A very long introduction
After waiting in line for close to four hours at our local GameStop, I went home and slept. I know--I should have been working late into the night through the campaign, should have been slaying gamers online in matchmaking, glued to my tube for hours. Graduate school has started here at the University of Washington, so staying up late just wasn't in the cards. And, honestly, I wasn't as
psyched for Halo 3 as I was for Halo 2. Call it diminishing returns--hell, it happened with all those World War II games.
Halo, for me, is about character
. I don't necessarily mean the monumental iconic image of the good Master Chief standing posed with his Assault Rifle. No. It's the fun and whimsy of the game that sticks with me--it's the series's sense of humor. The wit and sarcasm of the UNSC marines. The grunts shouting "Not the Demon!" Priceless. Perhaps part of this humor rests with the presentation, how large and inexpressibly sci-fi
it feels. Perhaps another part falls with the Covenant who reek of a sad irony--they're fighting for something they do not fully, as I am aware, understand. But perhaps it's that Halo, for all it's serious streaks, has a casual, if card-board thin "gotta go save the world" attitude.
Yes, it's also about the amazing gameplay. But more on that later; first, we talk about the single player story.
In Halo 3, Master Chief is back to "finish the fight." And, rest assured, the fighting will be finished, for now. The series has achieved a kind of grandiloquence, a Mount Zion for video games that few others can stand upon and look down in the valley of other
games. On console games, for shooters, Halo stands alone. What's in a Story?
The story of Halo 3 picks up right where 2 left off. Well, mostly. I have always felt that Bungie's evolution of Halo, as a franchise, was not really rooted in the story, but in the game's contention of its first-person gunplay, which is still unmatched on consoles. Balance not eloquence is Bungie's forte
. It's too bad that there are so many gamers excited for the story: In truth, it's a steaming pile of poo.
The storyline, in this sequel, does away with the religious overtones of 2, and focuses, more keenly, upon the Master Chief's quest to retrieve Cortana, who has, somehow, retained in her memory the key to fire the ARK, a sort of master structure for all the Halos. This drama is played out through flash images of Cortana being tortured, and a distorted viewpoint when the Gravemind, in the level called "Cortana", begins to address you directly. For those of you, like me, who haven't read the Halo novels, you will probably be confused.
In Bungie's haste to "get to the point" of this gameplay, they seemingly left out, or perhaps deflated, the essential struggle within the Halo series. That is, mankind's untimely eradication. The solution to said eradication lies in the hands of Cortana and the lone Spartan 117. **THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS, JUMP TO THE NEXT HEADER TO SKIP THE SPOILERS**
A little reeducation would have been nice, seeing as how the series does rely on outside sources for the story (e.g. the novels). You get a "The Story So Far..." in the manual, which is anything but help. And if you had a difficult time ironing out what happened at the end of Halo 2, you'll get no such clarity in 3. That is, the game assumes
, like an arrogant child, that you've got it all in mind already. And that said, the game's rich backstory, which I will not go into here, sort of falls by the way. The Arbiter from Halo 2 is all but a peripheral character who is never fully realized. Even Cortana, who is arguably the most important character in Halo, turns into a Deus Ex Machina
and we lose all sense that she's such a complex character who had guided the Chief this far.
In short: the story is kind of nonexistent.
But if you're having trouble clarifying the point of the halos, the ark, and if you can't quite wrap your mind around what the Gravemind and Cortana were talking about at the end of Halo 2, don't worry: it won't be explained. And, it won't really need to. Just know that Chief is going to win--what did you expect?--and the world will be saved. If you're looking for more backstory, again I humbly suggest you read the novels. Halo 3 is strictly an action-only affair.
So the story is very base, and you'll feel yourself wincing, often, comparing it to NBC's "Heroes": "Save Cortana
, Save the World." The presence is almost laughably simple, so simple that tension isnt' played out as you slaughter hordes of Brutes, Grunts, and Flood. Instead you're just waiting
for that moment when you save Cortana, which, I assure you, is not worth writing home about. Mention of the level in some circles invokes distaste. For the title of that chapter that follows your rescue of Cortana, Bungie decides to take directly from the good William Congreve's famous line
"Heav'n has no rage like love to hatred turn'd
Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd."
As with this example, if the story works, it works on a kind of self-inflating level of design. Making the game more than it really contends to be, which is a single-minded first person shooter. If the story isn't pretentious, then I don't know a better time to use that word. Halo 3 is no BioShock. It's not even Halo 2
, which left us in a moment of storytelling suspense. At least there was storytelling in that final, disappointing moment.
Frequently, throughout the campaign, Cortana imposes onto the screen her own image. From a gameplay perspective, these moments break the tension of the game, causing you to slow to a walk and listen. These horribly tedious moments are very unlike the series, which has always been about intense gunfights, and brief, but exciting, cutscenes. Whether or not Bungie used Cortana's superimposed image to delay
gameplay in order to allow the hardware to load new areas is a moot point. If they did, good for them. However, congrats on overusing a storytelling device and bombarding the player with trite dialogs.
Near the end of the game, the Monitor turns on you and his reasoning is so contrived you'll do a double take. He states that he didn't know what the Master Chief was "planning" and that if he did he "wouldn't have helped him." Huh? What follows is possibly the lamest boss fight of all time. Yes, you fight 343 Guilty Spark. What a letdown. It's equivalent to opening a six-foot tall present on Christmas only to find there's a single marble inside.
On top of that, the whole scope
of the action in Halo 3 seems diminished slightly. In Halo 1, the amount of room to move
was dramatic, and the dynamic landscapes allowed gamers to play areas in different ways. Snipe from afar, run around and gun, dog enemies from atop a structure. Halo 2 was a huge step backward, being mostly comprised of corridors, and feeling much more linear. Halo 3 tries to simulate the feelings of Halo 1's freedom, but falls somewhere in between 1 and 2. The level "The Ark", for example, gives the feeling of being open, while still appearing distinctly linear. "The Ark" is a vehicle level, however, so that feels about right, and probably is the most successful "open" level. The middle of the level, which has an enormous space ship fly in and drop Scorpions for the Chief, is perhaps the most awe inspiring moment in the entire campaign of Halo 3
. Second to that moment is perhaps the final level, which puts you squarely in the dead of winter on Halo. Let no one say Bungie has lost their flare for art direction. These levels are a testament to their talent.
Their level design is another issue altogether. While the multiplayer levels (discussed later) feel, on the whole, much more solid and tested, single-player levels, and their intensity
, are seriously lacking. The first three levels feel like leftovers from the last game. Our EIC Shawn Rider had this to say after the third level of co-op: "Those were the opening levels (for Halo 3)? What a letdown!" It's true, the first few levels just don't achieve any grandness of struggle that we've come to expect. They're run-of-the-mill, by-the-numbers, and every other synonym for mediocre you can think of.
Even the "boss" fights, of which there are very few, are unimpressive, rehashed versions of things you've done before. The Scarab battles are suspiciously similar (i.e. they're the same
) and the same strategies that took them down in 2 will take them down here.
And you'll perhaps be pissed to know out that the level called "FloodGate" is essentially the same level that preceded it, but run in reverse. This sort of neglect to originality is insulting from a developer of this caliber. As many levels are used and reused, and you'll be backtracking more often than blazing new trails. Bungie takes far too much liberty sending you back the way you came to get the most mileage out of their levels.
Even though they add backtracking very liberally, the campaign is dramatically short. Easily beat in about a 6 hour marathon depending on your skill level. On my third time through, myself and two other gamers managed to conquer the entire game on heroic (minus one level) in just under two hours, thirty minutes.
While it does manage to provide a host of open areas, on the average, you'll be corridor shooting, progressing from one door to the next when on foot. While in a vehicle, it's entirely possible to bypass areas of levels (sadly in "The Ark" this is the flaw in it's open areas) by gunning the throttle and holding on tight--ignoring about 70% of the enemies. This was a serious problem with several of Halo 2's on-foot sections.
It's also possible in the level "Cortana" to just run through (for a modestly decent player) while Flood scour the area for you, even, even
, on harder difficulties. And that's too bad.***HERE ENDETH THE SPOILERS***Artifice and Intelligence
The enemy AI in the campaign seems either insanely tough or very very stupid. All examples do not fit, however, as the Flood in the level "Cortana" sometimes do not even attack. While the Flood in "Halo" are insanely difficult and armed to the teeth. The other enemies, like Brutes, can be deadly with Brute Shots (rapid-fire grenade launchers), even when the best human player cannot, and they tend to use equipment effectively. Grunts, strangely enough on Legendary, are your real threat. These minor players possess sniper-like precision and fire very quickly. And
there are lots of them, something we cannot say about the Brutes, which come usually come in packs of four or five. Overall the enemy AI depends on your difficulty level, but even "Heroic" feels like "Normal" from Halo 1 and 2, while "Legendary" might be slightly more difficult than both the other games' Legendaries. Something like that. The AI on Normal and Easy are essentially moronic. On Heroic, it varies. And on Legendary they're "Einstein."
Still, the challenge is not really there unless you make it that way with found skulls (more on that later).
To put it bluntly, nothing in Halo 3 is really as tough as fighting Tartarus in Halo 2. Nothing
. And I think that's a pretty telling claim how the series is meant to branch out and grab newer players--how it's been dumbed down to accommodate a larger player base.
Legendary with 3 other co-op players is too easy. The difficulty doesn't quite scale up as Bungie had us believe, although you'll see a few other enemies here and there--nothing really tough enough. To compensate, there are skulls located throughout the campaign which, when activated make the game tougher, a lot
tougher. And this seems to be the thing to do, especially if the "campaign scoring metagame is turned on." The skulls are the only way to get all those 15000 point per level achievement points. The skulls help give the single player campaign quite a bit of replay, so there's that.So How Does it Play?
Okay, so there are problems with the story and some of the campaign levels, but here's where things brighten up. The story sucks, but the gameplay is the same thing you've come to expect from Bungie: that is, it's perfect
or as perfect as things can be.
Bungie's coders, whoever they are, are amazingly adept at balancing weapons, and making the game play
great (the only short-stick being the Flamethrower). The game is wonderfully tight as far as gameplay goes, which is why I think so many reviewers have been gushing over the content (not necessarily the length) of Halo 3's single-player mode. The gameplay is so good that even the inanity and triteness of the campaign are somehow
swept under the rug. And that, that my friends, is an amazing feat. I don't know what shrunken head Bungie is praying to, but it must be working. This is why Halo 3 will be on everyone's 360's for many, many years.Mammoth Multiplayer
If you ever get tired of the campaign (and you will), you of course have multiplayer via split-screen, system link, and Xbox Live. Live is the best choice. You get 11 versus maps, ranging from huge to compact. The variety is quite marvelous and each level has specific strategies that work better. There's tons to do. For instance, sniping in Isolation plays out differently than sniping on The Pit, which is a very open, military training inspired level. Each level is very well laid out, and the ones that really shine (notably Narrows, Snowbound, Sandtrap, and Guardian) are masterfully created.
The default gameplay types are enormously varied. There's Oddball, Juggernaut, Capture the Flag, Assault, to name a few. Halo 3 really feels like an expanded version of Halo 2, only with near unlimited
options. The only thing lacking is the ability to combine game types like Infection and Capture the Flag. If you tire of a default gameplay type, you can tweak it however you want, even save it to your profile and distribute it to your friends.
Customization doesn't stop there: you can go into the Forge mode and tweak everything within a level, save it, then upload it to your profile and share that too. Perhaps you make a level that goes with a specific game type you created--you can make that known. And every so often Bungie will recommend some of their favorite user-created content and put it in the "Bungie Recommends" menu. I've seen quite a few neat user-created modes so far, and if you can get a good group of people to play with (which shouldn't be too hard) the fun to be had is near limitless.
The weapons have had a good retooling since 2. The Assault Rifle is back, and strikes the perfect balance between the SMG/Brute Spiker and the Battle Rifle (from Halo 2).
The aforementioned Brute Spikers are powerful, rapid-fire machine guns that compete with the SMG, which has also been rebalanced. The game tones down the importance of dual-wielding, although there still are strengths in it. Grenades get their due. They're more powerful now, and added to the mix are two types: the "Spiker Grenade" which functions a lot like "Plasma Grenades" only they have a smaller blast radius, and the firebomb grenades (which you'll only use in custom levels) ignite the walls, floors, and enemies which you throw them at. on top of that, the use of a melee attack is much more powerful. You still can't take down a person in one hit (unless you strike from behind or hit them on top of the head), but the power of melee cannot, should not, be underestimated.
A few well-placed shots and a melee can take down even the most seasoned veteran. Although, seasoned veterans will find ways to keep away, tossing grenades at you and blasting away. Grenade/gun/melee is almost like paper/scissors/rock, but not quite as rigid a system. Grenades give you the upper hand going into a conflict, but often the end will be defined by a swift smack to the face. Power weapons, Brute Shot, Rocket Launcher, Sniper Rifle, and Beam Rifle are complemented by the addition of a Flame Thrower (fairly useless), Missile Pod (useful), and Spartan Laser (Very useful, but slow to fire). The Energy Sword is toned down (the distance you can lock on has been decreased) and the Gravity Hammer is more close range, but has an area affect knocking people around.
the Needler is useful. I thought, originally, that Halo 2's dual wielded Needlers were a good change (because it allowed for more "needles" to be fired. They cannot be dual-wielded anymore, but after having played Halo 3, you'll never go back to 2. The Needlers feel very deadly, and one wielding the "pink death" is a foe to be reckoned with. And the ability to throw a grenade with them makes them even better.
Turrets can be dislodged from their emplacements and carried around via a third person, hip-mounted camera. They limit your movement, but give you tons of killing power in clear line-of-fire. The Flame Thrower is pretty useless, unfortunately. You'll rarely play with one, and the limit is one per level. Should you find it in a level, you will rarely ever die by one, because you can simply out range it with conventional arms. It's fun to use if you're not taking the game seriously.
There are some slight problems with the matchmaking lineup. You can veto a map with a majority vote, opting for the game to assign a random map with a random game type. Unfortunately you will end up playing "Shotty Snipers" on The Pit far too often, and "The Pit", which is incredibly open, favors the Sniper Rifle. You'll rarely get close enough to shotgun someone. I literally played this game type on this map four times in a row. If Bungie lets us go Lone Wolf (single person ranked matchmaking) with "Shotty Snipers" why not "Swords Only" or "Rocket Arena"? They definitely need to vary the match types available in Lone Wolf Ranked Matchmaking, and tone this gametype down a bit. To say this game type is loathed in game lobbies is an understatement. But I assume they'll fix that with a future patch.
(ED'S NOTE: Actually Bungie has already addressed this issue, you can find the link here
However, for small complaints about the multiplayer, it's really head and shoulders above every other game out there. No other game gives you this much customization coupled with such a rock-solid experience. Bungie is in their own league, still.
The score, which you might notice is 4 out of 5, is based, therefore on the overall
package of Halo 3. The single player campaign is, sadly, seriously disappointing. However, everything else is very exciting, and the overall game model is still standing the test of time, saying quite a lot for the game's prowess and appeal, as well as the developers' ability. Halo 3 is, despite it's problems
, a must buy, there is no doubt, but just don't expect to be blown away by every single aspect of it. The campaign, the part we used to treasure for it's originality and character, is pedestrian here at best.