Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Bungie Studios
Release Date: Fall 2007
With the week's end comes the piece de resistance, the real reason behind every single preview event that happened this week: the press multiplayer preview of Halo 3. From 5 PM to 1 AM, Microsoft rented out the elegant Foreign Cinema restaurant in downtown San Francisco, and with the aid of elegant hors d'oeuvres and two open bars, let games journalists from nearly every major and minor press outlet in the country rub shoulders and play Halo 3 on Xbox Live. When games journalists die, we can only assume that this is what our heaven will look like.
The original appeal of Halo was not so much in the nuts and bolts of the game, as it was in its immense social appeal. The Halo 3 party did an unusually good job of showing off that this sequel had that same magic. Even journalists who readily admitted to having no experience with (or love of) FPS ended up with a controller by the end of the night, screaming and cursing as some guy sniped off their heads. The pace of the action was very fast, with individual game sessions rarely lasting much more than 15 or 20 minutes. Getting new matches was never difficult, since beta testers from throughout the country were online along with the journalists. This sadly meant that the journalists, many of them picking up the game for the first time, got pasted by the beta testers. Still, a few journalists had been playing the game for a while, and watching a team with even skill levels rumble with their opponents could be fascinating.
Gamers curious about the actual gameplay of Halo 3 ... honestly have little to be curious about. Some journalists were joking that the game was really "Halo 2 HD" before the end of the evening. Even as someone who hasn't played much Halo, the gameplay was so obviously simple and unlike contemporary FPS multiplayer that it felt like it just had to be retained nearly unchanged from earlier titles. This is both good and bad. On the good side: If you've ever enjoyed Halo multiplayer, you'll still enjoy this. The array of weapons, maps, and vehicles appears to be much the same, but rebalanced to minimize cheapness and exploits. Some journalists commented that the maps used for the beta appeared to be direct remakes of Halo maps, with more nooks and crannies added for hiding. The lack of gimmicky new gameplay features like blindfire, cover, and bullet time also gave Halo 3's play a unique quality. It really was not like playing Gears of War, or anything else, and was so abstract as to be almost arcade-like in its intensity and simplicity. It was an easy game to get lost in, until you relied purely on instincts and twitch reflexes. Few modern games are willing to speak directly to the gut, but if the multiplayer is anything to go by, Halo 3 masters this.
Of course, there are some obvious downsides to this approach to multiplayer, too. It's hard to imagine someone who'd tired of Halo multiplayer finding anything new in Halo 3's, when the whole point is to offer the past formula with more fine-tuning. In some ways, the gameplay feels so straightforward as to be antiquated. Most console FPS now try to come up with unique gimmick match types or multiplayer gameplay mechanics; Halo 3 simply showed off Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and King of the Hill variants. While all were fun and featured some interesting variant rules, like how the "Hill" constantly respawned and moved for King of the Hill, it felt rather pedestrian after playing the likes of Gears of War or Rainbow Six Vegas. Arguably, we can expect more variety and unique elements in the final build, but why would you not make sure you showed off such things to the media? It suggests that Halo 3 is going to rely largely on its unique pace and past reputation to distinguish from the ever-thickening pack of 360 FPSes.
Speaking of which, Halo 3 appeared to map its commands to the controller with little respect for the control layout most 360 games use. Making the adjustment from years of playing games that used relatively standard layouts was difficult, to say the least. Now the right and left bumpers were used both for reloading and picking up weapons. Pick-ups of equipment were automatic and were activated with the X button. Firing was mapped to the triggers, which is at least somewhat standard, as was the analog movement. Probably the oddest control decision was mapping the command to get into a vehicle to the right bumper, which forces you to maintain pressure on the button for a few seconds before you can actually start driving. There may be subtle game balance issues behind these decisions, as certainly vehicles didn't break multiplayer or become irrelevant they way they do in many other games.
So much of what Halo 3 does really well is, after all, in the fine details. Take the graphics, for example. Already the visuals are becoming a source of complaint, drawing unfavorable comparisons to the likes of Gears of War and even Dead Rising. While maps are relatively large and complex, the textures on rocks, ground, and other organic surfaces are relatively crude. Reflective surfaces, like water and metal, manage to be very attractive, and the designs for weapons, vehicles, and structures are both artistic and distinct. Physics are better than your average Xbox FPS, but don't really stack up to the likes of F.E.A.R. or Gears of War.
There are nice touches here and there, like the way grenades bounce differently on various surfaces, the restrained ragdoll physics that depict the weight of a falling armored figure believably, or the way dead bodies float in pools of water. On the other hand, vehicle physics are still fairly questionable (you can "barrel roll" a Mongoose without so much as getting knocked off), and the leaping physics feel unnaturally slow and floaty on descent. Figures don't have the feeling of weight and mass present in Gears of War, nor do the environments have the multitudes of physics object details. Of course, allowances must be made for the superhuman nature of the Spartans, but it seems odd that their bodies fall with a true sense of weight after being defeated, but not when leaping through the air.
Most of the weapons available in the Halo 3 multiplayer beta were fairly standard, either for FPS in general or Halo in particular. The Needler, Spiker, Power Drainer, Covenant Carbine, Plasma Pistol, SMG, Machine Turret, and Missile Pod were all likely to pop up in games. Each weapon had a particular use that mapped more onto the physics of the Halo setting than only the usual archetypes that are required to appear in every FPS. The Power Drainer, for instance, was designed specifically to counteract the "Bubble Shield" defensive equipment that stops all incoming bullets (but allows melee kills). The Plasma Pistol was designed specifically to do unusually heavy damage to vehicles. Some weapons are roughly archetypal, like the Covenant Carbine's sniping abilities, but weapons like this are more exception than rule. The Missile Pod is probably the most devastating weapon in the game, even making your Spartan zoom back from its standard first- to third-person perspective. Most effective against vehicles, it locks onto a moving target and unleashes its weapon load with deadly accuracy, but on the downside, it also slows down your character's movement to nearly a crawl, in addition to restricting your jumping ability.
In terms of vehicles, the Mongoose was the means of transportation available in the multiplayer beta, along with a flying, hovering vehicle called the Ghost. Most maps had all of the available weapons tucked away somewhere, either in a base or little meandering cave or underground passage. Of course, memorizing the map layout and weapon drop-offs granted an enormous tactical advantage, but that is simply the competitive nature of FPS. Interestingly, few weapons were truly unbalancing, with a given team or player tending only to hold advantage when they controlled certain areas of a map, generally a central or raised area that afforded a good location for sniping.
A lot of players at the multiplayer demo went out of their ways to turn up the TVs we were playing on, citing the game's sound as one of the best things about that. Surprisingly, that is true. It's hard to pin down exactly what, but there was something truly distinct and visceral about Halo 3's sound effects. The weapon sounds conveyed menace and power, while vehicles offered the whine and hum of futuristic engines. Explosions and impacts had a truly weighty, satisfying sound to them. At one point, I caught myself grabbing different kinds of weapons and using them, purely to hear what they sounded like. This is perhaps the extreme case of Halo 3's appeal manifesting largely in its details, but it really adds ambience to a sci-fi shooter when you're firing an otherworldly, hard-to- imagine weapon like the Needler, and somehow the sound it makes is exactly right.
A lot of effort appeared to have been put into creating Halo 3's Live interface, probably in response to the numerous complaints Halo 2 drew. From a lobby, players could join a match, or join along with a friend to play online with others in split-screen mode. Supposedly the final game will allow up to four players to go online from a single console. All of the consoles were set to search for random matches, but the interface showed hints of numerous interesting features. Players could record match videos with a touch of the Back button, or veto particular unwanted players or match types before a match began. If you happen to meet someone you liked playing with, you could form impromptu parties with the X button. The interface appeared to promise that players would have a lot of control over the nature of their multiplayer experience in Halo 3, down to micromanaging whose voice could be overheard on TeamSpeak. This customizability was one of the main drawing points of the original Halo, and with the massive improvements to the 360's Live experience, Halo 3 promises a nearly unparalleled amount of personal control over multiplayer.
As of this writing, in retail pre-orders alone, Halo 3 has already sold 4.4 million copies. In some respects, all Bungie has to do in order to create a hit is just make sure they ship some sort of game disc with what resembles a playable program on it by the appointed release date in Fall 2007. Bungie's sights are obviously aiming much higher, but where they have (and haven't) chosen to invest effort in Halo 3, at least judging from the multiplayer beta, indicates a very unusual sense of priorities. To some extent, people expecting a cutting-edge console FPS out of Halo 3 may be disappointed. Fans of Halo who want the most fine-tuned iteration of the Halo experience yet are likely to be very happy indeed, and there are a lot of Halo fans out there.
More articles about Halo 3