Videogame franchises don’t come any bigger than Halo. The original title helped put Microsoft’s Xbox console on the map. Then came the sequel, which set sales records while frustrating gamers worldwide with its cliffhanger ending. Now the third and final installment in the Halo trilogy has arrived. Having pre-sold 1.7 million copies and grossing more than $170 million in sales in the first 24 hours, Halo 3 is ready to finish the fight. Are you?
Halo 3 picks up following the events of Halo 2, with Master Chief returning to Earth to finish the fight with the invading Covenant forces. Unlike Halo 2, where gamers swapped between Master Chief and the Arbiter, in Halo 3 you’ll only control Master Chief, though the Arbiter will join you in battle throughout most of the campaign as an AI controlled character. I refuse to spoil any of the twists and turns of the plot but I will give you fair warning: You’re going to want to brush up on the story presented so far in Halo and Halo 2. There’s a brief overview in the manual but considering it doesn’t mention Cortana or Gravemind, characters that play central roles in the concluding Halo chapter, you’re going to risk being completely lost in the developments of Halo 3. With that said, rest assured that Halo 3 does definitively conclude the Halo trilogy.
The core Halo gameplay is here as strong as ever. One of the criticisms gamers had with Halo 2, other than the abrupt ending, were the overuse of corridors that resulted in extremely confined combat. In that sense, Halo 3 is a lot more like the original Halo, with wide-open environments where no two battles play out the same. There are always multiple angles to engage the enemy and that goes a long way in encouraging gamers to play through the campaign over and over.
While Halo 3 harkens back to the original Halo for its level design, it also brings back some of the best elements of Halo 2, such as the ability to dual wield weaponry. The rifle from the original Halo returns to the battlefield, albeit with a smaller clip, joining a handful of new weapons such the UNSC Spartan Laser. While the laser takes a few seconds to warm up, once fired it can take out enemy vehicles in a single shot. On the Covenant side, new weapon additions include the Brute Spider, a deadly weapon at close range that can be dual wielded, and the Gravity Hammer, which fans may remember as the weapon Brute Chieftan Tartarus carried around in Halo 2. Smashing a foe with the Gravity Hammer sends them flying through the air to their demise. Last but not least, there’s not a turret in the game that’s safe from Master Chief. Plasma, rocket or otherwise, Master Chief can rip the turret’s gun from the stand and carry it around, with limited ammunition.
There are a total of four grenade types in Halo 3. Joining the UNSC frag grenade and Covenant plasma grenade is a pair of new Covenant grenades. The spike grenade sticks to objects, walls and enemies, exploding in a vicious blast of sharp projectives, while the firebomb grenade is the Covenant's version of the molotov cocktail, damaging both infantry and vehicles. Also new in Halo 3 are deployable combat equipment. By pressing X, you can deploy a bevy of items such as a Bubble Shield that deflects all weapons and grenades (though it can be penetrated by simply walking into its field), a Power Drainer who’s magnetic induction causes failure of powered field systems within its radius, a Regenerator that has the opposite effect of the Power Drainer, a Portable Shield Generator that works similar to the stationary Covenant shields, as well as other useful pieces of equipment like Trip Mines, Automated Turrets, Invincibility and Invisibility.
One of the hallmarks of the Halo franchise is vehicular combat, not to mention its amazing selection of vehicles. Joining the roster in Halo 3 is two new UNSC vehicles: The Mongoose, an ATV like vehicle with no armament, and the Hornet, the UNSC’s answer to the Covenant’s Banshee, a flight combat vehicle with guided missiles. Meanwhile the Covenant introduce the Brute Prowler, a gravity-assisted sled with a powerful plasma weapon, and the Brute Chopper, a heavily armored, gravity-assisted motorbike that challenges the Warthog as the toughest vehicle to drive.
Enough about the new weapon and vehicle additions in Halo 3, let’s talk about how the game plays. The running time of the single-player campaign is on par with Halo 2 in that on the Normal difficulty setting, it’ll take 7-8 hours to complete. Halo 3 is best experienced on the Heroic difficulty setting and as always, the Legendary setting lives up to its name. The AI, which has always been a staple of the Halo franchise, is just as smart and ruthless as ever. They’ll flank you at every opportunity, hold back when they know you have no choice but to advance, take cover behind stationary shields, and deploy their own combat equipment when situations arise. You’ll fight the usual assortment of Covenant, including the cunning but cowardly Grunts, the defensive Jackals, the pestering Drones and the powerful but beatable Hunters. The Covenant are led by the Brutes on the battlefield, whom themselves seem to be a little more intelligent this time around. They’re all suited up for battle and it usually takes a few shots to destroy their armor before they charge ferociously. Just watch out for the Brutes carrying Gravity Hammers. They take a lot of punishment and need only one good swing of the Hammer to knock your lights out. We can’t forget about the Flood, who seemed to have learned how to mutate. A new type of Flood, called Pure Form, can actually mutate into one of three different species, including one with a ranged attack and another known as Tank Form. Believe me, it lives up to that name.
The campaign isn’t without a flaw or two. Even knowing everything about the story of Halo thus far, the plot can be difficult to follow. About three quarters of the way through the game there’s a level in the Pillar of Autumn that brings the flow of the game to an absolute halt. I won’t spoil the specifics but if you play Halo 3, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. On the other hand, one of the things I loved about Halo 3 was how the series comes full circle, incorporation levels from Halo and Halo 2 that fans will surely recognize, not to mention a bit of déjà vu at the end. When all is said and done, the thrill-a-minute singleplayer campaign wraps up the Halo trilogy in tremendous fashion.
When you’re done “finishing the fight,” an absolutely amazing multiplayer suite awaits. For starters, you can play through the entire campaign with up to four players locally, via system link or over Xbox Live. The one issue with Xbox Live co-op is if one player leaves during the game, the remaining party members are dropped back to the lobby and thus lose their progress in the campaign. That’s a bit of a weird design decision. Another mind boggler is the inability to play through the campaign with anyone but someone on your friends list (or recently played list). In other words, if you don’t have any friends online at the time, you can’t play co-op. There is no option to start a campaign room and have random people join your party, or vice versa.
Aside from co-op, Halo 3 features a robust competitive lineup of game types. The usual suspects are present, including VIP, Slayer, Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, etc. In addition, you can custom create your own game type by altering options like damage resistance, shield recharge rate, player speed, grenade counts, and vehicle use, among many others. If that wasn’t enough, there’s the Forge, a new game mode that allows you to tweak, create or destroy objects present on any multiplayer map. It doesn’t let you alter the geometry of a level, just the objects present within it. Combine Forge with the ability to create your own custom game types and the range of possibilities is endless.
Another new addition to multiplayer is Saved Films. Every time you play Halo 3, either singleplayer or multiplayer, a copy of your game is saved to the hard drive. You can then head to the Theatre and watch any of your last few sessions. You can follow a player in first person, move to a third person view or fly the camera overhead to get a bird’s eye view of the action. Want to know who killed you with the sniper rifle shot or better, from where? Now you can find out. Want to replay an amazing stunt you pulled off with the Warthog? No problem. You can even save the best highlights in one of a handful of slots and share them with friends. Not only does it take trash talking to another level but we’re also bound to see all kinds of Halo 3 machinima show up on the Internet.
Let me just say it up front, Halo 3 does not look as good as Gears of War or BioShock. It still looks damn good though. Considering the immense battles within these wide-open environments that occur without a hitch, that’s an achievement in itself. The use of lighting in the game is brilliant, the water and weather effects are excellent and there are tons of little touches like footsteps left in the snow and sand by fellow infantry. Audio is what you would expect from a Halo title. There are tons of lines of dialogue, so much so that you could play through the entire campaign in Halo 3 and still hear new lines the second time through. Ron Perlman returns to voice Lord Hood, as does Keith David in the Arbiter’s role. The usual sound effects, the sweeping soundtrack, they’re all present. The only problem is that sometimes the music drowns out key dialogue during the game. With no way to adjust the levels, you’re likely to miss a few lines.
Halo 3 doesn’t deviate from the formula that has made the franchise as popular as it is. It simply combines the best parts of Halo (wide-open, diverse environments) and Halo 2 (dual wielding weaponry), and throws a few new weapons, vehicles and enemies to the mix. The result is a thrilling and ultimately satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Then you have the multiplayer suite, which is out of this world. With the Saved Films, the Forge editor and the ability to custom create game types, the Halo 3 multiplayer experience is one that will last for years to come. Believe. This is one fight you’re going to want to finish.