Games don't come much more review-proof than "Halo 3," the much-anticipated capper of the blockbuster “Halo” trilogy. Praising the wildly ambitious online multiplayer half of the game and lamenting that the single-player campaign plays it far too safe will not matter to the legions of ardent "Halo" fans. What matters is finishing "the fight" between the alien Covenant and the human race — and this is indeed brought to a satisfying conclusion.
Seeing the curtain fall doesn't take long in "Halo 3," which was developed by Bungie Studios and published by Microsoft. The single-player game stretches across a surprisingly limited nine missions. The default difficulty is called "normal," but would be more aptly named "cakewalk." Dialing down the difficulty has its purpose — it's been three years since the cliffhanger ending of "Halo 2" and forcing the die-hard to push through twenty-plus hours of play seems almost like a perverse punishment.
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Playing on "normal," it will take you about ten hours to see what happens to the Master Chief (the iconic hero of not just "Halo," but the entire Xbox brand). After that, though, players are encouraged to start anew on one of the harder settings in order to see the Covenant and the Flood, two alien armies, actually put up a reasonable amount of resistance.
"Halo 3" operates under the assumption that you have consumed the entirety of the canon — save for maybe the branded Mountain Dew. It starts with the Master Chief streaking through Earth's atmosphere. Once he's revived and runs through some action-movie dialogue, he — and players — are given a gun and sent back into the breach. The Covenant, led by the Prophet of Truth (and voiced by Terence Stamp in full General Zod-mode), are still determined to ignite the Halos, a series of mysterious weapons powerful enough to kick-start the Armageddon. Master Chief's mission to stop Truth is complicated by the re-appearance of the Flood, a race of parasitic aliens bent only on consumption.
The entire campaign actually feels like one long highlight reel, giving the slavering fans that hover over message boards and edit "Halo" Wikipedia entries their due service. Want to drive a Warthog across a beach? Check. Looking to shoot down Covenant Banshee? Check. Dying to slice apart Elite shocktroops with an energy sword? Check. And that’s part of the problem with the single-player mode: It feels very predictable, as if Bungie were just running down a list of must-haves.
The artificial intelligence powering the non-player characters bounds between solid and iffy. The enemies in "Halo 3" are a fairly tactical bunch, capable of creating chokepoints and using cover. The Arbiter, the secondary character from "Halo 2," returns to fight alongside the Master Chief, but since he's integral to the plot, he cannot be killed. Instead, he just pushes through a room shooting and getting shot, often leaving you with a lot fewer targets — and sometimes, that's not fun.
There are sequences where you man the turret in an all-terrain Warthog while the AI drives. These are the absolute worst moments of the game. These computer-controlled geniuses steer into walls, drive in circles and sometimes seemingly work to spirit you away from the action. It's often best just to kick out the driver and steer yourself — even though you miss out on some fun shooting segments. Mercifully, players can tackle the campaign cooperatively with up to three other players, negating the need for AI-controlled teammates.
Where "Halo 3" truly soars — and validates its $60 price tag — is multiplayer. There's a reason why "Halo 2" is still (until Tuesday, anyway) the most-played online game via Xbox Live. Bungie tuned the multiplayer game like a fine grand piano, with well-balanced weapons and smartly designed maps. "Halo 3" blows its predecessor away on multiplayer, though. Gamers will be playing this online until the Xbox 360 successor is eventually launched — and likely beyond.
"Halo 3" multiplayer includes 11 maps, with more likely to be added at a later date, much like the extra map packs for "Halo 2." New vehicles like the Mongoose ATV and the alien Chopper — a deliriously over-the-top moon-man motorbike — let players zip around the maps. Older weapons, like the energy sword, have been tweaked and much fanfare accompanies the new tools of destruction, like the Brute Spiker and the Gravity Hammer. The Gravity Hammer is a hand-held melee weapon that whomps players to the ground and throws vehicles across the map like they were made of plastic.
Over the coming months, players will form great strategies for using these new tools to command the battlefield — often dreaming up things that not even Bungie imagined. And that’s the whole point. Bungie has always encouraged the community that sprung up around "Halo" to get involved, share, and play together. "Halo 3," however, gives them a serious set of tools for essentially making the game their own.
To wit, the new Forge option, which allows players to tinker with existing maps. While none of the geography can be altered, players can add and remove things. They can also set up explosive traps, physical arenas, and more — and then upload them to a central server for other players to download and try. Even better, players can perform Forge fiddling while people are actually playing on the map. Imagine standing proudly on a hilltop to celebrate a streak of kills, only to be crushed by a falling vehicle dropped by the invisible hand of fate (read: some dude in Topeka).
"Halo 3" also employs YouTube-esque video recording and file sharing tools. Everything you do in the game is recorded to a personal library of clips. You can then edit these clips, take screenshots and share them with the world. No longer will online message boards be full of blowhards boasting insane kills. Now, like a disputed foul during a football game, people can go to the tape.
It's worth noting that because I was playing the game before it's official launch, I couldn't actually play against total strangers. So I was only able to check out things with people I knew, like the movie file-sharing.
The Xbox brand has been built primarily on the back of the Master Chief since the original console's release in November of 2001. Six years later, the franchise is still as vital as ever for Microsoft's fortunes in the console war — and this third entry does not disappoint.
While fans of the franchise have likely already banked an Xbox 360 in anticipation of "finishing the fight," it remains to be seen if "Halo 3" will expand the base or continue preaching to the converted. But one thing's for sure: This holiday will belong to one game, and one game only — the Master Chief's.