Summary: After Halo 2's abrupt conclusion, it's finally time to finish the fight! But does Bungie's finale to the Halo 3 trilogy live up to they hype? Find out in today's review!
This is going to be a very unusual review for FiringSquad. I'm going to review just the single player aspects of a certain game without going into the online multiplayer features. The game I am reviewing is, of course, Halo 3, the long awaited Xbox 360 first person shooter from Microsoft's internal developer Bungie. We got an advanced copy of the game to play a couple of days ago and have played through the entire single player campaign. We have also checked out some of the very impressive online community features as well as the Forge multiplayer map editor.
However, we cannot comment on the online multiplayer aspects of Halo 3 just yet. The reason is as I write this review (a few hours before the noon PT embargo that has been set up for all reviews of Halo 3 that are supposed to be posted) the online matchmaking servers for the game are not online yet. So there is no way to actually review the online multiplayer aspects of the game which, let's face it, is a massive reason behind the success of the game's previous installment, Halo 2. So we feel that posting up a review of the multiplayer portions of the game would be inappropriate until the online servers are working. We will post up a multiplayer review of the game (hopefully on Monday) when we get some actual trigger time online.
With that rather large caveat out of the way, let's take a look at the rest of Halo 3 which, as it turns out, is a pretty great game even if online multiplayer wasn't part of the package.
An introduction to the Halo series
The saga of Halo's development is actually interesting in of itself. The game series began life as a sci-fi RTS game at Bungie Studios in the late 1990's. At the time Bungie was an acclaimed independent developer who had great success with its Marathon sci-fi first person shooter series which was made exclusively (at first) for Apple's Macintosh computers. Their plans for Halo as an RTS game got sidetracked however, and they decided to make the game a third person shooter. At a MacWorld event in 1999, Apple head man Steve Jobs introduced the first public trailer for the game which blew the audience away with its detailed outdoor level graphics which was unusual for an action game at that time. At the time the game was going to be released for multiple platforms.
Three years after its Xbox debut, Microsoft released the long awaited Halo 2 for the original Xbox. Once again the game was a huge success in terms of sales selling millions of copies thanks in part to finally adding online multiplayer via Xbox Live. However, fans were disappointed that the single player game ended in the middle of a storyline and even Bungie team members admitted after its release that Halo 2 wasn't the game they had hoped for. (Halo 2 was released for the PC just a few months ago but it got mediocre reviews and because it was a Vista exclusive wasn't a sales success).
Between Halo 2 and Halo 3, Microsoft decided to quickly release a successor to the original Xbox to get a head start on Sony and Nintendo's next-gen console plans. The Xbox 360 debuted just a year after Halo 2's release in 2005 and at the time became a highly prized entertainment present. While Halo 3 didn't get released in 2006 at the time of the PS3 and Wii debuts, Microsoft's Xbox 360 third person action game Gears of War (developed by Epic Games) was a huge sales success and helped to move more console hardware.
And now is 2007 and Microsoft, fresh off a price cut of the Xbox 360, is hoping that the release of Halo 3 will cement their dominance of the PS3 console (which has struggled in its first year thanks to its high price and lack of popular software) and will close the gap on the surprising success of the Nintendo Wii (thanks to its low price and its emphasis on casual games using its Wiimote). Microsoft is sparing no expense to let folks know about Halo 3; it's promoting the game's release like it was a big budget motion picture with merchandising deals, TV specials and more and many analysts believe it could sell as many as 3 million copies in its first 12 days.
So has Halo 3 lived up to the massive attention and hopes for fans of this franchise? Based on playing the single player campaign and checking out its community and editing features we would have to give it a qualified "yes" but again we will have a separate review for its online multiplayer features.
If you are completely new to the Halo franchise and begin playing the game's single player campaign....well, you might get a bit lost. Microsoft has a brief synopsis of the Halo storyline in the game's included manual but if you don't read that you will likely be very confused as to what is going on when you begin the game. Basically the storyline picks up immediately after the cliffhanger for Halo 2. The game's central character, the Earth super soldier Master Chief, crash lands on Earth after the events of Halo 2 and meets up with his old pal Sergeant Johnson, some marines and the Arbiter, the Covenant Elite leader who is now going against his masters, the Prophets, who want to activate all of the Halo constructs in space (in reality massive weapons which will destroy pretty much everything).
Master Chief's battles take him from Earth to crashed space ships and other locations as Master Chief and the Arbiter team up to prevent the Prophets from completing their plans. Oh and there's the matter of rescuing Master Chief's AI companion Cortana, left behind on a Covenant ship at the end of Halo 2. And of course the parasitic Flood are always a looming threat for both Earth and the Covenant. To say anything more would give out some pretty massive plots. Overall the game's storyline is a solid completion to the Halo trilogy with some surprises along the way that will likely be debated by Halo fans for some time to come.
The game's single player campaign is a bit more linear than in Halo 2, where you got to play as both the Master Chief and at times as the Arbiter. Here it's all Master Chief in the solo single player campaign although the Arbiter does join you for some of the game as an AI "buddy". Indeed the single player AI remains one of the best aspects of the Halo series.
Your AI companions aren't dummies waiting to be cannon fodder; they think on their own quite well and even drive the vehicles in Halo 3 pretty well on their own if you just want to ride along. The enemy AI is also exceptional with your foes flanking you, running away if they get scared or, in the case of the Covenant brutes, charging at you when their armor has been smashed. However, It's a shame that Bungie decided not to add offline bots for multiplayer in Halo 3. We don't think it would have been terribly hard to do so considering the excellent programming of the single player AI.
Let' face it; not all Xbox 360 users go online or have offline multiplayer parties so to leave out one of the biggest aspects of Halo 3 for those people doesn't seem very fair.
Graphics and level design
Visually the game stands up well compared to other first person shooters. While not quite on the same plane as Epic's Gears of War, Halo 3's character models are highly detailed and the visual effects for weapons fire, shield visuals and more are first rate. We still get a bit of repetition in some of the game's level designs at times but thankfully that is less of a problem now than with the original Halo (which seemed to be designed on a cut-and-paste method of map making at times).
Weapons and equipment
People who want more "stuff" to play with will be very happy with Halo 3 as it adds new weapons, vehicles and the all new equipment items to the mix. New weapons include the Brute Spiker (firing spikes, natch, in dual mode is pretty effective) the Spartan Laser -- a massive laser gun that takes a while to warm up but fires a powerful burst and my personal favorite, the Gravity Hammer, a new melee weapon used by the brutes that can kill and send flying a bunch of enemies at once with just one swing. There's also a couple of new grenades; one that fires off spikes everywhere and another that burns enemies down to the ground.
The humans get a couple of new vehicles in the game; the two seated and unarmed Mongoose ATV (fast and deadly if your back-seated friend has a powerful weapon) and the Hornet (an VTOL craft that you fly and fire machine guns and rockets while up to two others can ride on the sides of). The Covenant also has new vehicles as well but we won't reveal those at the moment.
The most interesting new addition to Halo 3 single player is the equipment items. Basically you can hold one of these items at a time and deploy them by pressing the Xbox 360's "X" button.
You may have played through the multiplayer beta a few months ago and seen items like the bubble shield and the energy drainer but the full game has even more items such as a regeneration field (basically the reverse of the energy drainer) and a shield barrier that cannot be walked through like the bubble shield can. These items can make or break you at times in the single player portion of the game and we can't wait to try them online in multiplayer.
The sound and the fury
As usual, the music in Halo 3 is among the best in any video game series with Marty O'Connell and his team both creating and revisiting some terrific musical scores (but hey, where's that Halo 3 music album?) Sound effects are also excellent and the voice acting is still as good as previous games in the Halo series.
Steve Downes returns as the stoic Master Chief and Jen Taylor stretches herself a bit as she returns to voice Cortana (to say anything more would give things away). Keith David, as usual for him, turns in an excellent job as the alien Arbitor and General Zod himself Terence Stamp is appropriately evil as the Prophet of Truth. Someone at Bungie is apparently a big Firefly/Serenity fan; no less than three actors from that cult hit sci-fi TV series and movie (Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk) voice Earth marines in the game as does Katee Sackhoff, Starbuck herself from the new Battlestar Galactica TV series.
Fans of the massively popular Red Vs Blue Halo machinima short subject series will hear those actor-creators in the game as well.
If you play the single player game on Easy level it's likely you will finish off the single player portion of Halo 3 within a few hours, so if you really want the full single player experience that has both length and challenge you really should play the game at least at Normal level where the enemies are smarter and tend to shoot you faster. Of course there's both Hard and Legendary for those of you who want to play the game at its highest skill level, or if you want to play the game in co-op mode with another player (both offline and online).
You’ll start by logging in with your Xbox 360 gamertag onto Bungie.net's web site. Once logged in you will find a custom web page just for you with stats on your game matches, your awards and achievements and what files you have to share. Files, you say? Yep.
Halo 3 allows gamers to share a ton of stuff with other players without having to leave the game. The game stores replays of both single player and multiplayer games (as in game data, not movie files) onto the Xbox 360 hard drive which you can replay anytime you want. You can switch the camera from your perspective to a free roaming camera or to other players in multiplayer movies. You can pause the game in single player movies and pause and go back in multiplayer movie matches.
You can even take a piece of the movie and record and save it if you just want to see a particularly spectacular moment without having to go back and run through the whole movie. In short, the film tool allows you to make your own Halo movie and watch it pretty much however you want.
But that's not all. Halo 3 allows you to upload films and screenshots from the game (the screenshots must be taken while watching a movie, not while you are actually playing the game) so that others who check out your gamertag can download and check them out. Screenshots that you take can also be downloaded from your Bungie.net web page. All of the screenshots in this article were taken using these features. (The multiplayer shots are actually taken from a movie that someone else uploaded to the file share portion of the game which we then downloaded and played.) Of course since the movies use in-game data you will still have to find a way to use a video capture device to capture a film and then show it on, say, YouTube.
The in-game file share system also allows you to share both custom game types and map variants that you create with others and you can also download those kinds of modes created by other Halo 3 players. Creating a custom multiplayer game mode is basically choosing from a pre-set menu of options, but the options are numerous.
For example, you can set up a custom game mode based on the new Infection game type (some players start as zombies and try to kill and then infect the other players to join them). But you want to give the zombie players less health to start with and eliminate vehicles. Oh and give everyone just rocket launchers. You can do that and a lot more while playing with the custom game types and then share them with others.
The Forge Editor
Even more powerful is the Forge editor which represents Bungie's efforts to make their console game have a mod component. The Forge editor begins like any other multiplayer game in that you enter it simply as a player. However simply by switching on the up button on the Xbox 360 controller D-Pad puts you in Forge's edit mode (which if you switch to third person mode turns your character into the Monitor, the somewhat goofy silver ball AI in the Halo game series).
There are limits to what you can do; you have a set budget that keeps you from just adding Scorpion tanks over and over again, but you can delete objects from the map and add to your budget. (Some vehicles also are not allowed on some maps no matter what your budget is).
You’re not the only one that can edit maps, either. This is multiplayer map editing so up to eight players can be working on a map adding and deleting objects and then you can all play the game with the newly populated level (you can even continue editing the game as a kind of Dungeon Master while others are playing the game but we haven't had a chance to check this out yet). If you like what you have done you can upload the Forge map variant to share with others.
While you can't actually change the architecture of the map itself, the freedom of the Forge editor combined with creating custom gameplay types should make playing Halo 3 in multiplayer mode an always new and fresh experience. Our one problem with the file sharing is that it has its limits; Bungie has given players six slots (or 25 MB, whichever comes first) for movies, gameplay modes, and Forge map edits for free. However, paying 750 Microsoft points a year (about $9) gives players just 24 slots (or 250 MB, whichever comes first) for additional file space. Considering that some email sites have free unlimited space, charging people $9 for a mere 250 MB seems rather steep.
A solid single player storyline: The Halo series has always been among the best for an engaging single player plot and the final installment is not different.
No offline multiplayer bots: After three games in this series, Bungie has yet to offer something that Epic Games created for the original Unreal 10 years ago.