Halo 3 Review

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Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Microsoft (Bungie)

Platform: Xbox 360
Reviewed on Xbox 360

Master Chief, a genetically engineered super soldier in battle armor, has already battled the theocratic alliance of aliens known as the Covenant. He's faced the intelligent and parasitic Flood that threatens to reproduce by taking over all life in the galaxy and forming a disturbingly powerful hive mind. He's battled across and even destroyed Halos, vast terraformed rings, designed by the ancient Forerunners to contain and eliminate the Flood.

Pursuit of the Forerunner legacy has sent the Covenant searching Earth for clues to activate the Halo installations. Master Chief, in hot pursuit, lands on Earth to battle the Covenant, face the Flood and "finish the fight."

Kyle Ackerman

Halo 3 launched last week in what Microsoft claims is the "biggest entertainment launch in history." Probably, if you have an Xbox 360, you already purchased Halo 3, as Microsoft is gloating that the game brought in around $170 million in sales in the first 24 hours the game was available. If you didn't have an Xbox 360 before, you might even have bought one solely to play Halo 3.

Finish the Story, Finish the Fight

So, let's talk honestly about Halo 3. There's a single-player game, but that's simply not the point, anymore. The Halo series has long-since moved on past its epic, single-player roots into a multiplayer game for which the campaign is almost an afterthought. Admittedly, it's a strong, stirring afterthought. But an afterthought, nonetheless.

The campaign in Halo 3 wraps up the Halo story, coping with the outbreak of predatory and parasitic Flood, and wrapping up the war between humanity and the alien alliance known as the Covenant. Personally, I'm not so much of a fan of the direction in which Bungie took the story. While I enjoyed the spectacularly conceived levels made possible by moving to the next console generation, one of my favorite things about the Halo games was the driven pace, spurred by an interesting story. In the case of Halo 3 the game is constantly interrupted by game-slowing voice-overs from the AI, Cortana, among other entities. This slows play, and doesn't add much to the story. The game would have been well-served to stick to conventional, action-packed cut-scenes.

Don't Forget the Password

That said, the single-player experience in Halo 3 is still stronger than most single-player games, albeit short. The only way the game should take you more than five or six hours is if you have normal skills but prefer to play the game on "Legendary" difficulty. Rather than switching back and forth between the Master Chief and the Arbiter (the alien Elite who has joined with humanity) as in the last game, Master Chief and the Arbiter battle together for most of the game as the Master Chief wades through Covenant resistance and Flood invasions to rescue Cortana and save the world. All the old foes are back, though you'll now see Grunts piloting Banshees, and the Brutes are now a nasty set of armored foes who have fully supplanted the Elite. The Flood, too, have a lot more variety, as they've absorbed the full might of the covenant.

Some changes are very welcome. The settings are amazing, from the cyclonic winds surrounding the massive artifact in East Africa, to the epic-sized vehicles (like the Scarab tanks), to the organic vessels being assimilated by the Flood. The music is powerful, with gorgeous orchestral compositions that nicely bridge sweeping, cinematic moments and more intimate ones. The graphics are stellar. The tiny parasitic form of the Flood can now invade dead bodies and reanimate them to fight you further, making them continually terrifying. The campaign is fast-paced (save the aforementioned messages that interrupt the flow), constantly driving the player forward, and the difficulty levels are appropriately named. There are even references to Red vs. Blue's Halo-themed machinima. While many of the enemies are familiar, new guns, clever vehicular sequences and the dramatically improved fidelity of the Xbox 360 make this Halo an amazing, if brief, single-player experience.

Play and Play Again

So what will determine who likes Halo 3? If you have friends (who play Xbox 360 games), you'll love Halo 3. If you're looking for a robust single-player experience that you'll play through once and shelve, Halo 3 isn't your best choice.

Much of the campaign's longevity comes from the ability to play with up to three other players through the campaign's levels. Working together makes "Legendary" difficulty doable and exciting, and allows players to compete in the campaign "meta-game." If activated, players can compete against one another for points (derived from kills, with extra points for style) acquired while completing the levels. Halo 3 also takes the "hunt-for-widgets" gameplay even further than the last game. Players can search for skulls hidden around the game's levels. Some unlock achievements, and all can modify the campaign, if activated. If you're the type who's motivated by beating your friends for a high-score during the campaign, you'll get a lot of action from the campaign. If you're in it for the story, these modes add little.

Trip Mines and the Spartan Laser

Co-op may have been a huge deal in the original Halo, but competitive multiplayer is the quintessence of Halo 3. There's an incredible variety of play modes and a community so large that you are certain to find good multiplayer matches for months to come. There's a tremendous variety of gameplay modes, ranging from basic deathmatch to more complex objective-based modes. Honestly, the only thing a multiplayer FPS fan could ask for is a class system allowing different players to fulfill different roles. But when Master Chief's a Spartan (an elite front-line soldier), who wants to be the scrawny medic in an eight-person match?

Deathmatch fans will be in heaven. With plenty of maps, lots of weapons and an assortment of ways to snipe people in the face from across the battlefield, there are always people to kill. Over and over. There's also a great assortment of multiplayer modes involving objectives, such as placing bombs, capturing flags, defending V.I.P.s. Such modes typically only involve eight players, but make for wild multiplayer mayhem.

It's here that the new equipment and weapons options really make a difference. All the old weapons return, but are joined by new dual-wielding options (no dual needlers, though), new grenades and equipment. Human grenades and plasma grenades are joined by exploding spike and pyrotechnic grenades. Equipment includes cloaking devices and barriers, but expands to devices that change play, like shields and grav lifts. The shield creates a protective bubble that can block vehicles and weapons fire but is easily traversed by ordinary soldiers. The grav lift allows players to leap to inaccessible spots or ignore inconvenient walls. These can dramatically change the basic flow of a multiplayer map, even if they aren't that important in the single-player campaign.

Oh, and the Spartan Laser is just cool. There's nothing like cleaving the battlefield in two with a single beam of coherent light. There are few things as terrifying on the battlefield as the blinking red line of the low-power targeting laser for the Spartan Laser. And there are even bigger vehicles (the Elephants) that are mobile battlefield platforms that grace multiplayer, on par with the Scarab tanks you'll meet during the single-player campaign.

Play With Your Friends, or Make Some

Bungie has really gone beyond the call of duty creating an amazing multiplayer experience. You can even store videos, take stills and upload them to Bungie's site to show off. Bungie.net carefully tracks detailed statistics on every player, so you can call up the recent battle history of your friends and foes even when sitting at your desk at work. And then you can watch their uploaded videos and screenshots.

You can choose to party up with people online to make sure that your crew sticks together when looking for matches, and choose appropriate search lists to ensure you get the kind of game you want. Those with online friends will find it easy to stick together during matches, in game after game. Gamers playing solo will be able to fight players based on their play rank.

There is both a "skill" and a "rank." The skill represents how well you play a particular style of game, based on wins and losses. The rank follows military ranking and represents a players' overall experience (determined by wins across all game types).

If you just hop onto Halo 3's online play, you are confronted with one of two choices: You can play with random players, and risk teammates who spend entire matches singing off-key or eight-year olds who love to curse a blue streak. Alternately, you can join a good group, but consistently get placed against other teams that are more likely to be of a higher skill. The choice depends on which you think is the lesser of two evils. The real fun comes from playing with a group large enough to fill an entire game.

Then, not only can you have fun with your friends, but your play options are a lot more flexible. Rather than the typical matchmaking, you can try wild game modes such as "infection" that pits zombies against humans. Or you can go to the "forge" and create your own maps. These are particularly entertaining, as you can run around the changing map or transform into a monitor (a la Guilty Spark) and transform the landscape. This massively customizable gameplay is really only fun and easily accessible if you bring a pool of online friends with you. So if you don't have close Xbox Live buddies, make them. Soon.

Halo 3 is an impressively customizable multiplayer game for small groups of players, particularly close online mates who want to battle the millions of other Halo fans out there. The carefully honed multiplayer short-changes the single-player campaign somewhat, but together, the single- and multiplayer modes should provide weeks or even months of entertainment. And of course, long before you get too tired of these maps and play modes, you can bet that Bungie will release new premium maps for purchase.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 1, 2007 10:29 PM.

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