Halo 3 is quite possibly the most hyped game in the history of video games. Anyone who even casually follows industry news will no doubt have been inundated by the countless tidbits that Bungie has offered to the masses over the last 3 years. This coupled with a 10 million dollar ad campaign make it impossible to miss Microsoft’s golden child. With so much time and money in one title, the question isn’t whether it’s a good game, it’s whether Halo lives up to the hype.
Halo 3 brings to a close the trilogy that Microsoft’s consoles have been built on. The first two games made the Xbox a competitor in a market dominated by the PS2. While the Xbox never came close to reaching the popularity of the PS2, the Halo franchise became a phenomenon. Halo 2 dominated Xbox Live, and drove sales of the console. Now, three years later, 360 owners and Halo fans can finally “Finish the Fight”.
The campaign puts you right into the action, picking up more or less where Halo 2 left off. Master Chief returns to Earth to find that the Covenant has invaded in force, and it’s up to the Chief to deal with them. The campaign follows the same basic formula of the Halo series, plenty of fast paced action on foot and in vehicles, with story interspersed where there’s room. Playing by yourself, the campaign will take ten to fifteen hours to complete, but with a group of Halo veterans on Co-Op it can be finished in under 5. Considering this formula, it’s interesting to see a story device that Bungie chose to use. A few times per level, players will experience a kind of inner voice with an accompanying hallucination of Cortana or Gravemind. While these are meant to move the story along, they really feel out of place and more like speed bumps to finishing the game. There’s quite a few of these segments, especially on certain levels, and they become quite tedious.
On the topic of tediousness, Halo 3’s level design has to be mentioned. Halo 3 suffers from the same problem that has plagued the series since its start, the recycling of levels. This occurs in two ways, by making the player backtrack through a level, and by using structures and buildings that are identical. This is nothing new for the franchise, and it hurts Halo 3 just as much as it hurt the previous titles. Extensive backtracking seriously detracts from the campaign and makes you wonder what Bungie has been doing for the last three years. Even the levels that are throwbacks to the first Halo game don’t create the feelings of nostalgia that they should, and come off as cheap imitations.
Levels aren’t the only aspect of Halo that is recycled, the games soundtrack suffers from the same issue. While the soundtrack is quite good, much of it gets used often enough to become boring. The enemies have a good library of voice clips to draw from and add a nice touch to the campaign. The voice acting in the game overall is above average.
The new weapons in Halo 3 are a nice addition, but do very little to alter gameplay. The new weapons are essentially new versions of old weapons, with a few exceptions like the Spartan Laser, and don’t change play in any significant way. Compare this to the difference in the original Halo and Halo 2 where the new weapons fundamentally changed how the game was played. The introduction of dual wielding drastically altered how Halo was played, but there is no drastic shift in weaponry in Halo 3. Bungie instead tasks the game’s new equipment with this goal. The right piece of equipment can completely turn a battle around, and turn impossible odds in your favor both in the campaign and in multiplayer. The ability to carry turrets is another excellent addition.
Graphically, Halo 3 is certainly an improvement over its predecessor. At the beginning of the campaign, Sergeant Johnson is almost unrecognizable in his newly rendered form except for his trademark cigar. Unfortunately, this is one of the few times that Halo’s graphics will impress. The games visuals are mediocre save for a few notable effects like the Gravity Hammer, and some lighting effects caused by the flame weapons and some explosions. This would be offset by the amount of action that can take place on screen, if it weren’t for the game’s frame rate issues. Several areas in the campaign suffer from significant frame rate drops, especially when running in Co-Op. Another issue with the visuals is that when two players share one widescreen TV, the screen is split horizontally with the left and right side of the screen left unused. This essentially forces widescreen TVs to display the game in a full screen view. While it may not be a big problem, it’s certainly annoying when you run into it.
Halo 3’s narrative brings to a close a trilogy six years in the making. There was a significant amount of outrage at Halo 2 due to what Bungie referred to as a cliffhanger ending. While the ending was certainly a cliffhanger, it offered almost no resolution to the games story. This puts Halo 3’s narrative in a bit of a tough spot, and makes it simply feel like Halo 2 part two rather than its own story. While the ending of Halo 3 certainly closes the trilogy, it feels uninspired as does the rest of narrative. While it isn’t necessarily bad, it’s far from exceptional. Players who haven’t played a Halo title before will be even more unimpressed with the story seeing as no effort is made to recap the events that have taken place before the third installment. This is a little disappointing considering it would’ve taken less than five minutes to bring new players up to speed.
You might be wondering how a title can recover from so many faults, and Halo 3 answers that question. Halo 3 has the best multiplayer of any 360 game on the market. Co-Op play in the campaign is so much fun that it eclipses the numerous problems that wrack the single player experience. Playing through the game with three friends is an experience that you shouldn’t miss. Combine the Co-Op with the campaign meta game, and Bungie has found a way to give the campaign almost as much replay value as the multiplayer does. Friends can work together to achieve a collective score, or can compete to see who can score the highest. The addition of the skulls and their drastically altering effects only adds to the replay value. With the amount of work put into the meta game, it’s interesting to note the lack of two important features that should have been incorporated. There’s no matchmaking system for Co-Op. While you’re going to play with friends 90% of the time, it’d have been nice to have an option for the 10% when you can’t find anyone to play with. The lack of a leaderboard is also puzzling as giving player’s performance a numerical score seems to be the perfect time for one.
The competitive multiplayer is the best implementation of any multiplayer on the 360. The matchmaking system makes getting into a match painfully easy. The first thing you’ll notice after entering matchmaking is the world map with little lights that signify Halo 3 activity. While not necessary by any stretch it’s a nice little touch and it’s interesting to see where the majority of players are. There are enough matchmaking lists to satisfy just about everyone, no matter what type of game you’re looking to play. The popular lists from Halo 2 are back along with some new ones like Team Tactical. The only significant downside to the playlists is that due to the relative specialization of the maps the playlists are somewhat restricted to the maps available to them.
Bungie also made sure to please players who aren’t into matchmaking. The amount of custom game types are many and varied enough to keep large parties of friends entertained for hours on end. Each game type has several variations built in, not to mention the amount of tweaking that can go on within the games options. If tweaking game types isn’t enough, then the Forge was made for you. Here players can enter a map, even as a party, and can edit the features of the map. While major aspects like terrain can’t be changed, vehicle, weapon and object placement as well as spawn points can all be altered. If making your own maps isn’t your thing, Forge still offers a lot of fun by giving you the opportunity to just goof around. Players can switch freely between their normal body and their Monitor form, which allows them to alter the map. Seeing how far a body can fly when standing on a giant stack of explosive barrels is always good for a laugh.
Bungie smartly removed enemy chat from ranked matches in online play. This coupled with the ability to easily mute any player in-game help alleviate one of Halo 2’s major problems: voice chat. Anyone who has played Halo 2 or the Halo 3 beta for any significant amount of time will notice the uncanny ability of some players to use the foulest most vile language possible at every turn. While all players should be of an age to have heard the majority of this language before, its frequency and ferocity is enough to make a sailor blush.
Bungie simultaneously removed one of the biggest sources of “griefing” from Halo while adding a whole new venue to grief your friends. There’s no better way to rub a nice kill in a friend’s face than entering the theater with them and making them watch the kill and subsequent body humping in slow motion from multiple angles. Despite this, the Theater is another great addition to Halo 3’s arsenal. Casual players can use it to show their friends that awesome stunt they pulled in the last match while more serious players can use it to analyze their play and see where they need to improve. Players can even save films and screenshots and upload them for others to see. Just imagine losing a match to some friends and logging into your favorite forums to see a screenshot of you getting shot in the face plastered over your screen.
Trying to argue the merits of Halo 3’s single player campaign is a losing battle. The campaign by itself offers a painfully mediocre experience. Halo 3 really shines in its multiplayer aspects, both Co-Op and competitive. Co-Op alters the campaign experience enough to marginalize the vast majority of its problems and bring you back time and again to play through with friends. Online multiplayer is where Halo 3 shines, and Bungie has done an excellent job making Halo 3 the new bar to meet on the 360. The ease of matchmaking and new features like the Theater and Forge put Halo 3 far above the rest of the 360’s vast field of multiplayer titles. While Halo 3 is an awesome game, and should be a welcome addition to almost any 360 owner’s library, it’s hard to say that it lived up to its potential. This game could have been better, and perhaps promised a bit too much.
Final Score: 9 out of 10 - Very Good (How do we rate games?)