Review by Crofty

"Short, very... short. Fine game, otherwise."

Reviewing a game like this is like trying to take down a grizzly bear with your bare hands... a tough feat by anyone's standards. Fortunately it's a much easier feat than trying to do the same with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, something I would say is equal to someone reviewing Halo 2 back in the day.

After my personal experience of Halo 2 I was left very bitter and lost a lot of faith in Bungie Studios. I felt the game was rushed, unfinished and very ugly. Needless to say that I wasn't exactly ecstatic at the prospect of Halo 3 and how it could end up even worse.

Alas, as the time drew near I did feel that excitement rise again. It's hard not to be a tad curious after you know what a developer is always capable of, even if they do make the odd hiccup trying to reach it.

It's probably fair to assume, also, that many fans of Halo: Combat Evolved, but not of Halo 2, kept their expectations very low for Halo 3 incase of being severely disappointed. What a pleasant surprise, then, that Halo 3 hasn't only managed to be a superb game by default, but also it's managed to be one without needing low expectations to see it. Even if we were all hyped up for Halo 3 as much as we were for Halo 2, it would have still hit the mark. Now that's a tough feat.

Funnily enough it's not exactly clear to see that Halo 3 is superb from the very off. The opening menu you're presented with upon loading the game looks horrifically like a multiplayer-only game (a quiet – but common – complaint with Halo 2 was that the game felt it was meant for multiplayer over campaign, something I found myself agreeing with). Unlike Halo 1 and 2 where the opening menu was listed in a more orderly fashion.

But what's this?
“He's complaining about Halo 3's main menu? *sigh*”
No, no… you must give me time to explain, for while the menu looks multiplayer focused it becomes clear how it's supposed to work – for the better – once you mess around a bit.

The menu is basically your way to enter the lobby, of which there are several: Campaign, Custom Matches, Matchmaking, Theatre, and The Forge. I'll go into the main bulk of the first three sections shortly, but unlike other reviews I think it'd be best to focus on the Theatre and Forge functions first, as they offer something new over previous games. Needless to say, the horrific looking menu turned out nicely, in the end.

Theatre

If you haven't guessed already the Theatre lobby allows you to watch your past efforts in either campaign or multiplayer. The prospect of being able to watch yourself take down hordes of Covenant was unimaginable in the first two games, and now being able to do that is amazing. Equally as satisfying is watching as you fought against friends in multiplayer matches, and pausing the action so you can take that perfect screenshot of putting a rocket up some poor chap's rear.

Like one of the few well designed features of Halo 2, the way to interact, edit and navigate through the menus is excellent. Manipulating and tinkering with your favourite movies is something which will remain enjoyable throughout Halo 3's lifespan.

Control of the camera while in replay mode is similarly excellent, as you can move about almost anywhere within the span of your character (which is quite a bit). It's a weird feeling being able to move around the camera at all times while seeing your own Master Chief go through the level. A nice weird feeling, though.

Forge

The Forge isn't something new to Halo players from the PC crowd (see: mods), but to console players it allows you to edit the way multiplayer maps are laid out. Don't get the wrong idea mind, you can't actually change anything on the maps per se, but you can decide where spawn points are put, how many weapons there are, what types of weapons are available, and much more.

It's not a fully fledged modification tool, but it does add a minor customisation element to the multiplayer if you're tired of the game's default map options. You can, for example, come up with purely bizarre variations of spawn points, weapons, vehicles and useless junk like crates.

This not only means you can create new map types, but it's also strangely fun to spawn lots of junk and then throw grenades in the middle to watch the show. The Forge is like a gameplay mode in itself, for that matter. It's possible to spend hours messing about with the options without ever saving any settings.

A nice touch in the Forge is that when you enter the edit mode your character will change from a Spartan/Elite into a monitor, although it's more for the purpose of being able to fly about and place items easier, I assume.

Campaign

Yes, the main section of the game… or is it?

Personally I'd like to think the campaign is what Halo is mainly about, but it's generally accepted that a lot of people who bought Halo 3 will have done so for the multiplayer and multiplayer alone. This was especially noticeable in Halo 2 because, as mentioned earlier, the game sometimes felt like it was more for multiplayer gamers rather than fans of story-driven FPS experiences.

Halo 3 still feels the same to me. I sometimes wonder if the campaign was secondary to the multiplayer. It probably isn't the case that Bungie actually focus on multiplayer mainly, but it does sometimes feel like it.

Fortunately the scales are a lot more balanced with Halo 3 than they were for Halo 2. This time round the campaign actually looks, plays and works superbly, even reaching the same levels of accomplishment as the original game.

Upon starting the campaign you're thrown into a jungle environment which is already different from the other games which had you begin on spaceships/space stations. This is a welcome change as – from the off – you notice just how bloody good the graphics are.

Going from Halo 2's texture-build and pop-up ridden mess of a graphics engine to this is an incredible experience on the eyes. Everything looks highly detailed and polished. The lighting, textures and art design is phenomenal – I spent the first five minutes of my gametime admiring the visuals, something I very rarely do in games.

Usually with graphics like this there are major drawbacks that a lot of people like to conveniently overlook, and I'm talking about poor texture-loading, pop-up and that all too dreaded screen tearing. Halo 3, however, shows no signs of these issues at all, and if you do see any issues it means you've probably gone and purposely looked for them, otherwise no errors are noticeable at all.

See, it's not just about having good graphics, but maintaining them that counts. What's the point in having a nice looking game only to see the nice image completely mess-up once you begin to move about and play the game?

Fortunately, Halo 3 manages to look and perform excellent from start to finish, even with dozens upon dozens of enemies, allies and vehicles on screen at any one time. You can't beat quality like that, and it's nearly a miracle that a game with this much detail doesn't have any noticeable visual flaws… it's sort-of expected these days, sadly.

The way Halo 3 plays also seems to lack any sign of error, though Bungie have always managed to make sure the gameplay remain solid throughout all three of their games. It's fair to say the way Halo plays is one of – if not – the biggest appeal to people who play it.

Unlike Halo 2 which changed how the game plays quite a bit, Halo 3 doesn't seem to add or takeaway anything significant with the gameplay. Excluding new features such as equipment and new weapons/vehicles, the movement and combat feels pretty much identical to Halo 2, but that's not a flaw at all. While Halo 2 managed to make itself slightly more enjoyable to play than Halo 1 (from a gameplay standard), with its faster paced and more fluid controls, Halo 3 sticks to the same winning formula. Anyone who's played Halo before will feel right at home.

There are a few general button changes, mind, with the right and left bumpers taking full control of picking up weapons and reloading, with the X button used for deploying equipment. If you've come straight off playing Halo 1 or 2 it'll take a bit to adjust, but it's nothing major and you'll definitely feel it works better overall. If you go back to playing Halo 2 on a 360 you'll want to switch the weapon controls to the bumpers just because it works so well in Halo 3.

As mentioned above the X button is now used for a new feature to the gameplay, which is equipment. You pick up equipment like you would weapons, and can only carry on at a time. Things such as bubble shields (which gives you cover from bullets, but not from people entering it); deployable cover (the purple-like plasma shields often littered about in earlier games); gravity lift (what it says on the tin); and radar jammer (displays red dots all over your radar) are all things you will be seeing littered about in the game, both in campaign and multiplayer. There are other types of equipment available too, which can add a great deal of depth to combat and add something new over combat in the earlier games.

On the combat front Halo 3, again, manages to succeed where its predecessors also did. The AI of the Brutes, Grunts, Jackals and Drones you'll be facing are some of the best in gaming. The Brutes will actually bark orders to the Grunts to bring you out from cover, or better yet – a lone Grunt with his party destroyed will light up two plasma grenades and do a suicide-bomb run directed at you. Again, it's not a major advancement over what Halo 2 already introduced, but with the overall level of polish Halo 3 has it feels like an improvement anyway. Even the Flood manage to be a bit more enjoyable to battle, as they come in much different shapes and sizes than before and require more tactics to eliminate than the typical ammo-draining encounters in previous games. Of course they're still not as enjoyable to fight as the Covenant, and insist on running at you 90% of the time relying on numbers over combat skill. Sadly this can become repetitive and unlike-able especially late on in Halo 3's campaign.

While having another type of foe alongside the Covenant added more depth to the original Halo, it's getting a bit tiresome having to go through entire levels of Flood filled combat. The first time you encounter them in Halo 3 is actually well-done and the level which consists of killing them isn't overly long and so feels satisfying, especially since the level after reverts back to the Covenant as the bullet-targets. But unfortunately the last two levels of the game force you to fight them from start to finish, which is a shame considering how well designed the environments are. It's like doing the Library all over again, but with better looking scenery: an improvement, but you'd much rather be fighting Brutes all the same.

It's not that the last two levels are bad in Halo 3, it's more that you wish Bungie had thrown in a few more Covenant encounters to space out the Flood filled nightmare. The two levels before the Flood ones mentioned are so good that you wish the rest of the game was the same, especially the level called The Covenant which is probably one of the best levels in all Halo games, even topping Assault on the Control Room. If Bungie maintained the same quality with the last two levels as they did with the rest of the game we'd most certainly be looking at a 10/10 game here.

Or maybe.

Even with the vast majority of the campaign offering superb combat, both on and off foot, mixed in with new weapons and vehicles and extravagant looking environments, not to mention the much more refined and satisfying storyline, the game still has the same major flaw as Halo 2: it's too damn short.

On the one hand it's likely Bungie had to make Halo 3 shorter as they're not reusing level design as they did in the original game, but on the other hand attempting to avoid the “repetitive design flaws” of Halo 1 has ultimately equalled in a much shorter game for Halo 3. Personally I wouldn't mind a couple more levels which reused level design if it meant a longer game, after all it's the combat and the combat situations which ultimately keep the game going, not the level design. Even delaying the game to do a couple more levels would have been easily forgivable if it meant a longer experience, as that's what you really want. It's so much fun to play that you want it to last longer, but the harsh reality is you'll have finished it in a couple of days, even on heroic.

There are a few features that can keep campaign alive: Split-screen co-op/system-link and X-Box Live co-op for 2-4 players; collecting and utilizing the skulls; campaign scoring (score points for kills etc…); and, of course, achievements. But it's still not enough to equal the same length other FPS games can offer.

To people who also enjoy the multiplayer it may be a minor shortcoming, but to people who are more focused on storyline and setting it's a big shame. A great idea would be to completely remake Halo 2 with the Halo 3 graphics engine and gameplay functions and then integrate them both into one huge campaign, not only giving probably the best story-driven FPS experience on a console ever, but also redeeming Halo 2 in the process. But alas, what are the chances that would ever happen?

The chances that Halo 3 has a great soundtrack, however, are quite high. Like the past two games Martin O'Donnell has delivered an immersive and unique sounding experience. There's nothing quite like the music you hear in the Halo games, with even certain tracks giving you more incentive to fight better.

With the length of the game and dodgy design decisions for the last two levels aside, Halo 3's campaign is overall an experience that Halo 2 should have been. It equals the same level of fun and excitement that Halo 1 did, and manages to make best use of all weapons/vehicles/equipment you'll be using in many situations. The storyline manages to keep you guessing and leaves you with a satisfying conclusion, and so overall you're getting a superb gaming experience, which is the main thing.

If you want Halo 3 with only the intention of playing the campaign then it's still definitely a must-own.

Multiplayer

This is the one function pretty much no Halo 2 fan will be displeased with. It's essentially exactly the same as Halo 2's multiplayer, with only the new maps, weapons, vehicles, equipment and improved visuals offering some differences. Basically, it's just the same stuff but slightly better. So if you loved Halo 2's multiplayer you'll love this, end of story.

One thing that is a lot more improved – though offers no gameplay significance – is character creation. Unlike Halo 2 where you could pick a Spartan or Elite then colours, Halo 3 lets you actually choose different pieces of armour for different sections of your character's body. For example, you can give your Spartan a Ryu Hayabusa style helmet for display at all times in multiplayer (which of course, 90% of players do, thinking they look cool, which is nice for them). Of course these extra armour designs need to be unlocked, with achievements being the targets to get some new armour pieces. So from a customisation stand-point it's a nice improvement over Halo 2.

In-game the combat offers the same stuff, you know… run around and shoot other players. The game-types are all here with your bread-and-butter CTF and Team Slayer, and then a couple of new modes to give you a fresh challenge. The ranked and unranked playlists are back again and the whole X-Box Live integration – as expected – works perfectly. It works so well that whenever you try other online games that use different match-making schemes it usually puts you off immediately. For example when I tried to play another game online I was posed with many menus listing search functions for servers, which seemed pointless. Why other games don't just use the simple system which allows you get a match without messing about is beyond me. If there were an award for simple, fast and responsive menus to help get an online game Halo 3 would certainly win on the 360.

The number ranks are back with Halo 3, along with icons displaying your army rank (or whatever you want to call it) such as Sergeant and General. Most of it is gained through Experience, which you collect by simply playing the game. The number ranks are gained by doing well in the scores department, although it's here where I've always had an issue with Halo 3, and Halo 2 online.

I'm not disputing the whole level skill-based system at all, but personally I find the games – to a certain point – don't require any level of skill to be good at. It's the type of game that makes you feel like you're good at it, while in reality it's doing the same with every other player you meet. It might be harsh to say but up to a certain point the game becomes more about luck rather than skill, especially when compared to much more challenging and competitive FPS games on the PC.

It might be, and probably is, intended that both Halo 2 and Halo 3 are designed so that anyone playing them online can win, no matter how good they are. That way the game remains popular online, and everyone wins (no pun intended).

Ironically enough I'm not very interested in competitive gaming and if you're not one to care about trying to win all the time then Halo 3 is fun online. You'll obviously come across the nice and friendly X-Box Live community, such as Darkmaster002wtf from Dallas, Texas who enjoys swearing racist abuse at anybody's gamertag that appears on his screen. It's usually better to stick to people you know, and in that way Halo 3 remains fun online.

And that also works offline, where you're more likely to be playing with people you know. As a social multiplayer game Halo 3 hits the mark again and offers more than your money's worth in that department.

So again, if you want Halo 3 for multiplayer only then it's a definite buy.

Conclusion

So with both main functions of the game venting off “must-buy” vibes it's pretty much a given that Halo 3 is more than just a good game. Is it more of a must-buy than Halo 1 and 2?
Halo 1, probably not: With the online functions of Halo 3 obviously needing more attention than the multiplayer did in Halo 1, it has meant less content for the campaign. While it's not better than the original Halo in that way, it still hits the same levels of fun, enjoyment and excitement that you had with Combat Evolved and so you'll feel it's a more than worthy addition to the series.

Halo 2, most certainly: Unlike Halo 2 the game feels much more solid to play and looks polished both graphically and technically. There's no signs of any flaws to actual design or gameplay and it gives you a satisfying feeling that only the best games can offer.

If you're avoiding Halo 3 because of the scars Halo 2 left, you shouldn't. Bungie have managed to reach the same standard set with the original game and so it's not to be missed. Risk not playing it at your own peril.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 02/07/08

Game Release: Halo 3 (EU, 09/26/07)


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