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.
While we've already given a nod to the game's big-picture performance, it's the subtle touches that show off Bungie's adept design. A saunter down the wrong corridor sets off a wonderfully comic pause in the gunplay as two soldiers argue between a sealed door. Let me in, demands one. Not without the password, insists the other. I don't know the password, pleads the first. But it was just given out at the last staff meeting! And so on, like this, until the soldier collapses against the door, fist still pounding steel. These efforts at lifefulness -- the ambient chatter; the unsuspecting Brute urinating in a corner -- enhance our emotional attachment to the Halo myth. We care more this time, whether that's because of the dramatic effect of the well-choreographed cutscenes or simply a writhing NPC on the battlefield.
There are still old kinks in this MJOLNIR armor. An inconsistent -- just downright random -- checkpoint system will sometimes trap you, cornered in one case by a dozen Brutes and a turret gunner, and other times be nonexistent. (We did find that the system tends to reward players who slowly fight through areas, rather than dash through). But you can dash through! We avoided, almost entirely, a difficult level inside a Flood ship, by simply running past the waves of zombie-like creatures. Mostly, difficult passages can be avoided, unless you're crippled by friendlies.
The UNSC is still enlisting an army of dumbbots, whose highlights include ceaselessly ramming a Warthog into an anti-vehicle force field, like birds into glass. Smash. Reverse. Smash. Reverse. Smash. Reverse further back. Smash! This would have been the subject of our first game clip, if only game clips could be recorded from campaign episodes (unfortunately, only screenshots can be taken -- unable to capture this distinct moment of stupidity). The truly difficult sections in Halo 3 are those that call for teamwork, but are played alone. You can spend dozens of attempts swapping between the driver's seat and the turret, trying to maneuver through a chaotic vehicle battle with NPCs who shoot at distant targets when you're under fire from yards away or, when called to drive, park onto a wall and wait for a Wraith's incoming mortar. Yep, all dead. Again.
Frustrations are eventually forgiven with big grins. Moments so wonderful cannot be diminished by niggling inconsistencies. When you bring down a Scarab Tank, you bring down a Scarab Tank! And it's Halo 3's ability to produce these moments of awe -- to embody sheer awesomeness -- that often transforms the scrutinizing gaming veteran into a wide-eyed child. Halo 3 is so much fun.
Will Halo 3 live up to the hype? No. There isn't perfection here. There isn't an absolute, please-all quality. But this is Bungie's masterpiece. And there's still so much more to be said and experienced. If you play games, play Halo 3.