Review: Believe indeed.
Incredibly, Bungie Studios has done it again: they've managed to live up to the enormous hype and outrageous fan expectations and create a kick-butt conclusion to one of the most successful game trilogies of all time.
What's even more amazing is that they did it without any real surprises or radical changes to the gameplay. It's classic Halo, meaning the gameplay is pretty much what you'd expect ? nothing more, nothing less. Why mess with a formula that works?
When you break down the game into its various individual components, Halo 3 really isn't wildly revolutionary or ground-breaking; in fact, the entire series has seen only slight evolutionary tweaks. Other games like Call of Duty 2 have a much more intense and exciting single player campaign while BioShock has better atmosphere and a more interesting story. But these games focus on one aspect (and do them very well); when you step back and look at Halo 3 as a whole, you'll see it achieves what distressingly few games can deliver: a complete package that blows everything else out of the water.
Once more with feeling
There is so much about Halo 3 that works; take the story, for starters. Unlike its predecessor, Halo 3 has an actual ending that closes the epic trilogy quite nicely. (Incidentally, if you're impatient and skip the closing credits, you'll miss a huge payoff afterwards so keep those credits rolling.) Like the ads promise, you will finish the fight, and as such, the game appropriately sticks to Master Chief's story from start to finish. Unfortunately, this also means you won't be able to play as the Arbiter. While this addresses a criticism about Halo 2's fractured story flipping back and forth, it also leaves the Arbiter's story hanging. However, while Master Chief's story concludes with this game, the Halo universe is so rich with possibilities (and profits), don't be surprised if an Arbiter-focused game is released in the future.
Actually, you can
play as the Arbiter but only through the new feature gamers have been begging for since 2004: online cooperative play. Supporting up to four players via splitscreen, System Link or Xbox Live, co-op is an absolute blast with the host playing as Master Chief, player two as the Arbiter and the others as Elite warriors. The only problem is that even on the highest Legendary difficulty setting, four players can make short work of the AI and finish the campaign quite quickly. This is not to say that Legendary has been dumbed down; on the contrary, it's as challenging as ever. It's just that four human players against computer AI simply isn't a fair fight. Still, fighting the evil Covenant with your buddies never gets old and you will likely find yourself going back for more, time and again. You can also get special Achievements for racking up big points in co-op, and although the points really don't mean anything other than bragging rights, they add a nice competitive twist to the co-op play.
been dumbed down, however, is the Normal difficulty setting. It is much easier than before, with enemy AI so dense they will stand out in the open and not fire a shot for several seconds while you walk right up to them. This was supposedly done to make the game more accessible to new players but isn't that what the Easy difficulty setting is for? It's perfectly understandable if gamers are wondering where the heck the big improvements in enemy AI and gameplay are when playing on Normal, because they simply aren't there.
As a result, Heroic is where most veteran Halo players will want to start (unless you want to hurry up and see how the story ends) because there is a huge leap in difficulty. Enemies will now do cool things like aggressively flank you, dive and take cover, and are deadly accurate with their shots. Grunts will even slap a plasma grenade on themselves and do a kamikaze run at you ? very cool.
Friendly AI has had a significant boost from Halo 2, but overall they're still pretty stupid. You will definitely want to be in the driver's seat in a Warthog because the AI thinks nothing of driving in aimless circles or trying to drive you up a wall (both literally and figuratively). They also seem to have a distaste for taking cover and take great pleasure in catching enemy grenades. At least they don't attempt to shoot through walls (or through you) as much as before, which I suppose is an improvement.
Gameplay is pretty much the same as previous editions which is a little disappointing since little has changed since the original. You run around killing aliens, sometimes on foot, sometimes in vehicles ? it's bread and butter FPS. The single player campaign is also quite short, spanning nine levels and topping out at 10 hours or so.
Even though everything is so familiar, this is still Halo we're talking about ? which means it's still an absolute blast as you fight across nicely varied environments like lush jungles, snow, desert and urban areas. The pacing is laid out perfectly, with frantic action separated by quieter sections that let you catch your breath, plenty of opportunities to pilot vehicles, and the final levels peak with all-out insanity. In fact, the very last level pays homage to the original Halo and will no doubt have fans smiling.
There are no ?dead? levels that threaten to put you to sleep (unlike the infamous Library of the original) and the interior maps have thankfully lost much of the confusing symmetry of the previous versions. You will still find yourself wandering around trying to figure out where to go, but this has been dramatically reduced ? a very welcome change for the better. As well, you won't find any pitch black areas so you don't need to use your flashlight at all; but when you do flick it on, it actually stays on ? unlike in the previous edition where it would annoyingly blink out after a few seconds.
Also welcome are some new weapons and equipment. All of the previous weapons return, including the original Assault Rifle (albeit with a smaller clip) and my personal favorite, the Battle Rifle. New weapons include the Brute Spiker, which is like an evil love-child between a SMG and a Needler, and is shredtastically deadly when dual wielded. The Spartan Laser requires a heart-thumpingly long charging time before it can fire but the end result makes it well worth the wait. The massive Brute Gravity Hammer is absolutely devastating and can send enemies flying like baseballs, but has limited uses similar to the Plasma Sword. And yes, the long awaited Flame Thrower finally appears but it's not something you will use often; it's heavy, which means you move slower (though you do pull back to a third-person view), and it doesn't have much range. However, it's still pretty darn satisfying to use. Barbecued Grunt, anyone?
Speaking of the Needler, this poor beleaguered weapon returns but with a significant damage boost, so much so that you can no longer dual wield it. Personally, I've always liked the Needler (at least in single player; in multiplayer, not so much) and thanks to the upgrade I think more people will be picking up the pink gun of death.
You can also rip mounted turrets off their tripods and take them with you. You move much slower but pull back into third-person view when this happens. Carrying around a turret will make short work of your enemies, but be aware they will have limited ammo, unlike when they're mounted.
Hitting the X button will activate the new special Equipment such as the Bubble Shield (which protects you from all gunfire but you and your enemies can easily walk through it), the Regenerator (heals everyone within its radius), Trip Mines, Grav Lifts (boosts you much higher than you can jump), Energy Drain (sucks the power from armor shielding) and several others. You can only carry one at a time, however, so you will need to choose wisely. You will also need to get used to hitting the right bumper to reload; I don't know how many times I've accidentally activated my equipment when hitting the ?old? reload button. Oops. Brutes will also deploy Equipment as well, and will do so with frightening frequency on the higher difficultly levels.
There are several fun new vehicles as well, including the Brute Chopper, which as its name suggests is basically a big-assed armored hog. The zippy Mongoose ATV is a blast to drive, and you can take to the skies in the new Hornet aircraft, which is basically the human version of the Banshee. All vehicles have been given significant visual upgrades and look amazing.
In fact, the entire game looks amazing. The graphics are beautiful, especially one section where you have to fight through a crashed ship that has experienced some extensive interior ?redecoration?. I can't say more without spoiling the story but suffice to say it looks way cool.
Sure, there has been some criticism that the graphics aren't as good as Gears of War or BioShock, but take a closer look; you will see incredible detail, amazing lighting, shadow, smoke, particle and explosion effects, beautiful water, and foliage that actually bends out of the way when you touch them (as opposed to being solid immovable objects or just clipping through them). There are also nice touches like how your screen briefly flares bright as you move from a dark tunnel to sunshine, emulating realistic visual adjustments. While it may not be as jaw-droppingly stunning as BioShock, this is definitely one of the best looking games on any platform.
There are some graphical issues, however; you'll see the occasional pop up and draw in, and not just when you're traveling at high speeds across the map. At one point, I was trying to pick off a Jackel sniping me from a tree branch. Looking up from the ground, there was nothing behind him but sky, but if I shifted my view slightly, the background would alternately fill with foliage or go blank. Sure, it's a minor detail but it still looked pretty darn ugly.
The sound is top notch as well, from cool weapons fire to panicking Grunts to excellent voice acting. Speaking of which, the NPCs continue to utter some hilarious lines. The Grunts are especially funny, yelling, ?You killed my best friend!? while your fellow Marines love trash talking. My favorite so far: when I died, a Marine groaned angrily, ?I knew it! Why do I even bother!?
Of course, it would be criminal if I didn't mention Martin O'Donnell's sweeping musical score. ?Marty? is to video games what John Williams is to movies, able to create thrilling epic scores that accentuate the action, tug at the heart-strings and pull you deeper into the experience. His work in Halo 3 is no exception and is a big reason why the series is so popular. The only problem is that the music often overwhelms the dialogue to the point where you can't hear what the characters are saying.
Scattered throughout the game are 13 Skulls that enable you to change the conditions of the campaign. For example, you can double enemy health, remove your radar and HUD, and can even cause Grunts to explode in a happy spray of confetti (accompanied by cheering children a la
Viva Pinata) if you hit them with a headshot. Nice. The skulls are hidden off the beaten path and some are pretty hard to collect. They're worth grabbing, however, since using them can up the challenge in co-op.