Halo 3 hands-on review

There's no denying it -- Halo 3 is the biggest videogame in history. No other game has had as much hype, built-up fan anticipation nor the marketing push -- try $10 million in marketing campaigns alone -- as the last chapter of the premiere franchise in console gaming.

But is the game worthy? Does it live up the high expectations that gamers world-wide have set for it? I have two words for you: 'Hell' and 'Yes'.

Price Of Admission

I want to first start off by saying that Halo 3 is worth every penny: Go buy it! In fact, it's worth investing in an Xbox 360 if you don't already own one -- I'm willing to bet there will be more than a few gamers who line up on launch day to buy not only the game but a console as well. The Limited Edition for $69.99 is the sweet spot for me. It comes with some really cool bonus features, such as Making Of documentaries and a nifty A/V Calibrator for your television. The Legendary Edition for $129.99 is a little ridiculous unless you're a Halo fanatic and have a small cat or dog that can wear the helmet. The standard version for $59.99 is just fine too if you don't care about any of the fancy extras.

Censored Campaign

Chances are, you've already conquered Halo and Halo 2, so you should be fairly familiar with the gameplay and storyline. If you haven't, no worries. The game is easy enough to pick up if you've played first-person shooters before, and all you need to know about the story is that Master Chief is a badass and Brutes are "evil," as President Bush likes to say.

So what's new in Halo 3, besides the single-player campaign that brings the legendary storyline of Master Chief and the war against the Covenant forces to a thrilling conclusion? How about refreshing level design, a slew of new weaponry, the introduction of equipment, competitive online co-op, and a detailed multiplayer level editor called the Forge, which allows you to design levels and play them online.

I'll get to all of those things in turn but first, let me talk about what many gamers consider to be the most important element -- the graphics.

Beauty. Eye. Beholder.

When the first peeks at Halo 3 were released, many people lamented that it looked like Halo 2 with a hi-def facelift. Well, those complaints will quickly be abolished once gamers get a look at what Bungie has done with the Xbox 360 hardware.

The first level opens in the lush jungles of Africa. Rays of light shine through the canopy with the best high-definition range (HDR) lighting that I've ever seen reflecting off each individual blade of foliage. The Arbiter is on the scene and his armor shines bright under the sunlight. The Brutes clad in their golden headdresses are also a sight to behold, majestic and regal yet deadly. The water effects in Halo 3 are also hyper-realistic, besting even the shimmering liquid found in the fantastic Bioshock. It reflects every object in the environment and reacts to every step and gunshot with realistic physics. Particle effects from plasma grenades and weapons are high-definition eye candy for graphic enthusiasts.

Granted, it doesn't quite surpass the current benchmark of Xbox 360 visuals, Gears of War, but Halo 3 definitely has its high points. Where it falters in the visual department, however, is in the clay-like, low-res character models and flat geometry. Little details are missing, like Sergeant Johnson's nostrils, for instance, and the Forerunner structures are blocky, like they were put together with Legos. This is especially troubling because everything else is in the game exhibits that HD-luster.

Architecture 101

The rest of the game is spot-on solid, though, minus a few level-design quirks with some of the later levels in the game. I won't go into any hard details -- to avoid spoiling any secrets for you -- but compared to the outdoor environments in Halo 3, the indoor structural levels are lacking in detail and large-scale battles.

But overall, Bungie really stepped it up when it came to Halo 3's level designs. For the most part, the repetitive and lengthy back tracking segments like the Library levels in Halo 1 are gone. The jungle of Sierra 117 twists and turns in elevation, UNSC hangars are packed with objects to add that life-like feel, and cruising Tsavo Highway is one of the best moments in the game.

Halo 3 also boasts the largest scale environments I've ever seen. Dilapidated Halo rings the size of enormous space stations litter the off-roads of New Mombasa. Banshees battle UNSC Hornets high in the sky, and fights against the looming four-legged Covenant battle cruiser known as the Scarab are Shadow of the Colossus epic.

Keeping Pace

Halo 3 is extremely well paced from beginning to end, introducing new environments, weapons, and equipment at a steady rate. Another testament to Bungie's design chops: the game's intensity and downright awesomeness remains steady for almost the entire campaign. In total, it took me about seven hours to complete Halo 3 on the Heroic difficulty setting, and only 30 minutes of the total playing time felt stale.

Now you're probably saying, "Did you just say Halo 3 only lasts seven hours?" Yes, that's what I said, but there are three things to consider: first, I am way better at Halo than you are. Second, remember that I had two straight days of uninterrputed playtime at the official press review event. And finally, know that even with its short single-player campaign, Halo 3 offers up tremendous replay value thanks to some awesome multiplayer options.

Putting the "I" in Team

How's this for a list of things to do after you beat the single-player mode: There's competitive 4-player online coop mode, intense 16-player multiplayer, an 8-player gametype and level editor, the ability to save and watch films from both single and multiplayer with a free-roaming camera, and take your very own screenshots. Even more amazing, all of these features can be shared with your friends over Xbox Live.

Let me take you deeper into these features -- I'll start at the top with online co-op. Up to four players can join in the single-player campaign. One player controls Master Chief, another plays as the Arbiter, and the last two run around as red and blue Elites. You and your friends will probably fight over who gets to be who but really, it doesn't matter because all of the characters play exactly the same, an obvious concession made in the name of play balancing. The Arbiter can't use cloaking, and the Chief is in no way more badass than the Elites. The only difference is in the starting weaponry: Master Chief starts each mission with UNSC weapons while the Elites start with Covenant weapons.

Anything You Can Do...

Besides playing through the story-driven campaign in co-op, players can turn on team or competitive scoring options. Players get more points for things like scoring a head shot on a higher ranked enemy; at the end of each level players can view their stats and compare their performance against their friends, just like in multiplayer. Turning on skulls you've found will provide multipliers, as well as finishing within a certain time limit. There's an achievement for each level if you finish with 15,000 points or more. While blasting through the single-player mode with friends is a blast in and of itself, adding this layer of competition really fleshes out the experience; it also adds immense replay value as you and your friends will no doubt want to play through the missions again and again to try and one up each other's scores.


I'm going to skip the standard multiplayer for now and jump to the gametype and level editor called Forge in Halo 3. Up to eight players at a time can enter this mode and work together on a custom multiplayer map, similar to Sony's LittleBigPlanet. Shenanigans are guaranteed to ensue, but the creativity that will come out of the Forge is unprecedented. There are hundreds of options to toy with, and literally thousands of combinations.

How it works is players enter one of the pre-built multiplayer maps that come with the game. Sadly there is no blank template, which would have been convenient. All of the master objects, however, can be deleted and replaced. There is a memory currency in the form of U.S. dollars that limits how many units of each object that can be placed in the map. Players hit up on the D-pad to enter "build" mode, which turns the player into a monitor that can fly freely around the map with the same fluid controls as video playback. From here, players can select weapons, vehicles, objects such as crates and ammo supply cases, waypoints, and respawn points from menu subsets. It's really easy and extremely addicting.

Custom Designed

I got a taste of what Forge could accomplish after playing a custom gametype named Rocket Race, which was created by Bungie's multiplayer designer, Lars Bakken. In the game, two-man teams race around on vehicles for waypoint domination; the first team to reach ten waypoints is declared the winner. One player acts as the capture-point VIP while the other player acts as the driver. The twist is all the vehicles on Sand Trap, the largest multiplayer map in any Halo game, are replaced with the speedy Mongoose ATV and the waypoints jump around randomly.

But what makes this Forge favorite truly standout is the fact that the VIP sits on the back of the Mongoose with a Rocket Launcher equipped and a 360-degree panorama of the race -- the driver can only look where they're driving. As players converge on the currently highlighted waypoint, the rockets begin to fly, making for one hell of an explosive scene.

Hand of the Creator

This is just a taste of things to come. After playing Rocket Race, I took an hour and whipped up two gametypes of my own. One I named Ghost Race, where everyone is their own VIP and races for waypoints on the Covenant Ghost. The other was Hornet's Nest, where two teams of three battle for waypoint domination in the sky using the Hornet, the UNSC equivalent to the Covenant Banshee. For this I had to set the waypoints in the sky, which is entirely possible within the Forge. In fact, you can make any object float in midair in Forge. For an in-depth How-to on Forge editing, check out Bungie's Forge Editing Guide.

Machinima 101

Let's move on to Halo 3's film and screenshot sharing options, something that I feel is a feature that truly helps define the current generation of gaming. Now that eye-popping graphics are the norm, it's features like these that really sets a game apart from the status quo. In Halo 3, players can save both their single-player campaign and multiplayer experiences, store them to the Xbox 360 hard drive, take screenshots, and share them with friends via a service dubbed the Theater. For example, say you Spartan Lasered your way through four players with a single shot. First, save the replay because that's quite an achievement. Then, replay the film, edit those few seconds of glory into a short clip and send it to the poor chaps you toasted. As if getting tea bagging weren't humiliating enough, now you can watch your corpse getting humped in slow motion, over and over again.

Let's All Go To The Lobby

The Theater also has a lobby which supports numerous players. This is the perfect place to let all of your friends see your Halo 3 highlights, but you can also hunker down with your clan and game-plan strategies the way professional sports teams do.

The best part is that you don't even have to hit 'save' at the end of each match: Halo 3 will store your last 24 played games, whether it's in the single-player campaign or online. There are also so-useful viewing options: When watching a saved film, players can slow down and speed up time, detach the camera from first-person view and roam freely around the entire battlefield, edit clips, and even take screenshots. It's also great for trying to find those pesky Skulls.

Total Recall

The one oddity is that there is no rewind function in single-player films -- this is especially confusing because a chapter rewind function exists when you view multiplayer films. It's pretty frustrating when you want a specific frame for a campaign screenshot, and if you miss it you'll have to reload the clip. Did I mention certain campaign levels can take more than an hour to finish? Hopefully, Bungie can add rewind functionality via an Xbox Live update down the road.

Regardless, when you add it all up, there's no denying that Bungie has yet again created the slickest and most versatile user interface possible. Each mode, from online co-op all the way down to the Forge, is considered an independent lobby. If you have a full party watching a saved film and everyone suddenly feels inspired to kick some butt in multiplayer, you can simply switch lobbies and take your party with you, which eliminates the need to reinvite everyone.

No More Beta

Now that I've thoroughly given you a rundown of all the multiplayer options, you can start to see that Bungie knows what it's doing. With all due respect to the single-player campaign, it's multiplayer that has been the meat and potatoes of the Halo franchise. The first Halo got it started with system-link parties, Halo 2 helped turn Xbox Live into the top console online service that it is today, and now, Halo 3 is here to raise the bar even further. I predict the lifespan of Halo 3's multiplayer will be twice that of Halo 2, meaning it'll be viable long after the game's release. Hell, it's not too far out of the realm to think that we'll all still be battling each other online when the successor to the Xbox 360 is released.

Pimp My Equipment

One thing that got lost in all the talk about the single and multiplayer modes is the equipment. The addition of deployable equipment -- along with armor permutations and Xbox 360 Achievements -- gives online Halo 3 players even more incentive to keep logging on. Customizable armor is split between helmet, shoulder pads, and body armor. Brutes are not playable, but Spartans have ten different customization options and Elites have seven. Armor pieces are unlocked by getting Achievements and by doing "random things," to quote Bungie. Here's a hint: Playing a large number of online matches may be one of those random things.

While some players seem to be ambivalent to the new equipment, I personally love the tactical options that it allows. Each piece of equipment is unique in its own way and some are great while others don't work how you'd expect them to. The Flare, which blinds everyone within a large radius, and Radar Jammer, for example, affect everyone in the vicinity including yourself, which seems to be counter-productive. It's a little frustrating, but there are ways to get around it: you can chuck the Flare and pick your opponents off from afar, for instance.

So that's it. That is what I have to say about Halo 3 as a game -- for now, at least. As the weeks go on, I'm sure I'll keep discovering more details about the game that warrant discussion, such as the Halo 3 profile pages on Bungie.net. Halo 3 is as complete a game as I've ever played, and it feels good to finally get a sense of closure from the Halo series. It's going to be really exciting to see all of the coverage over the next couple months for Halo 3, and even more exciting to see the types of custom games and maps the hardcore players come up with in Forge. I'm also excited to see what sort of saved films are going to pop up in the Theater. I'm sure we'll see some great frags, tutorials vids on how to make some killer jump and amazing speed runs of the single-player campaign. Anyway you slice it, Halo 3 more than lives up to the high expectations set by gamers everywhere. It's solid gameplay, immense replayability, online functionality and incredible production values will ensure its place in video game history, and it is, without a doubt, a satisfying and fulfilling close to the beloved trilogy[?].

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