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Halo 3 – Hail to the Chief October 31, 2007

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Reviews.
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It’s just a game.

You may have forgotten this, sat in the eye of the marketing storm (oooh, look at that pretty model! Isn’t it big!), but when it comes down to it, Halo 3 is merely another release – albeit one that demands to be measured against its well-over-the-weight-limit baggage. It’s near impossible for Bungie to “finish the fight” and keep everyone satisfied. Make it too much like Halo: CE in high definition and people will scream that it’s not enough of an advance. Change the experience and people (probably the same ones, you know how this works) will still react with fury, asking where “their” Halo has gone.

With that in mind, then, what of the campaign mode itself, the final chapter of a trilogy that misfired badly with Halo 2’s overlong Klingon Council… sorry, Covenant scenes? Refreshingly, the overriding lesson that Bungie has learnt in the intervening period is that less is more. Not only is the story engaging, both in terms of plot and the visuals, but it’s also rather well written in places and an exciting rollercoaster of a yarn. It still pales in comparison to the best movies or TV shows, of course, but as far as videogame stories go it’s up there near the top, and the production values are terrific.

Newcomers to the series could have done with a quick plot recap onscreen (although the scene is set in the manual to a certain extent), but overall the narrative is one box well and truly ticked on the redemption list, with the usual array of funny one-liners from marines and enemies when you encounter them contrasting with more serious material in the darker scenes – a pleasing juxtaposition of dialogue elements, and it’s all very well voice-acted.

Thankfully this time around the rather affecting ending is pitch-perfect, coming as it does off the back of one of the most exhilarating final levels since… er… the original Halo, in fact. Gaming geniuses may be able to polish off the campaign mode in short order, particularly if they play it on a low difficulty level, but it took me a solid twelve hours to finish on Heroic – as before, the second highest of four difficulty levels – which is just about perfect length.

Gameplay is very similar indeed to the first two games in the main, but that’s far from being a negative: indeed, the impression is that of playing Halo: CE with the benefit of six years’ worth of added tech bolted on. It’s recognisably pure Halo – not reinvented as such, but built upon to make it smoother, more intense and with an even larger sense of scale than before. The addition of deployable equipment adds a new edge to the battles (some of which even dwarf the big set pieces like Assault on the Control Room from the original), with the safety inside a bubble shield or the panic induced by a nearby blinding flare providing yet more emotional involvement in the organised chaos going on around you, as well as an extra layer of strategy.

Enemies regularly use the various equipment options themselves, often making the battlefield more even-handed than you might expect, and there are many approaches possible to complete most levels, both in terms of the route you take and the weaponry you use. Despite worries about the Brutes replacing the Elites in the bad guy cast list, given their irritant factor in Halo 2, their new armour configurations, AI and general lack of bullet-sponge mentality make them feel very much like Elites in sheep’s clothing – a welcome outcome to a potential banana skin. The infamous “30 seconds of fun” is still very much present and correct, but this time it’s been infected: not by the Flood (though it’s no shock to see them turn up in fine next gen “hordes” form), but by the Energiser Bunny.

Often the feel of a level will change greatly throughout, as close-quarters interior fighting morphs into massive, vehicle-strewn landscapes around the next corner, and this variety within each stage is one of the campaign mode’s greatest strengths. Even the heaviest encounters come with very few framerate drops, and while the visuals aren’t as impressive as the likes of Gears of War in static shots, the HDR lighting, attention to detail in the art direction and the sheer amount of stuff going on at once makes Halo 3 more of a looker than it may first appear.

What could be loosely described as “boss battles” are in, but anyone recoiling against the frankly horrible examples in Halo 2 – so that’s everyone, then – will be relieved to hear that rather than lamely thwacking a geriatric in a floating chair, the rare encounter with a screen-filling Scarab plays out like Michael Bay’s wettest dream crossed with Shadow of the Colossus. It’s one of those pad on the floor, giddy euphoria, inexplicable laughter moments when one finally goes down – a real high point of the game and a glorious visual spectacle.

There are a few isolated difficulty spikes, mind, and this is one of the only minor flaws with the campaign mode, along with the level near the end that felt like I was playing one of Halo 2’s worst bits again, and the fact that there is no complete remake of the Silent Cartographer from Halo: CE. (Downloadable content, anyone?) Some encounters in the early levels are very hard indeed on the higher difficulty levels if all your marine helpers are killed – and they will be killed. Nonetheless this does also bring out one of the game’s strengths: namely that no two battles are ever the same, and the right strategy for success is always just at your fingertips despite the incredible odds laid against you in certain sections. However, if all fuel-rod-cannon-equipped Brute Chieftains happened to be cast into a pit and forced to listen to Guilty Spark impersonators for the rest of eternity, I wouldn’t exactly be weeping at the edge. More like pointing and laughing.

So while frustration does rear its Iain Dowie head sometimes, it’s more than cancelled out by the immense feeling of achievement when you finally get past the bit you’re been stuck on for half an hour. Besides, if you ever get really stuck you can always call on your friends to help you out in the full campaign four player Live co-op mode, an addition that will extend the game’s life – along with the metagame points scoring – for years to come.

While the story mode is being played, it is also being saved in its entirety for replay on your 360 later in the Theater (sic. Where’s your UK localisation now?) mode, and while you won’t be able to record and upload short campaign clips to Bungie’s website due to problems with the implementation – a problem that will hopefully be patched after much head-scratching to find a solution – it’s still astonishing fun to free up the camera and take a trip around the current section of the level that Master Chief is in, to watch the various battles from any angle. It’s not possible to advance past the next checkpoint, which is presumably another technical limitation, but the existing scope is more than enough to dazzle.

The screenshot tool is working, though, and complete films can be uploaded to Bungie Net and recommended to friends for download, so there is still much potential here for sharing campaign moments. Functionality overall isn’t perfect yet, by any means – only having roughly a 4x speed-up control and no chapter search function for a film that can last upwards of 90 minutes is a problem that limits the mode’s potential at present – but again, a solution may well be being worked on as you read, and the above issues do not exist in multiplayer, where chapter jumps and full recording functionality are both present and correct.

The music deserves more than just a passing mention. The game’s score is absolutely exceptional: an enticing mix of orchestral bombast and menacing, atmospheric synths that ebbs and flows with the action, complementing the gameplay in ways that few videogames ever manage. Pleasingly, the wailing guitar fretwankery of some of Halo 2’s more excessive moments has been consigned to history. This is officially a good thing.

I can only assume that the Bungie staffers have been on a research trip to Spain at some point during development, as their baggage handlers are most definitely on strike. Halo 3 is very much its own animal – a game that has had everything but the kitchen sink (I’ve checked, I haven’t found one yet) thrown at it, with community feedback from previous titles acknowledged without compromising the overriding vision.

Usually, when so much mud is chucked around only some of it sticks – just look at Halo 2’s campaign mode compared to its sublime multiplayer component for proof of that – but 3’s smorgasbord of expansive components: Campaign, Matchmaking, Custom Games, Forge and Theater (yep, still feeling sic), have not diluted the single player story mode one jot.

Everything has come together in Halo 3 to form a comprehensive product that has been developed without fear of failure; a game that corrects the vast majority of the mistakes of the past; a game which combines user creativity and interaction across the campaign itself and Bungie’s own website to an extent never before seen in a console release. It’s not a Return of the Jedi, then, but a triumphant Return of the King.

Halo 3 is just a game, yes. But what a game. It’s probably the easiest Gold Award we’ll ever give, as well as being the first. Bungie will be sleeping in beds made of dollar bills after this, and their comfy currency duvet is well deserved.

Hail to the Chief. Believe.

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