So here it is, the most-anticipated final part of a trilogy since…, well since trilogies were duoogies probably. Record pre-sales and a clever pre-release campaign kept interest in H3 to sensible levels, with none of the over-hype and hysteria that surrounded Halo 2’s launch – a good thing as so many people ended up being disappointed, if only by the game’s unexciting and faltering storyline. So will anyone be let down by H3? Well with the bizarrely demanding expectations of the modern gamer I guess that’s inevitable, but I may as well start this review by saying that I think that Halo 3 is the game that the beleaguered Xbox 360 has been waiting for...
Halo 3 carries on right where Halo 2 left off, Master Chief John 117 (that’s you that is) plummeting back to Earth after the events of Halo 2. You’ll soon be tasked with rescuing good old Sarge and finding Cortana (your feminine military AI), who’s gone a bit nuts since you left her aboard the Covenant ship High Charity at the end of Halo 2. The Covenant has now been fractured and the Elites, once sworn enemies are now our allies, the Covenant's battles now being led by the monstrous Brutes that were first introduced in Halo 2. The first level is set in a beautiful African jungle and teaches you the controls (if you’re new to the series) and shows off the new game engine to good effect. From the outset H3 is a very good looking game, solid and smooth and highly detailed, with none of the awful horizontal tearing or frame rate problems that so many lesser developers have seemed content to torture our eyes with. Halo 2 had a lot of physics going on, but now everything that isn’t bolted down gets shifted around due to explosions, there’s lots of destructible scenery, trees and other flora look amazing, and sway as characters brush by. Water splashes and ripples as it should and the lighting is just perfect, adding considerable atmosphere throughout the game’s hugely varied settings.
Character models are good if not amazing (you rarely see the same face re-used), the animation is fluid, the ragdoll looks realistic and everyone in the game is “lip-synched”. The AI is mostly good but ranges from the sublime (a Marine says “ok you take over Chief” [or words to that effect] as you steal his turret gun, then runs 200 yards through an installation to board a Mongoose, and then do battle – I lost track of him after that) to the occasional hiccup, like a Brute I saw stuck behind a truck, or when your Marines seem to lose the will to live and act incredibly dumb with vehicles or grenades (their driving has improved, but you’re still gonna be a lot safer if you take the wheel yourself).
There are a few new weapons, the Brute Spiker and the awesome Spartan laser, and some old favourites; The Needler and the rocket launcher have been adjusted – the Needler is now more powerful but can’t be dual-wielded, and for some reason the rocket launcher has lost its lock-on capability, making it much less deadly. And the good old Assault rifle returns, I suspect simply because there’s nothing quite like the ‘heavy burst + melee attack + throw grenade” combo that this weapon instinctively encourages and was so loved in the first Halo. There are also various ‘turret’ weapons that can be ripped from their tripods and used as heavy weapons, these are all realistically cumbersome and hamper your mobility and rate of turn. They include a missile pod that does have a lock-on capability which makes it invaluable for bringing down aircraft or hitting fast-moving vehicles both in the campaign and multiplayer games – you can even shoot down the Covenant’s Phantom dropships now, with spectacular results. Not as spectacular as when you destroy a Scarab (the Covenant’s huge walking tank) though. These at first appear to be invulnerable as they stomp around the battlefield, but there are a pleasing number of ways of “doing them in”, and they’re all equally satisfying as the Scarab’s demise is caused by a blast of near-nuclear proportions…
While there are still some typically Halo-esque interior locations, many battles take place outdoors and what a ‘great outdoors’ it is, with massive sweeping levels that lack none of the detail of the smaller interiors. In true Halo style, the level loads and then once you’re in, the small loads between sections are SO damn quick you barely notice them. With such sprawling maps there’s also plenty of driving and flying (in the new Marine 'Hornet' attack craft) to be done, and riding aboard the “Mongoose”, a quad bike that is a new addition to the Marine’s vehicle roster. The Brutes have a couple of new vehicles too; the Chopper and the Prowler - both look like they were made out of scrap by some kind of motorhead-psycho, and the Brutes ride them like psychos too.
The game “movie theater” or replay mode is also remarkable. Often we played a Halo level or deathmatch and there would be a sequence of play just so darned cool, or a disputed incident in a deathmatch that we longed for a replay mode, well now we have it, and it’s amazing. I’ve played just about every racing or sports game you’d care to mention (as well as many you wouldn’t) and so many of them had limited or bugged replay modes. Halo 3’s allows you to watch battles from the viewpoint of any of the players, or pause, free the camera totally and zoom around like you’re a movie director. The integration between the game and Bungie.net is also a thing to behold, with countless stats, your very own screens and movies available through a file share system.
Forge is Halo 3’s map editor, and is best described as “a game within a game”. It allows you to move, place and delete any object on any of the multiplayer maps (within a generous limit, governed by a certain amount of currency per map). For every item you delete you’ll regain some currency, and most maps can be fiddled with until all the weapons, powerups & vehicles spawn right where you think they should, you can then save these alterations and play the “modded” maps offline or on. During Forge activities you can roam around the map as “The Monitor” (a flying spherical droid like 343 Guilty Spark) and with a press of a button change to your multiplayer character (these can also be customized extensively) and test out any alterations you’ve made. To make the modding experience even more fun you can invite friends in and all end up flying around as “Sparks”, dropping tanks on your friends’ heads, plonking a rocket launcher or a sniper rifle where only you could possibly find them, and having a general free-for-all. Great fun, an inventive addition to the multiplayer game and a useful utility as well. The ten new multiplayer maps are varied, and there’s only one I really don’t like, there’s a massive new desert location called Sand Trap and the popular Zanzibar from Halo 2 gets re-imagined as Last Resort, and the Blood Gulch-like Valhalla is just about everyone’s new favourite. Multiplayer game types are still Slayer, Oddball, King Of The Hill, Capture The Flag, Juggernaut and a new ones called Infection (spread a disease by killing till there’s a last man standing) and V.I.P (one member of the team is more important, protect yours while trying to assassinate the other team’s). Every game type has sub-versions available too, making for plenty of variation.
Well to sum up, all in all, it’s hard to say that Halo 3 is anything other than excellent throughout. Halo 3's multiplayer modes have yet again raised the bar for the number of options, the likely lifespan due to an addictive ranking system, and the ease of matchmaking – you won’t have any problem getting a game of Halo 3 for a long, long time, that’s for sure. A campaign that most people seemed to enjoy, a story that makes sense (part-war hero story, part "love" story, part buddy movie) and ties things up nicely (or does it?). If this is the final part of the Halo story then it’s ended on a suitably high note, if not then Halo 4 has a hard act to follow.