With Halo 3 arriving in reviewers' hands just yesterday (yeah, Saturday) and matchmaking servers yet to be online, Joystiq's review is still pending further analysis of the game. We did get a chance to make a hurried run through Halo 3's (Heroic) campaign two weeks ago at a Microsoft-sponsored review event, spending a blistering 11 hours perched on chair's edge in a dark conference room. It's not the ideal setting to enjoy what we predict will soon be heralded as a masterwork (a true "Halo killer"), but it did give us a chance to make an initial assessment of Bungie's so-called Spartan-117 finale.
As a single-player experience, Halo 3 plays like a retelling of the first Halo, bringing together elements of the first two games that had both succeeded and failed. The scale is grander, but not on the level proposed by the recent ad campaign. Bungie avoids doing its best Call of Duty impression; instead presenting the most well paced and plotted Halo ever. Gameplay is still mostly consumed by small pockets of self-contained battle, open to interpretation (be that a head-on assault, patient warfare, or the run-on-by tactic), but Bungie has finally mastered timing, switching up environment and swapping from first-person shooter to third-person-vehicle play at just the right moments. Instead of dragging out a particular sequence -- as in the original Halo -- you'll often be thrust into a new scenario wanting just a little bit more of the last.
Where Halo 3 is likely to be criticized is in its distinct Haloness. This is not the Xbox 360's graphical showcase, falling short of benchmarks set by Gears of War last year, and more recently Bioshock. Bungie has never (overtly) shot for this goal, but as the top billing in this year's remarkably rich end-of-year games lineup, mainstream consumerism is always going to judge prettiness first, performance second.