STAFF REVIEW of Halo 3 (Xbox 360)

Monday, October 15, 2007.
by Stacy Code

Halo 3 Box art After six long years of blood, sweat and tears, it's over. Halo 3 has arrived, and although it doesn't mean the end of the massive franchise that has built up around Bungie's masterpiece, it does bring the tale of Master Chief's fight to a satisfying close. Halo fans have been in actual pain since November of 2004 from the cliff hanger ending of Halo 2 which left us clutching our controllers, plunged into an unexpected cinematic cutscene after a particularly vicious fight, watching Master Chief plummet through a massive orbital fight clutching a fragile Forerunner space probe as he breaks earth's atmosphere vowing to "finish the fight". Frustrated gamers have taken their energy out on Halo 2's robust multiplayer battlefields, and those skills will come to excellent use in Halo 3's new, deadly fields of combat.

Halo 3 is the first of the series to land exclusively developed for Xbox 360, and as such players had a high level of expectation ? not only just on the basis of the game itself ? Halo 2 raised the bar enormously from the first game in the series, and did it on the same console hardware ? but also in terms of the story that needed to be resolved. Though George Lucas might have been able to get away with it in The Empire Strikes Back, Bungie made a bold move in making players live for three years with a nail-biting cliff hanger.

Halo 3 opens with Master Chief landed on earth, weapon in hand, resuming the fight against the alien Covenant. The formula remains unchanged, for the uninitiated ? this is a first person shooter, where the objective, minute to minute, is to assess your level of immediate threat, pick your weapons, manouver yourself to available cover, and then deal out some serious whoopass ? throw a grenade into a pack of enemies, crack out your biggest gun, mow down the survivors, and then throw down some serious rifle-butt beatings on the straggling survivors. Take that basic gameplay formula, and extend it through a varied, exotic amount of landscapes, terrains and weather, and you have the Halo flavour.

Halo?s campaign play is known for two particular strengths which make it stand out among a plethora of first-person shooters ? the story, and the graphics. Halo?s story takes the player, Master Chief, on a desperate run across the galaxy with an implacable alien enemy at their heels, where they take refuge and defend themselves on a massive alien ring artefact called Halo. By the time we catch up to Master Chief in Halo 3, he has returned to Earth (barely surviving the journey), the alien Covenant have dominated and all but destroyed the planet Earth and the galaxy is on the verge of annihilation as the Covenant prepare to fire the Halo ring structures, now known to be weapons. In short, the situation is extraordinarily grim, and as before, the player has only his wits, a few handheld weapons, his determination, and the help of a few trusty A.I. reinforcements to win the day.

Graphically, Halo 3 is forced to walk an extremely difficult and fine line ? it has to remain visually consistent with the first Halo, a game almost six years old and which began development almost a decade ago ? and yet at the same time it must bring next-generation visuals to the franchise to meet the incredible level of expectation of the players at this point. It does so incredibly successfully ? the game?s visuals have a cinematic, hyper-realistic quality that calls to mind the CG-animated Final Fantasy films ? it?s not completely realistic, but incredibly detailed. Draw distances are enormous with the muscle of the Xbox 360 behind the graphics, and players will find themselves fighting in environments simply not possible before ? the game opens in a lush jungle environment with twisting paths, dense foliage, and the most astonishing sunlight coming down through the leaves overhead. Later levels will see the Halo 3 engine truly shine as players drive Mongoose bikes and Warthog jeeps in a full, A.I. driven convoy of mounted soldiers in a fight against massive, multi-legged Scarab enemies on a plateau next to a Cliffside as huge Covenant capital ships wage their own battles in the skies over Africa. Halo 3 is a one-man first person shooter, but it?s the first to deliver such a strong sense that the player is one part of a massive military effort.

One of the most striking graphical improvements is the dynamic contrast in the lighting ? in short, if you are walking out of a dark cave into a bright desert, all you will see outside of the cave is a bleached-out wash of white light, until you step outside and give your eyes a second to adjust, when you will be able to make out the details of the rocks, sand, and terrain of the outside desert. Meanwhile, turn around and look back into the cave you just left, you?ll just see a big black cave, until you walk back in and let your eyes adjust again. The dynamic contrast gives the outdoor desert battles a bleached-out, gritty feeling that echoes the cinematography of war movies like Black Hawk Down or Three Kings. Audio has been reworked, with a new level-of-detail feature added to the engine that quite simply has to be heard to be believed. Essentially, the sounds you hear in the game are modified by the things around them, plus how far away they are when you hear them. A Warthog jeep falling off a ledge onto a boulder in front of you is going to be a noisy cacophony of broken metal and glass with a deep ?whump? at the core of it ? you?re going to hear the license plate pop off and skitter across the rocks like a soup can. Heard from twenty meters away, you might hear the whump. Heard from across the battlefield, you might hear the crack of the initial impact. Gunfire, heard from close up, has a deep, resonant, firing-range sound. Heard from across the map, it?s the light crack of fireworks ? thin and high. The audio, as always, includes a ton of top-drawer voice acting, with Sergeant Johnson, The Arbiter, Master Chief, Cortana, 343 Guilty Spark and Lord Hood returning with their original actors, as well as sci-fi veterans such as Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin), and Alan Tudyk (Firefly), and Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) contributing hundreds of lines of Marine combat chatter which brings the soldiers assisting you to life very convincingly.

Gameplay in Halo 3 is the true definition of what a sequel should be ? it?s another serving of what has come before, but with enough new stuff and polish that we take the new toys and run in all kinds of new directions. The basic gameplay of Halo is unchanged ? it is still a first-person shooter, in which you play the role of Master Chief, allied with UNSC troops from Earth and alien Elites who were formerly of the Covenant. You still have an energy shield which absorbs enemy damage which will also replenish itself if you take cover and avoid fire for a few seconds. You still can only carry two weapons at a time, or two small, dual-wielded weapons in each hand and a backup weapon stowed on your back. On the 360 controller, though, there are a few enhancements to the basic play mechanics. The bumper buttons ? essentially second triggers ? allow the player to selectively reload either handheld weapon when dual-wielding a pair of guns. The right bumper has become a context-sensitive ?action? button, which can be ?activate door?, ?board the vehicle?, ?pick up this weapon? and so forth. When the player is only holding a single weapon, left trigger is a grenade throw, unless dual-wielding, in which case each trigger is a gunfire burst. Grenades include the old standbys of UNSC standard-issue frags ? high-explosive ? and the classic Covenant plasma grenade (?betcha can?t stick it!?) ? but now include the Brute?s favourite incendiary explosive. Another new wrinkle to the expanded weapons roster is that the former powerups which used to trigger instantly on stepping on them ? covenant cloak and so forth ? are now stoweable, held in check until the player activates them, and as well as the cloak include other little gems like Power Drains (strips a player?s energy shield within detonation radius, rendering them mortally vulnerable), deployable cover (the Covenant?s ubiquitous energy shields which can be placed anywhere now ? creating chokepoints in corridors and doorways, for example) and the blast shield bubble featured in the first Halo 3 television trailer.

Players will be delighted with the new roster of weapons and vehicles ? some from Halo 1, tweaked to perfection, some from Halo 2, and some new ones brought in to mix things up. The Assault Rifle (AR-5) from the first Halo has returned, for those gamers who missed being able to lay down continuous streams of automatic fire. The pistol from the first game has also returned, and though it?s no longer zoom-capable it can now be two-fisted in a pair, Chow Yun Fat-style. The shotgun has also come back, although it now possesses half the ammo capacity to compensate for a deadlier range. The Battle Rifle is back from Halo 2, still firing in a three round burst, with a heavier punch this time around ? it doesn?t feel nearly as ineffectual. The submachinegun pistol is also back, as is the classic rocket launcher and sniper rifle. Players will get a blast out of the new Spartan laser, a brute of a weapon which requires a 3-4 second powerup cycle to fire but which deals out harm in biblical proportions. Covenant weapons have also been tweaked ? the Plasma Pistol is back, and the Plasma Rifle ? Brute Shot rifle makes a comeback as well, including a much deadlier Needler which can only be wielded one at a time to compensate for its now much-deadlier payout. Covenant Carbines can still be found in the battlefield, although players who favour dirty, close-in combat in tight quarters such as corridors are going to love the new Brute Gravity Hammer ? a macelike weapon which smashes even heavy brutes with enough kinetic energy to not only put them into the nearest wall, but leave a bloody smear to boot. Brute Spikers are a Covenant analogue to the SMG ? dual-wieldable, rapid firing, and easy to find on the battlefield (as long as you?re doing your job and mowing down Brutes) The arsenal on both sides is such a varied paper-rock-scissors selection that, given the 2-3 weapon payload limit of the player, gamers will constantly be assessing the requirements of the battle immediately ahead and policing the bodies of the fallen around them to ensure that they have the best, most capable tools at hand to survive.

Vehicles on both sides again include classics from before and new additions ? on the Earth forces? side, the Mongoose ATV (which was in development in Halo 2 up until just before the game was released) is a lot of fun to rip around the battlefield on, and though unarmed, it can carry an armed passenger and is fast, manuvoerable, and a joy to drive. The Warthog is also back, in its armed variants as well as a new open-backed ?pickup? style handy for carrying more (presumably) armed passengers. The Scorpion tank is also back, and has a mounted machine gun on the front which a passenger may deploy. The Earth forces now have a small aerial unit, similar to the Covenant Banshee ? the Hornet, a small, VTOL aircraft armed with rockets and light machine guns. Covenant forces have been supplemented with what might be the coolest vehicular addition to the game ? the Brute Bike, an enormous, spiky, armor-plated cycle whose front wheel stands as tall as the rider.

Multiplayer fans are going to find that the world is a little different now with Forge. This reviewer was very fortunate to have a half hour with Environment Lead Mike Zak of Bungie studios a full week before Halo 3?s release, where he demonstrated the new features of Halo multiplayer. With Forge, the strategic balance of the map is now in the hands of the people fighting in it, more so than ever. Forge gives the players the ability to move objects, weapons, spawn points, destructible items, powerups, and even vehicles anywhere in the map, and create more of these items according to a budget that each team has. Want three Scorpion tanks at the chokepoint entrance to your base? Certainly! But your opposing team might be spending a big chunk of their budget on rocket launchers and Spartan lasers to cook all the eggs you just put in that basket.

Another feature added to multiplayer is Bungie?s Fileshare, which lets players upload screenshots (think about it ? you get blown away in a game, and the sniper in the tower sends you a postcard of what it looked like with your head in his sights. Cool!), map variants, game types, and all things to do with multiplayer. Other players can browse and download these files and use them freely ? your ?house rules? slayer could become a frat house sensation.

Halo 3 is the action game to buy this Fall, quite simply because it does exactly the same thing that the previous two have. The single-player story-driven campaign is excellent, and much more satisfying than the cliffhanger ending of the second Halo ? different players may not be happy with where or how the story may necessarily end, having invested so much of themselves in the game over the course of six years, but it ends with no questions lingering or mysteries unresolved. The multiplayer, as it always has been, features new and reworked maps in the stunning new Halo 3 engine, more lifelike and beautiful than we ever expected ? plus the addition of Forge means that players can never fully be prepared or pre-planned for what they may be stepping in to. In short ? there?s enough in there to keep players going for a long, long time. Pick up Halo 3 and finish the fight.

Overall: 9.6 / 10
Gameplay: 9.6 / 10
Visuals: 9.6 / 10
Sound: 9.4 / 10


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