Looking at that screenshot, I’m suddenly reminded of the first videogame I remember playing, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for Intellivision. Man, videogames have come a long way in a mere quarter-century. But then, I suppose it only took us twice that time to go from flying the first plane to landing on the moon.
Incidentally, that screenshot was taken in-game by yours truly. It shows my digital avatar, Poe Ghostal, sniping some poor mook.
So, Halo 3. Its release received the kind of marketing hype once reserved solely for summer blockbusters (before they became manufactured a-dime-a-dozen products). It has already made hundreds of millions of dollars.
I was one of those people who was really into the whole “Haloverse” as well as the game itself, and I was greatly anticipating the end of the saga. Here are my impressions.
To make this review a bit more coherent, let’s break it down into its component parts.
The gameplay of Halo 3 is not very innovative–at least, no more so than the previous two games. The much-hyped “equipment” has turned out to have a pretty minor impact on both multiplayer and the single-player campaign. Otherwise, Halo 3 feels just like Halo 2.
However, the level design and the battles are far better, on par with some of the best levels of the original game. There are sprawling desert regions, frozen snow-covered wastelands, and alien constructs (though oddly, no outer space environments–couldn’t we have a cool zero-G battle on an asteroid or something? This is a science fiction game, after all). And there are enemies. Lots and lots of enemies–most of them Brutes, the Wookie-like thugs of the Halo universe.
As I mentioned above, the equipment–items like bubble shields, trip mines, gravity lifts, and so forth–don’t really play much of a role in the campaign. They’re somewhat more useful in multiplayer, particularly in objective-based games (Capture the Flag, King of the Hill and so forth). But usually I don’t find them that helpful. And why is one of the coolest pieces of equipment, the sentry gun, so rare? I think I saw it once in campaign and that was it. The sentry gun (a.k.a. “laptop gun”) was one of the coolest weapons in N64’s Perfect Dark, and it’s odd Bungie wasn’t able to implement it as well as Rare did nearly a decade ago.
This was probably the area I had the highest hopes for. Unfortunately, the story leaves much to be desired. Not only is the plot thin, it doesn’t make much sense, either. I won’t spoil it, but I do think that the earlier games and the ancillary fiction (the novels and comic books) set up a certain group of expectations for the game’s storyline that were utterly ignored. The most egregious example of this is what happens with Cortana, the main character’s AI pal; but the entire plot has holes you could drive a truck through.
I found myself moving from battle to battle with no clear understanding of what I was trying to accomplish, never mind why. Mostly my job was to kill lots of bad guys over and over again. Shoot, open a door, shoot, drive a vehicle, shoot, shoot.
I felt let down the same way I did by the Star Wars prequels. Not because the story didn’t follow my exact expectations, but because Bungie doesn’t seem to have taken their own established background for the franchise into consideration as they wrote the story (just like the prequels). It feels as tacked-on and ad hoc as the two Matrix sequels.
While I found the campaign story disappointing, that hasn’t stopped me from playing it over and over again–particularly because of the excellent co-operative gameplay. While Gears of War allowed two buddies to play through the campaign, Halo 3 allows an entire squad of four to mow down the Brutes and the Flood simultaneously.
The campaign is pretty short, too. I burned through it on the normal difficulty setting with a day of buying the game. Over the next few weeks, I worked my way through on the highest difficulty, with the help of Ed and Sean.
But I suspect the campaign was not Bungie’s focus for this game. Rather, the idea seemed to be to create the richest online playing experience yet offered on a console.
There’s also the excellent multiplayer experience, which is essentially an amped-up version of what we saw in Halo 2 (which is fine–if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).
The level designs for multiplayer vary from excellent (Valhalla, High Ground) to pretty bad (Isolation, Construct). Bungie obviously made a big effort to create asymmetric, naturalistic levels, but once they were released into the wild of Xbox Live, it became clear that on some maps, in some playlists, one team generally had a huge advantage over the other (playing VIP on Last Resort when you’re not the team that spawns on the beach is a huge pain in the ass).
And I still wish we could get an updated version of the snow level from Halo.
The playlist options are fine. Slayer and team slayer are as enjoyable as ever–your basic deathmatch, with either eight people running around slaughtering one another or two teams of four doing same. I’ve discovered I’m a lot better when playing on a team with friends than I am playing against friends or playing in a free-for-all; let the guy who likes running up into the enemy’s face with a shotgun do that while I snipe from across the map.
Big Team Battle, which features eight-on-eight team play, is lots of fun too–as long as the lag doesn’t cause you to lose every single beat-down match.
The game modes are a mixed bag. There’s one, called Territories, where you have to protect a number of areas on the map from the other team. It’s mildly fun on one map and one map only–Valhalla. On other maps, such as the confusing and convoluted Last Resort, it’s an exercise in frustration. It’s also just not fun.
VIP, where your job is to hunt down one “VIP” on the other team, is somewhat more fun, but honestly most of the time I’d rather just player Slayer or Shotty Snipers (shotguns and sniper rifles).
My friend Steve created a hilarious custom game mode where everyone is armed with Brute Hammer, gravity is turned very low, and every runs at a rapid rate. It’s kind of stupid but also incredibly entertaining.
The other place Halo 3 shines, and the aspect for which I think it will be best remembered, is its incredible ancillary features. There’s extensive integration with Bungie’s website, allowing you to view almost any conceivable statistic, from how many times you’ve killed opposing players with grenades to the number of assists you got for driving a vehicle while your buddy guns them down with the chaingun.
Another new feature is uniform customization. Rather than everyone looking like clones of the main character, you can make little cosmetic changes, such as new helmets and armor, so that you’re a bit more distinctive. Even cooler, your customized look will appear on your Bungie profile.
But the biggest new feature is probably the filmmaking. Possibly inspired by Red vs. Blue, Bungie now allows players to record their multiplayer matches and save them to the hard drive for later review. As you watch them later, you can pause them, rotate the camera to any part of the map, fast-forward and rewind, and pretty much do anything you want; you can pause in the middle of a sniper shot (see above) and follow the smoke trail across the entire map to its intended target, Matrix-style. You can take screenshots at any point during a film and then upload it to your Bungie profile.
Let’s see…what am I forgetting? There are Achievements, of course, but they’re what you would expect. The bad guys are tougher but still not that intelligent. There’s one level, where you’re running through a confusing tangle of what’s basically giant intestines while being assaulted by a thousand Flood forms, that’s almost as bad as the repetitive Library levels from Halo.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed Halo 3, but I’m already starting to burn out on it. It really is just a souped-up version of Halo 2. It doesn’t have the addictiveness of, say, Crackdown.
I think this is going to be it for me on first-person shooters, for a while. I’ve been playing them pretty much non-stop since I first played Doom II in 1993. In that time I’ve shot hundreds of thousands of demons, aliens, Nazis, terrorists, and robots. I think it’s time for an adventure game. Zack & Wiki, here I come!