If I may beat a cliché firmly into the dirt just a few inches deeper, Halo 3 is a game that needs no introduction. I mean that literally. If you’re not decked out in your homemade MJOLNIR armor lovingly crafted out of discarded cans of Mountain Dew yourself, you probably know someone who is. Though the phrase “cultural phenomenon” tends to bring a cringe or two to this editor’s ugly mug, it’s not an altogether inaccurate expression in the case of Halo. By way of Halo 2’s incorporation of Xbox LIVE, Bungie has created a truly massive community, one that has perhaps motivated just as much evolution in the series as the creators themselves through over a billion man-hours logged in online play. Halo 3 is a product wrought by many hands; the hype has reached critical mass.
The year's biggest release drops this week -- does it live up to expectations? Can it shake the curmudgeonly, jaded aging PC gamer (me!) from his self-righteous perch on high? Hit the jump to find out!
The thing of it is, Halo 3 is almost two separate games; the multiplayer and the engine Bungie has built around it could stand alone as a completely individual retail release, and is likely to keep gamers occupied long after they’ve finished with the campaign. But I can’t ignore my traditional boner for the single player campaign – we’re gonna do this sequentially, one after the other. Sound good to you? I’ll see you after the big bold header.
The Campaign, plus some nuts and bolts
During a post-grub interlude of our day-long Halo 3 campaign marathon, I caught Jonty Barnes on his way out of the office headed for a soccer game. We talked a little about the campaign, and he told me that special attention was paid to the single player campaign to please those gamers left a little cold by Bungie’s previous efforts. As a member of the aforementioned club of malcontents, I’m pleased to report that they have, with some exceptions.
Halo 3 picks up quick, tossing you headlong into the story while assuming some knowledge of the story so far on the part of the player. Without mentioning too much of the plot’s specifics (because I rather like my legs and would rather them not be broken in the dead of night), it’s certainly worth noting that the game answers most questions players are likely to have from Halo 2 without taking the J.J. Abrams route of creating several hundred more. The problem, then, is where exactly do you go when all you’ve got to do is cover a handful of unknowns? The game sarges onward on with battles that, in the end, remain largely irrelevant to the story; they happen and you move along towards what you’re hoping will be a moment pivotal to the plot. It’s bound to satisfy many gamers just looking for some good, solid action, but in an age in which engaging, well-constructive narrative is possible even beyond the big mystery reveals (or the “Would You Kindlies”, which I’m demanding everyone call them), Halo 3 falls short. Story should remain distant second to gameplay, but not so distant as demonstrated by a game like this, particularly when the developers have had two previous titles to develop such a rich backdrop to build upon.
As I mentioned a second ago, most of the questions are answered, but the means by which they’re handled was devoid of the kind of gravitas I’d expect from the end of the series. Similarly, the ending left a rather sour taste in my mouth, and brings to mind a long history of first-person shooters with brief and ultimately unfulfilling endings. This was one of BioShock’s few flaws, and while I made the argument that in light of the game’s myriad successes it simply wasn’t a big deal for me, Halo 3 is an altogether different monster – having been preceded by two campaigns and their build-up, the anticlimax of Halo 3’s ending seems all the more disappointing. Completing the campaign on Legendary difficulty will win you a precious half-minute of additional ending after the credits, but – well, you’ll see for yourself. While I don’t expect that the ending will ignite the fury of a thousand-nation army as Halo 2 had, it seems a missed opportunity to capitalize on the gridlocked attention of an absolutely massive audience by doing something truly spectacular.
Once the narrative is set in motion, combat rightfully maintains a firm grip on the experience as a whole. Halo 3’s combat remains largely what it has been since Halo’s inception; the formula room of baddos + forward march = tiem2fite seems to work, so why scrap it, right? This time around there’s a bit of variation thrown into the mix by way of secondary items already seen in use in the beta such as bubble shields, invulnerability, deployable cover and so on. What’s really cool about these isn’t the way you’ll use them – it’s the way your enemies will. Halo 3 definitely makes some huge strides in enemy AI, most of which you’ll see (and often even hear) in action as Brutes shout commands to grunts, toss out bubble shields to defend the little ones, and ask their comrades to cover them as they move in on your location. As you play you begin to notice that the enemies use every inch of the terrain against you, taking back routes and drawing your fire across the battlefield while a pack of sneaky bastards up and flank you. Such a marked improvement in AI demands a heightened attention to the lay of the land – if you die as often as I do, you’re probably going to have to rethink your approach. The levels, fortunately, allow for many.
A common criticism of Halo and Halo 2’s campaigns was the repetitive and arguably uninspired level design; the same corridors and canyons, ancient temples with repeating halls, that sort of thing. Halo 3 steps it up a notch with some really creative stages and takes many opportunities to mix things up, and won’t have you barreling down the same tunnel hour after hour. Many set pieces will truly take your breath away, and rarely will you find yourself bored by the environs. The pacing of the action is a bit marred by the vehicle segments which, while fun at first, can become the most mind-shredding experiences a gamer will ever endure thanks to wretched friendly AI. The marines can handle themselves on foot pretty well, but put them behind the wheel of a Mongoose or Warthog and it’s like they left a chromosome or two on the rear bumper. On more than one occasion I realized that my ranks were thinned not by hails of gunfire, but simple disinterest – I’d turn away from the Scarab looking to spill my intestines and see marines on a cliff edge just kickin’ it, probably talking about horses and glitter and stuff in the Warthog, braiding each other’s hair. Being that most of the big epic vehicle battles pretty much intend to be fought against a crew and not one lone Spartan, this can make for some particularly frustrating fights on Heroic and above.
The game looks plenty pretty, outfitted with very detailed texture work and some pretty wicked environment modeling. Some of the frame rate hiccup concerns raised in the beta still exist; you’ll see some stuttering when the action gets particularly hairy or hit up the split-screen cooperative modes, but nothing game-breaking. Those with decent sound systems will get quite a kick out of the game’s impressive sound design – you’ll be hearing bullets zip past your head and distant sounds with outstanding clarity.
The campaign is no waste; it’s flawed but still enjoyable, especially if you match up with three buddies and take on Legendary in online co-op. While many of my hang-ups from previous games have been mended, Halo 3’s campaign suffers from a similar overreaching ambition that seeks to accomplish just a bit more than it actually can. If you’re not expecting perfection and can handle a little bitter in your metaphorical storyline tea (I should be fired), you’ll find something to like in the campaign.
Multiplayer: or, The Reason You’re Probably Buying This Game (I Would Imagine, Anyway)
I'll get this out of the way quick: believe the hype, because Halo 3 is the new hotness in terms of console multiplayer. Sure, this seems like an inevitability given the fact that Halo 2 is still one of the most played games on Live, but once you get your hands on it, you'll understand just how important Halo 3 is to the genre -- important enough that it's completely turned me around on console FPS multiplayer gameplay.
As expected, the game as most have come to love it is back in fine form, now enhanced by the integrated Live system which makes dropping into games and meeting up with friends easier than ever. As we saw in the beta, it's practically impossible to go looking for a particular game to play and not find it. Once you do, pulling parties out of matchmaking and into a custom game lobby or co-op campaign is unbelievably simple. Halo 3 is likely to be the new benchmark for ease-of-use in future titles. The maps, both new and updated classics, are very well balanced and make for great theatres of war for the host of game types, which I'll get to in a second. There are wide open spaces and tight corridors, and even after a 10-hour multiplayer marathon, I found I was still engaged by all of them, still learning nooks and crannies, developing tactics -- a good sign of quality design.
In addition to game types found in Halo and Halo 2 are a host of new features to the latest installment in the series. The honor-bound "Zombie" mode is back, now regulated by the game itself -- no more chiding jerkfaces for not switching teams upon death. Custom game variants are also available, allowing for the kind of customization we've come to expect from the series. But what's most exciting about Halo 3 is the Forge, an engine that allows players to customize the objects and their placement in any map. Limited by a budget (which tends to be plenty), any object available in that map can be moved to any location. Spawn points and map objectives can also be replaced, and compounded by the custom game variant settings, the Forge allows for a virtually unlimited number of possibilities for community-spawned game types.
As Bungie has undoubtedly learned since releasing Halo 2, the best ideas tend to come out of the millions of hours logged by the community, and the Forge is the perfect arena for those ideas to come to fruition. Once saved, map variants can be distributed via a simple filesharing system and passed to friends and recent players, ensuring that the truly quality setups and custom game schemes will rise in popularity and become new standards for the Halo 3 online experience. Users can also share videos of their antics to be played in the included Theater mode over the filesharing service as well. The cream'll rise to the top, and like Zombie mode, it'll provide Bungie with plenty of inspiration for future updates and DLC expansions. They've set a good example by providing Bungie-approved variants and films for download like the utterly insane rocket race variant; it's likely we'll see a slew of interesting content from Bungie and their community alike in the coming months.
Multiplayer combat brings focus back upon the "tripod"; the gun, grenade, and melee standard set forth from the first game. Unlike the "dual-wield or die" standard from Halo 2, balance has been tweaked to allow players to play how they'd like. While I'm certain that after a few months of diehard community play gamers will find a tried-and-true formula for success, right now things feel very stable -- in my experiences I've found success using any number of weapons and tactics. Yeah, in the mess of weaponry available you'll find your favorite (oh god, how I adore the hammer), but you're never screwed with any one weapon -- everything can be lethal in the right hands.
No matter how you feel about the campaign, you’ve gotta hand it to Bungie for their work on Halo 3’s multiplayer; they’ve created a sandbox that the community’s going to be screwing with for years, and in so doing stand to reap the benefits of having one of the largest gatherings of creative consultants in gaming history to help ‘em dream up new ideas. Meanwhile, we get to play one of the most robust and fleshed-out multiplayer schemes ever created and enjoy the fruits of our own labor – win win, right?
The Verdict, and Linde's Silly Dilemma
Like I said earlier, Halo 3 is almost two games in one. The campaign can stand on its own two feet, but multiplayer is what'll keep gamers coming back for years afterward. That being said, it seems difficult and even somewhat unfair to slap the game with a lower score for the faults of the campaign which, after digging into the game, feels very much secondary to the multiplayer component. But Halo 3 is a complete experience and ought to be measured as such.
It's not perfect -- far from it, actually -- but Bungie's accomplishments with multiplayer are so outstanding that it's difficult to get uptight over it. Those losing sleep over the game's impending release, you who are already dreaming up your excuse to get out of work so you can tear through the game -- you won't be disappointed. And for us bitter punks who were never much for the first two Halo titles, plan on being pleasantly surprised. Halo 3 is a solid effort, and one that'll be dominating late nights for quite awhile.