Halo 3 - ReviewCraig Snow , posted on 20 February 2009 / 14,972 Views
Halo 3 picks up where Halo 2 left off. Master Chief crash-lands on earth, where he’s soon found by a group of soldiers. After a quick re-calibration of his armour (neatly allowing you to optimise the game’s controls without it feeling out of place), Master Chief is back on his feet and ready to finish the fight. In what is supposed to be the final episode in the trilogy (honestly... well, maybe), the game has you fighting your way through nine varied missions spanning several different locations across the universe. Joined by some of the remaining earth forces, the Arbiter and his Covenant allies, Master Chief must prevent the Prophet of Truth from activating the Halo Ark and destroying all life in the universe.
As a sequel, much of the story revolves around unanswered questions and unresolved plot points from the previous games, so newcomers should probably play the previous games in the series first if they have an interest in following and understanding the story in its entirety. What doesn’t need much explaining is the gameplay. Retaining the standard FPS controls from the other games in the series, Halo 3 has merely tweaked and balanced the gameplay elements slightly, and introduced new weapons, vehicles and equipment, so it should feel instantly familiar not just to Halo fans, but to FPS fans in general.
The campaign can obviously be played alone, but there is also support for up to four players cooperatively, which is a nice touch, particularly when it comes to getting those achievements for completing the campaign on the hardest difficulty settings. The difficult settings for Halo 3 differ from a lot of other games. ‘Normal’ is actually incredibly easy, whereas ‘Heroic’ is very hard, and ‘Legendary’ is just insanely difficult. Four player co-operative actually makes Legendary completion achievable for us mere mortals, but it’s worth noting that the game doesn’t actually adjust the number of enemies or their AI based on how many people are playing, it remains the same as it was in single player.
The list of available weapons expands upon that found in the first two games in the series. As well as the inclusion of the more traditional earth-based weapons, like the Assault Rifle, Battle Rifle and Shotgun, Halo 3 also includes a decent range of Covenant weapons, such as the Needler (with its fluorescent pink needles), Plasma Rifle, Brute Shot (which fires exploding grenades) and the Gravity Hammer. Needless to say there are too many to list here, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses depending on your play style, so you’ll soon work out which ones suit you best and will then stick with them throughout the game. Halo 3 also introduces four ‘Support Weapons’ (the Missile Pod, Plasma Cannon, Machine Gun and the Flamethrower), all of which slow down Master Chief and force you into a third-person mode, but the pay-off is that they all pack a punch.
Vehicle combat also plays a large role in Halo 3, from the powerful Scorpion Tank to the weak-but-nimble Ghost Hovercraft and Mongoose ATV. There are also a few new vehicles, including the Hornet Aircraft and the Chopper (a strong Brute vehicle with double cannons, a boost and large spiked wheels). They certainly add some variety to the gameplay, taking you away from constant running and gunning. I must admit to being not entirely convinced of the need for vehicles in FPS games as they sometimes feel forced into the structure of the game and therefore slightly out-of-place. That said the vehicle sections in Halo 3 do actually provide for some of the most large scale and impressive battles in the game. Watching a massive Scarab being attacked by large numbers of soldiers and vehicles is one of the few times that Halo 3 lives up to its epic billing in the campaign, and when you finally bring a Scarab down, the massive energy explosion that envelopes the screen is a stunning sight.
Halo 3 has taken a large step forward for the series when it comes to additional equipment by including items like deployable cover, power drains, your usual grenades and the now infamous ‘Bubble Shield’, which was a key focus of the Halo 3 advertising campaign, and for good reason. The Bubble Shield introduces new avenues for genuine strategy in both the single player and (perhaps more importantly) the multiplayer. Simply thrown on the ground, the Bubble Shield becomes an all-encompassing shield against incoming fire, but at the same time it prevents you from attacking opponents who are outside of the shield. Thrown at the appropriate time, the Bubble Shield can provide you with the extra few seconds you need to recharge your shields, and when used in multiplayer it provides for some moments of intense drama and panic as everyone attempts to make full use of the Bubble Shield against their opponents.
The majority of ground based enemies you come across are either Covenant or Flood forces, and there’s a good amount of variation there. The parasitic zombie-like Flood forces come in two forms – the Pure Flood which are easy to pick off in small groups, but dangerous in packs, and the Combat Flood, which are infected humans, Brutes and Elites with their original weapons in hand. The Covenant usually consist of your basic pack of Grunts, the medium strength Jackals which carry shields, or the strong Brutes with their heavy armour and strong attacks. Sometimes you’ll also come across the dangerous Hunters which take a lot to bring down.
Enemy AI is mixed. On the one hand enemies make full use of the weapons available to them. For example, Brutes will make use of equipment like deployable cover and grenades, or if you get too close to a pack of Grunts one of them will separate himself from the pack and run at you with a live grenade in an attempt to take you out with him, and if you knock a Brute’s armour off he will charge at you. On the other hand your battles with enemies aren’t that varied, and after the first few battles you’ve probably experienced most of the different enemy responses you’re ever going to discover on a particular difficulty setting. All in all, enemies respond more convincingly to your actions (if all a little too identically), but I didn’t feel there was a big step up in enemy AI from the previous Halo games.
Allied soldiers tend to just be cannon fodder, leaving you to play the hero, and they’re not as intelligent as the enemy units. With some of the vehicle sections you can opt to take control of the vehicle’s weapons while the friendly AI will control the vehicle’s movements. At times this works surprisingly well, as the AI will manage to work its way around objects and destroyed vehicles which wouldn’t usually be in the way, but on the other hand if you come across a small skirmish it’s best to take control of the vehicle yourself as the allied AI tends to just drive right into the middle of the action, usually resulting in a quick death.
One final thing worth noting is a minor gripe I have with the gameplay. Throughout the game, at certain trigger points, the game will slow down and Cortana will speak to you through intermittent images for about 30 seconds. As a plot device it’s not particularly convincing and it only serves to slow down the gameplay and temporarily halts your immersion. It’s particularly annoying if you want to play through the campaign several times, as these interruptions trigger without fail at certain points in the game.
Levels are almost universally linear, whereby you’re forced down a particular route every level, but the game is kept fresh through the introduction of new and varied weapons, equipment and vehicles as detailed above, and also by the varied location of each of the levels in the campaign. For example much of the first level takes place in lush forest land, with nicely detailed plant life, rocks, trees and waterfalls, and later levels have you fighting your way through desert land, a Flood infestation and snow covered fields.
About half way through the campaign a Flood ship crashes nearby and unleashes the plague onto the city. During this level you’re mostly backtracking through areas you’ve already been through, but due to the nature of the Flood plague everything is transforming, from the now blackening skyline, to the increasingly mouldy ground and now musty air. Ordinarily backtracking is a tedious addition to a game, particularly an FPS, and there are several times where this is the case in Halo 3, but that particular level is not one of them because the setting has now completely changed, and the introduction to the Flood brings a brilliant change to the atmosphere of the game.
Halo 3 continues the series’ flair for superb lighting and, for an FPS, an unusually vibrant and colourful art style. This applies to the outdoor environments, which are very impressive, with the plants, trees and water all being nicely detailed and having accurate shadow effects. The light pours through the trees and glares onto your screen with full effect. The lighting also comes into full effect when it comes to the explosions and weapons fire as well – the Needler’s pink spikes fly out of the gun and stick on the enemy, Covenant guns will overheat and sparks will go off and smoke will come out of the gun, Scarabs explode beautifully in a massive ball of white light, explosions and blue electric pulses, almost blinding the screen momentarily, and the Bubble Shield looks fantastic.
Indoor environments are less impressive than the vast outdoor settings with their wide scope and lengthy draw distance. The problem with most of the indoor sections is that they’re all a monotonous shade of grey, and with minimal levels of detail and little to distinguish between the different sections, they can feel quite limiting and underwhelming. It’s when you’re outdoors that the level of detail and activity actually impresses. The only other graphical criticisms I have of the game relate to character models and animations. Some of the character models can be quite blocky and not as well detailed as some may expect, and enemy movements can come across as quite clunky and awkward at times and their reactions to being shot are not particularly convincing. Finally, the game runs very smoothly, and I didn’t notice any of the common in-game technical problems like slowdown or screen tearing.
The title track is superb. It’s a grand orchestral anthem with rousing tones that builds up gradually. It certainly makes the excessively lengthy loading times more bearable. For the most part the entire score is great; the only problem is that it seems to be recycled regularly, so you’ll often find yourself fighting to the same background music. The sound effects are all suitably impressive, with each weapon having its own unique sound and explosions creating a sufficiently large blast, as you would expect. Enemy banter has also been retained for Halo 3, so you get a better sense of your enemy’s personality. The Grunts are particularly likeable, but at the same time extremely annoying, as they scurry around yelling and screaming in an almost slapstick like manner.
So what do you get for your money? As I’ve already mentioned you get a full single player campaign, which you can also play cooperatively with up to four players online and offline, and that lasted me about seven hours the first time through, with repeat efforts obviously yielding faster times. Expect that time to at least double if you’re trying anything other than Normal difficulty without friends. Once you've completed the game, a Meta-game is unlocked which challenges you to replay the campaign levels whilst attempting to reach the highest score possible by racking up points for things like the difficulty setting, kills, headshots, skull use etc. Skulls can be found hidden throughout the game and when activated make the game more challenging in a certain way e.g. removing your HUD or increasing the health of enemies. There are also the usual achievement points, now totaling 1750 GS, which span the entire game, from the single player campaign to multiplayer.
When it comes to multiplayer, Halo 3 provides the usual game modes, like Capture the Flag and Deathmatch, and some more unusual game types like Zombies. The basic map count alone reaches double figures, and all of the different options you could ever want are included, which effectively enables you to create your very own game types. But whereas most console FPS games tend to stop there, Halo 3 goes much further. First of all there is extensive web support, which, amongst other things, allows players to check out their multiplayer stats on the internet, and compare them with other players. There is also a deep replay system which records every moment of every single game, in both single player and multiplayer, so you can go back and watch your entire match from all manner of camera angles, and then record and share those replays with others.
Special mention also needs to be made of the Forge, which has proven to be a substantial creative diversion for those interested in exploring Halo 3’s online multiplayer capabilities. It’s important to note that the Forge is not used to create new maps from scratch. But what it does allow users to do is add, remove and arrange all of the objects on the map, from weapons and vehicles to spawn points and objectives. Not just outside of the game, like some console games allow, but actually during a game as well, so you can act as a God-like figure manipulating the progress of the game as it is playing out before you. You can literally spend hours messing around in the Forge mode with friends, creating your own unique challenges and manipulating all of the options available to you to tailor a map to your own particular preferences.
Finally, Halo 3 has received significant post-launch support, including patches to fix bugs and exploits, and also including bonus downloadable content (DLC), available to purchase through Xbox LIVE. The first DLC pack (called the ‘Heroic Map Pack’) was launched just over a year ago, and features three new maps and includes upgrades to the Forge. The second DLC pack (the ‘Legendary Map Pack’) was released last year, and also features an additional three multiplayer maps and extra Forge features. A ‘Mythic Map Pack’ is also schedule for release some time this year. Finally, there’s the mysterious standalone expansion, currently known as Halo 3: ODST, which is scheduled for release late 2009.
In all, it’s hard to think of a console FPS with more value added content, even today, well over a year since Halo 3 launched. The amount of multiplayer options and features are staggering, from the Forge and the in-depth replay system, to the core online multiplayer and cooperative game, and the optional DLC packs, website support and upcoming expansion. In terms of content and value, Halo 3 clearly lives up to its billing as an epic FPS that represents the entire Xbox brand, in other areas it falls short of that mark however. Halo 3 is a great game, with solid and enjoyable gameplay, and at times some excellent environments and engaging battles. There are a few noticeable shortcomings when it comes to the campaign, the graphics and the gameplay, but none of them hinder the game to any significant extent. As such, Halo 3 is a superb package, and certainly worth a purchase if you’re a fan of the genre.
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