Review by ZFS

"There are great games -- and then there is Halo."

Halo has come a long way since its inception back on the original Xbox in 2001. In seven short years, it has become the premiere series for the gaming industry. Nothing is quite comparable to the release of a new Halo title, and unless you only started gaming within the past few months, you'd be hard pressed to have missed out. After its mind boggling $10 million marketing campaign, everyone knew that they were going to Finish the Fight. But Bungie went above and beyond the call of duty with the final installment in their series. Never before has a game been so richly packed with content, so expertly crafted, and so damn enjoyable to play.

But what makes it as good as it is isn't some revolutionary new concept, something that pushes the FPS genre forward. Instead, Halo 3 is all about taking all of the various concepts introduced in Halo and Halo 2 -- rechargeable shields in place of health, dual-wielding, strategic weapon choice, epic scope, online matchmaking, etc. -- and refining and polishing them to a sheen. This is more an evolution than revolution, and believe me, that's a good thing.

Make no mistake, though, this isn't simply a retread. There's plenty of 'new' here. For example, the addition of equipment, such as the Bubble Shield or Grav Lift, a whole new set of possibilities are opened up. If you're getting fired upon from afar, and you have a Bubble Shield in your inventory, a quick press of the X button deploys an impenetrable shield that will prevent any weapon, explosion or what have you from doing harm for a limited time. You can walk in and out of it, as can your enemies, but it offers a bit of respite in the middle of a firefight.

To that, the game has also seen a host of new weaponry, ranging from the Brute version of the SMG to the brand new incendiary grenades. There's more new weapons added in for Halo 3 than there were for Halo 2, to give you an idea. Familiar weapons like the Assault Rifle and Needler have been completely rebalanced, too. The old days of the Assault Rifle being nigh useless are long gone -- it's an absolute killer now, and it's your starting weapon to boot.

Similarly, dual-wielding, which was huge in Halo 2, has been dampened a bit here. The 'golden tripod' -- weapon, melee, grenade -- has returned to form here, being more important than ever. If you're going to dual wield, it's going to be at the expense of using grenades, or the revamped melee attack; it has its situations where it's better, but it doesn't dominate the game like before. The attention to balance and focus on making sure each weapon, each choice, has its own strengths and weaknesses goes a long way.

What I would consider the biggest improvement, though, may come in the most unexpected of areas -- the single player campaign. The original Halo is often lauded as having one of the best campaigns in a First Person Shooter. Halo 2? Not so much -- it sacrificed gameplay consistency for the sake of storytelling, albeit telling a very crucial part that sets the events of this game; it was a 'necessary evil,' you could say. Fortunately, Halo 3 is much closer to the original than it is the sequel.

Not only does it return to Master Chief for the entire game (that's right -- no more Arbiter missions), but constantly and consistently delivers on the fun. With the exception of one level, the design and layout of each mission is flawless. Bungie's mantra of '30 seconds of fun' replicated over and over has never been better than it is in Halo 3. Once the action gets going, it doesn't often let up, only giving you enough time to catch your breath before throwing you back into the fight. The sheer scope of the game's battles are truly something to see. The biggest battles in the previous two games can't even begin to compare to what Halo 3 has to offer, and for the sake of keeping those a surprise I won't go into the gritty details.

Those battles are what they are thanks to both the top-notch A.I. and the dynamic nature of each encounter. The battle themselves are scripted insofar as you'll run into a certain group of enemies when you reach a certain point, which is as it has always been, but the outcome of each one is what makes Halo 3 so special. You can replay the same fight multiple times and each time something different is bound to happen -- enemies will react differently, they'll use different tactics, a plan that may have worked, or almost worked, once will fail to do so a second time. It's no lie to say that while everyone will run into the same battles, what happens during those battles will be a unique experience.

A group of Brutes will intelligently devise ways to kill you. One of them may throw a flashbang, blinding you momentarily, while the rest of the pack moves in to take you out before you can recover. If you're in an advantageous spot, they'll deploy a bubble shield to cover themselves from the fire while precisely moving out just enough to launch their own counterattack. It's small things like this that elevate Halo from being simply another great game to being a special one.

And to top it all off, the new addition of campaign scoring greatly increases the replay value. After you've gone through the game once normally, you can go back through it again with scoring, which depends on certain factors to determine what your final tally is at the end in the carnage report. It gives more incentive to try for headshots, finish the level quicker, and handicap yourself with skulls -- all give various bonus multipliers that contribute to your end score. And for the especially masochistic out there, Bungie has said obtaining the maximum score requires you to play on Legendary while turning on all of the skulls, getting plenty of headshots, not dying, and getting through the level quickly. Yeah -- it'll last you a while, if you're up for the task!

And yet, with all of this in mind, the surface hasn't even been scratched with the game. The addition of Forge, a level editor that allows you to take existing maps and recreate them however you see fit; saved films, which allow you to save games you've played online, offline or in the single player; file sharing, letting you show the world your mad skillz during that one game on Guardian, or how you rocked Legendary like nobody's business in the campaign; and then the obvious online play, be it through Team Slayer or rocking 4-player co-op. There's no exaggeration, no hyperbole, in saying that Halo 3 is so packed with content that you won't need another game for a long, long time. This is a game that can and will be played many years down the road.

A large part of it's undeniable longevity is the online component. Matchmaking was huge in Halo 2; it tried to capture that feeling of 'being on the couch' with your buddies but through Xbox Live. At the time, there were some pretty bad problems with people cheating, all for the sake of increasing their online ranking. Most of those issues have been fixed, though, as the new system works in such a way that increasing your skill ranking won't mean much when you run into people who are legitimately at that particular skill level, and failing to meet certain requirements while at that skill level will see you getting knocked down until you're at a level where you can compete more consistently.

But 'skill' isn't the only means of moving up the ladder, as the new EXP system ensures that those who may not be Halo gods can work at their own pace while fighting against people who are around their own skill level. Your skill ranking may be a mere 3 out of 50, but you could be ranked as a Sergeant, just for having played so many matchmaking games and getting EXP. It's a really well thought out and detailed system that maximizes the fun for the user, never pitting them against the elite of the elite if they're not at that level of play.

Ultimately, Halo 3 brings all of these different elements together to create one of the most finely crafted games to come along in years, if ever. This is how Halo was meant to be. It provides an immensely satisfying conclusion to one of the best series in gaming, and is packed with enough content to keep you coming back well after you've finished the fight. If you're a fan of good games, Halo 3 can do you no wrong -- unless you're one of those who just can't get into First Person Shooters. Master Chief's story may have reached its conclusion, but it's only beginning for everyone else.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 01/17/08

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

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