It’s hard to imagine the fate of Microsoft’s videogames adventure without Master Chief. Consoles tend to struggle without great launch titles and the original Xbox had one of the best. Halo: Combat Evolved gave the platform real momentum and set a new benchmark for first-person shooters. Microsoft then launched what would prove to be their master stroke, Xbox Live, but they needed a showpiece title to demonstrate the true power of integrated online gaming. Halo 2 came along and did exactly that. Now in its third and final instalment, the Halo series has nothing to prove and no role to fill, except in a set of financial results. As Shane Kim, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios so aptly put, “If we can’t make a profit in the year Halo 3 comes out, then when will we?”
Yet corporate duties aside, Halo has become a cultural phenomenon and a trilogy with a much-needed ending. Halo 3 doesn’t begin where the previous game left off, but instead as Master Chief returns to Earth, where the Covenant have laid waste to most of the planet. Playing as the faceless warrior, you team up with former enemy the Arbiter and together fight through the nine campaign levels towards the epic series’ finale.
As soon as you don Master Chief’s virtual helmet, you’ll realise that little has changed in the three years since Halo 2, or even the six years since the original. The core gameplay is instantly familiar and reassuringly so, like coming home after a prolonged absence. Master Chief still jumps around like he’s on the Moon, his legs are firmly attached to his body and using an elbow as a weapon is still a perfectly legitimate thing to do.
Everything that made the previous two games such a joy to play are again present here. The controls are perfectly laid out, the vehicles are great fun to drive around and combat is an exhilarating experience. Much of what makes the Halo series great is subtle, but it all comes together to create another remarkably well balanced game.
Halo 3’s campaign is essentially a collection of set-pieces linked together with corridors, outdoor and driving sections. As before, run-and-gun tactics need to be supplemented with a more measured approach when you come up against the game’s more difficult enemies. Although most of the gameplay is very similar, there are a few notable additions. Master Chief can now use various devices called ‘equipment’, which come in the form of deployable cover, bubble shields, gravity lifts and trip mines. There are also a few new weapons and vehicles like the two-seater Mongoose, but for the most part, the game’s inventory is all too familiar.
“Halo has become a cultural phenomenon and a trilogy with a much-needed ending.”The campaign isn’t perfect though. Your fellow marines are still fairly inept, particularly when it comes to driving around. The A.I. isn’t terrible, but compared to how smart your allies are in other similar games, Halo 3 really doesn’t match up. A few of the levels are also somewhat confusing and the waypoints seem to only appear a while after you’ve been wandering around looking for the next set-piece. These are minor annoyances though, and do little to put you off playing through to the trilogy’s end.
Like its predecessor, Halo 3’s trump card is its use of Xbox Live. While split-screen and system link play is still available, every part of the game features some form of online component, such is the integration with Microsoft’s network gaming service. Halo 2 broke new ground with its online play, but its successor refines and perfects what Bungie introduced three years ago. Multiplayer is handled elegantly throughout, with gamers first choosing one of five game lobbies to begin with.
The multiplayer campaign is the jewel in the crown of Halo 3’s online modes. Up to four players can play co-operatively through the entire story, each fighting as a different character. The first two play as Master Chief and the Arbiter, while the third and fourth players take on the roles of newly created Elites; N’tho ‘Sraom and Usze ‘Taham. Although most people will spend more time in other modes, the four player co-op deserves recognition for being undoubtedly the most difficult technical challenge that Bungie have had to face.
“The core gameplay is instantly familiar and reassuringly so, like coming home after a prolonged absence.”Matchmaking remains the real heart of the action and is again extremely well designed and implemented. Players select either basic training, social or ranked games, then choose from a list of game mode playlists. It then looks for other players of a similar skill and connection quality, then puts them together into a lobby. After each game, you can choose to stay with other players, or just start matchmaking again. It’s a smart and simple solution, even if it sometimes takes a while to work in practice.
The custom games lobby allows you to pick a specific game mode and tweak it to whatever degree you like, then invite friends and recent players to join you. It’s in effect like hosting a game, which is ideal if you just want to mess around with a big group of friends online.
The Forge is an interesting new mode and somewhat similar to a custom game, but instead allows you to alter the map you’re on. Although you start in the usual first-person perspective, a press of a button sees you flying overhead, where you can move, create or destroy objects in the level. Up to eight people can edit a map at the same time, each with a budget to spend on objects. You can then save your edited level and share it with other players over the file sharing utility that the game provides.
The final lobby is Theater, where over 20 recent games you’ve played are recorded in full for playback. It’s quite astounding the first time you see it; entire matches, viewable from any angle you like. From here, you can take screenshots or record videos, both of which can be shared with friends afterwards. This is obviously a reaction to the popularity of machinima, particularly the famous Red vs. Blue series. Now with Halo 3, anyone can create their own.
Each player in the game is given a rank and when you play online, you gain a certain amount of experience points which go towards improving it. On top of experience, there’s your skill rating. This can only be altered through ranked games and gives players access to the higher officer rankings. This is used in the matchmaking process, but also gives additional motivation to keep playing online. Bungie’s own website also offers a plethora of statistics to analyse and track after games and the detail you’re provided with is again outstanding. It’s only a small part of the experience, but a welcome one nonetheless.
One of the understated triumphs of the Halo series has always been the game’s instantly recognisable soundtrack, composed by Marty O’Donnell. Several tracks in the score are produced with a much larger orchestra than the previous two games, some with a 60-piece orchestra and a 24-piece choir. On top of the music there are the usual sound effects simulating gunfire and the like, plus a smattering of semi-famous artists doing the voiceovers. With the right setup, Halo 3 will sound superb.
When it comes to graphics, Halo 3 could be described as a slight disappointment, but that’s not to say that there’s anything particularly wrong with them. The Halo series has always had cutting edge visuals, but this time they’re merely great. Since it’s been in development, a few other games have managed to push the Xbox 360 even further than Bungie has. While they might not be quite as sharp as the competition, there’s no denying that Halo 3 keeps up a blisteringly high frame rate throughout and this is perhaps the more important aspect of the graphics. The game’s interface also deserves a mention, since it’s probably one of the slickest and streamlined ones you’ll ever see in a game. Navigating around is a breeze and although it’s a small part of a huge game, it’s one of those details that makes Halo 3 great.
So was it worth the wait? In a word, yes. With an epic story, exhilerating gameplay and an excellent online mode, there are plenty of reasons to keep playing for months. Halo 3 may not be as innovative as its predecessors or have the best graphics on the Xbox 360, but it’s an outstanding game and a fitting end to what’s been a fantastic trilogy.