A Fight Worth Finishing
When a video game manages to make a history making 170 million dollars in sales within the first 24 hours of its launch, there isn’t much of a point in telling you that you should buy the game. You probably have it. For that reason, this is one of the rare cases when a review means absolutely nothing. That’s right. A review doesn’t matter. So if you’re actually still reading this, then you’re ready to hear some truth about the Halo franchise, and Halo 3. It’s time to let the after-launch hype go, and get grounded.
Despite the obvious fact that the Halo franchise has been massively successful, and good, this hasn’t been a series without flaws and controversy -- not exactly the Grand Theft Auto kind, but the kind that refers to a sequel with a disastrously designed campaign mode, an abrupt cliffhanger ending and a new playable character which ticked some people off as much as the Raiden twist in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The Arbiter is a great character, but that’s a different topic of debate. In fact, the only reason why Halo 2 was in heavy rotation (pun intended) for all these years was because of it’s enjoyable and then groundbreaking multiplayer component. It was really good, and in truth, which is the theme of this review, it saved Halo 2. However, all was well in Bungie land. Halo 2 was a success and media spectacle. We just let it slide. It was Halo, and it still managed to outdo most of the other FPS games during that time period.
170 million dollar sales, multi-million dollar ad campaigns, frantic midnight launches, cat helmets and critical acclaim -- this time, Halo deserves it. While not without flaws and questionable quirks, Halo 3 finally gives its aching fans the total package. It’s an enjoyable campaign mode worth replaying, along with the most refined and perfected multiplayer experience out there.
The biggest improvement of Halo 3 is easily its campaign mode, which manages to be an exciting experience that players will actually want to go back and play through again. Halo 3’s campaign is extremely well paced, and makes sure to diversify its action quite well, and models itself more towards the original Halo than Halo 2. You’ll get everything from open field-like areas to spread out around, corridor shooter gameplay to vehicular sequences; all of which are spread out well enough so that you won’t be stuck fighting the same kind of fight for too long. Not only that, but nearly every one of the nine levels has one of those “cool moments,” where something on a slightly extra epic scale goes down, which thankfully keeps the game from feeling monotonous and drone. In other words, it’s those big moments where the Halo theme song queues up. Unfortunately, one of Bungie’s all too familiar mistakes they make is including that one level that seems to drag on forever, completely devoid of fun. We all remember the painfully terrible Library level from the original Halo; and while this particular level in Halo 3 isn’t that bad, it’s missing a lot of the aforementioned “cool moments” and diversification of gameplay that the other levels achieve. You’ll groan when you play it, but you’ll be okay with it. Another small quibble with the campaign mode stages is the setting. Each of them seemed designed with a thought process of “let’s make a cool stage with this and that.” This isn’t a big deal, other than that the levels don’t really make you remember the setting, which is largely Earthbound. There’s no real feeling like you’re on Earth at all. It’s still a level where you only see your teammates and the enemy. You get no sense of being on a planet on the brink -- there’s no trace of human society’s struggle anywhere. The closest you’ll get to that is with Halo 3’s Believe ad campaign, which shows society’s emotional wear and tear from the war. Most of that will go unnoticed though, and at the heart of it all, the campaign is still plenty fun and diverse.
Nothing drastic has changed with enemies in Halo 3 -- you’re still waging war with the Covenant and the Flood, other than the fact that Elites are on Earth’s side. Regardless, these enemies still pose a threat, and are challenging enemies to take out, especially on higher difficulty levels. AI is still just as superb and balanced as it was before. Brutes are a much more frequent enemy you’ll run across this time, since they’ve taken over as the dominant Covenant species. In terms of gameplay, these guys pack quite a punch. Some even boast heavy armor, and a new weapon in the game, which make them all the more dangerous; the gravity hammer. Getting hit by this weapon is an instant death, and getting whacked by one in a vehicle will surely send your ride flipping and flying out of control. There are several other new weapons in the game as well, including flamethrowers and two new grenade types. Turrets can be pulled off of their stand and used, which then switches the view to third person until you drop the weapon. Along with that, many of the familiar weapons from past installments have been tweaked and refined; some merged. Needlers are actually relevant this time, and cheese moves with the plasma pistol and swords are much less predominant. Thank you, balancing! Those are just a few examples.
Brutes are serious business in Halo 3, and quite a chore on harder difficulties.
While Halo still controls incredibly well, some changes were made to accommodate power up items, which are delegated to the X button. This will immediately send Halo vets in a fit, since this change is quite significant. Reloading has been moved to the bumpers, but gamers will spend the first hour of the game trying to use X to reload, pick up and drop weapons and getting in and out of vehicles. Eventually, you’ll get used to the sensible change. The actual power up items vary from overshields, stealth camouflage, trip mines, flares, health regenerators, shields and protective bubble shields. These items aren’t made to be vital for getting through the game, but they do add a nice extra layer of gameplay to work with. Speaking of layers, the new four player co-op is a special new feature for Halo 3, alongside an optional competitive play component. This component features collectible skulls that implement different gameplay variants and multipliers when the game tallies each player’s score at the end of every completed level.
Finishing the fight also means finishing up the storyline, and Halo 3 actually tells the rest of its story quite decently. However, there are some issues where certain characters and side stories aren’t covered well enough, along other returning issues of less-than-stellar dialogue and pivotal characters that haven’t evolved in any way since the first game. It’s hard to have compassion for some of the characters who have stayed static throughout the series. Sgt. Johnson is still the same archetypical military macho type, Miranda Keyes is still the same commander that we don’t know well enough. On the flip side, characters like Master Chief, Cortana and the Arbiter are incredible characters. Aside from that, the most important issue that Halo 3 still seems to get wrong is that it’s an important storyline that matters, yet doesn’t matter as much as it should. It’s a universe with the kind of intriguing characters, species and plot that could have been utilized and explained much better in the context of Halo’s trilogy, but isn’t. Instead, that stuff is done much better in the novels and even the new comic series, which explains what happened at the end of Halo 2 to the start of Halo 3. That in itself is the perfect example of this problem. Once you start the campaign for the first time, you’ve already missed something important about the story, and you haven’t even begun to play yet. You could have remembered every single plot point, or memorized every line of dialogue from the first two games. You could know exactly where it left off, and as soon as you kick off that campaign, you missed something. Why? Obviously because Halo has become a brand of which is expanding itself in all sorts of avenues -- so you’ll pay your money to find it all out. What’s even more frustrating is that the entire series of comics didn’t even come out before we played Halo 3. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to get the whole Halo: Uprising comic series done with and released beforehand? Take some notes from Bioware, guys. Their prequel novel came out first, which kind of helps.
Another issue is the fact that the Covenant and Flood aren’t as central to the storyline as Halo 2, where we’d see the inner turmoil and drama from within their ranks. We don’t get to see their point of view as Halo 3’s turn of events take place. They’ve reverted back to the enemy on the other side of the battlefield, other than the one mouthpiece leader for each race having their words. There’s also the chatter dialogue in the campaign mode, which is great with the enemies and marines alike. Still, it’s missing a chunk. The Arbiter’s scaled back role is the most disappointing of them all, he’s almost always around in actual gameplay and in most cutscenes, but his story from Halo 2 was incredibly interesting, and one of Halo 2’s few saving graces. Unfortunately, the negative feedback from gamers who only wanted to play as Master Chief gave the poor guy another mark of shame. Now, his role in Halo 3’s plot is still important, but not as much as it should have been. No spoilers with any of that; just saying. Thankfully, Halo 3 does sneak in some interesting plot moments, along with an ending that sends the trilogy off properly. No cliffhangers, just a very touching end that leaves the series open for more games, while putting the period at the end of the sentence.
The one thing that will keep Halo 3 alive and well will still be the multiplayer, and it’s basically a near perfect refinement to Halo 2’s proven formula. Matchmaking is still just as efficient as it was before, but with a more specific set of game type options to choose from. There are still the occasional moments where strange games surface, such as choosing Team Slayer and getting stuck in a shotguns and snipers only game. Of course, the new Veto option is in place to combat those ‘matchmaking meh moments.’ When the majority of players in a room veto a gametype and map, a different one will launch next. Another nice little option is the newfound convenience of the mute button. Muting an obnoxious player is no longer a daunting task -- just hold the back button and use the right stick to scroll down the player list and press X to mute the curse-a-thon player you’re tired of hearing. Nifty.
With better matchmaking, ranking system and mute buttons done right, Halo 3’s online multiplayer just got way better. Not to mention the fact that Halo 3 almost never suffers from unplayable lag, and no annoying texture pop-in (and none in the campaign mode either, thankfully). You’ll always get a fair shake at taking down your online rival. Speaking of which, each Halo 3 player can customize the look and appearance of their Elite or Spartan again. This time, however, it’s a little more extensive than in Halo 2. Emblems and color choices are still in the fray, but players can now customize the helmet and armor of their avatars when they unlock new parts. Some can be unlocked after meeting certain parameters in the online and campaign modes, and it helps give each player a little sense of identity, which is nice. Another menial little add-on is the service tags, which are a one letter and two digit ID for your player. Again, this adds more of an identity to your Elite or Spartan, and in the case of online matches, it makes calling someone’s name for help or intel a little easier. “Hey Slutwagon_RKO_saveus_222_69, look out for that guy on the turret!” It’s a lot easier to shout “Hey S69, watch out for the guy on the hornet!” You get the idea.
Without question, Bungie’s greatest accomplishment is the fact that they have given us their own tool for map creation, with Forge. While Forge doesn’t allow you to create a brand new map from scratch, it serves as a tool to insert, switch and take out weapons, objects, vehicles and nearly anything else in each pre-existing map. It’s possible to make all new game types, such as the popular game of Rocket Race, for example. It’s an on-the-fly sandbox creation tool that can be used in real time in a multiplayer match. Its design is simplistic, but it’s still a pretty confusing feature that gamers haven’t currently gotten used to yet. Time will tell if Forge will be utilized for unthinkable and ingenious map creation like Bungie envisioned. In the mean time, the original maps are the ones being used the most, and it’s still a good time. So much so, that gamers can actually go and watch all of their campaign and multiplayer playthroughs in the Theater. Somehow, Bungie has found a way to record us every time we play, without file sizes being abnormally large. We can pan around the whole level, and depart from the first-person viewpoint as well. Players can even upload their best footage or snapshots to Bungie’s site for everyone to see. Inflated stories will be a thing of the past. Now, it’s the era of video proof.
Watching your footage in the Theater isn’t just nice because of you getting to watch yourself play. It’s nice because of how impressive Halo 3 looks. Even though it was recently admitted that Halo 3 does not run in real 720p (it runs in 680p), it’s nearly impossible to tell. Sure, there are enough jaggies abound to point out, but Halo 3 is still no graphical slouch. In fact, some of Halo 3’s environments are some of the most visually stunning of this generation. Explosions are bright and harsh looking, water looks phenomenal, and the lighting is exceptional. There’s even the usage of a foggy haze effect in some levels that exuberate great atmosphere. This isn’t the best looking Xbox 360 game ever released, but it’s clear that Bungie sacrificed top of the line graphics for scale and 60 frames per-second gameplay. It was the right call. Sound is done just as well. This game sounds incredible on a 5.1 system -- everything from muffled sounds of gunfire in the distance to a shrieking explosion a few feet away sound perfect. As stated earlier, chatter and dialogue is very smart in Halo 3 as well. You’ll really get the sense that your enemies know what is actually going on, and what you’re doing. Even when you die, they will shout in triumph that the demon is dead. You’ll be surprised at what they’ll say. As for music, it’s still cut from the same cloth as past Halo games. Some of the music is the exact same as what you’d hear in Halo 2, which is slightly disappointing. Despite that, the music picks up and tapers off depending on how much action is going on in the game. And of course, Bungie never misses the opportunity to play the theme song whenever they have that cool moment coming. In the end, Marty O’Donnel nailed the composition for Halo 3 once again, and it still sends those goose bumps running down your spine; admit it.
Halo 3 is an extraordinary video game. Halo 3 did the series justice. Forget about the sales figures right now, and forget about how mainstream this series is. After several years and two installments worth of bittersweet feelings, Halo 3 finally delivers a total package experience. Bungie took their time, righted the wrongs and played the caretaker with the final installment of a legendary trilogy. Nothing is missing, and nothing feels incomplete; and although it didn’t do everything right, it does little wrong. This is a fight worth finishing.