Millions of gamers around the world are breathlessly awaiting the latest chapter in their favorite Xbox saga. So after some hands on time with the latest Halo 3 single player build at X'07 Canada, how does it stack up? It's a complicated question. If you aren't expecting a giant leap forward in overall gameplay, then you will be unquestionably pleased with what plays very much like Halo 2.5. Conversely, if you were hoping for fundamental, earth shaking differences to the Halo design, you will be left disappointed.
Our demo with the game began on the Tsavo Highway level that takes place early in the game. Right away, it became apparent that the team at Bungie has put a lot of work into the graphics engine. The flame effects and explosions look spectacular, and the architecture is looming and impressive. All the grass and foliage in the game reacts to footsteps and bullets. The water effects in particular were also superbly done, and stack up well to some of the best water effects we've seen in games like BioShock. The weapon models are richly detailed, with lots of little effects such as chipped paint on the Master Chief's hands and reflections in the scope of the battle rifle. Everything in the build was running quite smoothly, and there was nary a frame rate hitch, even when the action got quite intense.
In terms of weapons, many of your old favorites make a return, including the classic assault rifle and pistol from the original title. Unfortunately, the zoom function that was present for the pistol in the original is still MIA in this one. This design decision makes the pistol weaker than in the original, but more powerful than in the sequel. The Brute Shot grenade launcher doesn't seem as random as the one we encountered in Halo 2 as well, with increased accuracy. We also saw a few new weapons, including the Brute Spiker, which seems like a cross between the needler and the pistol. It has a slower firing rate but does more damage than the needler. The Spiker can be dual wielded, and it also has a blade on the bottom, adding a little extra damage to your melee attack. Also, now the Master Chief can rip turrets off their mounts, and carry them along with him. When the player does this, the game shifts to a third person view, and player movement slows down due to the weight of the weapon. The Bungie representative also pointed out that the turrets have unlimited ammo when mounted, but once removed, the ammunition begins to drain. The arsenal in Halo 3 seems to be in that sweet spot between old, new, and classic.
There seems to be a significant tightening of the AI, both on your friendly marines and in the enemies you face. The Marines don't act like drunk drivers anymore when behind the wheel of the warthog, and are pretty good at covering your back. The most impressive AI behaviour however was the new Brutes, which made their first appearance in Halo 2. They will now hunt you in packs, seek cover, climb boxes to get a better view of you and smartly outflank you.
The new AI behaviour becomes even more apparent once our guide through the demo showed us the new saved films mode. When you exit the game to the menu, you can playback the entire section that you just played, in either single player or multiplayer. You can move the camera to anywhere you like, and observe all the enemy behaviors before you come in and blast everything. In the level we were shown, we could watch the battle that was ensuing between two human pelican ships and covenant forces on the ground. The camera was able to swoop, pan, and rotate around any object, and did so elegantly. Still, beyond showing off the game and how detailed everything is, the whole saved films idea seems like a gimmick that is mostly unnecessary. Then again, I can't imagine that too many gamers will use this feature on a regular basis; why download and watch somebody else's videos when you could just be playing the game yourself?
One of the great pleasures of the past Halo titles is in the co-operative play. In addition to classic two player split screen, Bungie has confirmed that there will be fully featured four player co-op over Xbox Live. This time around, instead of playing as two Master Chiefs or two Arbiters, player one will be the Master Chief, and player two will be the Arbiter. In the case of a four player campaign, players three and four will play as covenant elites.
Unfortunately, since the story is top secret and under wraps, so I was unable to get any juicy details about where the story line is going. At least when I asked the Bungie representative if the story would actually end this time, to which he replied "This will be the end of the Halo trilogy."
Despite the spiffy new graphics and improved AI, this is still very much a Halo game. Many of the weapons are the same, the jumps are still really floaty, and the warthog physics haven't changed a bit. For those who have played Halo and it's sequel to death, this is good news. If you didn't like Halo to begin with, this won't change your mind. Having just gone gold, Halo 3 ships September 25th..