From a certain point of view, Halo 3 is without a doubt the biggest game of the year. The combination of fan anticipation, marketing, and the skill of Bungie's design combine to create a game that's larger than life; if gaming has a blockbuster franchise to match the movie industry's punch, it's the tale of Master Chief. The importance of the Halo franchise to gaming is a very big issue, though, and one worth it's own article. Having played through the game, there's really only one question I'm here to answer today. Does it meet expectations? In a word: yes. It's not the best game ever made, and it may not even be the best game this year. Will it make the fans happy, and deservedly sell thousands of Xbox 360s? Very much yes. Read on for my impressions of Bungie's years-in-the-making epic, Halo 3.
- Title: Halo 3
- Developer/Publisher: Bungie / Microsoft Game Studios
- System: Xbox 360
- Genre: First Person Shooter
- Score: 4/5 - This game is above average, and excels in the genre it supports. A classic for the genre and well worth a look for every gamer.
I refer you to Wikipedia for a brush-up on Halo's lore. That said, once you're in the thick of things you don't need to know a lot about the past two games to enjoy 3's story. There are a bunch of references back, and continued threads, but really ... it's a first-person shooter. There are aliens on Earth, trying to dig up an alien artifact. You have to stop them. Go to it.
If you are a fan of the previous games, the story of Halo 3 is going to satisfy your need to see things wrapped up. What it's not going to do is surprise you. The plot plays out pretty much the way you'd expect, though the writers do make some very mature choices towards the end of the tale that distinguish it a bit from every other hero's journey. I'm reluctant to say more, as I'm not sure what's common knowledge at this point, but there is one storytelling choice I wanted to point out as being particularly effective. Cortana, Master Chief's AI companion, was left behind with the Flood's master at the end of the previous game. Despite this, she connects regularly with the Chief in a form of psychic connection. This allows a sense of desperation to build throughout the title, and has a satisfying payoff late in the game.
Story is a really important component of the gameplay experience for me. Though I'm no expert, I do actually like the Halo metaplot quite a bit, and I was left well pleased by Bungie's conclusion. Suffice it to say that while you're not going to be blown away by any revelations, there are no cop-outs, no cheap tricks and (best of all) no meaningless cliffhanger endings. Just make sure you watch to the end of the credits.
Beware the Scarabs
In Halo 2 there's a sequence where you attack a building-sized walking tank in the shape of a multi-legged bug, with a giant laser on its front. It's an elaborate experience: rushing alongside it on rooftops, jumping aboard, taking out its crew, and finally destroying its core. It was, for me, one of the highlights of the game. In Halo 3 you take on these tanks at least three times, and at one point you're fighting two at once. That pretty much sums up the experience of gameplay in this title: it's like the other two, only a lot moreso. Everything is bigger, better, and very, very polished.
That polish is something that exists across the title, from moment-to-moment combat through to 'set piece' battles like the Scarab tanks. There are several set pieces like that spread throughout the game, areas that are more than just the movement from point A to point B with enemies in between. None of them are any more particularly challenging than the rest of the game, but provide exclamation points on areas of hard work and forward progress. There are also several vehicle sequences, more (it seemed) that even in Halo 2. Fast action in the Scorpion tank and Warthog return, but there are also sequences designed specifically to show off some of the new vehicles in this title. I felt these were much more seamless experiences than in the last game; jumping in a vehicle seems like the natural thing to do, not a decision forced upon you by game design.
The vehicle sequences - and the whole game, for that matter - would have benefited from some extra time in NPC boot camp. Once again, your AI assistants prove to be poorly equipped at driving, shooting, or doing pretty much anything other than getting in the way. This, frustratingly, is a step up from Halo 2, where they were incapable of driving without continuously flipping your vehicle. The AI is at least smart enough to get from point A to B now, but you're not going to enjoy the journey. The continued incompetence of the AI in moment-to-moment fighting is particularly frustrating because the Elite known as the Arbiter is your constant companion through most of the game. This is a shadow of the co-op play component, a reminder that it's always possible. All the Arbiter was good for in my experience, though, was waving around his energy sword ineffectually. The AI here wasn't as dumb as the grunts in Gears of War (who enjoyed mantling onto the side of cover the enemies were firing at), but they weren't much better.
The enemy AI, at least, isn't entirely ineffective. They seemed particularly adept at using some of the new toys added in since the last game. Brute chieftains regularly came outfitted with the pleasant addition of a ripped-off turret. These mounted weapons, a frequent sight in past titles, can now be removed from their housings and carried around to provide some heavy firepower. A chieftain with one of these in a secured location can mean regular trips through respawning. The ability to dig in and hold a position was greatly enhanced by this game's addition of 'equipment'. The new use for the X button (reloading is now down with the LB and RB bumpers), most equipment allows NPCs and PCs alike to better hold an area. The 'force shield' is shown off in the E3 2006 trailer but deployable cover (a tall shield), a regeneration aura (which keeps your shields charged), and even deployable turrets all allow for positions to be maintained more effectively than in the past. Other equipment is intended to bypass such advantages, like the power-draining opposite of the regenerator, a portable hover-lift device that can allow you a quick hop over enemy fortifications, and a placeable mine great for taking out drawn-in Grunts. I'll admit it: I didn't use the equipment as effectively as I could have, but it was always enjoyable to play against. Particularly the energy shield; Brutes always seemed somehow vaguely surprised when I popped through the translucent wall.
I regularly got unpleasant surprises throughout the game, and I feel like I need to point out a frustration Bungie has managed to preserve intact from Halo 2: checkpoints. Halo 3 features an autosave system that updates your progress every time you complete a specific objective; passing a point on the map, or activating a certain control panel. Most checkpoints, though, are reached by killing enemies, and you very specifically have to kill every enemy in a group. At several points I found myself frustrated by my inability to find hiding bad guys - I'd complete a long stretch of the game and die, only to find myself further back in the game than I had anticipated. On my way back to where I'd died, I would regularly encounter a checkpoint I hadn't used before. These additional checkpoints were there because I'd missed a single hiding Grunt, or one of those stealthy sniper enemies the first time through. It's always frustrating to lose progress, and even more so when you find you lost that progress because you didn't see the point in finding a single cowering trooper.
One Fine Looking Suit of Armor
Halo 3 looks really good, especially in motion. That said, compared with a game like Gears of War or Lair, it doesn't particularly scream 'next-gen'. The water is pretty good, the explosions are works of art, and reflections off of the Chief's visor are satisfyingly accurate ... but for the most part the game looks a lot like Master Chief's previous adventure. That's fine, though, because (unlike in that title) the framerate is pegged at 60fps and never wavers. There was never once a stutter or slowdown, even with dozens of fastmoving objects on screen, swarms of enemies, or a speedy vehicle sequence. I also saw none of the 'texture popping' that I annoyingly associate with last-gen titles. There are also almost no loading times in the game. The only time you'll see a (brief) loading screen is when you start the game or load a new chapter. Otherwise from start to finish your gaming experience is essentially unbroken. Bungie obviously spent time working on the visual elements of the game, but not to the exclusion of equally important components like story and gameplay. The look of the game is conveyed more by the art style used in the varied environments that through sheer power; the graphics here get the job done, and look great doing it.
Firefly Stars and Heavy Guitar Riffs
One game element that needs no qualifiers is the title's sound presentation. Just as in the previous two games, no expense was spared to bring the world to life through sound effects, voice acting, and music. The sound effects are essentially identical to the experience a player may have had in Halo 2, with a few subtle improvements. The voice acting is extremely well done, with the likes of Keith David, Jen Taylor, Steve Downes, and David Scully reprising their roles. Jen Taylor's Cortana has some especially challenging scenes in this game, and I thought she did a great job with them. New (but familiar) voices also add their talents to the cast. Red vs. Blue viewers will recognize the name Burnie Burns, who is one of the voices of the generic soldiery, but fans of Joss Whedon's Firefly will have just as much to enjoy. Alan Tudyk and Adam Baldwin are also soldiers, and Nathan Fillion takes on the role of an NPC sergeant. I noted this during gameplay, actually, as Alan Tudyk's voice is ... distinct.
Martin O'Donnell composed the game's score, reprising his role from the two previous titles. If you've heard the moving music in the E3 2006 trailer you're already well aware of what that implies. Most of his compositions are much more low key, of course, but they nonetheless provide a welcome backdrop for the game's graphics, gameplay and story. The later levels especially benefit from this subtle but important reminder of what's at stake. The music serves as an obvious but not over-the-top pacing element. Ultimately Martin O'Donnell's compositions are the kind of music you'd be more than happy to listen to outside of the game; it's hard to see how you can pay a soundtrack a higher compliment.
Playback and Multiplay
The clearest sign that Halo 3 is a 'next generation' title is its online and playback components. Most startling are the game's video editing and level creation tools. The first time you'll play through the campaign, you'll find that you can relive the whole thing by reviewing the videos stored on your 360's hard drive. There's no need to set a special setting, it just does it automatically. From there, you can enter the recording and rewatch the whole thing, stopping to take screenshots or snip video clips. These clips and pictures are then viewable from your Bungie.net profile, proving your game mastery to awed onlookers. The real awe, for me, was stepping outside of the Chief to fly around the map as action progresses. If you recall a particularly cool moment - a really good grenade stick, for example - you can see what that looked like on the outside ... and take a picture of it. I haven't had much time or inclination to play around with the level creation tool (called the Forge), but it's incredibly robust. Think something along the lines of Gary's Mod for Half-Life 2, and you'll understand the possibilities in Bungie's generous tool offering.
I've talked extensively about the game's campaign mode, but for many gamers online multiplayer is the real reason to buy this game. And understandably so: if you participated in the Halo 3 multiplayer Beta a few months ago you're already well aware of that game element's polish level. The real draw for me, though, is the campaign co-op play. I played entirely through Gears of War three times because the co-op experience was so well done. Here Bungie has provided the opportunity for up to four players to participate in the entire campaign experience. Just as with the 'single player' campaign mode (which is really just co-op with bots), the entire experience will be recorded to your hard drive for later public mockery. Unlike in single-player, by doing a co-op session you and your team-mates participate in what the game's achievements call 'the metagame'. Players are scored on their play throughout the game, and netting a certain total score during a co-op session can earn you some gamerscore points.
As much time as the team has obviously taken on the game itself, it's great to see that they've fleshed out the experience with elements like this. Graphics aside, these playback and co-op components are truly what makes Halo 3 'next generation'.
Consider the Fight Finished
In essence: Bungie has succeeded marvelously at bringing this trilogy to a close. The game's tight story is complete-able in Normal mode in about ten hours, and that feels just about right. At the end of the game you're left wanting more, but not feeling gypped. Folks who have been holding their breath for this since 2004 can relax; the only thing left to do now is play and have a good time. Halo 3 is fun. Any game - regardless of platform, generation, or genre - where you can finish up and immediately want to start playing again ... it's hard to call that anything but a success.