I used to consider Halo to be just another first-person shooter, much like any other one you could name. I didn't understand why people went out of their minds with manic glee for the series, lavishing it with critical and financial success. I sort of assumed it was because it was the only good game on the Xbox or something, then went about my day.
Then I became what we in the trade laughingly refer to as a gaming journalist and started playing everything else on the market, and it became relatively obvious why Halo was as well-regarded as it is. You have to know your FPSes before Halo's successes become truly apparent. In any genre that's as overcrowded as the first-person shooter, the only real innovation that's possible is to be flawless, and Halo is moderately close to it.
Oh, the games have problems, most of which stem from the single-player. The first Halo doubles back on itself in a weird sort of parody, forcing you to retrace your steps almost to the beginning of the game before it ends, and then forces you through what may in fact be the most irritating final level that it could've possibly managed. The Warthog in Halo drives like its tires are made out of butter, so of course the final stage is a hell-for-leather Warthog race with a short timer. The second game has, of all things, intrusive and gimmicky boss fights, and like a Neal Stephenson novel, it doesn't end so much as it stops.
The underlying framework of both the single- and multiplayer Halo is so obviously solid, though, that it's been reshaping the first-person shooter in its image for the last six years. Of the games that have come out in the last six years, the only FPSes that don't bear Halo's stamp on them do so deliberately, like Painkiller or Half-Life 2, because they're going for an entirely different sort of experience.
(The depressing metacommentary here is that most of the games that have chosen to imitate Halo aren't imitating the relative complexity of its narrative, its fast-paced infantry-style combat, its simultaneously grim and uplifting mood, or its increasingly customizable multiplayer modes. Instead, it's all recharging health bars, dark science fiction with high body counts and only two weapons, bolted onto the standard model for Just Another FPS. The only thing the games industry does better than making games is missing the goddamn point.)
With all this in mind, Halo 3 has been hotly anticipated from the moment Halo 2 hit shelves. Not only was it the light at the end of the tunnel for the first year of the 360's life, but it was also the end of a surprisingly complex story and a fresh dose of gameplay for a few million gamers who have been playing Halo 2 like it was their job for the last three years.
Basically, what I'm saying is entirely irrelevant and mostly for my own amusement. Halo 3 could verifiably cause radiation poisoning, and it'd still move three million units. Writing about it is almost pointless.
Fortunately, Halo 3 is actually pretty good.
The single-player mode returns to the relative feel of the first game, with wide-open battlefields and an emphasis on infantry combat. You play through the entire game as the Master Chief, who has returned to Earth just in time to help the Marines retake the African city of New Mombasa. With the Arbiter as your near-constant sidekick (controlled by another player in co-op mode, and as near-immortal CPU backup if you're solo), you immediately jump right back into the fray, battling through the highways to the city, taking on immense challenges in an effort to find out what the hell the Ark is and why the Covenant has nearly driven humanity to extinction in an effort to find it.
If you're a Halo veteran, there are quite a few surprises waiting for you in Halo 3. You'll be familiar with the combat, which is as fast-paced and tactical as first-person shooters get, but it's been given several more degrees of complexity by souping up the AI. The Marines, while they still aren't much more than cannon fodder, are now capable of effective combat, to the point where several fights almost require you to have them by your side in order for you to succeed.
The enemies are a bit different now. The Covenant has fractured into two factions, one of which is essentially on your side. You spend the entirety of Halo 3 fighting the Brutes, who compensate for their lack of shields with a lot of natural resistance to damage. The first few hits blow off a Brute's armor, and when it's close to death, it often comes after you in a berserk frenzy, forcing you to drop everything and unload into its face. Further complicating matters, an occasional Brute shows up wielding a new melee weapon called a gravity hammer, which'll swat you into low orbit if it connects.
The challenge factor from Halo 3's enemies is much less technical and doesn't require the overcharged plasma pistol "nutcracker" trick as much as it used to, but it's no less challenging for that.
The first half of the game suffers to some extent from the lack of Cortana, who provided the series with most of what humor it had and most of the exposition, and to be honest, it begins to feel a little rote and by-the-numbers by the halfway point. By the time you've gotten that far, you've fought through updated versions of a lot of the notable battles from Halo 2, and then the Flood show up out of nowhere like someone threw a switch labeled "Zombie Time." (It's not really a spoiler to tell you that the Flood show up in a Halo game, is it? Their existence is what drives the whole damn plot.) It begins to get a little stale.
Fortunately, the game turns most of it around in the second half. If the first half of Halo 3 feels too much like the past two games for its own good, the second half displays everything that Bungie learned by making those games.
The graphics and sound, frankly, don't display any significant advances over Halo 2. They do the job they're there to do, with a nice constant frame rate and decently crisp audio, and the draw distance is clear enough that you can always manage to get a headshot on the three pixels representing that distant Jackal sniper's head. There are several spectacular images to be found, like the excavation of Mombasa or the twisted organic wreckage of a Flood hive, but for the most part, the graphics sit squarely in service of the combat, as it should be. Nothing jumps out at you except the 15 alien bastards who want to burn a hole through your face.
The music, admittedly, is the weak spot here. Compared to Halo 2's "buy the official soundtrack album please" score, Halo 3's music is mostly bombastic and orchestral, with several pieces that sound like slight remixes of the original Halo theme. A little more electric guitar would've been nice, but admittedly out of place in a game that's built around spectacle and impossible odds. Halo 2's score was all about you as the superhero; Halo 3's score is about you as the hero. The difference is subtle and mostly a choice between iconic types, but it's there.
By the time you've reached the end of Halo 3, you feel as though you've earned every victory you've fought, even on lower difficulties. There are battles in the latter half of Halo 3 that'll shape the FPS genre for years to come, and the ending, while not entirely satisfying, genuinely feels like an ending.
The big innovation in the campaign mode, really, is the ability to play through it cooperatively with up to four players, with player two as the Arbiter and players three and four as a pair of nameless Covenant Elites. This is a lot of fun, allowing players to coordinate their offensive, flank the enemy and occasionally screw each other over with plasma grenades to the back.
About the only criticism I can mount against it is that it may make the campaign too easy, as players will respawn shortly after their deaths as long as the entire team isn't wiped out. Even on Legendary, you can screw up repeatedly and spectacularly and still be okay so long as one guy on the team manages to stay alive ... and in this kind of game, which specializes in huge battles and infantry combat, just staying alive isn't that hard. Just hide behind that big damn rock, hero.
The multiplayer game, like the campaign mode, displays most of what Bungie's learned over the course of the last few years. Halo 3 allows you to customize the rules on every map and save that rule set under a new name with surprising ease, which means you'll probably rarely, if ever, see the standard games online.
When we were playing the game at Bungie's studio, we came up with Ninja Tag (everyone's cloaked and only has an energy sword), Rocket Baseball (playing stickball with the rocket launcher and gravity hammer), and Crouching Tiger (50% gravity, everyone has shotguns and gravity hammers; the result was a total Hong Kong action movie, with people sailing through the air to smack each other in the face), and that was over the course of a single evening. Halo 3 is extremely flexible and customizable, which ought to give it an amazing amount of longevity.
Between the ability to come up with your own bizarre custom modes and the theater mode, which records damn near everything you do with crystal clarity and allows you to play it back from multiple points of view, the worst thing you can say about Halo 3 multiplayer is that it's going to force you to buy an Elite 360 just for the sake of having more hard drive space. It's going to result in 300,000 new machanima videos by this time next week.
Halo 3, in short, deserves the amount of press and exposure it's getting. It's the product of a team that's on the top of its game and have been given the time they needed to make the game they wanted to make. If you've ever enjoyed an FPS, this is something you'll probably want to check out.
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