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TVG finally finishes the fight - a zero-hype, no nonsense take on what Microsoft no doubt believes is the biggest game of 2007...
- A wholly compelling multiplayer experience.
- Four-player co-op Campaign.
- Finally - Halo on Earth (largely).
- A disappointing Campaign.
- Visuals that let down the flagship Xbox franchise.
- Unfounded reason for Bungie's pretentiousness.
Three years ago, Bungie Studios caused uproar with one of the most anti-climactic endings to game. Ever. But once the dust settled, Halo 2 dominated the Xbox Live multiplayer top spot for two years until Epic Games, Marcus Fenix, and those Gears of War toppled the Chief and Microsoft Game Studios' talisman last November. Now the Master Chief has returned to 'Finish the Fight' against the Covenant one last time, but with the Prophet of Truth, the Flood, and the impending destruction of the galaxy thanks to the firing of the remaining Halo installations, will Spartan-117 turn the tide and deliver the most compelling Xbox 360 killer app to date..?
Quite honestly, it's quite literally a game of two halves...
As a story, the Halo franchise has always managed to inject a surprising level of depth, with nods and subtle nuances to everything from Norse mythology to the Bible (the Ark and the Flood), T.S. Eliot, William Blake, and Larry Neven's 1970s novel Ringworld. It's been one of the more intriguing aspects of the series to date, and marks another notch in Bungie's perceived pretentiousness, crafting a storyline beyond the usual simplistic battle between 'Good' and 'Evil'.
But whilst everything is tied together rather neatly (stay until the credits have rolled), the Campaign's narrative contrasts to Halo 2's, feeling whimsical at times - there aren't key revelations and plot turns, though the torture of Cortana and the taunting of Gravemind through camera changes and flashes of the female AI on screen are a neat enough touch. We (gamers) finally get a substantial 'Halo on Earth' experience, something that had been heavily hinted at in the hype leading to the release of Halo 2, though an expedition to outer space is obvious needed and is delivered. As a single-player experience, it feels like the only reason to drive forward through the Campaign is just to complete it...which is easily achievable in a little over seven hours.
That said, Halo 3's big advantage is its four-player co-op support, confirmed just a matter of weeks back following suggestions that Bungie hadn't managed to get the technology working in time for release. A breeze on the standard levels of difficulty, online co-op really comes alive on 'Legendary', with Covenant snipers and more AI-advanced Brutes banding together to stop the Chief, the Arbiter, and the new Elite cohorts on their mission to save the galaxy. Online co-op is certainly the way forward, paved by the likes of Gears of War, and soon to be continued with HAZE in a few short weeks, creating a solid 'us against them' atmosphere rarely seen in previous titles.
Despite early leaked test footage and an announcement trailer built with the game engine, the flagship title certainly disappoints with one of the more superficial aspects of gaming - its graphics. Bungie can dress it up with HDR and bloom lighting as much as they like, but there's no getting away from the fact that Halo 3 is built with a six-year old heavily modified engine - and it shows. Largely disappointing on the visual front, and yes we are taking into account the graphical style Bungie has designed for the Halo universe, the game's legacy permeates through most aspects of the gameworld. From stretched textures, Xbox 1 character models, and sometimes clunky animations, Halo 3 just doesn't have the 'wow' factor seen with other Xbox 360 titles including GRAW and Gears of War, making what should be (and is in terms of branding) the leading franchise on Microsoft's books rather flat. Even the additional details such as fauna in the environment don't hold up - the rats are cringingly angular and move like they're being pulled along on string...if you couldn't get it right, just leave them out.
But regardless of what you may think of Halo 3's Campaign for good or bad, the title firmly and wholeheartedly delivers with Multiplayer. It's straightforward enough really; as a multiplayer game Halo 3 (continuing on from its two predecessors) offers one of the most compelling experiences on console. Bungie have always been the masters of delivering out-and-out fast-paced 'water cooler chat' gameplay (extraordinarily like id's Quake III), and Halo 3 is no exception. Besides crafting a mix of new maps with re-imaginings of Halo and Halo 2 classics, Bungie has added several components that take plinth even higher with editions like Forge and Save Game Videos, not to mention the most extensive Map Editor options seen on a console shooter ever. Similarly to Halo 2, the studio has also laid out strong web support for this concluding part of the trilogy, with all manner of stats laid on for the some of the diehard elements of the Halo community.
The Forge element is one area that has certainly been highlighted by Bungie in recent weeks, with demonstrations at Leipzig Game Convention and a multi-part series of articles on the studio's website detailing this ever-changing gametype. Throwing in a dash of chaos with wishful thinking, Forge sees teams take to maps with the usual gusto of multiplayer Halo. The crux of the Forge experience rests on the premise that the teams can add, remove, and rearrange all elements and objects in the map, with barriers, weapons, equipment, vehicles, and even spawn points all open to real-time, mid-battle changes. Given a budget to avoid breaking the game with a veritable car park of Scorpion tanks, the full effect of Forge will no doubt be felt in the coming weeks and months as gamers get to grips with this variation of Map Editors seen in PC shooters since time immemorial. Further customisation including the ability to change the gravity on a map is also available, so the possibilities and longevity of Halo 3 on Xbox Live is likely to surpass any previous title.
Not only a way to prove some of the exceptional events that can occur in multiplayer, the ability to save and share data-based videos of battles across Live and view them from any angle, is a very impressive technological achievement on the part of Bungie. Whilst not as advanced as the editing options on EA's skate, it nonetheless is a 'nice' option for regular gamers, and will no doubt be used for post-battle analysis by the hardcore contingent.
The solid foundations laid down by Bungie in the past two instalments have left Halo 3 the most balanced instalment in terms of weapons. Taking into account the over-powered Energy Sword or the SMG/Plasma Pistol combo in Halo 2, the studio has once again listened to its own mantra of 'balance equals guns, grenades, and melee', lightly making adjustments to create a very rounded experience. In addition, Halo 3 sees the inclusion of new weapons and weapon types, such as the four new 'Support Weapons' (Machine Gun, Plasma Cannon, Missile Pod, and even the long-promised Flamethrower), which can be used on tripods or torn away, switching the view to third-person and slowing down the movement speed of the carrier. New UNSC weaponry such as the Spartan Laser and the re-emergence of the Halo: CE Assault Rifle, expand players options, and that's before you consider the ability to carry the thumping Gravity Hammer used by the Brutes.
Introduced in the Campaign, Halo 3's multiplayer is also expanded upon with the inclusion of 'Equipment', including the Bubble Shield, Power Drain, portable Anti-Grav, and deployable cover. Rather than a padded novelty however, something that the single-use items could have easily become, Equipment changes the strategies and tactics used in Matchmaking. Quick thinking (and even quicker reflexes) to unleash a Bubble Shield for instance can provide gamers with the extra couple of seconds needed to fully recharge the Mjolnir VI armour's shield if faced against several enemies. A carefully measured throw with a Power Drain bomb can reduce a whole pack of opponents to one-shot kills - and these two examples are just the tip of the Equipment usage iceberg.