Price: $59.99, $69.99, $129.99
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Bungie Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Halo game. It plays just like Halo, and the battles transpire as you’d expect. Bungie continues the tried and true 5 minutes of hellish action throughout the entire trilogy, and much of what you see in Halo 3 is a beefed up and pretty version of stuff we’ve played before. That is not a negative criticism, because this is essentially one long game. Major changes to gameplay would not be welcome. Instead, Bungie has thrown a barrage of new items and vehicles for you to play around with. That’s what makes Halo 3 feel fresh, even in moments where you could have swore you already played a section three years ago. I’m not going to give specific details, but there are at least two sections that are complete mirrors of things in Halo 1. Maybe more, but I’ll leave you to decide that when you play.
It is the story and battles that make the campaign for Halo 3 as wonderful as they are. You can stop whining about having the Brutes as your main enemy in the game, they are far and away the best force you’ve ever come up against in the Halo series. The character design for Brutes has been revamped a bit to show the hierarchy from Chieftans down to the infantry type soldier.
Aside from graphical upgrades, the AI of enemy soldiers has been refined further than the brilliant work done on Halo 2. Early in the game I came around a bend to a Brute beating on a marine with two buddies taunting the poor human, which leant a feeling of this being a full war that I’m just walking through. Being the hero I am I stuck a spike grenade to one of the beasts, and immediately the head Brute tossed the marine aside and rolled behind a pillar. Gravity Hammer in hand I pursued for righteous justice. As any good Halo player knows grenades are the tool that win most battles. I tossed a frag nade at one of the remaining two Brutes, and as he rolled from the blast the other gorilla freak threw down a Bubble Shield right where his buddy was heading. This is how the enemy AI fights the entire game, with smart decisions and tactical maneuvering. Building a game where every battle you win is earned makes for an exciting twelve hours.
The game is designed in waves, so that you’ll be blasting away trying to survive for five minutes and then spend some time getting your wits about you. When you get in the new UNSC Hornet (superior to the Covenant Banshee) to battle some Scarabs (which have full AI systems now, instead of being a piece of geometry like in Halo 2) if you survive there won’t be a major battle with Brutes on the ground. You’ll take a deep breath, and move forward to the next battle.
In single player Halo has always been weakest in level design; although the second game alleviated a good deal of this problem. Halo 3 does go a step further with the levels, but the typical areas full of crates (even if the artists masked them as something different) are prevalent. The few sections of interesting levels make us wish Bungie could have pushed this aspect a little further. Things are much more varied this time around, and the agonizing backtracking has been lessened. There is still some backtracking to do in Halo 3, but it’s usually quick and almost enjoyable. At least it’s not a chore like the Library from Halo 1, which left gamers feeling as if they were stuck in an infinite loop of level design. As it is, everything looks gorgeous, which might explain the horrible friendly AI standing around staring at walls.
Horrible is possibly a strong term, but in comparison to the brilliant enemy soldiers I can’t help but be let down. While Brutes are throwing Deployable Cover up in front of Grunts being mowed down by my BR, I have a marine tossing grenades at my feet. Or shooting friendlies, which elicits a funny, “Did I shoot you? I’m sorry.” I guess having Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff say this makes it slightly better.
The worst part is that when I need them the most, my marines are not there for me. In Halo when you go into a big battle and there are rockets available, it’s a good idea to let an AI teammate hold them because they have infinite ammo. But driving a Mongoose underneath a stomping Scarab while my rocket wielding douche of a friend looks at how pretty the undercarriage is does not help my situation. Fire the damn rockets! Again, this is made all the more frustrating by how great the enemies react to situations.
For the campaign Bungie has delivered. Anyone who says Halo 2 wasn’t a lot of fun to play through is likely bitter about the horrible ending. I’m here to proudly exclaim that the campaign problems of the past are gone. There are zero boss battles in all of Halo 3. There are major fights that are boss like, but only because they’re an insanely ratcheted up version of the other battles. This is how it should be, and I am thankful there is no Tartarus equivalent in Halo 3. Speaking of endings, Halo 3 does have one. Whether it’s how you want things to conclude is another matter. The important thing is there is a definite conclusion to this story line.
It is difficult for a developer to get players emotionally invested in the content of their game, which is why so many titles are simply refined game mechanics with little to no story. Halo 3 is the end of an epic story that blatantly takes from classic sci-fi tales and blends them with Bungie’s original ideas. The sum total of the series is an emotional ride that will leave you exhilarated, and yes even a little heartbroken.
That story is integrated almost seamlessly in Halo 3. Cut scenes don’t feel as removed from the game as before. Each one is triggered by an action from the player, usually pressing a button on a panel somewhere. These scenes are fairly sparse, and occur only at pivotal moments in the game. This is simply because Bungie chose to tell the majority of story through gameplay and in-game dialogue. And with the game itself looking so good, you don’t need six hours of CGI scenes. The universe of Halo is fleshed out tremendously during the game with character nuances. Brutes do not sit around waiting for you to show up; they are busy doing their own thing (usually brutalizing marines).
You’ll have to play for yourself to find out how the story pans out, but we were surprised at how deep Bungie went this time around. The relationships of the characters mean so much in a general sense as you start the game, and from there it escalates. You’ll learn more about Miranda Keyes and where she fits in, as well as Sgt Johnson. It’s hard to talk about with spoiling a game that should not be spoiled. In particular, the love story between Master Chief and Cortana provides a focus to the game that an epic war between species can not accomplish. As Chief the player needs something to anchor them into the story, and that happens to be Cortana. The only true emotion we see from MC is his devotion to Cortana, and it makes for some spectacular gaming in the later sections. Areas that are frustrating in gameplay are made great by this story arc. If there’s one problem with Halo 3’s story it is the ommision of the second most contested part of the previous game’s story. The Arbiter is completely shoved to the side, and no story is offered for him. This is Master Chief’s game, as it should be. But not even in cut scenes do we get a glimpse of the Arbiter’s story. It’s not a big deal, but to anyone playing this game first the one tremendous moment for the Arbiter becomes a minor side point of little interest.
Bungie has blended multiple aspects in game design to create a truly enjoyable experience. Of course, the addition of items and a revamped control setup makes Halo 3 feel like a new game most of the time. You’ll be introduced to the new items like the Bubble Shield (which puts up a force field objects can’t go through) or the Power Drainer (which disables shields and vehicles). In order to use these items you press X, which Halo fans have come to know and love as the reload button. It’s a new day, and now you reload using the bumper buttons depending on which hand a weapon is in. The weapons have been balanced admirably, and even when you have a powerful weapon there is some cost to using it. In Halo 2 when two players lunged at each other with the sword it was a crapshoot on who would get the kill, this time around the swords actually clash as each player walks away injured but breathing. It’s subtle changes like this that make the game tighter than it has ever been.
There is no Halo game without the musical stylings of Marty O’Donnell. The genius composer behind the Flintstone vitamin jingle, and the Halo soundtrack. The sound design in Halo 3 is stunning with newly composed music for the game and returning favorite songs. Marty has a way of deftly interweaving music into the story, so that when you’re pounding through enemies there’s a drum heavy beat pushing you forward. And that new music is stellar. We first saw it in a trailer earlier in the year, and in game it is inspiring. MC, the Arbiter, and Sgt Johnson doing a hero walk towards the camera as the music swells is just another confirmation of the importance of Halo’s score. Marty’s score is undoubtedly the most important portion of the campaign, as it is the glue that holds it all together.
Of course, there is far more than a single player game here. The campaign itself features 4-player coop online, along with a great new feature called “Campaign Scoring.” Turning this feature on results in you getting points for how well you do in a level, and at the end there will be a carnage report. Now you can no longer say you carried a friend through the game, the truth will be displayed for all to see. Multiplayer and Forge are an entire game unto themselves, and are actually vastly more content rich than multiplayer only games like Shadowrun. In fact, the Multiplayer aspect deserves a review all by itself.
Then there’s the greatest addition to the Halo series. Saved Films are an unexpected surprise that has us in awe time and time again. We watch films, pause to see a particularly amazing kill happen, and then pan around for better angles. Except for one multiplayer shot all of the images in this story were taken from my campaign run using Saved Films and uploading screenshots to Bungie.net. The system is far more robust than anything being offered in games. The game is beautiful, and while it’s highly debatable where it stands on the list of best looking 360 games there is no doubt Bungie has a lot going on. Some levels, which may feel desolate in the number of enemies, reveal upon a rewatch swarms of Banshees battling Hornets off in the distance. This is all captured in Saved Films, and the integration of this technology is a monstrous accomplishment.
We’ve finally come to the end. The fight is finished, and while there are some minor issues here and there, this is a satisfying conclusion to the biggest game going. Halo 3 ties up the story that left us hanging in Halo 2. The campaign for Halo 3 is narrowly the best of the series. While the freshness of fighting the Flood is by now a banal occurrence, the gameplay more than makes up for it. The major twist this time around doesn’t increase the fun of the game like in the original. This time it is akin to the world altering twist from Signs. You’re thinking, “Holy shit” as it happens. But immediately after you realize the entire trilogy has led to the moment. You’re no longer surprised or impressed by the twist, but as a part of the whole it is fairly genius. Everything about Halo 3 comes together to perform the perfect dance of bullets and dead bodies.