Halo is a cultural phenomenon. Early sales reports indicate that Halo 3 has a higher first day gross than other major media releases such as Spider-Man 3 and Harry Potter's final book. Halo is the franchise that saved Xbox for Microsoft, and essentially legitimized first person shooters on a console (1997's Goldeneye on the N64 perhaps not withstanding).
So here we are, at the end of an era of gaming. Microsoft and Bungie claim that this is the end of the Halo saga as we know it. Yeah, they said the same thing about the Star Wars Trilogy once upon a time too. Halo is way too much of a cash cow for Microsoft to just let it die. Still, if this is the final Halo game, then Bungie has done a bang up job ensuring that the Master Chief and crew have an appropriate sendoff.
Halo 3's story picks up exactly where Halo 2's cliffhanger ending left off. I won't spoil too many story details, despite the fact that countless others over the internet had already done that for me. The Master Chief and the Elite Arbiter are now partners in trying to stop the Covenant armies from activating the Halo rings and effectively destroying the galaxy by unleashing a parasitic organism known as the Flood. As Halo 3 opens, our heroes find themselves on Earth, trying to stem the onslaught of a full out Covenant invasion. The Covenant is led by some psychotic religious zealots who believe that activated the Halo rings will allow them to embark upon a "great journey". Are there some parallels between these religious leaders and ones in the real world? Is it possible that a silly video game could have some actual social commentary within its storyline? I'll leave that for you to decide. Of course, the Flood is always a step behind too, and you'll encounter this frightening parasite before your time with Halo 3 is done.
Since Halo 3 is the supposed end to the trilogy, gamers can rest assured that the story does come to a satisfying conclusion this time around, with no cliffhanger ending to worry about. With that said, there's clearly more room to explore the Halo universe. I wouldn't be surprised to step into Spartan armor again in the near future, if not the Master Chief's himself. Halo 3 serves as a fine conclusion for the trilogy as we know it, even if it will only take you between seven to ten hours to see the story all the way through.
Controls for the game will take a slight adjustment for seasoned Halo veterans. Namely, instead of using the X button to pick up weapons and reload, the function has been remapped to the right bumper for the right hand, and the left bumper for the left hand. What the X button does now is utilize the new inventory items that the Chief now has access to. You can only carry one item at a time, but all of them have really neat effects. You can use an explosive flare that blinds your enemies like a flash bang grenade, deploy a bubble shield that stops bullets, drop a power draining device that sucks away shields, among others. Your enemies will also be using these devices with great aplomb. The rest of the game mainly utilizes the same control configurations as the other two Halo games.
All your favourite weapons from both previous games make a triumphant return, some with a few tweaks. The original assault rifle from the original is back, and remains one of the more versatile and useful weapons you can use. The pistol in Halo 3 has the slower firing rate and better stopping power of the original pistol, but without the zoom function. The Needler also returns, but it can't be dual wielded this time around, making it essentially the most useless weapon in the game. Finally, the Chief can also wield a new flame thrower that is a lot of fun Torching those slow little alien grunts with a flame thrower simply never gets old. You'll also encounter old favorites such as the battle rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, covenant carbine, plasma rifle, and rocket and grenade launchers among several others.
The new weapons in the game are quite interesting. You can dual wield a devastating new weapon called the Brute Spiker, which is essentially like a Needler that fires a little slower but does far more damage. You'll also come across dual wieldable shotguns known as maulers that do obscene amounts of damage at close range.
Although they technically aren't new weapons, you are now able to rip turrets off their mounts and carry them around with you. When you do this, the camera shifts from first to third person, and your movement is slowed down to compensate for the extra weight of the gun. Turrets have unlimited ammunition until you take them off their mounts, upon which ammo begins to drain. This adds an extra layer of strategy to the game. Do you slow yourself down in order to deal significantly more damage? It all depends on who you're fighting in any particular situation.
All the vehicles that you know and love from the past games are also back. Swerving through groups of enemies in a Warthog is still as satisfying as ever. You can also still ride in speedy Ghosts, soar in the sky in Banshees; and demolish the opposition in a Scorpion Tank. New to the mix is a four wheeler ATV called the Mongoose. The Mongoose is faster and more maneuverable than a Warthog, but also has less armor and only has room for two. It's tons of fun just zipping around the levels in any of the vehicles, especially after jumping on the vehicle and kicking out its previous inhabitant. All the vehicles feature lots of real time damage, and will blow up on you if you're not careful.
The enemies you face in the game feature cunning AI that present a significant challenge, especially on the higher difficulty settings. The brutes in particular are very adept at flanking you and pinning you down behind cover. They will all use items and grenades wisely, and will run away when near death. Occasionally the designers will throw you into a situation where you are surrounded by dozens of enemies, and the intelligence that these characters display makes these areas an even more significant challenge. It sometimes borders on unfair, but with skillful play and a strategic eye, any situation can be turned to your advantage. The only time the game really gets annoying is when you get randomly picked off by the plethora of snipers that populate most of the levels. If you play the game on legendary difficulty, the only real way to find a sniper is to get killed and remember where the shot came from. All the enemies are real crack shots.
The AI on your side isn't quite as impressive, although they are better at driving than in Halo 2, and won't get stuck on architecture like before. At the same time, they rarely seem to want to drive to a logical area, and usually your car ends up blown to hell or flipped over before long. Since the AI has impeccable aim on your side too, it's much more effective to take the driver's seat and leave the turret gun to your compatriots.
Rather than alternating between the Master Chief and the Arbiter like in Halo 2, you'll control the Master Chief through the entire game as player one. The Arbiter is controlled entirely by player two in co-op and by the AI if you're flying solo. The Arbiter's AI is probably the worst the game has to offer. He'll commonly charge into battle with guns or energy sword blazing, and get himself killed quite quickly. It kind of takes you out of the suspension of disbelief when your AI compatriot is constantly getting himself killed and then respawning back into battle from behind you.
The meat and potatoes of the Halo franchise has always been playing through the campaign co-operatively. In Halo 3, it's back and better than ever. The game supports classic two player split screen, but also up to four players over Xbox Live. Beating the game on the Legendary setting is also much more manageable with four people in your party. Finding people to play with online is a snap thanks to Bungie's elegant matchmaking system.
Competitively, the matchmaking system isn't quite as grand. It's still simple and quick to jump right into a game, but since everything is done through matchmaking, it's impossible to search for a specific game type and/or level. Want to play Slayer on Snowbound? I hope you're feeling lucky, because Bungie's servers dump you in a room with no input. With Bungie's system you commonly get stuck playing idiotic game types like Oddball (where you have to hold a ball to get points, and you're completely defenseless when you do) and Crazy Hill (where you have to hold a patch of land that is constantly changing positions) as opposed to what you actually want to play. There is a veto function if the majority of gamers don't like the game type, but even if enough players veto, you have no say in the next game type.
That said, once you get into a game, it becomes obvious that Halo multiplayer is what Xbox Live was designed for in the first place. You and a few friends in split screen can log into the social networks that are just for fun and don't have any achievements. The competition in these areas is all over the map, and if you're a newbie you'll want to start here. Once you switch over the ranked groups, the competition gets a lot more cutthroat and winner take all. You'll only get achievements and recognition if you play in the ranked rooms, but the stiff challenge may scare some off.
There's some cool team based games to take part in as well. My personal favourite is Infection. This game type starts off with a group of humans and one zombie. The zombie is limited to only using an energy sword. If the zombie kills a human, they become a zombie. The goal is to either survive the time limit as a human, or if you're a zombie, to infect all the other players. Other team based games include shooter genre staples such as capture the flag, assault, and team king of the hill.
Halo 3 also features a so-called map editor called Forge. By map editor, I mean exactly that, you simply edit maps. There are no options to build a level from the ground up. What you can do is take the levels that Bungie created and rearrange the weapons and fix modifiers such as player health, gravity, starting weapons and the like. You can't edit things like rooms and corridors. In other words, Forge is a complete waste of time and I'd be extremely surprised if anyone made anything truly unique or worthwhile with it. Forge also controls quite poorly. While you're navigating the level, you can't go through floors and walls, and the game physics still affect you. Want to edit something on a lower floor but a grav shaft is in your way? Tough. You'll have to walk there like you were actually playing the game.
The Saved Films feature is another gimmick that is slightly more useful than Forge. Whenever you play the game in either single player or multiplayer, the game automatically records your progress. You can then go back and watch yourself in action in full 3D. This is a cool way to show off the sheer amount of action and detail that you may have missed as you were frantically running around shooting everything in sight. You can then upload your files on Xbox Live for others to see. Navigation in saved films is a snap, and it's actually quite intuitive being able to rotate the camera, choose targets, and rewind and fast-forward. Still, I have little interest in watching other people play the game when I could just be playing it myself.
Graphically speaking, Halo 3 jumps off the screen and punches you right in the gut. Simply put, this game is gorgeous, and stacks up well to pretty much any other Xbox 360 shooter. Weapon models are exquisitely detailed, and every polygon is lit slightly differently. Halo 3 now features a High Dynamic Range lighting system that gives the game a much more realistic look than its predecessors. If you come out from a tunnel to broad daylight, the chief's eyes will take a moment to adjust. Enemies and allies are all extremely well animated and rendered. But what really takes the cake are the backgrounds and levels themselves. They are simply breathtaking. Halo 3 has an awesome draw distance spanning miles in each direction. Weather and clouds change on the fly, and are reflected in the outstandingly rendered water. I defy you to not stop and just marvel at the beauty of the giant ark about halfway through the game. Up close, the architecture of the game is looming and impressive. When you're told of a space station crashing to earth, you'll know it. Oh yeah, and the explosions are retina-searingly beautiful. Halo 3 is in the upper echelon in the graphical hierarchy of any games released to date. A few rare animation hitches do nothing to diminish this phenomenal looking game.
The audio completes this outstanding presentation. That familiar Halo score has returned, with some new compositions to get that adrenaline flowing. The score in the game rivals that of most Hollywood movies, and suits the game perfectly. I would even go as far to say that the orchestral score in Halo 3 is possibly best score in video game history not written by Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy series). In what I believe to be a first for the Xbox 360, if you try to activate custom soundtracks during the game, a disclaimer will come up warning you that you will not be experiencing Halo 3 at its best without the original score, and they're completely right.
Sound effects fare just as well. Voice acting is solid across the board, and much of the game's subtle humor comes from listening to the Covenant grunts and your own marines. Swap a peashooter for a rocket launcher with a marine and listen to him sarcastically grumble about leaving him with nothing. All the weapons sound booming and powerful, which every effective shooter needs. When you combine the sublime graphics and audio together, every penny of this game's enormous production budget will shine on that expensive HD TV and surround sound setup of yours.
Is Halo 3 worth the ridiculous hype? Not really. Is it worth playing? Absolutely. Take all the hype that this game has garnered over the last three years, and dial it back just a bit. What you're left with is an extremely fun, playable game that will keep you busy for months if not years come. Halo 3 may not fully live up to the obscene hype, but it certainly survives it. Dust off that Spartan armor solider, it's time to finish the fight.