Every year there's that one pop culture event that seems to change the entertainment landscape. Generally it's some sort of movie or book, but regardless of what it is you know that people will be talking about it ad nauseum for months to come. Even if you aren't one of those people who follows pop culture events (or watches movies, reads books or listens to music), chances are you'll know what it is and are already sick of people talking about it. This year's pop culture phenomenon is Halo 3, the single biggest game of 2007 and one of the most popular pieces of entertainment of all time. Since its release Microsoft has managed to sell more than three million units of the game, an impressive number for a game that has only been out a number of weeks. All of a sudden the news has pounced on this one game and everybody is comparing it to the success of the final Harry Potter book and the recent Transformers movie. Needless to say, Halo 3 is a major hit.
So how on earth does one go about reviewing a game like Halo 3? By now just about everybody who was interested in the game has already beaten the game, voiced their concern, and started demanding new multiplayer content. If anything, Halo 3 is the kind of game that is practically critic proof. If you're the kind of person that loved the first two games then it really doesn't matter what I have to say, I have no doubt that you'll be running to your local game store and buying up a copy of this mega popular first-person shooter (if you haven't already). The good news is that I'm not here to hate on Microsoft's biggest game of the year, instead I applaud all of the extras it provides and hope that there are other companies taking notes for what they can do in their future titles.
Halo 3 is, as the title suggests, the third (but certainly not final) installment in the popular first-person shooter franchise. While some may argue that this particular franchise is one of the most overrated titles of all time, anybody who has been with the Xbox since day one already knows what this one game has meant for Microsoft's video game console. It's safe to say that without Halo Microsoft may not have a next generation title to promote, and, without giving it too much credit, Halo 2 played a major role in the overwhelming success of the Xbox Live online service. Other first-person shooters have come and gone, but none have had the impact of the Halo series.
Perhaps this is the reason why so many people are so excited about Halo 3, the franchise's first foray into the wild world of next generation consoles. There was never any doubt that this game was going to be a massive hit, but it seems like everybody has a different reason for wanting to, as Microsoft says, "Finish the Fight." Some are just excited about the brand new multiplayer modes that offer new weapons, levels and gameplay types. Others are excited to see where the game's story takes us, interest to see who would live, who would die and whether or not our hero takes off his mask. Thankfully no matter what reason you have for buying Halo 3, there's no doubt that you'll have a lot of fun playing one of the best games of the year.
When we last left Master Chief he was getting ready to, ahem, finish the fight by heading to Earth. This anti-climactic ending still annoys Halo fans, especially those who bought the game hoping to get some sort of exciting conclusion to their game. But alas, there was no satisfying ending in Halo 2, because Bungie was just setting us all up for the events that happen in this third installment. Looking back at it now the Halo 2 ending makes perfect sense; it leads us right up to what has to be the most explosive chapter of the trilogy. But it was hard to be happy with that sort ending back in 2004, especially when we all knew that Halo 3 wouldn't hit consoles for another two or three years.
The good news is that you won't have to worry about Halo 3 ending on a sour note, from beginning to end Bungie's newest game manages to hit all the right notes. It gives us some epic battles, some time on Earth, the return of some of our favorite characters and an ending that is both satisfying and yet open to interpretation. That's not to say that the game is perfect, but if you're one of those people who felt burned by the way Halo 2 suddenly dropped us, then you won't feel the same anger when playing through Halo 3.
Predictably, Halo 3 starts with Master Chief crash landing on Earth and getting into a brand new battle against an attacking Brute force. The very first level takes place entirely in a large forest, setting the mood for the rest of the game and giving you a quick refresher course on how to play the game. From there you end up defending various bases, battling in military sites and even invading a few enemy spaceships. The campaign is split up into nine different chapters, which in total should take you around ten to twelve hours to beat. Without giving too much of the story away, you'll be fighting side by side with the Arbiter (who played a major role in Halo 2), working as a team to take down major enemy spaceships and other beasts, and, you guessed it, taking on the Flood.
The story mode does a lot of things right, especially when it comes to the way everything plays out on the battlefield. At its best you will feel like you're right in the middle of an epic battle, you (and your fellow computer-controlled soldiers) will be taking fire from all sides, some of which is actually a lot more overwhelming than I expected. There were moments in Halo 2 where it felt like Bungie was trying to portray a giant war, but for some reason (perhaps having to do with system limitations) the urgency of these battles never came through. In Halo 3 it really does feel like you're smack dab in the middle of a war, it may be cliché to use the analogy, but there were times when it felt like the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, only with spike weapons and laser cannons. The game is full of these moments where it feels like it's you against the entire Brute army, which leads to a real fulfilling feeling when you actually take all of these enemies out and are treated to a cinema.
What really sets Halo 3's battles apart is the constant use of voice acting, especially when it comes to the enemies you face. In just about every fight you will have to listen to enemies talk to themselves, insult you by calling you names, and yell out cowardly statements when they get scared and run away. A lot of the dialog is rather humorous, I especially like it when the characters are trying to insult me or are trying to run away to save themselves. But at the same time this dialog can be extremely useful. For example, there are times when you can hear the enemies huddle up and talk about my location, which indicates that they know where I am. Another example of how it's useful is when you hear them suggest rushing from the side or throwing a grenade, these enemies don't just say these things out of hand ... they actually follow through with action.
And it's not just these enemies who have thousands of lines of dialog, your various team members will also have a thing or two to say. With all this talking (from both the good guys and the bad guys) it really gives off the feeling that Halo 3's battles are alive. Add in some dramatic music from Marty O'Donnell and Halo 3 feels like it was lifted right out of a Cineplex. There were moments in this game where I felt like I should just be watching the action on screen and not participating in it. But I was taking part in the action, which is why this game is so much fun.
Oddly enough the one weak link in the storytelling is the various cinemas. While there were a few well put together cut-scenes (when Cortana states that "This is the way the world ends" it sends a shiver down my spine), but by and large the cinemas are actually pretty hokey. Thankfully they don't take the quality of the game down much, but there are just too many sequences that involve people just standing around and talking for no reason. After playing games like BioShock and Half-Life 2 I kind of wish they would have found a better way of mixing the cinemas in from Master Chief's perspective, whenever the game goes into one of cinemas it tends to take me out of the action.
Much like the other games in the series, Halo 3 can be played on a number of different difficulties. If you've never played a first-person shooter before then you might want to tackle the easy and normal difficulties, but fans of the series should probably start with the second highest, Heroic. If you are a real badass that wants to show the world how dedicated you are to Halo 3, then there's also the Legendary difficulty. What's cool about these difficulties is how much they change up the way you play the game. In most games switching to a harder difficulty means nothing more than just fighting harder enemies and being able to take less damage, but in Halo 3 you will actually have to find new hiding spots and deal with enemies that are placed in entirely different locations. It's safe to say that one could have just as much fun playing through the game multiple times on different difficulty settings, which is not something you can say about all games.
On top of that, you won't have to play Halo 3 as a single-player game anymore. One of the most exciting aspects of Halo 3 is the ability to play through the entire campaign (cinemas and all) as a four-player game online. While one person takes the role of Master Chief, you can have up to three of your friends back you up as various Elite characters. This also gives you an incentive to play through the story multiple times, especially when it comes to the higher difficulties. I did run into a few problems regarding lag and the games suddenly freezing and popping us back out to the main lobby, but assuming you can get this mode working properly it's a really cool extra mode that will no doubt enhance your time with the game.
And that's not all, multiple players can actually go into the various levels and play a strange Meta game that is all about scoring the most points. Throughout the game's nine levels you will find a number of hidden skulls. These various skulls will allow you to actually change the way you play the levels. For example, you can turn on a skull that will make all of the enemies harder, or remove the heads up display or make your weapons invisible. Not only will these skulls make the levels more challenging, but they will also act as a multiplier for your scores. The object is to have as many of these skulls on and kill as many enemies as you can, doing so will net you a high score and maybe even an achievement or two.
But there are a lot of people out there that could honestly care less about Halo 3's campaign. These gamers are only interested in the online multiplayer support. Much like Halo 2, this is where the game really shines. If you're one of the millions of gamers who have still been playing Halo 2's online mode long after the game's 2004 release, then you'll feel right at home when starting up Halo 3. For the most part Bungie has taken an "if it ain't broke" approach to their newest game, deciding that the best course of action was to simply add to the game's already amazing online modes.
Pretty much everything you've come to know and love return this time around, including the matchmaking servers, the ranking system, and the various game types. Thankfully Bungie has decided to improve just about every one of these features, giving us one of the best online experiences currently available for any console, not just the Xbox 360. The most obvious addition to this year's game comes in the way of new levels, which are mostly solid entries in the series. While most of the levels look a lot different from those found in the first two Halo games, there are some common themes that seem to link all of the multiplayer levels together.
While some have voiced their concerns about the originality of the new levels, there are some brand new touches that I'm intrigued by. For example, I'm a big fan of the brand new doors that are see-through but have a force field separating the action. These transparent doors add a lot of tactics to the multiplayer, since your enemy can see exactly what you are planning on doing but can't shoot you until you enter the room. I also like that Bungie is experimenting with different textures, such as snow and sand. Not only does the snow look cool as you walk through it, but it also affects the bounce when you throw a grenade. Another interesting addition is the way Bungie has taken out a lot of the invisible walls. Instead of just giving us walls we can't see that won't let us through, if we go too far outside of a level you will probably fall to your death or be shot at by the Guardian's cannons. This allows the multiplayer levels to feel massive, even if you are only fighting in a small area.
Beyond the levels is a brand new ranking system, a second ranking that tracks your entire progress and not just how well you do at one certain matchmaking server. This new ranking is great for those times when you feel you are being matched up with players who are much better than you, even if their server ranking is lower. I'm interested to see how these rankings come into play in the long run of the game; I hope that six months from now people who are just picking up the game will be able to have a fair battle and not have to deal with those gamers who purposely ranked down there character to beat up on neophytes.
The best of the additions has to be the brand new weapons, which feature everything from a Brute hammer to these cool spiker guns that you can dual wield. I'm definitely impressed with the amount of new weapons found on the maps, I think that these new guns will change the overall dynamic of the game once everybody starts to figure out how to use everything for maximum damage. Along with the standard new weapons, you also have these larger weapons that actually take you out of the first-person perspective and turn the game into something of a third-person shooter. These weapons include a completely useless flamethrower, a missile gun and the turret gun we've all used in Halo 2. While these weapons are powerful, they also tend to slow you down and make it almost impossible to dodge. I'm not a huge fan of these weapons, but I'm sure that there are people out there that will figure out how to use them effectively and prove that they really are more useful than I give them credit for.
And that's not even close to all of the new features found in Halo 3. There's one new addition that has the potential to change the way you play the game. I'm of course talking about the brand new items that are scattered around the level. For months Bungie hinted that the "X" button would be used for something brand new, and now that we have the game we learn that the button is used to deploy various items that you find lying around the level. At best these items will affect your gameplay for only a few seconds, but if you use them correctly they should be able to give you the upper hand ... even if it looks like there's no way to survive the attack. These new items include everything from a bubble shield (that deploys a force field that enemies can't shoot through) to a power drainer to a power recharger to an item that actually jams the radar. While you can use these items in the single player mode, it seems clear that this addition is made more for the multiplayer than the campaign mode.
Perhaps the most innovative addition has absolutely nothing to do with the gameplay of Halo 3. In a stroke of pure genius, Bungie has added a theater mode that allows you to watch and share videos from the games you play. This mode could not be any easier, all you have to do is select what video you want to watch and then it will load it up and allow you to watch it from multiple points of view. While this may not seem valuable at first, you'll quickly realize that this mode has several real-world applications that can not only help you improve as a gamer, but also settle arguments between you and your fellow team mates. The most practical application for this game comes when you watch how other people play, especially those who seem to know exactly how to kill everybody else without dying. Studying these experienced gamers is a good way for you to figure out what you're doing wrong and how you can improve. But the even better use for this mode is to show people the absolutely crazy things that happen to you while playing Halo 3. I don't care if it's just to prove a friend wrong, show you getting a lucky grenade stick or getting killed by a flying orange cone, there's more than enough amazing things that happen in Halo 3 to warrant checking out the videos from time to time. Best of all you can actually send those videos to other people, either to show them crazy happenings or just to gloat.
Moving away from the multiplayer mode (although not completely), we have the Forge mode. This is one of those modes that doesn't sound very interesting on paper, but may just be the best reason to pick up Halo 3. The Forge mode allows you to customize your own levels, which means that you can add whatever weapons, vehicles and items to whatever stage you want to play around in. That doesn't mean you get the make your own levels, all you're doing in this mode is actually changing what you can do in any given level.
But wait, that's not the fun part of Forge mode. The best thing about this mode is that you can actually affect how people play the game. That is, you can make your own power-ups, create brand new game types and play with the rules so much that it might as well not even be a first-person shooter. For example, let's say you wanted to turn Halo 3 into a racing game, you can do that. Or what if you wanted to turn the game into a weird baseball simulator? You can do that, too. Best of all, if you like your new game types enough you can actually send them to friends and get other people playing your content. And that's not all, if Bungie likes it enough they will actually put it on their servers for people to download ... and maybe even make it one of the game types in the matchmaking. The amount of freedom you have with a mode like this is staggering, it also means that a year from now we could be playing game types that nobody has even thought of yet. If that doesn't give Halo 3 some long legs then nothing will.
Make no mistake about it; you get a lot of content in Halo 3. For a mere $60 (or $70 if you want the two-disc version, $130 for the version that comes with the cat helmet) you get a ten hour game, the do-it-yourself Forge mode, a four-player co-op Meta game, and a multiplayer mode that you could conceivably still be playing years from now. Halo 3 is a great value, there's absolutely no doubt about that. If you are even remotely interested in Halo or first-person shooters then that's a good enough reason to pick this game up, it's almost shocking the amount of game you get for the price of a standard game. The amount of stuff in Halo 3 just makes me even more bitter about Shadowrun, a game which didn't even have 1/10th the amount of content and retailed for the same price.
Earlier this year gamers everywhere started to flood the message boards complaining that the Halo 3 beta didn't look very good. To a certain extent those people were right; the multiplayer version of Halo 3 is far from the best looking game on the Xbox 360. However, the single-player campaign is definitely an improvement over what you get when you play online. Though there are definitely better looking games currently available on Microsoft's next generation console (Gears of War and BioShock spring to mind), it does feel like too much was made over the game's look. Halo 3 is a good looking game in its own right, all it takes is one look at the three year old Halo 2 and you'll see that every aspect of Halo 3 has been improved.
What it comes down to is that Halo 3 is still a great playing first-person shooter that manages to get just about everything right. It may not be as groundbreaking as the original Halo, but it's hard to complain about a game that is trying so hard to add new content and new ways to play the game. Regardless of whether you buy this game to finish the fight or play online, you're going to have a great time playing Halo 3. It's almost impossible for a game with this much hype to live up to expectations, but it's clear that Halo 3 is able to pull that off. After playing this game I almost feel bad for the rest of the first-person shooters that have yet to come out this year.
More On:Halo 3
Regardless of whether you buy this game to finish the fight or play online, you're going to have a great time playing Halo 3. It's almost impossible for a game with this much hype to live up to expectations, but it's clear that Halo 3 is able to pull that off.