Saturday, July 31, 2010
Xbox 360 review: Halo 3
It’s true that Halo 3 first hit store shelves nearly three years ago and I’ve personally owned my copy for roughly a year and a half now. With the release of Halo Reach soon approaching, however, I felt compelled to write a review on Halo 3. This review only takes into account the material shipped on the disc, and does not include technical updates from Bungie/Xbox Live or any of the multiplayer map packs.
Halo has been the flagship game franchise for Microsoft since its initial release on the original Xbox. While it isn’t aimed at as broad of an audience as many core titles released by competitors Nintendo or Sony, Halo and Halo 2 found many fans who enjoyed the mix of sci-fi first-person shooter single player campaign against the Covenant forces and the multiplayer modes that varied from Slayer, Capture the Flag, Oddball, and King of the Hill (to name a few).
When Bungie announced the release of Halo 3 they promised that the title would be both more user-friendly as well as contain a longer story mode. As Halo 2 ended with Master Chief returning to battle-engulfed Earth aboard the Forerunner Keyship (then commandeered by the Covenant forces), Halo 3 picked up directly thereafter. With the great schism within the Covenant ranks, the Elites find themselves begrudgingly allied with the humans in an attempt to stop the Prophet of Truth from reaching the Forerunner Ark and activating all of the Halo rings at once.
The story starts out with a rather basic objective in mind – Master Chief is to rendezvous with Commander Keyes so they can bring down the defenses surrounding the Covenant excavation site. Getting to this point takes a while and is meant more or less to allow gamers time to get accustomed to the new control scheme (which is surprisingly different than that of Halo 2, but still fluid and intuitive). While the environments therein are wonderfully detailed and players are able to mix things up with a wide variety of weapons and vehicles, this portion of the campaign seems to drag on for longer than necessary. Tsavo Highway is essentially a run-and-gun (or in this case, drive-and-gun) mission from start to finish and is basically a drawn-out way for Master Chief to reach his intended vector. Crow’s Nest isn’t nearly as lengthy or monotonous, but it does require player to retrace their steps on multiple occasions, making it seem like they’re running in circles until the level’s end. That said, just about every level that follows thereafter provides something new and challenging to the gameplay. The levels Cortana and The Covenant explore the polar opposites in level design, with the former being a narrow series of tunnels that focuses on close-quarters combat in large numbers and the latter being a wide open area that allows players a great deal of freedom in taking to vehicular combat. Players can complete the campaign with two people on the same console or with four via Xbox Live.
There are a number of weapons retooled for Halo 3, such as the needler (no longer dual-wieldable, but significantly stronger offensively), the sniper rifle (much less twitch-motion based but still as reliant on spot-on accuracy), and the rocket launcher (slightly weaker firepower and the lock-on tracking disabled). To make up for some of these changes, however, Bungie has included a number of new weapons. Standing in for the old needler is the Brute spiker, which is weaker and devoid of an auto lock-on but fires at a much faster rate. Taking over the tracking abilities of the rocket launcher is the missile pod, specifically designed for use against moving vehicles. In this sense, I feel that there are a number of weapons kept around that are unnecessary. In the past, the rocket launcher was primarily used for destroying vehicles and as such it has been put on the backburner by most players in favor of the more practical missile pod. The rest of the weapons see minor tweaks but overall remain the same, including the SMG, battle rifle, carbine, and the returning assault rifle. While players are only allowed to carry two of any given grenade type this time around, they are given the ability to carry four different types of grenades, including the classic fragmentation grenade, Halo’s signature plasma grenade, the spike grenade (the Brute equivalent of the plasma grenade), and the firebomb grenade.
New to Halo 3 are the various equipment pieces which serve a variety of uses. The bubble shield provides 360-degree cover for a brief time period wherever the player chooses to drop it, the deployable cover provides even less defense than the bubble shield, the regenerator replenishes a player’s health and shields, the power drain saps shields and temporarily disables motion of a vehicle, the flare blurs other players’ field of vision for a few seconds, the trip mine can be strategically placed to destroy a vehicle, the deployable gravity lift allows player to reach higher ground at their leisure, and the radar jammer does exactly as its name implies. The temporary cloaking, invincibility, and auto-turret are all exclusive to the campaign mode, while the returning multiplayer overshield and active camo equipment respond exactly the same as they did in Halo 2. The equipment is a hit-or-miss deal, with many serving useful purposes (power drain, bubble shield, gravity lift) and others backfiring on players (flare, radar jammer) or ending up as significantly less useful than their brethren (deployable cover, trip mine). They’re a nice afterthought on Bungie’s part but not overly necessary.
Most of the vehicles are the same as they were in Halo 2, though a few changes such as separating pilot and gunner on both the Wraith and Scorpion tone down the firepower granted to a single player at any given time. In response to the Covenant Banshee, the UNSC forces gain use of the Hornet, which acts more as an airborne assault platform than a VTOL fighter. As Halo 3’s focus is on Humans and Elites vs. the remaining species of the Covenant, Brute vehicles see as much of an inclusion as Brute weaponry and equipment. The Chopper is a large and speedy single-pilot vehicle focused specifically on offensive capabilities. The Prowler replaces Halo 2’s Spectre, but handles much the same with the exception of being constructed backwards from the Spectre. And though it was ultimately cut from Halo 2, the Mongoose shines through in Halo 3 as a two-person ATV used largely for speedy transport and Capture the Flag matches.
The multiplayer maps are scaled down from their Halo 2 predecessors. As unique as maps like Waterworks and Colossus were in 2004 they ended up being practical for only a handful of game types. There are still some larger maps in Halo 3, such as Valhalla and Sandtrap, but these are specifically designed for large slayer, big team battle, and capture the flag matches. The maps better fleshed out to accommodate a variety of game types include Guardian (modeled after Halo 2’s Lockout and Ascension), Construct, The Pit, and High Ground. A select few maps, including Snowbound and Isolation, show their weaknesses with some game types and weapon placement, but these are relatively minor hitches in the grand scheme of things. While the previous two titles did allow players to customize the armor colors and logo of their multiplayer characters, Halo 3 allows players to change armor variants with a collection of interchangable helmets, shoulder pieces, and chest pieces. Humans and and Elites each have their own species-specific armor permutations.
Finally, the gameplay element no one was expecting, Forge mode allows players to alter the location of weapons, equipments, and objects in each level to create custom maps. Learning the controls of Forge takes some getting used to but once players get the hang of it they can create new map layouts to their heart’s content. It’s great that Bungie picked up on the cues from modded material some community members were adding to Halo 2 and allowed players to make something all their own. After completing construction of a level, players can add it to their file share, upload it to Bungie.net, and share with friends and the rest of the Halo 3 community. The file share is also available to upload and share screenshots and short films that can be taken in Halo 3’s theater mode.
Graphically the game has its shortcomings but isn’t by any means awful. It’s interesting that Bungie went the route of fairly realistic-looking graphics, but stopped from going all the way in order to include some stylization that would distinguish it from other first-person shooters. The soundtrack is a great addition to those in the first two games, the signature styles of which were both fitting and impressive. Halo 3’s soundtrack is moving and complex, aiding the story’s events a great deal.
The characters see some notable improvements that give them more human characteristics and actually give gamers a reason to care about them, a much-needed change from Halo and Halo 2. Master Chief is still rather bland and the Arbiter’s focus left largely untouched until late in the game, but secondary characters such as Keyes, Cortana, and Sgt. Johnson see tremendous improvement. While the Prophet of Truth is the only Covenant character of any notable merit/inclusion, he is portrayed as a cunning and cold villain more than worthy of a major role in the game. The Gravemind also returns, with his creepy rhyming and wish to dominate the galaxy by means of Flood infection. While there are a few changes in the cast of voice actors, they retain a largely similar sound as in Halo 2. The only major change I noticed was in the Prophet of Truth (now voiced by Terence Stamp instead of former voice actor Michael Wincott) but this change leaves a fairly neutral imprint on the story.
It’s a bit disappointing that the campaign isn’t as long as Bungie previously stated, but at the same time the story of Master Chief and the Human-Covenant war does wrap up nicely and avoids overstaying its welcome. The campaign levels are nicely varied and avoid the elements that made many of Halo 2’s campaign levels feel repetitious. That said, considering the time of its release and the tech available at the time, Halo 3 isn’t quite as strong as Halo 2, but it’s still one of the best games on the Xbox 360 to date. There’s a ton of replay value and even if players get sick of the online multiplayer they can go back through the campaign with skull abilities or a scored mode activated, and can even express their creative side with the inclusion of Forge mode. Halo 3 is a fitting conclusion to the Halo trilogy and - even though Bungie didn’t push the envelope as much as with the core gameplay of their previous titles - is a solid game all its own.
My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)