Halo 3 Review (Xbox 360)

Bungie has insisted for years that the final chapter in the Halo franchise was going to be the game the developer always wanted to make. From refined combat and great graphics to a map-editing tool and robust online features, this was going to be the ultimate Halo experience. For the most part, Bungie has delivered on those goals; Halo 3 is without a doubt the most beautiful and feature-packed Halo game to date. It just doesn’t have enough gameplay ingenuity or compelling plot elements to keep up with the rest of its assets.

Halo 3 was built from the ground up to be a multiplayer experience. From the “normal” multiplayer modes we’ve played for six years to the new online co-op mode and Forge map-editing tool, Halo 3 is designed to share experiences with the online community. Players can even save video clips of their campaign and take screen captures of epic moments, then upload them to a centralized server to share with the world. But somewhere in Bungie’s laser-like focus on multiplayer, they lost sight of the narrative excellence that made the first two Halo games so compelling. Bungie also relied far too much on six-year-old gameplay experiences, resulting in a game that, for better or worse, feels like something we’ve been playing since November 2001.

Halo 3 is the last chapter in the Halo trilogy, but for as much grief as Halo 2 took for being “Halo 1.5,” “Halo 3” without a doubt feels the most like an addendum. In the campaign, players take on the role of Master Chief (or Arbiter, if in co-op mode) as the now-bosom buddies try to stop the Covenant Prophets from activating every Halo ring and destroying all life in the galaxy. Considering Halo 2’s cliffhanger ending, the plot points Bungie needed to sew up in Halo 3 were relatively slim, so Halo 3’s seven- to eight-hour campaign is somewhat understandable. The plot points themselves, though, aren’t nearly as logical.

Borrowing a page from “The Matrix,” the plot in Halo 3 takes several twists and turns, and when you add to that several disorienting location changes, you get a narrative that’s too convoluted for its own good. Halo 2 suffered a bit from this as well, but the twist of alternating play between Chief and the Arbiter — and the addition of dual wielding — made it easier to overlook those shortcomings. In Halo 3, though, there’s nothing “new” in the gameplay department other than a few weapons (the flamethrower is gorgeous) and some new bubble-shield and grav-lift equipment (which, in our online co-op campaign, we collectively used once). As a result, the occasional hard-to-follow plot point is painfully evident.

Spoiler alert: In addition, many of the levels feel uncomfortably similar to levels in Halo 1 and Halo 2, particularly toward the end of the game. Yes, that means there’s a Library-like level. Yes, that means there’s a frozen Halo environment. Yes, that means there’s a Flood-infected ship whose hallways players must navigate repeatedly. And yes, that even means the last level of the game is a pseudo-timed mission in which you drive the Warthog through a crumbling structure. There’s a fine line between paying homage and cobbling together elements of your own portfolio. Bungie crosses that line during the final hours of Halo 3.

If there’s a saving grace in Halo 3, though, it’s the multiplayer modes, and this element alone takes much of the sting out of the other shortcomings. The multiplayer aspects of Halo 3 begin and end with the “standard” Halo options. Everything you remember from Halo 1 and 2, from the playlists and matchmaking to the party system, is intact, and that will frankly be enough for many gamers right there. However, Halo 3 also includes a new “map editor” called Forge, which adds a whole new flavor of fun.

In Forge, players start with 11 base maps and a predetermined amount of cash. After opening one of the maps in Forge, players can go about their fragging ways just like normal, but with one exception: pressing up on the D-pad will bring up a dialogue box that lets you add any weapon, vehicle, equipment, scenery, teleporter, respawn point or gameplay goal to any point on the map. Adding these elements is as simple as making sure there’s enough money in the bank (each one costs a certain amount), selecting it and dropping it on the ground. At any time, players can immediately return to the match to test their new creation. In fact, one player can even add/customize while all the rest keep playing. Although it sounds simple, Forge does a good job reaching out to the “what crazy thing can I do next?” crowd and giving them yet another way to experiment.

For the first time in a Halo game, the multiplayer experience also officially extends to the campaign, as Halo 3 supports four-player online co-op. One player assumes the role of Master Chief, one as the Arbiter, and the other two assume the role of two new Elites. Much like a Rainbow Six game, online co-op in Halo 3 adds a much more strategic element to the game, both in terms of battle tactics and in weapons loadouts (each character spawns with different base weapons).

Yet as good as the online co-op is, several elements still miss the mark. The AI doesn’t get harder when more human players are involved, nor do more enemies spawn in each level. As such, it’s important to start a co-op campaign on Heroic or Legendary, or the experience will be over in five to six hours. In addition, the online co-op mode is really an “all or nothing” commitment, as there’s no hop-in/hop-out option. But the most upsetting feature, particularly for households with several gamers, is that all single-player progress is overwritten if you begin a co-op campaign. If you find yourself on the seventh level and a friend wants you to begin a co-op campaign anew, just keep in mind that all seven missions and your latest checkpoint will be gone once you start a co-op campaign.

As disconcerting as the “been there, done that” feel of Halo 3 may be, one of the few instances where Bungie’s insistence on repetition is acceptable is in the multimedia department. Graphically and aurally, Halo 3 provides the best Bungie has ever offered, yet everything fits within the Halo aesthetic. Master Chief, the Grunts and Jackals, the Forerunner structures…everything looks and feels like Halo, but in much greater detail. The audio is also classic Halo, and the introduction of some intense survival-horror audio (think “Psycho” plus a fast heartbeat) is much more effective in Halo 3 and its Cortana/Gravemind sequences than it has ever been with the Flood.

Still, if the first Halo had the subtitle “Combat Evolved,” Halo 3 should have a subtitle of “Combat Polished.” In Halo 3, Bungie has taken elements from the first two games and improved them with the Xbox 360 hardware, but they did little to implement anything really new other than online co-op. Considering Halo 3’s multiplayer mantra, this decision feels much like Valve’s decision to update Counter-Strike in the Source engine: they took a popular multiplayer game, gave it a spit shine and a few tweaks and sent it off to the mouth-watering masses. Sure, it was a welcome addition and wildly popular, but it was hardly Earth-shattering.

Likewise, as the last chapter in the Halo series, Halo 3 feels like the short last chapter in a single, comprehensive book. The game definitely gives us the conclusion we were all looking for three years ago, and it does so relatively quickly and without introducing anything really new. The only problem with this strategy is that we started the Halo story six years ago, and for all intents and purposes, we’ve been reading — or in this case, playing — the same basic thing the entire time.

– Jonas Allen

The Halo 3 Limited Legendary Editions include a foldout map of control schemes, a hardbound design/encyclopedia book similar to the “Gears of War” art book, and a second disc Bungie has tossed together to appease the series” faithful. This collection of making-of material and insight into life at Bungie is anchored by Anatomy of a Game: Making Halo 3, a six-part documentary with each segment playable individually or uninterrupted as a whole. Cameras are allowed unprecedented access into Bungie’s strictly confidential design studio to record how Halo 3’s story, design, art, engineering, test, and audio are combined to create the finished product. This insightful collection of interview snippets, fly-on-the-wall perspectives and in-development screen views rival documentaries found in robust high profile home video titles and is not easily turned off early.

Additional gimmicks and information to improve the Halo experience are presented in Bungie’s typical playful manner. Router 7.0 educates gamers on the do’s and don’ts to set up the most efficient home network for Halo online gameplay. Git Ta Werk is an intriguing tour through the hallowed cubicles of Bungie offering a glimpse into the immense stress the team is constantly under to his deadlines. Other smaller features include an elementary Audio/Video Calibrator taught by Sergeant Johnson; Gallerium with various Halo imagery; Gamer Pics & Themes; and the time waster physics based mini-game Warthug Launch, charming for all of about two minutes.

– Dan Bradley

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