Halo 3 Preview & Bungie Interview
As pre-orders for Halo 3 exceed one million, we talk to Bungie to learn more about the game Microsoft says will be the best this year. And we're not giving it an easy ride.
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By Adam Doree
So, Halo 3. It's supposedly going to be the game of the year, and shouldn't have too much problem being the best selling, what with Grand Theft Auto IV put back to next year. We've already played the Multiplayer Beta extensively and also checked out the early parts of the campaign mode at this year's E3. Should we be convinced? Should we be that excited? After all, while it may be true that Halo 2 was untouchable in the console online multiplayer stakes, a lot of players found the single-player Campaign meat of the game a little bit disappointing - and I was one of them.
Disappointing, not just because of the way it ended but because it simply wasn't as exciting, enjoyable or as downright stunning as Half-Life 2 by any stretch of the imagination, and often bordered on just plain dull.
Back at E3, two first-person shooter games that impressed me, at the very least for their ambition, were TimeShift and Fracture. I first played TimeShift over a year ago and it was impressive then and now has an extra lick of paint, but the point is that it offers something new, a new spin on the sometimes tired FPS genre: controlling and manipulating time and the impressive things this does to fundamentally make the gameplay experience something new and different. Fracture, similarly, offers a new twist: terrain deformation, the ability to instantly create massive craters, and inversely, huge bursts of mountainous growth from the dirt with a special terrain control weapon, that really changes the dynamics of level design, defensive cover and more.
And Portal, the mind-warping, wormhole-inspired Valve game included with Half-Life 2: Episode Two, can join to make a trio of FPS games I think are doing new things that should shake up the genre and make people pay attention. Then there's Call of Duty 4, which we're going to deal with in another feature, and the game we're supposed to be talking about here, Halo 3. As a fan of the genre, I refuse to just do what everyone else (most of the media and the million gamers who have pre-ordered it) is doing - to assume this must automatically be the best thing ever, because frankly Halo 2 was not. Sure, what we've seen of Halo 3 so far looks pretty good. But now, I want to be impressed in a big way, not be drawn in by the awesome - and almost unfair - level of hype.
We spoke with Bungie's Frank O'Connor, to see whether Halo 3 is something that can inspire as much as it promises, and deliver the true finale than the millions of devout Master Chief fans truly deserve. We put to him that many critics say Halo 2's Campaign mode wasn't perfect and maybe ended too soon, and asked if there was a central item of feedback that Bungie is really looking to get right with Halo 3.
"There are always things that you wanted to do better, and with Halo 2, I think the whole studio shares that feeling."
He added: "We've also pretty much tried to do everything else bigger, better and more fun, and that's why we're showing Campaign lately, is to show that it's fun, and it's intense - and [we've shown] one of our more claustrophobic levels too, we haven't shown any vehicle combat in Campaign, so we're really excited to let that roll in September."
In fairness, there's plenty of evidence that Bungie has been working away on tweaking every last aspect of play since the Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta went live a few months ago. For example, there's a 'glow' added to the Bubble Shield, which helps you see from a distance that this crafty, translucent protective shield has actually been deployed by someone. "We found that when you were trying to snipe, if they dropped a shield it was almost invisible, and from a distance it could mean you're just wasting ammunition, taking headshots at a guy who's shielded, so we threw that in there for clarity." It's still being tuned, he said, so it might not be as visible as in the build we saw, but the glow will certainly be in both Campaign and Multiplayer.
And as for the level of excitement in play generally, things are undoubtedly ramped up in Halo 3. In the forest level we've seen, there's a lot of more dynamic, undulating terrain and a more claustrophobic feel than in many previous Halo environments, and the action is thick and fast. Master Chief and the Arbiter join some marines on the ground, making their way through the jungle, and stumble upon a group of Covenant who need to be taken out. We witnessed the game being played on the 'Heroic' setting, which added excitement, though Frank did point out it's a lot more difficult of course: "The AI is unpredictable at times, every game we've played lately, something different has happened. I could very well die; there's no cheats enabled here," he said. We believed him - but he's probably pretty good at Halo by now. Usefully, the Arbiter can't die in your co-operative mission with him, so that's something to help the pace along and minimise frustration.
"Don't expect those maps that we shipped with the Beta to look massively different."
We did think it curious that just before the Multiplayer Beta went live, Bungie was telling fans to not judge the graphics of the game based on the Beta, but are we to expect that the final Multiplayer itself game will really look significantly better? "That's absolutely true," answers O'Connor. "I mean, the Multiplayer Beta code is very, very old. But, don't expect those maps that we shipped with the Beta to look massively different - they've certainly been improved, but the quality that you saw in Sand Trap [multiplayer map shown recently] is pretty indicative of the quality of how our maps look. And they all have very different looks too, depending on their purpose and size."