October 20, 2007
I'm going to admit this up front: I am a Halo fanboy. I've loved just about everything about the games since they first launched. I spent many nights LANing with friends for the first one, and even more time spent on Live with the second one. I'll also admit the story never really interested me until I replayed Halo 2 for the PC recently, which was really only for the achievements. However, I'll also admit that I'm a realist. If there is something wrong with a game, I'll always be the first to accept it, no matter how dear to me the game may be. I'm happy to say that there won't be much of that during this review. Halo 3 is everything I expected it to be and more.
Made by Bungie Software, who before Halo was already a very respected PC developer, Halo 3 is obviously the third and supposedly final installment of the Halo franchise. Taking the world by storm in 2001, the first Halo (with the subtitle "Combat Evolved") did not seem to be anything special at first. However, as soon as it was played, anyone would admit it was the culmination of the entire FPS genre. A two-gun carrying limit gave a bit more of a realistic touch, while it was still clearly a sci-fi epic. The introduction of vehicles was very rare until Halo as well. I won't say they re-invented the genre or anything like that, because it's simply not true. What they did do though, was take something that was already very good and make it simply amazing.
When we last left Master Chief and company, our favorite Spartan was hitching a ride on the back of a Forerunner ship that the prophet Truth used to seemingly escape our hero, heading for Earth where the Ark is located. Accessing the Ark would allow the prophet to fire the Halo rings remotely, effectively destroying all life in the universe. Cortana stayed behind to destroy the Delta Halo ring if it was set off. The Arbiter managed to stop the firing of the Delta Halo ring, but in doing so, he set the rest of the Halo rings into a "standby" mode, which is how they are now able to be set off remotely.
Halo 3 does not pick up right where Halo 2 left off. Instead, Master Chief is now already on Earth and setting out to find the prophet Truth and stop him from accessing the Ark as well as rescuing Cortana from the clutches of the Flood Gravemind that captured her. If you want to see what happens between the games, check out the comic mini-series published by Marvel Comics by the name of Halo: Uprising. I won't go into any detail on the plot of the game, that's really something you need to experience for yourself. All I will say is beat it on Legendary and wait for the credits to end.
The campaign is easily one of the best I've experienced in an FPS game, due largely in part to the available co-op. I only played with three people (up to four is available), but it was extremely exciting. Calling out locations of snipers, backtracking while taking fire so your friends can respawn and setting up pincer attacks on a group of enemies are a few of the more exciting things about working as a team. The campaign itself is exciting as is, what with the giant scarab battles, epic ambushes and seemingly insurmountable odds. The final sequence alone is worth the price of the game. However, experiencing it with friends is really the way to go.
What makes the co-op aspect even sweeter is that Bungie wasn't even sure they would be able to work it out in time for its scheduled release. Mere weeks before the game was to be manufactured, Bungie surprised everyone and announced it would be available in full, both in local LAN and over Xbox Live. Their main concern was being able to keep the game running smoothly when one person could be at the start of the level messing with a Warthog, while another might be further on in a battle with the Covenant and another two are playing grenade tag with each other on top of a structure that didn't even look like it could be reached at first. Whatever they ended up figuring out worked like a charm; the game runs smooth the entire time you're playing, no matter where everyone is. The only time you'll encounter any lag is when everyone dies and the game needs to reload a checkpoint, even then only a few seconds and you're back at full speed.
Another feature that makes the campaign exciting is the option to turn on the "meta-game" which is essentially a high score mode. It can either be done as a team, or turned to free-for-all where the scores show up separately. There really is little difference to either mode, but I think the point was to either try to work together or to try and steal every kill possible and win. Aside from the achievements linked to this feature, there is not much point to it overall, other than to see how well you can do compared to someone else.
The biggest drawback to the campaign is the simplicity of it. Even on Legendary, which in Halo 2 could take weeks to beat, it doesn't feel all that challenging. With three people, you should be able to tackle the entire campaign in a mere eight hours, probably less with four people. When your tag-line is "finish the fight" that makes it sound like you're going to be put up against a wall and fighting tooth and nail to the finish, which was truly not the case here. It is certainly exciting and fun the whole time, but you'll be progressing through so quickly it might feel a little underwhelming at the same time. If you want a challenge, you're going to have to go it alone.
There are quite a few new weapons in Halo 3. The new "heavy" weapons that affect your movement speed consist of a common flamethrower, a missile pod that can hold eight small missiles and detachable turrets to carry around. New dual-wieldable weapons consist of Brute Spikers which are much like a needler, but more accurate and Maulers which fire explosive rounds. The new Gravity Hammer can smash someone to the ground, knock away charging vehicles or even repel rockets. The Spartan Laser has a three-second warm-up before unleashing a devastating ray that will kill anyone it touches.
New vehicles were also a must and Bungie delivered. The Mongoose, a quick ATV-type unit that was cut from Halo 2 is present. The Hornet, a new UNSC flying unit to combat the Covenant Banshee offers a very exciting sequence in the campaign. The Brute Chopper is run much like a ghost with the grav-lift system, but features two spinning blades in the front to mow enemies down. You'll face these often during the campaign. The Elephant is a large sand-crawler type vehicle used to carry large loads of troops and vehicles around a map, which only shows up online.
The newest feature for use in taking out your enemies, both in campaign and multiplayer is the "equipment" system. You can carry one piece of equipment at a time, some of which can really turn the tables on an opponent. Trip Mines can be set to ward off enemy vehicles, lest they explode upon impact. The Bubble Shield can be set to protect you from enemy fire, though anyone can walk in and out of its field at any time. Power Drainers will rapidly deplete someone's shields, while Regenerators will rapidly restore them. Portable Gravity Lifts can propel you to new places to hide or snipe from. Flares will blind opponents, allowing you to escape or attack from afar while they run around like a chicken with its head cut off. The Radar Jammer will cause enemy radars to show many more dots than are truly there, which move randomly. All of these are pivotal to online play, though you can mostly get through the campaign without them.
The thing that Halo is most known for is obviously the multiplayer. Halo 3's multiplayer has the same basic framework as its predecessor, but the inner workings are much different. Think of it like upgrading from a condo to a mansion. Player rankings have gone from simply using the TrueSkill feature to also incorporating an experience system. These are coupled with military ranks that will show how long someone has been playing in relation to how good they are at the game. So, someone with 5,000 experience but a high TrueSkill of only 10 clearly plays a lot, but is not all that great. Offset that with someone who has only 2,000 experience but a high TrueSkill of 40; they are clearly the better player. Experience is earned by winning a team game or placing in the top half of a free-for-all game, while TrueSkill is a delicate balance of winning and losing in each certain gametype. Losing to someone ranked below you hurts more than losing to someone ranked above you, while it is basically the opposite for winning matches. Your TrueSkill will decay if you are not playing, so to stay on top you have to continually be good and active in the game.
Matchmaking has both been improved and completely destroyed. While finding a game is much quicker and simpler, the type of games you can enter for the ranked playlist are very limited and underwhelming. Team Slayer is much unchanged and still one of the favorites. Rumble Pit was always a good way to test your personal skills during an 8-player death match; however, this has been replaced by Lone Wolves, which is a rotation between slayer and objective games and lowered to 5-player matches. Big Team Battle is only found in Social matches, which is a huge shame. It seems for some reason Bungie wanted to get more matches with fewer people going, most likely to try and cut lag to a minimum, but as a result the games are somewhat less fun.
Bungie incorporated two very expansive new features into the game, the first being the Forge mapmaking and game creation system. Through the main menu, you enter the Forge system and select a pre-existing map. You can then edit that map to your heart's content. Add or delete weapons, spawn points, vehicles, objects and even teleporters. An all-flamethrower map with a labyrinth of teleporters? No problem. A game with only a single spawn point, creating chaos the entire time? Easy. A game with twenty Scorpion tanks? Sure, what the heck. The limits really are endless. You can even enlist the help of friends to create a map, which could easily cause mass confusion and chaos, considering you can be attacked while setting up objects. However you decide to do it, you can save and export your map to the Custom Matchmaking section, which will allow you to play those maps with anyone over Xbox Live.
The second huge feature is the Saved Film system. In both campaign and online games, you can replay your last few matches, taking screenshots and in online matches, creating short clips of your best Overkill or an awesome sticky throw. The best part about it is that you can view the film from any point in the space of the map, becoming your very own director. Swooping cameras, overhead views or even the classic FPS view are all available to you. After you've spent an hour directing a turnaround-jump-sticky, you can save the clip and recommend it to friends, or upload it to your locker, which will allow anyone you play to see whatever videos and pictures you've shared. You can even view the films with up to four players, creating a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 vibe.
So with all these new weapons, vehicles and awesome features, you must be wondering if Bungie ever got around to updating the graphics, sound and gameplay. Well, rest assured, those have all been updated tremendously. Even before its release, there were videos that showed the difference between each of the three games, Halo 3 clearly being the victor by a long shot. While many critics have cited that Gears of War looks better, what they are really seeing is that Gears of War looks more realistic, in the sense that it is more gritty and earthy. What they're forgetting is that Halo is a futuristic sci-fi epic. If it looked real or gritty, it would lose a good portion of what it is. In that respect, Halo is just as good if not better than a game like Gears of War, though the graphics are considerably different. Halo offers a much more polished look.
From the grass responding to your movements to an epic battle with flying units, ground vehicles and multiple explosions, everything runs smooth and looks beautiful. The framerate is exceptionally high and the amount of action almost never slows the gameplay. The one thing they could have spent more time on is the face models. They don't appear to be very updated from Halo 2, aside from that of Master Chief, which is most likely due to the fact that he doesn't actually have a face. Helmets can be rendered much like vehicles, while faces are much harder to do. The faces do look good, but in comparison with everything else, they are a huge disappointment.
Many people have been complaining that the game only runs in two overlayed 640p tiles as opposed to a full 720p out the gate, but due to the complex lighting arrangements, this was necessary to keep the game running smoothly. Apparently turning off a few of the more advanced graphical features (namely HDR/Bloom) shows that the game may not be as advanced as it appears, but anyone turning off graphical features is most likely just looking for flaws at that point. They are built into the game for a reason.
The sounds of Halo are also top-notch. The sound detection is what impresses me the most. You'll know exactly which direction someone is firing from and even what type of weapon they are using, simply by hearing the bullets whiz by your ear. Another impressive thing is the amount of dialogue built into the game. Every encounter you'll hear both your allies and enemies shouting things at each other, much in reaction to what is going on. Get in a Scorpion and blow up a ghost, someone will react "Tank beats ghost!" and so forth. It really creates an exciting atmosphere to have your every action reflected in both your enemies and allies, not to mention the environment.
The gameplay may prove difficult for some, considering it employs every button on the controller, but it can be learned quickly. The biggest change from Halo 2 is that now each weapon can be reloaded independently with the corresponding bumper. The right trigger fires the right gun and the right bumper reloads the right gun, with the same principle on the left side. The X-button which used to reload now deploys the equipment you can carry. There are variants on the control schemes to suit everyone, such as my personal favorite Boxer style, which simply switches the grenade and melee buttons. Even lefty players have their very own Southpaw option.
The controls may be initially overwhelming for some, but you'll most likely find yourself getting used to them very quickly, especially if you start with the campaign. The hardest part is staying cool under pressure and knowing how to get yourself out of a jam. During the campaign, grenade blasts tend to scatter enemies, so doing that will give you some time to find cover. Deploying your equipment at just the right time can really save you as well, especially with a Bubble Shield. For this reason, it is very important to quickly learn all the controls, weapons, equipment and vehicles to truly master the campaign and online modes.
The achievements for Halo 3 were a huge deal when they were released. Everyone was very excited to see what kind of online mayhem they would have to unleash to get them. Once they were announced, the hardcore online players were furious. While some of the achievements are still quite difficult (two kills with one Spartan Laser shot, for instance), most of them can be done in a few days time. Many people were hoping for something to rival the Gears of War "Seriously..." achievement, but this fell severely short. The only thing you need to work toward over time is getting an officer rank, but that can take as little as 70 matches, assuming you win every single one. Everything else is a one-match limit, so you either get it or you try again next match.
Most of the points (655, to be exact) can be achieved by simply beating the game on Legendary, which I mentioned before can be done in less than eight hours. Another 220 points are tied up in the hidden skulls/terminals and the meta-game scoring found in the campaign. This leaves a measly 125 points for online achievements, some of which can also be done in campaign mode. This is truly a staggering difference for such an online-heavy community of players. What the online community can watch for is the 250 points available through downloadable content. While they can still implement a large kill-based achievement, the only question is whether or not previous kills would count.
The good thing about the online achievements is that the majority of them take a fair amount of skill to do. However, they are mostly stipulated to free-for-all matches, which at this time are limited to five people. Getting an Overkill, which entails killing four people in quick succession, essentially requires you to kill every opponent you have. Some of the other achievements pose a similar problem, where things that are required for achievements just simply don't happen very often with such a small number of people. If they were to add larger gametypes, these would definitely be easier.
As I said in the beginning, I am a Halo fanboy. This game is no exception. There is largely more good than bad, but there are certainly flaws to the game. Some are fixable, such as the online game modes and DLC achievements, but the facial graphics will always be a dark stain on the campaign. However, for unquestionably the most hyped game in gaming history, Bungie really came through. There will always be opposition, more often than not simply so those few can feel different, but for most people Halo will continue to be their favorite franchise, and Master Chief their favorite hero.
The sounds and music are basically perfect the entire game. Great voice acting, epic music and spot-on sound effects. There's really nothing more to be said, just plain excellent.
This would have got a hundred, but the face models during the campaign are just so poor compared to everything else. When your game looks perfect except for one thing, that stands out quite a bit.
The controls may be overwhelming to new players, but they can be learned quite quickly. Mastering them is key to being a great online player, so it can be frustrating to die a lot if you're not fast.
The story was excellent and the campaign was extremely exciting to go through. The online is awesome, although it needs some work on gametypes. That is always fixable with DLC or title updates, so I won't dock it any points there. Just an all-around excellent game that will leave you coming back for more daily.
The balance is way too heavy on campaign achievement for such a huge online community. The online achievements are also somewhat boring, since they are mostly "one-shot" achievements and not something you build toward like most shooters, but they at least take some skill for the most part. They're not easy and since you can't boost for them by any conventional means, they truly do show you've achieved something.
No surprise here. Halo 3 is everything it was hyped to be. Epic story, campaign mode and an online community stronger than any game before it and probably for a long time after it. There certainly are a flaws just like any other game, but they are few and far between. If you don't have this yet, you're either being stubborn or just trying to be different, because there is really no reason not to love it.