Originally written a week after launch.
So, now I have had a week to get to grips with Halo 3, let's see if the hype and furore surrounding its launch was worth it. I will try to keep things spoiler-free as best I can, so no give-away screenshots or excessive story spoilers (although I will assume that you are at least familiar with the storyline of the previous two games).
With the sales success of Halo 2, Bungie was always going to have an uphill struggle in terms of expectations for Halo 3. Despite critical acclaim, many fans found Halo 2 wanting in many aspects, most of all in terms of its cliff-hanger ending, which launched many a controller. Some complained that the campaign was too fractured; that the Arbiter sections detracted from the overall gameplay and story as, after all, everyone wants to be the Master Chief. Some lamented the weapon balancing in multiplayer, and still more gradually faded out of multiplayer altogether because of the rife cheating and glitching. Halo 2 showed us the best - and the worst - of Xbox Live. To many, it felt rushed, cut, and lacking.
Still, all that aside, it was a good game, although it was never going to create a following as strong as that of its forerunner, Halo: Combat Evolved.
So Bungie had a two-fronted battle on their hands. Firstly, live up to the benchmark of gameplay and immersion that the first instalment created. Second, resolve all the flaws of, and better, the second instalment. No pressure, lads...
So we come to Halo 3, possibly the most-hyped game ever.
The story takes place following the events in Halo 2, with a short gap, which is filled in by the comic-book adptation. Despite political shifts within the Covenant itself, leaving it as an alliance between the Brutes, Grunts, Drones, Hunters and Prophets, the agenda of the Prophet of Truth is unchanged - wipe out Humanity, locate the Ark, and activate the remaining Halo installations to bring about the "Great Journey". Earth is suffering, and is pretty much subjugated despite the best efforts of the UNSC and its new-found allies, the Elites. The story starts in Africa, where the Covenant fleet is hard at work excavating a massive artifact in the African desert - that seen in the E3 announcement trailer.
During the campaign, playing as Master Chief, you will aid your Marine and Elite compatriots in battling the Covenant, in an attempt to save humanity and to stop the Prophet of Truth from activiating the Halos - which are in fact vast weapons designed to prevent the spread of the parasitic life-form known as the Flood - and wiping out all sentient life in the galaxy in the process. You will fight in many different locations, and will have at your disposal some new weapons and vehicles.
The Elites are back, but this time around we like them. We don't shoot them.
The story itself is very well crafted, is less fractured than in Halo 2 and answers a fair number of the questions that previous incarnations have posed. However, it still throws some surprises at you, and will also end up leaving you with a fair number of new questions from out of left-field. Damn you, Bungie!
The campaign is well-structured, and although not perfect in every single way, will satisfy most folks. It does ring up a little short - a few more levels would have been nice, after three years, but what there is is not unusually short - probably about average for a first-person shooter.
Controls are a doddle, although slightly different to the tried and tested method, thanks to the inclusion of deployable equipment, which is controlled by the X-button. Reload is now done via the bumper button, both if you are dual wielding. The "use/activate" button is now also controlled via the right bumper. it takes a few minutes to get used to it if you are familiar with the old control schemes, but once you get it, you are home and dry.
Weapons are a mix of old and new. All the old favourites return. The pistol is still the Magnum, I am afraid, so no scope. And yes, it is still nerfed, as is the plasma pistol. However, where the human pistol is pretty much redundant, the plasma pistol still plays the key role in removing an enemies' shields with one overcharged shot, same as Halo and Halo 2. Fighting Brutes with power armor on harder difficulty levels makes the plasma pistol a definite go-to weapon. The needler is no longer a dual-wield weapon, but thankfully has finally been beefed up to be pretty decent against most enemies, again, especially Brutes. The Brute Shot has also been improved, with a faster fire rate and more accurate placement of shots - making it a weapon to favour for crowd control. Everything else is pretty much the same, more or less, and if Halo 2 gave you a prediliction for certain weapon combos, you'll probably take the same here.
However, new to the arsenal are the Brute Spike Rifle - an equivalent of the SMG, but with more oomph and less kick, and the Brute Mauler - a smal, dual-wieldable shotgun equivalent. You probably won't favour the Mauler much though, it's dispersal pattern is horribly wide, making it useless at anything more then very close quarters. Also making it into the game - finally - is the flamethrower. But, contain your excitement - it appears rarely in the campaign, and is again a close-quarters weapon. Most times in campaign you need to use it in a tight area - but end up setting fire to everything around you, including yoruself, more often than not. Lastly, you are able to play with the Brutes' Gravity Hammer, last seen wielded by Tartarus in Halo 2, an awesome melee weapon that simply decimates most enemies in your path, and has the best weapon effect of all. It's a simple weapon, hit the trigger to swipe or press "B" to melee, much like the Covenant Energy Sword.
The Assault Rifle makes a welcome return in Halo 3. And we love it.
The major addition to the weapons are the heavy weapons - those usually found mounted on brackets - the human machine gun turret, the Plasma turret, the Misslie Pod, and the aforementioned flamethrower. These are all big weapons, and their usefulness is against large crowds of enemies. However, when mounted they have infinite ammo, but press "B" to rip them from their mountings and suddenly you have a limited supply of rounds. One downside to these weapons is that their weight makes you move slower - so whilst you are "mowing the lawn" with them, you are also an easier target to hit. Using them changes your view to third-person, however, so you are afforded a better view of the battle. It's all about tactical considerations.
And finally, the biggest shift in weaponry is the use of "deployable equipment". These are devices that you can pick up in the battlefield and use once against your enemies with a press of the "X" button. Most have a limited lifespan of about 20 seconds or so, and include the power drainer, which when dropped creates a blue field that will drain the shields of any enemies within its radius, and even stop vehicles dead in their tracks. On the flipside is a power regenerator, which will allow sheilds to regenerate super-quick. You also have a flare, which blinds enemies around you, and enemies that cannot see are easier to take out. The radar jammer confuses enemies by making multiple targets appear on their motion-trackers, and the trip-mine does exactly what it says on the tin - sits there and waits for an enemy or vehicle to get to close and explodes. Finally, there is the well-known bubble shield, a temporary protective dome that will not allow any weapons fire or grenades to pass through it - a little safe haven for you to hide in whilst your shields are down. However, just as weapons fire cannot go in, it can also not go out - so keep your finger away from the grenade trigger, or you may end up giving yourself a nasty surprise. People can walk freely through the shield and still pose a close-up threat so you need to bear this in mind when deploying it. Then again, it can be useful for luring an enemy to you - when they see the bubble, they assume you are in trouble and move in for the kill.
The gameplay of the campaign would be so-so without all these new additions, but with the new weapons and equipment, there is a gret deal of replay value to be had. When you bear in mind that enemies can use ALL the equipment and weapons available to you, and often do to great effect, it makes each encounter unpredictable. In one example, I launched a rocket at a group of three Brutes, only for one to deploy a bubble-shield to protect themselves. So, I ran over, intent on taking them out close quarters. As I got close, another left the bubble and threw a flare, utterly blinding me in the process. Knowing this he started firing his spike rifle at me - but I had a regenerator, which I blindly deployed to keep my shields up. Their solution - the third Brute deployed his power drainer, which worked against the regenerator, draining my shields and allowing me to die a nasty, spiked death. What amazed me was that this was not scripted, just each Brute AI acting tactically to their advantage and to my untimely end. Awesome.
In terms of visuals, Halo 3 is, to be blunt, utterly gorgeous. There are some who are dismayed at the fact that the games runs at 640p and not true 720p or 1080p. "Not high-defnintion!" they cry. Well, technically, anything over 480p is high-definition. But you know, if the price of all the unerring lighting, beautiful vistas and lush settings is that it runs at a little less than 720p natively, I could care less. Bungie have stated that if you compare the native resolution to an upscaled 720p or 1080p image (which is what the Xbox 360 does by default) it is almost impossible to tell the difference. Some textures are a little clunky close up, but I feel you have to take the visuals as a whole. Don't focus on the fact that the boots on that marine look a little schmushy - focus on the fact that his schmushy boot is standing on a gorgeous mountainside in a rolling landscape of waterfalls, beaches, jungle, buildings and vegetation. There's always a trade. Whilst it is not the most detailed game ever close-up, overall the style of Halo 3 is not photorealistic, rather it is true to the previous Halo games - highly stylised, and beautiful. I would put Halo 3 over Gears Of War any day.
The Xbox 360 has allowed Bungie to create some huge and stunning settings for the game. This is a *small part* of one expansive level.
Audio is outstanding, as ever, from ambient environmental sounds to weapons fire, vehicles and dialogue. Bungie have taken great care to get everything sounding just right in 5.1 surround, and this is the first game to offer realtime 5.1 processing and sound management , in-game, on the fly. Distant weapons fire is wonderfully different to that heard close-up, similar to the effects in Medal Of Honor: Airborne - only done much, much better. Every sound has a distant counterpart. I would say though that oftentimes the Assault Rifle and Battle Rifle you carry can sound a little faint. Voice acting is outstanding, and most of the old regulars reprise their roles. The only major character differently voiced is Miranda Keyes. Grunts have regained their Halo 1 voices, thankfully, and no longer speak in that silly baby-talk they had in Halo 2. And as ever, some of their combat dialogue is hilarious. Hearing a grunt say "You killed my brother! Again!"? Classic.
As touched on before, AI is very good, and allows for some interesting randomness. Grunts will still flee in panic if you take out their Brute leader, and very occasionally a Grunt will simply go section 8 and run at you with a plasma grenade in both hands, kamikaze-style. Brutes are aggressive and depending on their rank within the Brute heirarchy will range from annoying to downright nightmare. Your marines are pretty good shots, thankfully, but alas it seems the UNSC still hasn't taught them how to drive very well. Whilst they may not regularly run you over in a vehicle as they did in Halo 1, most times it is better to do the driving yourself and let them point the guns.
Trust me, it is better if you drive. They may be able to aim a bullet, but the Marines suck at aiming a vehicle.
Talking of vehicles, there are a few new additions to the pack. The existing vehciles are there, largely unchanged, although both the Wraith and the human Scorpion tank now require a separate dude to fire the secondary gun - you only control the cannon. New to the garage is the Brute Chopper - similar to the Ghost in many ways, except for the large, scary spinning wheels on the front, that make mincemeat of both personnel and vehicles. They kind of feel like large scary Harleys, and this fits with the Brutes' almost road-warrior like image. There is also the Prowler - a Brute analog of the Warthog, again with a gunner and driver, as well as passengers, occasionally. Armed with a plasma cannon, and sharp, pointy front, this vehicle can be a formidable opponent - get hit by it, and you die. And the Brutes know it.
So, overall, campaign offers you a good-looking, fun-filled gameplay experience, heightened by the variations afforded by equipment and AI. Bungie have said that to get the best experience out of the game, you should play through on the third-hardest diffculty setting, Heroic. There are also, as in Halo 2, multiple skulls you can collect in little hidden areas of the game maps, that generally offer achievement points and add extra levels of difficulty to the game such as removing your HUD, making enemies twice as hard to kill, giving less ammo in dropped weapons and so on. But there is one thing left that makes the campaign stand high above every other game out there, and makes the game's hardest difficulty setting, Legendary, possible: up to four-player co-op.
In Halo 3 you can do what no other game lets you do: team up with up to three friends - either with two or four Xboxen via system link, or over Xbox Live, to run through the entire campaign. Over Live, you can all be at home, so you can have have the luxury of playing with three friends and keeping your TV screen all to yourself. In co-op, the host player plays as the Chief, and the second player plays alongside as the Arbiter. If you add two more players, they are Elites. This adds a whole new aspect to the game, not just in terms of gameplay, but in terms of a social gameplay. Now playing with your friends is not just restricted to multiplayer deathmatches. And if you think this is all Bungie have put into the box, think again; there are more add-ons that affect multiplayer that make this whole package have even more longevity.
The multiplayer itself does not require much of a write up - it's Halo. Thankfully, it is more Halo 1 than Halo 2, for which many of us will be grateful. But if you know your Halo, you know what multiplayer is like.
Multiplayer. It's Halo. I don't need to explain.
What makes it more special though are two things: The Forge, and Saved Films.
In The Forge, you can go into any multiplayer map (outside of the normal multiplayer environment) and tweak it to your hearts' content. Although you can't change the actual level geometry, you can change just about everything else - from weapons to scenery, vehicles and gameplay rules. You can create whole new gametypes never seen before. And whilst you are doing this, up to eight people can be playing in your map whilst you edit it. You can set the game so that anyone can edit. When you go into edit mode, you become a floating monitor - like 343 Guilty Spark. And with the ability to spawn vehicles and weapons at will, where you like, within the limits of a strict budget, hilarity can ensue. Is your team getting hammered? No problem, spawn a Scoprion tank in your base and watch your guys go to town. Trying to protect your flag? Easy, put a whole shitload of trip mines around it, on a quick respawn. These matches are not ranked, and are just for fun, but make for some cracking crazy times.
Second is the Saved Films feature. Now, every single campaign or multiplayer match you play in is saved as a data file, and in Saved Films you can play back the whole game. Not only that, but you can pause, rewind, advance, take screenshots, and even (in multiplayer) record short clips. These screenshots and films are uploaded to your profile at www.bungie.net (everyone has one - it is based on your gamertag. If you have an Xbox Live account, sign in using that and you can see all your stats, from every game you have ever played), and from there you can save them to your computer, or post them on the forums for all the world to see. You can go back and watch a multiplayer match and, with a completely detachable camera, examine the tactics of anyone who pwned your ass. Or you can simply use the camera to get the perfect screenshot, or explore the maps to see if you can find any hidden secrets or eggs (or in Campaign, hidden skulls).
Completing the campaign on various difficulties and getting other achievements throughout the game unlocks different armour variants for multiplayer.
These two features bring a level of community and depth to the game that no-one has created before, something that Bungie have always prided themselves on, something that most other developers don't bother with - most just want to sell a good game. Were it not for The Forge and Saved Films, Halo 3 would be a pretty good, but still pretty average shooter. But with these two additions, was it worth all the hype? Will the fans be pleased? I think so. With a marvellous story, some beautiful visuals, and The Forge and Saved Films, Halo 3 becomes a game with something that every designer hopes their game will have.