It's not often that we here at X3F get a chance to review a high profile title like Halo 3 before it hits store shelves, and it's an opportunity I'm not taking lightly. I've spent the last 48 hours (give or take a few hours for the requisite food and sleep) embedded deep within Halo 3, doing my best to categorize the experience as I went along. In this endeavor I have more or less failed. That's not to say I didn't enjoy what I played, because I absolutely did. It's just that with as many features as there are in Halo 3, there's so much stuff to test that 48 hours really isn't enough time to glean enough information and condense it into a review. Still, review it we must. Read on for a (hopefully) defining glimpse into Microsoft's great green hope.
First and foremost on any Halo fan's mind is the campaign. Even fans admit that Halo 2's campaign didn't quite get the attention it deserved. Even beyond the cliffhanger ending and the divisive inclusion of the Arbiter as a playable character -- which, for the record, I loved -- the campaign just didn't seem quite finished. So, Halo 3 has a lot to answer for. I won't spoil the story, but Halo 3 picks up exactly where Halo 2 left off: Cortana (the Master Chief's AI) is missing, the Prophet of Truth is leading an attack on earth, and the Master Chief is rocketing towards the planet on an ancient Forerunner ship. Again, we had to rush through it a bit to get it finished, but by the time the game draws to a close, all loose ends have been tied and questions answered. Old friends and enemies are reunited, alliances formed and broken, and plots are twisted. It's the stuff you'd expect in the closing chapter of a trilogy, with a few special tidbits thrown in for dedicated fans. Also, for those that are interested, locating the secret terminals throughout the game fleshes out the story of the Forerunners and the first firing of the Halo rings. The terminals are optional though, so if you're more interested in blasting baddies, feel free.
But how does it play, you ask? I plowed through the campaign on Heroic (with a few snippets of 4-player co-op on Legendary), and I can assuredly tell you that enemy AI is much improved, and sometimes a little scary. Brutes, ape-like monstrosities introduced in Halo 2, are definitely not the bullet sponges they used to be. This time around they are smart, mean, and, appropriately enough, brutal. One of their most fascinating behaviors is how they use equipment to their advantage. More than once, I found myself launching ordinance towards a pack of Brutes only to see one of them deploy a bubble shield before my shot had landed, rendering it useless. Oh, and watch out for Brutes with gravity hammers. They tend to carry equipment that makes them invulnerable for a few seconds. An invulnerable Brute with a gravity hammer is the stuff of nightmares.
Don't think that the Brutes are the star of the show though, every enemy, in one way or another, can be pretty terrifying. You see, not only are enemies smart, but they use sound tactical thinking. So, if you clear out a pack of Brutes and Grunts, don't celebrate right away, because there's a very good chance you're about to be sniped by a Jackal that you overlooked. Hell, even a pair of Jackals with carbines can be a pain, especially if you thought it would be a good idea to pack a short-range arsenal. And yes, believe it or not, even Grunts can put you away if you're not careful. Oh, and remember what I said about Brutes and nightmares? There is one Grunt behavior that's worse. I'll leave you to discover what exactly the behavior is, but rest assured you'll know it when you see it.
And then there's the Flood, the body-snatching enemy that's threatening to devour all life in the galaxy, Covenant and human alike. Now, I'm not saying one thing about the Flood. Nothing. You play. You find out. I'll just say this ain't your Granddaddy's Flood and leave it at that.
Honestly, my biggest complaint about the campaign is that it's over too quickly. It's not like the game has a bad ending, far from it, but I wanted more. Don't misunderstand, the game isn't too short, I just didn't want it to end.
Fortunately, the campaign is far from the end. This time around Bungie has included plenty of incentive to go back through the campaign multiple times. Of course there is online co-op, but there are also skulls to be found, campaign scoring achievements to be earned, as well as finding terminals you may have missed. Campaign, to put it simply, has been done right. Now, let's look at everything else.
Unfortunately, online matchmaking wasn't activated at the time of this review, but I did get to mess around with some local multiplayer. Those who participated in the beta have a good idea of what to expect. More or less, Halo 3's multiplayer is a refinement of the multiplayer in Halo 2. Certain things have been tweaked, most notably the re-invention of the assault rifle. Given a decent starting weapon, multiplayer is no longer about a mad dash for a better weapon the second you spawn. Sure, there are great weapons to find, but the assault rifle is a competent weapon in most situations. Another addition is the ability to edit all kinds of traits in the game. Traits can be given to all players or the team / player in the lead. How you use this is up to you. Want to boost everyone's shields, increase running speed, reduce gravity, and give everyone a gravity hammer and a Spartan laser? Go for it (it's pretty fun, actually). Multiplayer is now (literally) what you make of it, and it's a blast.
Now, if you really want to control how a game plays out, there's the Forge. Succinctly, Forge is some of the stupidest fun you can have with a game. At least, that's what it is at first. Forge allows players to create map variants by placing, deleting, and editing objects. These objects include simple things like scenery, weapons, and vehicles, but you can also edit more complex things like spawn points and CTF capture points. Inevitably though, your first instinct will be to find a flat surface, pile it with fusion coils, and launch a Mongoose to the moon. Follow that instinct. Follow it hard. You won't be disappointed. In fact, why not cue up the film of my first attempt right now? No, really, you can click here, find the movie titled "Boomtastic-X3F", click "Download to Halo 3", and once you pop Halo 3 into your 360, it will begin downloading automatically.
And that brings us to saved films. Basically, every game of Halo 3 you play, be it campaign, multiplayer, or Forge, is automatically saved as a film. Once you wrap up a game, simply head into the theater lobby and load it up. The game caches your recent sessions, but you'll have to manually save them if you want them permanently. During a saved film, players have complete control over the camera, allowing them to frame the best view of the action. If you see a particularly cool piece of action, you can record it as a smaller clip. Also, players can take static screenshots of the action on screen. In fact, every screenshot in this review was taken in game using the saved film feature.
And that, as briefly as I can put it, is Halo 3. Honestly, as long as this review is, it's really not long enough. Regardless of how players receive the story's conclusion, the amount of content contained in the Halo 3 package is just staggering. With campaign co-op, multiplayer, Forge, and saved films, the game offers plenty of bang for your gaming buck. Many will claim that it's not as pretty as Gears of War, and arguably they'd be right, but it was never meant to be.
I never intended to write a review filled with nothing but praise for Halo 3, but it's just damned hard to criticize. Sure, there are things I could point out that are disappointing. The graphics aren't perfect. You can't save clips in campaign. The story will be confusing to newcomers. Yeah, I can pick nits all day if I wanted to, and doubtless many Halo detractors will do just that, but the game is good. The conflicts are huge, the levels are vast, and the gameplay is solid. Not only that, but the extras ensure that players will still be playing Halo 3 for a long time to come. Love it or hate it, Halo is back on top, and it's probably there to stay.