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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Halo 3

I finished Halo 3 a week ago, and am just now getting around to posting my thoughts on it.

Brass tacks?

If you love Halo and Halo 2, you'll love Halo 3.


Actually, if you really enjoy twitch shooters, you'll likewise enjoy Halo 3. If you enjoy tactical shooters, I still think you'll get a bang out of Halo 3 (sorry).

I was little rough on the game in my first impressions, and softened a bit in my second.

The fact is I consider this third iteration of the game a fantastic title. There's the single player, the multiplayer, and the extras.

The single player campaign mode is a fun romp, and even more so with 4 player online co-op. I'm bummed that it's a max of two players on the same box, but that's a concession Bungie decided to make.

Graphically, Halo 3 is a good-looking game on the gameplay side of things. We're talking gorgeous at times. It may feel like it comes up a bit short if you do like I did and play it back-to-back with BioShock, but that's not a fair comparison (and not because of the game engines).

BioShock and Halo 3 are doing different things. The former is a tight environment, has a contained number of NPCs, etc. The latter makes use of long-draw distances, arguably larger trajectory calculations for weapons use, vehicles, etc.

Halo 3 looks really good, and I particularly like what they've done with some of the outdoor environments. Snow, trees, and other environmental additives look great, and indoor environments (especially the metallic ones), look slick and appropriately reflective.

Less so for the cutscenes, which are wildly inconsistent. If the scene has Master Chief or the Arbiter, they're pretty slick; but in some of the cutscenes the people look like the original Half-Life (which was great nine years ago; today, not so much) -- they're stilted, and they move unrealistically. I find that surprising in a now-gen game.

The gameplay itself is great. I like the new mechanics for multiple grenade types and the addition of special equipment is pretty slick, but using the bumpers to do everything is really screwing me up -- I constantly drop a piece of special equipment when I mean to reload (thanks to the remapping of Halo 2's X Button to the right bumper). Of, course, I'm probably making this worse by switching back and forth between Halo 2 and Halo 3 (Monday nights are H2, Wednesday's are H3), so I'm not going to belabor it. I also like the addition of Quake-like "Man Cannons".

For the most part, levels are well designed, with the exception of Level 8. That one wicked sucks.

And there are some usability shortcomings in Halo 3 that I find surprising.

For example, while playing four-player co-op through a level, one of our members had to quit -- which killed the game and made the remaining three of us have to restart from the beginning of the level. That's pretty poor.

Likewise, I had a buddy playing local co-op with me, but we were doing Xbox Live co-op mode in case friends wanted to join. When he quit and left, I couldn't continue the game, because it kept asking me to reconnect the second controller, even when I quit Halo 3 and restarted. Turns out the problem was H3 was still looking for the player for the Xbox Live Guest Account we'd logged into so my buddy could play. I had to quit out to the Xbox 360 Dashboard, logout of all profiles, log myself back in, then restart Halo 3. Yeah, that's inane.

Not sure how those two kinds of things got sign-off while Bungie was finishing the game.

And story-wise, the game is OK, but it's not spectacular. I know other reviews have lauded the story, and I'm trying to figure out if they're doing that relative to stereotypically sub-par writing in games, or if I'm missing something.

I mean, by Bungie's own admission (earlier; they changed their story later), Halo was never meant to be a trilogy. I think that's what makes Halo such a great story, and Halo 3 (for me) less so -- it really struggles to carry out the "finalization" of the story arc.

Add to that some kludgy moments that are meant to be profound, some WTF dialogue or scene transitions, and some interruptive devices that always elicit expletives or derogatory comments from my campaign co-op brethren, and the story (for me) is one of the weak points in the game.

And there are marketing impacts that undercut the game's story, too.

First, (for me) the "Believe" video advertising campaign is top-notch and moving. It set a high bar for emotional impact the game didn't match.

In addition, Something happened to the Marvel comic book tie-in that was supposed to bridge Halo 2 and Halo 3, and was supposed to complete before the game was released (so far, only issue #1 has seen retail). Unfortunately, Bungie or Microsoft violated an entertainment product rule: Don't make something outside the product required in order to understand the product. It's a rule because when violated it creates a sense in the consumer the product is incomplete or "broken" in some way.

Which creates something Microsoft doesn't want -- a product that is less accessible to people outside of the "Halo Nation".

Oddly, none of this lessens the overall fun of the campaign mode.

Multiplayer needs another, probably separate write-up, but it's wicked fun (so far, I've got no personal time logged, as I've been playing on other people's boxes and tags). I like things like the new swords mechanic (bouncing off a swords dual that creates the need for a quick B Button smash), and I like the limiting of the life of a sword, so a guy can't repeatedly pwn me from halfway across the universe.

And Forge freaking rocks.

And, true to Halo 2, Bungie is already tweaking playlists. And while this sounds ungrateful, their recent tweak reducing the "Shotty Snipers" variant (shotguns and snipers) feels a day late and a dollar short. Having played the beta and trolled the forums, this was a largely hated gamegtype then, and Bungie didn't respond to the feedback until it increases proportionally to the release install base. See, this is my getting spoiled and selfish as a Bungie consumer. Shame on me.

On the product packaging side, I bought the Legendary Edition, which I regret. If you need a recap of the versions, go here, but the net of it is the The Legendary Edition has an extra DVD disc and comes in a miniature Spartan replica helmet.

I like the insight from the Bungie folks on the remastered cinematics from the older Halo games, but I will be angry if those videos I paid for ever show up for download on Xbox Live or from Bungie or Microsoft. The Legendary Edition also does not contain the hardbound art and fiction book of the Special Edition, and while the helmet is much larger than I expected, I'm in essence paying an $80 premium for a plastic prop (proudly displaying made in China, so I'm not licking it). To me, that's not worth it. It's a cool (unlickable) prop, though.

Overall, the game rocks, and me flagging these shortcomings is just my way to balance what are in my mind overly high reviews of the game.

That said, I will probably replay the single player portion of this game more often and log more online multiplayer hours than any game this year and next.

Rent: Yeah, but why?
Buy: You better believe it. Standard Edition if you just want the game; Special Edition if you want the art book and extra DVD; Legendary Edition if you want an unlickable mini Spartan replica helmet.

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