop once I reached it and not bother finishing the skirmish, much less the fight.
It should be noted that the difficulty level is a bit out of whack, though done purposefully. Bungie has to service an enormous casual crowd who (let’s face it) suck at games. There are millions who will play Halo 3 and only Halo 3 this year. All they want is to finish the fight and take a nap on the couch. But at the same time, there are an equal number of hardcore gamers who have become immensely skilled at Halo over the past six years. For these folks, the single-player version of Heroic and Legendary difficulties has been ratcheted up just a tad. Many will immediately jump into Normal difficulty, and never see the more aggressive AI that calls in reinforcements and makes better use of its weapons and equipment. Frankly, Normal on Halo 3 is too easy for the average gamer and that lack of challenge may actually bore some.
Do yourself a favor and test your mettle on the harder difficulties right off the bat. Once again, the Halo franchise utilizes some excellent AI that shouldn’t be missed. The Brutes, now the primary focus for your aggression, have a distinct hierarchy and their actions are generally dictated by rank. The Brutes also make liberal use of the new equipment system. By pressing X you can deploy one of several different pieces of equipment that offer a momentary offensive or defensive advantage. You’ll often enter a fracas and see a Brute deploy a Bubble Shield (a transparent dome invulnerable to gunfire) or a Regenerator that creates a green cloud which continually heals those within its radius. By their nature, the Brutes are aggressors and can be coaxed from the safety these beneficial pieces of equipment provide. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say no two battles are alike, you will certainly illicit some different responses depending on the actions you take.
The enemy AI is generally solid, but the same can’t be said for your teammates. It’s been said that the world would be doomed without Master Chief. After seeing the other marines in action, that makes a lot of sense. The AI drivers are less like marines and more like Mr. Magoo; support troops are just fodder for the Brutes; and the Arbiter makes me question why the Elites were ever feared in the original Halo. Let’s get the Arbiter clear. He’s the bad ass “Chief” of the Elites. He should be able to handle his own. In the campaign, the Arbiter and Master Chief are BFF. If you play alone, the AI takes control of the Arbiter and allows him to tag along. Enjoy watching your supposed equal getting shot in the face repeatedly and generally making himself utterly useless. What is the point of sticking you with an AI compatriot if all he’s good at is respawning?
While Heroic and Legendary single-player offer a good challenge, the same can’t be said for co-op. A decent Halo player can get through the campaign alone on Heroic in 10-13 hours. Four decent Halo players can burn through Legendary in 4-5 hours easily. Unlike Halo 2, you aren’t penalized for having a teammate die. As long as you aren’t amidst a swarm of enemies, your dead buddy will respawn, whereas in Halo 2 if either player died, you were forced to restart from the last checkpoint. But don’t worry, Bungie has set up an interesting system to add a bit of challenge and replayability to co-op for those who don’t want to be able to obliterate the enemy with ease.
A few truly adventurous souls discovered that there were skulls hidden in the levels of Halo 2. Those skulls were not only hard to find, but often hard to reach. And they could only be acquired in Legendary. The skulls make a return for Halo 3, but have been re-imagined so as to be more accessible to gamers and to make replaying Halo 3 more interesting. The skulls (most of which can be found at Normal, Heroic, and Legendary difficulty), can be activated before a level to increase the intrigue. Most of the skulls make things a lot tougher. One removes your HUD and reticule, another empowers enemies with incredible grenade skills. Some, however, are just for fun. The Grunt Party skull, for example, offers confetti celebrations for head shots. Throwing a fiesta for popping Grunts is an excellent way to assuage a hangover. Well done, Bungie.
The skulls play a role in the new optional scoring system. In co-op you can turn on scoring to earn points for kills and other key actions, allowing you to compete for the best score against your teammates. Ultimately, your Metascore doesn’t mean a whole lot, except to your ego. Still, both Halo and Halo 2 are games that people continue to play to this day. And it’s the little extras, like the Metascore, that add longevity. Even when you’ve finished the fight, you’ll want to start it all over again. Especially if it means jockeying with your buddy (either online or offline) for a chance at bragging rights.
The meat of Halo 3 is its multiplayer. Let’s be honest with one another: There’s nothing Bungie could do to make everyone happy. And since it’s tough enough for me to be ensure my own happiness, I can’t really address the individual concerns of the millions who will hop online from September 25, 2007 and play through September 25, 2010. So let’s talk about what makes me happy. Halo 3 strikes a nice middleground between the the multiplayer of Halo 1 and Halo 2. For the most part you get the best of both worlds.
The battle rifle has become the default kick-ass weapon of the Halo universe, the M16 of the 26th century. But there are few weapons that, in the right hands, can’t put someone to death. There are a few casualties to the tweaks made to weapons. The submachine guns are pretty much obsolete next to the more powerful (and cool) Brute Spikers. And all guns still fall short of the power of a well-placed punch to the back of someone’s skull.
One of the more surprising improvements falls to the Energy Sword. Less prevalent in the campaign, the Energy Sword has a new twist in multiplayer. If two opponents swing swords at the same time, the two will clash, momentarily stunning one another, but leaving both alive. It then becomes a furious battle to see who can get in the killer strike as the two clang swords in a clumsy form of swashbuckling. A quick-jab strike with the melee button can often result in a win in such contests. While it’s not Soul Calibur, it adds enough of a wrinkle to make Energy Swords seem fresh again.
Several swank new weapons have also been added to the arsenal. There’s the powerful Spartan Laser, which can practically cut Warthogs in two; the Ruthian Gravity Hammer, which allows you to swat vehicles to the other side of the map; and the aforementioned Spikers, that, when dual-wielded, can bring a quick death to enemies at close range. While all of the new weapons are fun, one stands out. There really is nothing quite like seeing a Spartan walk through a door toting the hefty flamethrower. If you’re online and hear a dulcet-toned IGN editor ask, “How you like your ribs,” prepare to be barbecued.
The Gravity Hammer and Spikers can feel overpowering at times, but there are limitations to all of the weapons in Halo 3. If you’re sick of being knocked 30 feet in the air by a Gravity Hammer, keep your distance from the guy who talks softly and carries a big stick. Besides, balancing weapons doesn’t mean they are all equal. It means there is a cost for power — usually in aim, or recoil, or range.
Really, the multiplayer boils down to one question: Is it fun? Yes. It’s a lot of fun. And that’s all Bungie needed to do. Create a multiplayer that’s fun and addictive and that will satisfy the majority, even if it doesn’t necessarily please the vocal minority.
Also added to the mix are some new vehicles. Bungie didn’t go overboard by inundating Halo 3 with too many new rides, but there are a few sweet ones. The best of the bunch is the Brute Chopper. If the Fonz followed the Prophet of Truth, this is the bike he would ride. It’s fast, maneuverable, and very deadly. It is perhaps more powerful than it should be, but when a vehicle is this cool, you almost need it to be king of the battlefield. The bad guys don’t get all the fun toys. The UNSC Marines are given access to the Hornet, a futuristic VTOL aircraft that’s likely to see limited use in multiplayer, but is still fun to toy around with. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal favorite: The Mongoose. This two-person dirt bike has no offensive capabilities, but it can drive your opponents nuts, thanks to its speed. There’s nothing quite like driving circles around the enemy while mocking them.
Halo 3 ships with eleven multiplayer maps, though more are expected through downloadable content over the next few years. This is the series’ strongest collection of maps to date. There’s an excellent variance not only in range, but in layout. The majority of the maps service both long-ranged and close-ranged combat. While larger, more open maps — such as the desert-themed Sandtrap — offer the chance for snipers to get in their licks, those who prefer to get their kills up close will find it’s possible to stay out of the open and clean up with the shotty. Snowbound and Isolation are both examples of maps that have open upper levels, but more confined subterranean areas.
If you don’t dig the layout of a particular map, you can make some adjustments with the Forge. This new addition to the Halo series will keep these eleven maps fresh for years. While you can’t alter the geometry of the level, you can make any other adjustments you wish in the Forge. On your own, you can hop into any map using The Forge and rearrange the placement of objects, weapons, power-ups, spawn points, and objectives. You can also access a Counter Strike-style menu and spend money to drop new vehicles, equipment, objects, and more anywhere you like in the map. Then you can save the new map you’ve created and upload it to Bungie.net for others to check out.
But the Forge offers much more than just some map-editing tools. You can also play games in the Forge while the map is being edited. When you decide to edit, your player transforms into a monitor (a la Guilty Spark). Change to the monitor and zip away from a firefight. Or buy yourself a rocket launcher and drop back in the middle of a fight ready to blow away the competition. Depending on the settings you choose for The Forge, you could potentially have a dozen players manipulating the surroundings. Perhaps you’ll form teams of two, where one person plays the monitor, dropping supplies for the other player. Or you could have the host act as a sort of Dungeon Master, changing the location of items as a Slayer match roles on. There are near limitless possibilities. You don’t even have to fight to enjoy the Forge.
As a prime example, four editors from competing websites met to test out the Forge recently. At first, we spent some time fragging one another and learning nifty ways to manipulate the system to gain the upper hand on our opponents. But within an hour, we were joining forces to create the biggest pyrotechnics show ever witnessed in Halo. We stacked every possible explosive, then discovered a way to cause one canister to respawn in the air, falling into the pile every 30 seconds to create a spectacular explosive display. The result was a repeating series of massive explosions, which created a unique new environmental danger during firefights.
If you take the rich gametype customization (as previously seen in Halo and Halo 2) and then add the Forge into the mix, you can see how Halo 3’s multiplayer has a near limitless number of permutations. While the casual fan may not find much interest in building their own versions of maps and gametypes, this will keep some of the more serious gamers playing Halo 3 for years without getting bored. And, again, all of this can be quickly uploaded so that others can check it out. The online elements of Halo 3 are above and beyond anything we’ve seen previously in a console game.
By now you’re frothing at the mouth thinking of the thrilling battles in the campaign, of blasting people online with all the cool new weapons, and mucking around with the Forge. Now imagine if you could keep a visual record of everything you ever do in Halo 3. It’s not only possible, it happens automatically. Every time you play Halo 3 — be it a campaign level, Forge, or multiplayer — the 3D game data from your match is saved to your hard drive or memory card. The file is only a few megabytes, but you’d never guess it from the replays you witness.
Let’s say you pull off the particularly amazing feat of launching your mongoose off a man cannon (a propulsion device in some multiplayer maps) and as you pirouette in the sky, you manage to snipe an enemy who’s rocket has just whizzed past your head. You’re no wordsmith. And, more importantly, you’re friends know you could never pull off this insane headshot you’re trying to describe. Now you have footage to prove there’s no fiction behind your greatest deeds. You can go back to that match, pause just as you snipe, detach the camera from your character, and pan around the scene. You’ll see the smoke trail of the rocket, and can follow the path of your bullet right through your victim’s skull. This can be recorded and uploaded to the one you sniped or anyone else that has a copy of Halo 3.
You can watch your complete tour of the campaign. Want to see a Scarab explode in slow motion? Easily done. Want to see what the AI is doing while Master Chief is running other folks over with a Warthog? Yeah, you can do that too. The replay system is truly amazing, groundbreaking, and undeniably cool. It really is the very best thing about Halo 3. I’ve watched plenty of replays at this point, but it still has me in awe every time.
The replays also create a greater appreciation for the beauty of Halo 3. This is a gorgeous game that has such a quick pace, it’s easy to miss out on some of the things it does well. Pause during any explosion and fly the camera by to view a marvelous shot. The particle effects are truly top notch. It never fails to impress. There’s the smoke and dust from the back of the Brute Chopper, the blinding red bolt of the Spartan Laser in action, the subtle shine of Master Chief’s armor. Considering that Bungie had to have every nook and cranny of the environment detailed and rendered constantly (because you can detach the camera for replays), Halo 3 really is a marvelous technological achievement. It may not be the prettiest game on Xbox 360, but it’s also doing far more than any other game. For that, I can forgive the occasional moments when the framerate jitters or there’s some minor texture pop in. I get texture pop in just trying to butter a bagel.
They say to save the best for last, which is why I’ve neglected to mention the sound until now. Were it not for the excellent sound effects and the top notch score, Halo would not be nearly as good of a game. When Master Chief is about to enter a major battle and the music sweeps in, it’s impossible not to feel a sudden surge of adrenaline. Halo’s combat theme is the perfect futuristic military anthem. How could you not bring your A game after hearing that evocative orchestral powerhouse? I can’t stress enough how vital the sound is to this franchise. The score is powerful, cinematic, and at times moving. It’s the music that humanizes a hero who wears a helmet 24/7. For my money, Halo 3 has the best soundtrack of any videogame.
Wrapping IT Up
The campaign, which is very good, is Halo 3’s weakest point. It doesn’t capture the cavalier spirit of the original Halo, but you’ll still have fun playing through it. There’s no first-person shooter on 360 that can equal Halo 3’s blend of cinematic action, adrenaline-pumping shootouts, and male- (and female)-bonding gameplay. Look beyond the gameplay and you have a rich feature set unlike anything ever delivered in a videogame. The Forge and the replay functionality raise the bar for console shooters so high, it may never be surpassed this generation. There will be plenty of aspects for fans to nitpick, but it’s hard to argue against Halo 3 as the most complete game available on any console.