Review by Evil Dave

"Simply put, Halo 3 is more of what's made the Halo series so special over the past few years."

The Halo franchise represents one of the most amazing stories in the entire videogame industry. You've probably heard it by now – a niche developer by the name of Bungie had a big idea for a game, which resonated with the huge corporate entity of Microsoft, resulting in the game being showcased on the new console Microsoft was introducing to the world, and ultimately becoming one of the true heavyweights in the game business today. It's a tale that serves to illustrate the power of a good idea in the game medium, as well as to provide a foundation for many other companies' personal aspirations.

What this legend fails to portray, though, is how hard Bungie has worked to keep the Halo games at the cutting edge of their craft. Bungie's creations stand out amidst an overcrowded marketplace only because of their employees' powerful yearning to create something great. The people at Bungie care about their products. They want everyone who plays Halo to absolutely love it, and they're willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to make that happen – even when they know that it would still sell millions of copies if they just threw it together and got it out the door. Dedication (and a significant budget, compliments of Microsoft) is what allows Halo to remain such a dominant force in gaming.

So, where does that leave us? Why, with Halo 3, of course. This game is the grand finale of the Halo trilogy. It promises to be the biggest, the baddest, and the most fun of the Halo games, thanks to the power of its latest host system (the XBox 360) and the sheer force of will Bungie has poured into it. With all the hype surrounding it, one would think that the game could never measure up to its fans' expectations of it – an assumption that proves to be dead wrong. Offering a tightly paced storyline campaign, a smorgasbord of online multiplayer options, and the franchise's typically superb level of production quality, Halo 3 serves as a flawed, but fitting, cap to one of the most celebrated game series of all time.

Visuals:

For the most part, the previous two games in the Halo series were seen as being at the cutting edge of their craft in the graphics department. Halo 3, on the other hand, is a game whose visual prowess stems more from the technical aspects of its presentation than from the underlying splendor of the experience.

That's not to say that Halo 3 is an ugly game. Quite the contrary is true; in fact, your initial impression of the game is likely to be a very positive one, if you're a Halo fan. The reason for this is simple: Halo 3 looks like a somewhat prettier Halo 2. Everything – from the characters to the environments to the weapons – is instantly recognizable as hailing from the Halo universe.

Right away, you'll spot the evidence for this in the character models. As the Master Chief, you'll fight alongside and against the same variety of human marines, and alien foes, all of whom sport a good, though not spectacular, level of detail in their dress and stature. They animate superbly, both in and out of combat, but they look best when they're controlling any of the assorted weaponry or vehicles. The back-and-forth displays between the two sides are so vibrant that you'll oftentimes find yourself making tactical decisions based solely on your teammates' movements. Only one minor quibble - during cutscenes, the animation gets pretty robotic, and the lip-synching gets out of whack – should even draw your attention as you progress through the game.

Battles in the Halo games have always been rather hectic, which is reflective of the incredible assortment of firepower at your (and your enemies') disposal. In Halo 3, just about every gun, explosive, and melee weapon from the series makes a cameo, alongside a whole slew of new additions. From top to bottom, each and every weapon occupies its own little space in the virtual ballet of carnage, as plasma burns, bullet holes, explosions, and all manner of shrapnel and debris fly around while you fight. The Halo stable of vehicles has also been expanded significantly in Halo 3, on both sides of the galactic conflict; as you would expect, the new additions mesh nicely with the older types, adding an even deeper level of visual diversity to the various battlefields you'll traverse.

Halo 3's environments, while not the most attractive seen to date in a console game, are still quite diverse and vibrant. There are plenty of terrific little flourishes in the level design (such as corpses and debris floating realistically in bodies of water, which look tremendous in their own right, too) that really bring each new locale to life. The lighting engine is fabulous, also, providing for all sorts of shadowing and reflective effects that – when coupled with some gorgeously rendered skies – lend outdoors combat a perfect otherworldly aura. Most areas don't deform very much from the violence of combat, but there are plenty of little touches like plasma burns that do a good job of conveying just how heated the fighting was in any given spot.

Not all is well with the level design, though. As with Halos past, a number of the indoor areas tend to repeat themselves, design-wise, largely due to a noticeable lack of unique landmarks along your path. The result here is that it's far too easy to get turned around in several of the levels, despite the fact that they're usually very straightforward from a progression standpoint. Things just feel a bit too cavernous and bland for long stretches, and it ends up detracting from the flow of the game.

Then again, it's easy to tell why Halo 3's presentation isn't ground-breaking from an artistic standpoint: you'll never, ever see the frame rate drop as you play. Even during the larger battles, with numerous vehicles, NPCs, and effects all displayed on-screen at once, the game runs silky-smooth, without any noticeable lag or stuttering in the frame rate. Such technical mastery is where Bungie's work truly stands out from other titles, and in a game as tightly paced as Halo, it's a welcome luxury. You'll also find that HDTV support runs up to 1080p, which (naturally) brings the graphics an even sharper level of crispness.

Halo 3 isn't going to win any awards for its aesthetics. It's a great-looking game, to be sure, but its true strength lies in the technical underpinnings of the presentation, rather than the actual graphics themselves.

Score: 8/10

Sound:

Even amidst the typically superb production values of the previous Halo games, the sound design has always stood out. Such all-around excellence has become a hallmark of the series, and with the tight design of those previous titles serving as a foundation, Halo 3 easily hits its auditory mark dead-on.

Most deserving of praise in the acoustic division is the cacophony engulfing the game's myriad skirmishes. While it might be difficult for gamers to imagine what exactly the din of a futuristic battle with a genocidal alien menace might really sound like, it's not hard to believe that it would sound a good deal like Halo 3 does when you enter combat. Your usual bangs, booms, and pows are all here, each representative of a unique weapon or explosive object to which it corresponds beautifully. Once you get into some of the more open levels, you'll see vehicles make their way into combat, too, adding another layer to the already-crowded soundscape.

What makes a firefight in Halo 3 so special, though, is the banter between NPCs. This game unquestionably has the most dialogue of any of the three titles in the series, and it puts it to use in such a way that it constantly manages to suck you into the moment. Whether it's a simple Brute exhortation to his Grunts to toss grenades at your position, or a Marine's effusive reaction to your exploits (‘Tank beats Ghost... tank beats Hunter... tank beats everything!'), the constant back-and forth battlefield chatter invariably provides just the right accessory to the action.

Outside of combat situations, the voice acting is (for the most part) equally strong. Every major character still alive from the prior Halos makes an appearance in Halo 3, with nearly all voiced by the same actors as before. All of these returning players put forth spot-on performances, doing a great job of adding personality to their parts. The script is a bit on the poor side, but the performers all work through their occasionally silly lines with gusto.

Drawing a heavy influence from the soundtracks of Halos 1 and 2, Halo 3's score is nothing short of perfect. You'll be treated to all the familiar Halo theme music – yes, those chanting monks are back – in addition to a handful of new tracks that do an equally gripping job of accentuating the events of the game. The series' orchestral tracks are as stirring as ever, and in every circumstance they always mesh brilliantly with the setting in which you'll hear them.

From the chaotic clamor of battle to the hauntingly lovely soundtrack, Halo does every phase of its aural production right.

Score: 10/10

Gameplay:

More than anything else, campaign gameplay in Halo has gained its fame from the huge, setpiece battles it makes the player a part of. Halo 3 doesn't mess with that winning formula too much, meaning that fans will have a lot more of the same simple, enjoyable combat to look forward to.

To be perfectly honest, very little has changed in the way Halo 3 plays in comparison to its direct predecessor, Halo 2. You'll still be provided a large battery of human and alien weaponry to wield, ranging from conventional explosives and firearms to their alien gadget equivalents, with a few oddities (like the new, super fun Gravity Hammer) thrown in to spice things up. Many of the missions also incorporate vehicle-based sequences as well, which control just as soundly and provide a nice change of pace from the on-foot segments. Most of the combat mechanics haven't changed, with two new grenades types, detachable and portable turrets, and the ability to reload each gun separately when dual-wielding being the only things you'll notice as different.

Returning Halo fans will find that there's really only one noteworthy addition to your battle repertoire in Halo 3: equipment. As you play, you'll find various little gizmos scattered about; you're able to carry one in your inventory at all times, and use it whenever you hit the X button. There are around ten different varieties of these items in all, each serving a different function; some create temporary cover or recharge your overshield, while others perform offensive functions as a turret or a landmine. This new gameplay device won't affect the way you play the game very conspicuously – indeed, it's possible to play the entirety of the campaign through without using one such item even once – but they do add a light strategic element to the normally visceral, twitch-based action.

What they don't do is change the pace of the game. As with its predecessors, Halo 3 does a fantastic job of constructing an adrenaline-pumping experience with each and every firefight, and interspersing these skirmishes flawlessly into your path through each level. Progression transpires as linearly as it was in the previous two titles in the series, and it typically involves your character fighting his way through a series of entrenched enemy positions to reach an objective that must be captured or destroyed. Despite that somewhat repetitive setup, the game manages to keep the action consistently fresh, and it never runs dry of fresh situations to face you with. You'll square off against so many different foe-laden scenarios that small variances make each clash unique and memorable in its own right, while also accentuating the breathtaking scale of the really big-time confrontations (Scarabs, anyone?).

Of course, if your alien counterparts didn't have some solid brains calculating their every move, such grandiosity would be put to waste. Thankfully, though, the artificial intelligence in Halo 3 is some of the best you'll see in a game to date. Covenant forces are clearly organized on the battlefield, with Brutes commanding Grunt and Jackal subordinates. Each of the various races acts and reacts differently to your movements – the Brutes bark out their orders, the Grunts tepidly charge in to overwhelm you, and the Jackals try to provide support from a distance. They all use cover effectively, and they are very good at suppressing and attempting to flank your position. There are tons of instances where you'll engage twenty or so Covenant while fighting beside a half-dozen marines, and watching how each side tries to utilize these basic tactics to gain an advantage is truly impressive.

Now the bad news: the A.I. still isn't nearly as brilliant behind the wheel of any of the game's vehicles. In fact, it almost seems as though the A.I. has regressed from its Halo 2-level acumen in this regard. Covenant forces will drive their Ghosts, Prowlers, Choppers, and other ground-based transports in circles, or they'll end up getting themselves stuck on some piece of the scenery or in a corner. Friendly forces are no better, oftentimes leaving themselves (and you, should you be unwise enough to mount a turret) wide open for attack by moving slowly around a simple obstruction. You'll never want to let your A.I. buddies drive you anywhere, period.

And then, of course, there is the matter of the Flood. While these parasitic antagonists make for a somewhat dramatic (if contrived) plot point, they also make really dull combat opponents. In lieu of the Covenant's strategic maneuvering, these enemies simply charge headlong at you until you blow them away, or stand in one spot firing mindlessly at you with whatever gun they spawned with. Bungie seems to want the Flood-heavy segments of the game to play as though they were ripped from a survival-horror game, but this just doesn't jibe with the overall feel of what makes the Covenant-based combat in Halo 3 so much fun. It's too bad, really, because you're stuck dealing with the Flood for a good third of the game. Those missions – the most egregious of which is the awful, awful eighth level – are just plain tedious, and they suck the fun out of what is otherwise a really strong campaign

Halo 3's storyline mode ultimately feels quite a bit like both of its ancestors: fun for a majority of the time you'll spend with it, but bogged down by a handful of ill-conceived sections that serve only to get in the way of the good stuff.

Score: 8/10

Story:

As per Bungie's announced plans for the series, Halo 3 is the culmination of a story arc designed to play out through a trilogy of games. This results in every major plot thread wound through Halo and Halo 2 seeing its conclusion with the events of this game. In practice, Halo veterans will find the story is easy to follow (although it ends rather predictably), while anyone unfamiliar with the events of the previous titles in the series will undoubtedly find themselves scrambling for something more expository than the nine-page summary found in the game's manual.

(Warning to readers: The following paragraph will contain very minor plot spoilers. Anyone who wishes not to find out even the slightest inkling of the game's story should skip forward to the paragraph starting with ‘On the whole...')

The events of Halo 3 pick up almost where Halo 2 abruptly ended, with Master Chief making his return to Earth to find that the Covenant have laid waste to the populace. Joining forces with his new friend the Arbiter, he and the remaining humans direct their efforts at uncovering just why the occupiers are tearing the planet apart in search of a mysterious Forerunner artifact. Eventually, you'll be introduced to that artifact, and the revelation that stems from its invocation sends you a great distance from the Earth in hopes of putting a stop to the Prophet Truth's plans for it. Naturally, the Flood put in an appearance as well, doing their best to assimilate everyone involved and generally create havoc.

On the whole, Halo 3's plot likely won't hold much appeal to anyone but previous Halo fans who want to see how the trilogy concludes. It plays out in such a straightforward manner that any player with even the slightest understanding of the events of the first two games can probably predict the direction it will take with ease. Anyone new to the Halo world will likely end up virtually lost, though, due to the game's assumption of familiarity with the events of those two other releases. At the very least, the plot does find a way to wrap up nicely at the end, affording gamers a strong sense of closure without negating the possibility of further adventures to come.

While its resolution feels about as satisfying as franchise faithful could hope for, Halo 3's plot is otherwise rather pedestrian.

Score: 6/10

Features/Modes:

As you would expect from a title in the Halo series, there's quite a bit of game to enjoy in Halo 3. Most of that value is tied up in the game's hugely popular multiplayer component, which is still playable via split-screen, system link, and XBox Live; beyond the fragfests, though, there's also plenty of fun to be found in the game's single-player content.

Halo 3's single-player campaign isn't all that long, clocking in around eight to ten hours from start to finish on the default difficulty setting. Should that timeframe fail to keep you occupied long enough to suit your tastes, the game features the franchise's standard four difficulty settings, each of which should provide an apt challenge for players who have completed the game on a lower level. Most of the game's achievements are tied in to the campaign as well, although some involve hunting for hidden skulls or terminals rather than playing the game itself.

Cooperative play has always been an integral part of the Halo campaign experience, and in Halo 3, the option is finally available to play the storyline mode collaboratively online. Even better, the maximum number of players allowed in one game has been boosted to four, while a neat meta-scoring system has been included for those players who just can't bear to play without keeping score. Setting up a game over XBox Live is a pain, as there's no matchmaking whatsoever for co-op play, but once you can get four people together, the game plays really smoothly. There's always split-screen or system link play, too, if you're afraid of the internet. No matter how you work it, playing cooperatively is definitely the way to go if you have the capability, as it not only makes the action more memorable. It also alleviates the difficulty significantly, which should make Legendary difficulty accessible to more players.

Now, cooperative play was never incorporated into the plot of the first two Halos, as Bungie instead opted to simply have a second Master Chief magically appear (and conveniently vanish for cutscenes) when another person joined your campaign. Halo 3, however, features two entirely different heroes fighting side-by-side for the duration of the game. With this new direction, the potential clearly existed for adding some manner of cohesion between the two characters into the cooperative aspect of gameplay; unfortunately, this does not occur in any way. The Arbiter's presence (and that of the two generic Elites who make up players three and four) serves as little more than an ideological extension of that magical clone from co-op play in Halos 1 and 2. This shouldn't detract from the experience as you play, but in light of games like Gears of War that integrate a second player so well into the narrative, it's more than a little disappointing that this feature still feels tacked-on.

For some gamers, though, the single-player portion of Halo barely even registers, thanks to the incredibly popular multiplayer element. Renowned for its accessibility and variety, competitive multiplayer in the Halo franchise is a cult favorite amongst gamers of all stripes, and you had better believe that it's shown up in full force for Halo 3. Now more than ever, choice is the name of the game, thanks to the staggering number of potential game combinations at your fingertips. All the classic game types you've grown to love (capture the flag, slayer, king of the hill, etc.) are represented once again, and they're all supported on each and every one of the eleven different maps that ship with the game. On top of that, a robust suite of customization options are available right from the main menu, providing bored or creative gamers the ability to cobble together a unique strain of game type to enjoy with their friends. Bungie has also thoughtfully given players the opportunity to download custom game types through a built-in File Share structure.

That's not all. A brand-new game mode, Forge, supplies tinkerers a chance to affect the events of a game without firing a shot. Here, players are able to add and delete items in a level on the fly via an RTS-style currency, as well as physically pick up and move items, change respawn rates, and so on, all in the midst of a regular team slayer contest. If that description sounds crazy to you, you've got the right idea – but it's a crazy that can get really addictive, as you can come up with some truly ridiculous setups to toy around with. It's not for everyone, as Bungie seems to have indicated by not allowing matchmaking for it, but if you can gather a handful of like-minded players together for a go at it, you can create some really memorable scenarios.

As if that weren't enough, you can also save videos and screenshots of the mayhem you create for viewing at any time on your PC. The process involved in this is remarkably simple: since your console automatically records your in-game activities as you play any mode, you merely need to open Theater mode from the main menu and give the hardware a minute to load whichever performance you would like to re-live. Aside from its clumsy fast-forward/rewind controls, Theater is a really nifty element in Halo 3's design, allowing anyone to dissect how they played – and perhaps more importantly, how the other players you faced played – easily and concisely. While its usefulness might be rather limited for the general gaming populace, the opportunity to re-live your exploits at any time is sure to find an appreciative audience; it also helps that Theater supports File Share, so you can share that ridiculous quadruple grenade stick with all your buddies.

Quite simply put, Halo 3 presents players more value than most any other console game on the market. If you enjoy playing Halo even remotely, this game has the potential to suck up tons of your free time without once feeling monotonous.

Score: 10/10

Online Play:

Halo 2's multiplayer experience on XBox Live completely redefined what it meant to play a console game online. Bungie, in all its wisdom, designed that game's matchmaking process so elegantly that it entirely streamlined tasks which had formerly been somewhat painstaking (like getting and keeping your friends together for a series of matches, or navigating around for a game with enough room for everyone to join).

With the series now at home on the XBox 360 (and integrating its ubiquitous XBox Live connectivity), bringing your skills with Halo 3 ‘beyond the box' is once again utterly straightforward and painless. Both of Halo 2's breakthrough innovations, the party system and Optimatch, are still present, and with the million-plus strong community that's already sprung up, you'll rarely go more than a minute or two without finding a match. Latency is never a problem, either, as even games with twelve or more players rarely see any lag pop up.

For all its grace, though, playing Halo 3 via matchmaking feels clumsy in one important way: it's not possible to choose a specific game type or map to play on. It's certainly understandable that Bungie wouldn't want gamers sticking to the same handful of setups while playing ranked games, but even social matches randomly assign game combinations. There isn't even some type of people-finder search for like-minded gamers to fill rooms for their own preferred game types, which could have ameliorated the confusion without changing the system up. What this will ultimately mean for gamers is that, if those thirty or so people on your Recent Players list don't like Infection as much as you do, you're plain out of luck. Needless to say, it feels almost antiquated for the game to tell the player what they'll be playing, and it definitely feels out of place in a game known for its advanced approach to internet play.

At least Bungie has gone out of their way to establish a community for the game on their website. Using a Windows Passport ID, you can link your XBox Live profile to Bungie.net, which allows you to access all of your in-game statistics, saved videos and pictures, and custom game types through your home computer. The File Share system is tied in as well, giving you the ability to queue up files for download whenever you next load up Halo 3 without having your console around. These measures seem to have superceded traditional leaderboard and clan features, which might upset some of the more competition-minded players, but that omission shouldn't be met with much sorrow by the majority of Halo fans.

Then again, it's that very populace that serves as perhaps the strongest motivation not to dive into XBox Live play. Halo is undeniably popular, and it thus tends to attract all manner of players, including the very dredges of the internet community. You can count on encountering all sorts of anti-social behavior online, and it will no doubt ruin your fun more than once. Bungie, who are certainly keenly aware of this, have implemented a well-needed quick-mute feature, but even silencing those jerks you come across online can't assuage their influence entirely.

Taking Halo 3 onto XBox Live represents an easy way to expand your potential enjoyment of the game's extremely entertaining multiplayer. Just how much amusement you'll find online, though, will largely be determined by your talent for finding trustworthy players who share your gameplay preferences.

Score: 7/10

Total Score:

It really doesn't make much of a difference what reviews like this one have to say about Halo 3; after all, the game was destined to be a best-seller from the moment word of its conception passed through Bill Gates' lips at E3 2006. No, the real question has always been whether or not the game could somehow live up to its two predecessors in quality once it actually reached players' homes. With expectations as high as they were for such a hotly-anticipated project, this was not a simple problem.

Of course, there was never any real reason for such concern. As Bungie's legion of followers have known all along, the Kirkland, WA game developer has always been able to deliver on the promise of their products, and Halo 3 is no exception. It's not going to win over any of the series' previous detractors, but for anyone who has enjoyed some time with Halo over the last seven years, this game is just about everything that you could hope for it to be.

If you're an XBox 360 owner, and you're one of the numerous throngs of Halo fans, then there's no reason for you not to pick up a copy of Halo 3 – even if can only experience the game without the extensive benefits of XBox Live. On the flip side, if you've heretofore found the Halo games not of your taste, then there isn't a thing in Halo 3 that will change your mind. Finally, if you've never played a game of Halo before in your life, then your best bet is to start with the first title in the series, and then work your way through to this climactic finale.

Score: 8/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/09/07, Updated 10/10/07

Game Release: Halo 3 (US, 09/25/07)


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