Is it fair to judge a game based on its advertising? I believe so. Although the dedicated gamer will tend to seek out information about upcoming titles through any media available to them, it's the advertising campaign that defines the mainstream's pre-purchasing experience with a game. Indeed, it often defines whether there will be a purchasing experience at all. With that in mind, and so much money flowing in and out of the videogame industry these days ("Bigger than Hollywood", they exclaim!) it's surprising that so few videogame advertisements break out of the same tired formula of A) Setup for comedy sketch, B) Ten seconds of game footage, C) Punchline of comedy sketch. Sure, Sony jumped out of the box with the launch of PS3, offering ads that likened playing the console to living in an insane asylum with an evil doll, but for the most part the Halo 3 campaign stands alone, both conceptually and in effectiveness.
Set roughly fifty years after the end of Halo 3, the ads are concerned with a large diorama depicting a particularly unpleasant battle between the humans and the Covenant. Shot in a sombre, respectful fashion, the ads attempt to add gravity and resonance, along with a sense of history to the proceedings, perhaps reminding viewers of similar dioramas they've seen at their local World War II museum. The ads promise an epic tale of tragedy, sacrifice, and heroism that Halo 3 really had no hope in hell of ever delivering. More troubling, however, is the fact that after playing the game, I can suggest with some certainty that they promised a game that Bungie didn't even bother trying to produce.
A first-person shooter (FPS) set in the far-flung future, Halo 3 picks up where the last game left off, hopefully satisfying fans who waited years to see the plot resolved. My memories of Halo 2 are a little on the fuzzy side, but if I remember the ad campaign correctly, the battle depicted in that game didn't need a hero, it needed a savior. Well, it seems that cyborg space Jesus screwed up, because humanity is in pretty bad shape when the game opens, down to its last few spaceships, fighting against extinction in the heart of Africa.
And gosh, is there a lot of fighting. From the opening seconds battling aliens along a riverbed, right up until the tense chase over an ice spire that finishes the game, no more than 30 seconds goes by between battles. This is a blastfest in the simplest form imaginable—no stealth, minimal inventory management, and plenty of big guns. Everything encourages the player to wade head-first into combat, trusting their weaponry to handle the enemies and the recharging shield bar to keep them safe.
Those skirmishes are resolved in a single manner: by shooting, or, occasionally, bludgeoning aliens to death. For a game which features nothing but shooting, it's important that the shooting be entertaining, and at this Halo 3 succeeds beyond all expectations. That's partially because of the fantastic job the developers have done at balancing the weapons. Once again Bungie has found a way to give each of the game's nearly 20 weapons a specific character, ensuring that each one has a place and time where it's the most valuable thing imaginable. Even more than the weapons, though, credit for keeping the game's battles fun goes to Bungie's custom auto-aim. This feature (which can't be turned off) ensures that the player's crosshairs have just the slightest bit of help locking on and sticking to opponents. Not so much that control is ever perceptibly taken away, just enough to make the player feel like they're really great shots. I will admit to appreciating the help more often than not, but every now and then I was being condescended to considering the truly shocking number of headshots I was pulling off.
The one place where the game breaks away from this restrictive formula is in the vehicle-intensive levels. Whenever the Master Chief gets a hold of a jeep or tank the game transforms into a continuous, frenetic battle, with the player racing to dodge incoming projectiles while their gunner struggles to keep a gatling gun trained on an army of foes. Just like in Halo, I longed for the moments I got a hold of a vehicle—I only wish the partner AI had been a little better, so I would have had a chance to operate the Jeep's gun as well as drive. Avoiding enemy fire is a vital part of the driving sequences, and the computer's nasty habit of running into walls and stopping for no reason got me killed more than a few times. Luckily, thanks to the great controls and vehicle physics, driving is every bit as fun as shooting, and by the end of the game I found myself wishing that Bungie would just give up this whole Halo thing and make a car combat game.
Halo 3 also shines in its much-lauded multiplayer combat mode. There are a wealth of maps and game modes to play on, and the matchmaking system is great at fixing players up based on their skill level, ensuring that most players should be able to get right into the action without any trouble. The only niggling problem when using the matchmaking system is players have very little say in what type of game they'll be playing and if they choose to start a custom game, all the players have to be invited. This forces gamers to choose between losing control or becoming social. Regardless, the multiplayer game plays fantastically. Halo 3's uncomplicated running and gunning style fits the deathmatch concept perfectly. Almost as if the controls were designed with the multiplayer in mind, as opposed to the single.
The best way to describe Halo 3's gameplay is solid. It gets in and does its job exactly as it should, but it has absolutely nothing new to offer. A two-weapon carry limit and progressive health felt revolutionary six years ago, but now it's hard to find a game that they're not featured in. For some reason all the other advancements that have been made to the FPS genre over the past half-decade seem to have left Halo behind. I'm shocked to see a game in this day and age that doesn't offer any sort of a cover mechanic, or quick dodge moves. While my enemies bound lightly around the levels, diving to the side or spinning out of the way of grenades, my only evasive option is a big, floaty leap into the air—where I'm no more a difficult target than I was on the ground.
Speaking of the Master Chief's agile foes, Halo 3 has some of the most unbalanced AI I've seen in years. While Covenant troops of all shapes and sizes behave with a wonderful cunning, using cover and seeming to support each other in a semblance of tactical thinking, the human partner AI is woefully idiotic. I can't count the number of times I watched a tiny human rush up to a brute, ineffectually peppering it with small arms fire before being crushed by a single punch. At first it's an effective way of establishing what terrifying entities the foes are, but after a little while I just started wishing they'd learn to back up so they could be of some use to me.
Halo 3 also has the strange distinction of being the ugliest beautiful game I've ever seen. Nearly everything is rendered in beautiful detail, the explosions and particle effects are fantastic... it's a triumph of graphic engineering and a testament to what the 360 is capable of. My problem, though, is just how the ugly the actual things being rendered are. Back when Halo was being made, I understand that the Master Chief had to be blocky, and all the Covenant vehicles had to be smooth and featureless, and all the graphical design problems were covered up with a layer of shine and glow. Now that the developers are working with exponentially more powerful technology, I don't understand why all those ugly designs have to remain. It's not like there's a failure of imagination or talent—the two new Brute vehicles are fantastic. Full moving parts, they seem to have been jerry-rigged together from scraps. They're fascinating to look at, fun to drive, and impressive to blow up. I only wish that the minds behind them had been unleashed a little more freely throughout the rest of the game.
Then there's the bizarrely awful graphics that appear in the game's cut-scenes. Every time there's a shot of a spaceship flying somewhere, it's rendered as a good-looking 3D model flying in front of an inexplicably low-resolution 2D image of a landscape or planet. As if they ran out of time and just dropped the concept art in as a backdrop. Suddenly the game goes from beautifully-rendered real-time graphics to the 21st century equivalent of a detailed practical model dangling in front of a cheap, out of focus matte painting. I have no idea how something that looked this awful made it into the final game.
The only classic element that was overhauled for the better is the Flood. A twisted parasite that acts like a hybrid of John Carpenter's The Thing and Shodan from System Shock 2, the Flood infects other life forms and transforms them into vicious monstrosities that outright defy the law of conservation of matter. The Flood look amazing, hideous fleshy H.P. Lovecraft creatures that spray slime everywhere and attack in overwhelming numbers. While there's nothing new about the concept, they look better here then they ever have before, and prove that a visual update can add immeasurably to the experience.
Sadly, while the Flood's appearance has been improved, their presence in the game is just as awkward and unpleasant as ever. Even with a few new forms and the fantastic new look, they haven't gotten any smarter, and don't understand any tactic more complex than running straight at the player, attacking wildly. This can be scary in small doses, but it just winds up being tedious after a little while. I've never met anyone who actually liked the Flood portions of Halo 1 and 2, so the decision to include two lengthy Flood levels back to back in Halo 3 is something of a puzzler. Whatever momentum the game had going stops dead for over an hour of having slimy things running in a straight line, with the player stuck in hallways too narrow to just walk around them.
It's not just the Flood that get repetitive, though. The level design suffers from similar problems. There's an old joke about Halo's maps: Any hallway worth walking down is worth walking down three times. While the developers do their best to pepper old areas with new enemies, it's impossible to escape the fact that six separate levels in a nine level game feature significant amounts of backtracking. If going back over the same areas wasn't bad enough, the lack of an in-game map was just inexcusable. I can't count the number of times I got lost, and had to wait for the game to take pity on me and put a directional arrow on my HUD. It's the year 2007, and my phone can tell me exactly where on the Earth I am. Does Bungie really expect me to believe that there's nothing in that helmet of the Master Chief's that tells him where to go next?
Just as problematic as the backtracking is how rigidly formulaic the game's maps are. After the initial impressiveness of the graphics wears off, it's impossible to to not notice the game's obvious structure. Each level consists of a few large, open areas, linked by narrow hallways. As a rule, the hallways are devoid of life, and every large room holds somewhere between 12 and 16 enemies. To the game's credit, it does a pretty good job of making the large area gunfights memorable through the creative use of architecture and enemy placement, but it's difficult not to tire of the carbon-copy design fairly quickly. This problem is only compounded by the fact that nearly every weapon and enemy has made an appearance by the end of level two, leaving the rest of the game devoid of surprises. Sure, most of these weapons and monsters had already appeared up in Halo 2, so it's possible that Bungie didn't want to keep people waiting for things they'd already seen, but more care should have been taken in this game's pacing, and the lack of consideration shows.
There's one place where the pacing really works. In an early level the player gets a glimpse of a Scarabe, one of the Covenant's a giant walking tanks. The entire first half of the level is a build-up to the confrontation with the tank, which is impervious to weapons fire. While dodging its attacks, the player must attack its legs until they break temporarily, forcing down so that the Master Chief can climb about, sabotaging its engine, causing it to explode. If this sounds like an FPS version of Shadow of the Colossus, it's because that's exactly what it plays like, and it's every bit as unreservedly great as the comparison suggests. What Bungie accomplishes here is a truly exceptional, creating an epic encounter, putting me up against incredible odds, and then demanding that I overcome them. So each time I watched a Scarab explode in a blinding flash of blue light, I felt a sense of true achievement. It's just too bad that's the only time the game manages to create such a feeling.
That's right, Halo 3's biggest flaw is that at it never rises to the level of epic storytelling or gameplay that the premise suggests, even demands. Although I was told time and again there was a war for humanity's fate going on, I certainly never saw any evidence of it. Great stakes are discussed, but never established. I'm supposed to be horrified that the Flood overrun a city, or that most of Africa needs to be bombed to prevent their spread, but since no one actually seems to live there, why should I care? No reference to civilian casualties, or even civilian existence, is ever made, so there's no tragedy in the "glassing" of Africa, just the mild satisfaction that comes from having survived it. It's a little ridiculous seeing what should be the game's climactic encounter being waged on such a small scale. When I besieged the Prophet of Truth's final stronghold, the only resistance I found was six vehicles and eight soldiers, for a grand total of fourteen opposing troops. Between vehicles and Marines, I had ten on my side. This is supposed to be the deciding battle for the fate of the galaxy, and it involves less than 25 people?
This problematic lack of scope extends into the game's plot, which is one of the most simplistic stories I've ever seen referred to as being "deep." It attempts to add resonance by placing the central conflict in a religious context: The villain is called a "Prophet", the Elites, aliens who have abandoned the Covenant to team up with humans, are called "Heretics" by the other Covenant troops. Unfortunately, the story doesn't have any of the depth or grey areas that actual religious schisms manifest. In fact, the main conflict of the game is an entirely secular one. Beyond the simple question of whether the Master Chief can stop the Prophet of Truth from destroying the galaxy (spoiler alert: according to the ad campaign, he can), there's no depth or complexity to this conflict. What the Covenant wants is so outlandishly bad that it can't be seen as anything but madness, and the humans have a completely good solution available to them, which, if successful would result in the complete destruction of all their foes and a completely happy ending. There's no hard decisions to be made here, no possibility of being forced to accept the existence of, or even making an agreement with, the Flood. No, all the bad guys are clearly evil, and all of them can be easily defeated in one fell swoop.
Compare this storytelling to one of gaming's actual high points, 1992's Star Control 2. The game's plot centered around a dogmatic disagreement within an extremely powerful alien race, the Ur-Quan. After millennia of enslavement by a terrible parasite, they managed to win their freedom. They decided that they would never again be victims—just how to accomplish this was the cause of some disagreement. One group, the Kzer-Ka, believed that the solution was to freeze the evolution of all other sentient races by destroying their ability to travel through space and containing their planets within protective spheres. The other group, called the Kor-Ah, thought that it was best to just play it safe and just destroy all other life in the galaxy. There's no good side in this conflict—both are evil, even though their actions and motivations are completely understandable. The player's role isn't to choose a side, but merely to prevent either of them from acquiring a weapon that would allow them total domination over the galaxy. To accomplish this task, the player is actually forced to team up with a Dynnari, the last remaining member of the race of slavers who caused all the problems in the first place—a character far more evil than either of the game's villains. It's a masterpiece of complex motivations and hard choices that makes Halo 3 look like a simplistic trifle in comparison.
The storytelling is crippled further by huge tonal problems in the presentation. Despite the gravity with which the story is presented, and the clear pretensions the game has of being a legitimate work of fiction, the story is hamstrung by the insane decision to place endless comedy quips throughout the game's combat. Every time I fought alongside human troops I was faced with an onslaught of anachronistic comments that serve no purpose but to destroy any sense of immersion the game might have otherwise created. I'm not saying I can categorically state what kind of language soldiers are going to be using in the 26th century, but I can pretty safely state that they're not going to refer to killing an enemy as "owning" them. Nor will they be referencing the film Full Metal Jacket, or turn of the century recruitment slogans. That's right, one of the marines refers to himself as an "Army of One". That reference is embarrassingly dated today, so what on earth are people doing using it in the far-flung future? More importantly, how can I be expected to take a game seriously when every time the characters open their mouths it descends into self-parody?
But all of these problems pale next to the ending of the game. If it seemed like the cliffhanger that ended Halo 2 was bad, it pales next to the wrap-up of Halo 3. I'm not going divulge the details here, but the ham-handedness in which it goes from trying to generate tension through unbelievably stupid writing to attempting to create tragedy out of a completely non-tragic situation is jaw-droppingly inept. A combination of bad writing and editing serve to just cripple whatever effect they were hoping to create.
There's some discussion in the entertainment industry as to whether the marketing budget should be included when discussing how much it costs to make a film. The fear is that with budgets growing every year, people are shocked enough by how expensive movies are to make—finding out that another nearly half that amount is spent informing the public about those same films would just seem excessive. Halo 3 is the first game to feature utterly inescapable advertising. The fact is that if a person came within ten feet of a radio, television, or flat surface during August and September 2007, they were aware of Halo 3. I have no doubt that the game's marketing budget was far higher than the cost of actually making the game. It's a pity, then, that Halo 3 just isn't deserving of the kind of attention it's already received. While certainly a technically adept game, it has little new to offer beyond the crisp, attractive presentation. It's not a failure by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a great example of a developer and a series refusing to grow and change with the times. There's almost nothing here that I didn't play five years ago in the first Halo, it's just a little more visually polished. It's a good game to be sure, but not a great one, and by no means is it the genre-defining experience that we were promised.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Violence
Parents, I know you're not going to take the M rating seriously—to quote The Simpsons, denying your children this game is like not letting them watch the moon landing. The gory, blood-soaked moon landing. Please, though, just promise me that you'll take a little time to play it with them so that you can explain the difference between fantasy and reality, and that they shouldn't go around shooting people in real life. Also, don't let them cackle when gunning down cowardly foes running away from them. That isn't one of the fifteen signs that someone is going to be a serial killer or anything, but it certainly doesn't bode well for their ethical development.
Halo fans, sure, you've played this all before, but if you liked it then, there's no reason you won't like it now, especially since it's 50 percent shinier than before.
Multiplayer gamers, your grail has arrived. The simple fact is that this is what most people are going to be playing for the next two years (at least), so if you want to deathmatch online at all, you have no excuse for not buying it. In addition to great
Co-op gamers are also in for a treat, as the game allows players to enjoy the entire campaign with up to three friends. The one drawback is that because the difficulty isn't scaled up for co-op mode, the game is very easy with four competent players, even on the Legendary difficulty setting.
Michael Wincott fans be warned - he does not appear in this game. Halo 2's Prophet of Truth has been replaced by Terrence Stamp, of General Zod fame. I don't know what the explanation for this change is, but it's very disappointing.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers are going to have some problems. While the levels are simple enough in design that just walking forward will generally get players to their next objectives, there are all sorts of gameplay tips conveyed through in-game dialogue, none of which are subtitled. All of the cut-scenes have subtitles, so at least the story will be accessible, but deaf gamers won't hear anything Cortana or the Gravemind have to say, which will make the way the game stops dead to allow them to speak something of a bewildering experience. Sadly, gameplay is affected more than normal—the lack of a decent radar makes hearing all the more important in spotting enemies, and although arrows appear onscreen to tell the player where enemy fire is coming from, on the higher difficulty levels many Covenant weapons are one-shot kills, so the inability to hear the Fuel-Rod gun's distinctive report will likely prove fatal on a number of occasions.