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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Game Review:Halo 3

A breath-taking finale to a monolithic trilogy.

Halo burst into the gaming scene with the Xbox in 2001. Halo was visually impressive, musically captivating and its gameplay and controls set a benchmark for console shooters for the many years after. Halo 2 arrived with much anticipation 3 full years later and it brought along with it a huge bag of surprises, including new weapons, new enemies and so on and so forth. As if replicating a sense of déjà vu, Bungie once again delivered a Halo game another 3 years after Halo 2. And thank goodness Bungie has made the wait worthwhile for fans and casual players alike. Halo 3 is definitely meaner, more packed with hunky-dory stuff, and there is no denying that this is one of the best finales to any videogame trilogy anyone could ask for.

If you could remember the events from Halo 2, you must have known that the game ended on a cliffhanger that left everyone tearing out their hair. Fortunately, Bungie decided not to give anyone a heart attack in Halo 3, so you can expect a proper ending and a storyline that more or less explains the events which occurred in the game’s predecessor and one that reveals the aftermath of those. While many players struggled to fathom what the story in Halo 2 was driving at and wondered why they were playing as the Arbiter in the game, there would be none of such instances in Halo 3. The plot is more straight-forward this time, though that does not necessarily be a bad thing as there is still some complexity and charm in it. All chapters will also be dedicated to Master Chief, but the Arbiter does tag along as your partner, which can either be controlled by the A.I. in single-player or your chum in multiplayer co-op. As per tradition, the story is told through cut-scenes of high cinematic competence in the game, and these can get quite moving, especially towards the end of the game, so much so that you can actually feel for the characters. It really is an impressive feat which hasn’t been achieved in many games in recent memory – the power to alter your emotions.

Halo 3 ameliorates on Halo 2 in a great way, but I would go as far as to say that it has entirely eradicated the formula of Halo and Halo 2. Bungie has actually listened to the feedback from players and that it did – correcting the annoyances from Halo 2, but is has also done so much more. In fact, a host of new weapons, new vehicles and new enemies, just to name a few, will make their presence felt during the course of the game.

You would be simpatico with me when I say the A.I. has been vastly tweaked from Halo 2 – in a good way, of course, wouldn't you? I would say that all the difficulty levels have been upped, but wouldn’t writing this be a vague way of showing how amazing Halo 3 is? For the record, I played through Halo 3 on Heroic difficulty, and challenging it is. From the get-go, you will notice that there are different ranks of Brutes present in Halo 3, but the ranks, indicated by the color of the Brutes’ armors, are not solely for display. Instead, different ranks of Brutes have varying combat strategies, with the gold-colored Chieftain Brutes being the most dangerous and you would do well to stay away from them. The Brutes make use of the cover effectively, work in teams to take you down and you will also encounter some who carry jet packs. Get used to having grenades lobbed at you by the Brutes because that will become a norm. Don’t be caught off-guard as well when a Brute suddenly throws up a Bubble Shield while you are shooting at it. Now, what’s this ‘Bubble Shield’, you may question. A first in the Halo trilogy – and they are many other utilities in Halo 3 like the Bubble Shield, including Regenerator, which regenerates the health of those who are within range and deployable cover, which is the blue illuminated shield used by the Convenant in Halo and Halo 2. There are many more of such stuffs, but I wouldn’t want to name them for fear of spoiling your game. When used in multiplayer, these utilities are all the more entertaining. The power of the improved A.I. isn’t confined to the Brutes, though. All the other enemies in the Covenant hierarchy do also make use of cover and reinforcements will be called in at times.

You would agree that Master Chief is now a recognizable figure in the human world, won’t you? Well, apparently the Convenant has recognized the threat that the Master Chief poses to them so it decided to send its fighters to boot camp. The Brutes have grown considerably stronger, as mentioned, and so do the Hunters, the hulking monstrosities, if you recall. A Hunters, or Hunters, rather since they always work in pairs, are now harder to take down partly due to their higher health or strength, whichever more appropriate, and partly because they have taken brain pills – which of course, the end result being smarter. Wanting your weapons to face the back of the Hunters so that you can shoot at their weak spots is now no easy job, considering that they will now always attempt to face you from their front, which is plated with almost inpenetratable armors. Like the Brutes, the Hunters do take advantage of cover too. Good luck on taking them down.

Brush aside the challenge of the Convenant at your own risk, but even if you might, there is a greater evil lurking. The Flood has again appeared in Halo 3 and it further demonstrates how the A.I. has improved. It’s drastic, really. The Flood are no longer the mindless creatures they were once before. Well, they may seem mindless, but you don’t acknowledge the ability to work in groups to defeat you as mindless, do you? To pile a greater challenge on you and provide more intensity in the game, there are now more variations of the Flood. Both Brutes and Elites can now become infected and these varieties of Flood are tougher. Ever seen a flood charging at you with an energy sword or shooting at you with a Brute Shot? There is also a type of Flood which can change into three different kinds of forms. One of the more prominent changes in Halo 3 is that the Flood have been injected with more personality. It isn’t everyday that you hear a Flood speak, but that it happened in Halo 3. Gravemind, the Flood’s leader, will also play a bigger role in the storytelling of the game, where it will often interrupt you in the middle of your game and threaten you. Its goal and that of the Flood as a whole, has been made clearer than in both previous Halo, and deservedly so.

So far, I have been discussing about the enemy A.I., but what about friendly A.I.? For sure, it has improved as well, though not to the extent of the Convenant and the Flood. The Arbiter isn’t just a spectator, and he will stop at nothing to slice your enemies apart with an energy sword. He aids you in your ridding the universe of evil, but I like the way Bungie has balanced the single-player and multiplayer co-op, such that the campaign never gets too simple even with the Arbiter, which is a sure testament of Bungie’s commitment to design the campaign around co-op play. Up to 3 other online players can play the campaign mode with you at the same time, and while that’s a smidgen of irresistible entertainment factor, playing with 3 other players would only be apt if you want to enjoy and play through the Legendary difficulty level; playing with so many other players would push levels Heroic and below to the side of easy.

Arbiter is useful. Are your fellow Marines like the Arbiter too? Yes and no. A pity the friendly Marines A.I. is inconsistent and be warned that they are terrible drivers, so always take the driving seat of any vehicle! They handle the on-vehicles weapons well, though – perhaps even better than you! Moving to on-foot combat, they are nothing more than target practice dummies for the Convenant, but perhaps the making of friendly Marines A.I. to be weak is done on deliberate terms. Maybe to give the Master Chief and the Arbiter more stage space, to make them feel as if they are a bigger part of the story or to make the game more challenging. It could be any one of these reasons, but only Bungie knows.

The more variation, the merrier. That is indeed very true in the case of Halo 3 – the weapons, to be exact. A couple of changes were made to the ones in Halo 2 with some new additions and if you like the Assualt Rifle from the first Halo, you would be glad to hear that that particular weapon is back in Halo 3. Truth be told, this is widest spread of weapons ever to be seen in a Halo game. Fixed turrets can now be uprooted and taken around like you do with an ordinary weapon. Cleverly, the game switches to a third-person view when you wield these weapons (as in Lost Planet) and because these weapons are heavier, the pace of your movement becomes slower. Now, that’s realism at work. Like in Halo 2, some of the weapons may seem a little overpowered, but every weapon has drawbacks, so they all balance themselves out.

Straying not too far from the original Halo and Halo 2, the mission structure in Halo 3 would be familiar to those of you who have experienced any Halo game before. Basically, objectives will be presented progressively and each mission can take about an hour to two to complete. The question you are more interested in would be: Are they fun? What? Are you nuts! Of course they are fun! While Halo has never been known to be an exploration kind of game (ala BioShock), Halo 3 does reward people who dare to travel off the beaten track. If you have played on the Legendary difficulty setting in Halo 2, you would know that there were some well-hidden collectibles known as Skulls in the game, and these have made a return to Halo 3, acquirable even on Normal and Heroic difficulty settings. What these Skulls do is to make the game more challenging and extend the replayability a little.

But the Skulls are just part of something grander. You can expect more vehicular action in Halo 3 than in Halo 2, made more thrilling by the fact that more vehicles have debuted into the world of Master Chief. Scarabs, the gigantic crawling Convenant machines, can now be destroyed and you will see them every few chapters in the game. The Banshees have been taken to the backstage, but you’re still in for a ride if you crave air combat. The Hornet, the UNSC’s (the marines) version of the Banshees, that is. No two missions are ever alike, for one moment you could be engaged in on-foot battle with the Convenant and another moment you could be repelling a Flood manifestation and before you even realize it, you could even be in the driving seat of the Scorpion Tank and obliterating anything foreign in sight. Given this, the linearity and some minor backtracking can somewhat be forgivable since the there’s just so much variety in the missions. All in all, the campaign mode should take you approximately 17 hours to complete and that’s long – by FPS standards.

And even if you have finished the fight, you would still be keeping the Halo 3 disc in your Xbox 360 for a while – all thanks to the multiplayer, which has evolved to become one of the most integral parts of a Halo game. As with the number of weapons available, Halo 3 ships with maps of the highest numerical value of any Halo game ever – well, eleven, to be exact, some old and some new. But whatever it is, there is always a map that will suit your tastes – be it maps with more open areas, but with more confined interior spaces like Snowbound, or maps that promote close quarters combat. Though I did own Halo and Halo 2 before (which have already been traded-in long ago), I did never touched their online components since I did not have a Xbox Live Gold subscription back in the days of my old original Xbox, but what I can tell you after my 6 hours of play testing of Halo 3’s multiplayer is that there are tons of online game modes available in Halo 3 – and that’s discounting the endless number of conditions which can be set for each match, whether it is a Graviton Hammer-only match or whether it is a Rocket Launcher-only match. Having all these different game modes and conditions are welcomed additions, but I am surprised that Halo 3 doesn’t really allow me to choose which multiplayer matches I want to join by game modes. Instead, you will just select a general category in which the different game modes are grouped accordingly and the game puts you into any available match. For sure, this isn’t a game-breaking flaw, but it doesn’t hurt to put in the aforementioned option, does it? Otherwise, the online multiplayer component is just one solid experience and who knows? You would still be toying with Halo 3 on the eve of Xbox 720’s launch a few years later. Talk about longevity! Halo 3’s multiplayer is just incredibly fun and addictive and if you call yourself a gamer, you have to get into the game – like, now.

Besides the addition of new maps and perhaps multiplayer game modes, there is another first in the Halo trilogy, and that’s one that will dwarf any of the previously mentioned additions. Remember the name: Forge. Jump into this mode and the game allows you to alter the placements of the several objects, including weapons, spawn points and vehicles, in a multiplayer map, even when a match is on-going! And you are doing all this as the Monitor (Guilty Spark), so even if you detest Forge for whatever reason, you can comfort yourself with the fact that you’re playing as a character that is neither Master Chief nor the Arbiter. Forge indeed is a fresh concept that I hope forthcoming games will consider picking up.

Online isn’t just for playing, you know. Being online also means that you can share your files and Bungie knows that all too well and what it is assaying to do in Halo 3 is to build up a more robust fan community for the game. Whenever you play Halo 3, the game automatically saves what is being played into the hard drive. But if you’re without a hard drive, tough luck. At anytime, you can assess the stored video clips from the theatre tab in the game. But perhaps what’s more interesting is that like a DVD, you can pause the video clip at any moment, and not only that, you can also move the camera around the scene. These video clips can be shared with anyone who has a copy of Halo 3. Nice touch. Now, you can conduct an exhibition of your Halo 3 skills!

Given the buffet spread of new items in Halo 3, it is easy to miss the improved visuals. But miss I did not – fortunately. Compared to Halo 2, the graphics look sharper and more polished – all thanks to the extra power from under the hood of the Xbox 360. The weapons, the environments, and well, just about everything looks better than before. Explosions are a treat to the eye as well. Halo 3 may be not have reached the standards of Gears of War or Colin Mcrae DiRT yet, but it’s a beautiful game overall.

Sound-wise, the memorable orchestral and its more upbeat variation theme from both Halo and Halo 2 returns, and after all these years, it is still as terrific as ever. One of the reasons why I did not like Halo 2 that much (at least not as much as Halo and Halo 3) was because Bungie decided to tone down the music during most parts of the game and Halo 2 lost some of its ‘Halo impact’ as a result. That isn’t the situation with Halo 3, and I am more than relieved to hear the same adrenaline-pumping music given more airtime during gameplay. Yeah, it is inspiring and just like Half-Life with the Valve music that gives the game a kind of mysterious feel to it, Halo 3 owes part of it success to the music. Bungie has also debuted some new variations of the original theme in Halo 3, and these new variations are just as equally pleasing to the ears and mind as the original. The Halo trilogy has the BEST soundtrack in any videogame. And if you haven’t heard it before, you must hear it.

Final comments
There is still another Halo game on the horizon – Halo Wars, but that’s not a Halo FPS, and neither is it a sequel to Halo 3. I am sad, really. Halo has ended and yes, it has. But the Halo trilogy has ended in the most fashionable way possible – it ended with a bang. Halo 3 is undoubtly one of the best Halo game ever and it deserves to be the best. Bungie has thrown everything inside – new weapons, new enemy variations, new vehicles, new multiplayer maps and new features. The story is more comprehensible, but still as charming as before. The cinematics are really moving and don’t worry if you shed a tear or two. The A.I. has vastly improved, but friendly Marines A.I. leaves much to be desired. The Flood now has more personality and plays a more crucial role in the development of the story. There’s lots of variety in the missions, which helps offset some of the linearity and backtracking. And I have to say that this is vehicular action in FPSes at its zenith.

The multiplayer component is not the crux of Halo 3, but it isn’t neglected. In fact, it is so good that it will keep you occupied with its vast game modes and options until Xbox 720 comes around. Bungie knows that multiplayer isn’t enough and that’s why it has also included Forge, which allows you to rearrange objects in a multiplayer map and the ability to replay saved video clips of you playing the game, and these can be shared with others as well, as long as they have a copy of Halo 3. The visuals may not be the best on the Xbox 360, but they are pleasing nonetheless. And the music is superb! Here’s signing off.


The Good:
- New weapons
- New enemy variations
- New vehicles
- Moving cut-scenes (you may get teary)
- Improved A.I.
- Flood has more personality and plays a more crucial role in the story
- Encourages exploration via collectible Skulls
- Missions are great in variety
- Vehicular action in FPSes at its best
- New multiplayer maps
- Tons of multiplayer game modes and conditions can be set
- Forge allows you to rearrange objects in multiplayer maps
- Recorded video clips of you playing Halo 3 can be viewed at anytime and shared
- Graphics have improved
- BEST soundtrack in any videogame

The Bad:
- Linearity and minor backtracking involved (hugely offset by mission variety)
- Cannot choose which specific multiplayer game mode you want to play in


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