Game of the year or overblown disappointment?
By Adam Doree
It's no secret that Halo 2 was a bit of a letdown. Frankly, the singleplayer game was just a bit dull, and left other franchises trailblazing the way forward for the genre. But with Halo 3, you can tell it's going to be a more fun, enjoyable experience within the first 30 minutes of play - and while it shouldn't take players any longer than, as I estimate it, 8-14 hours to finish, it feels engrossing and substantial.
We are not going to reveal any spoilers about the story, any of its characters' fates, nor any twists or surprises in this review, so read with confidence...
The beautifully presented story revolves around saving your long-time digital sidekick and advisor, the rather hot Kortana, with a hint of saving the planet also thrown in for good measure. The Arbiter is on your side, and you have your squad of allies for a lot of the game, while a good portion is naturally you as Master Chief on your own.
Actually, it could have been prudent to have a TV-style "previously, in Halo" recap at the start of Halo 3, because Halo 2's ending was rather abrupt, and because a lot of new players will want the full lowdown on why they're taking part in this mission, and its significance to the human race. Still, as with any well-written sequel, it's not mandatory, and you're pretty much oriented into the gist of things from the start.
There are some exemplary videogame dramatics and story techniques, grounded in excellent visual style that screams Hollywood class. There's some good dialogue in the game's very pretty real-time cut scenes, and hallucinatory flashbacks from Kortana in the middle of gameplay waypoints help to fuse the storyline right into the action more effectively than before. And Kortana is not the only voice you will hear.
Halo 3 offers a stunning, atmospheric, orchestral music score that creates emotion and tension, and in true epic style, the weather gets grimmer throughout the game as the story gets more uncertain. There aren't as many twists or major surprises as we'd have liked, but what's there is reasonable. Naturally, there are also a few spots of humour in the writing: (Person: "Do you have an escape plan?"; Master Chief: "I thought I'd try and shoot my way out... mix things up a little") - oh Master Chief, how you tickle me.
Where Halo 3 singleplayer really shines this time is in the stuff that matters: level design, gameplay balance and a touch of play style variety. The game offers clean, scholarly level design; it's progressive and straightforward and rarely confusing. Progress checkpoints are thoughtfully placed, and get sparser as the levels get harder. It's mostly always clear what you are supposed to be doing, and the squad-based segments are smartly designed so that you have yours, and your allies have theirs.
There's some extremely fun fighting, and more thought has been put into use of space, types of weapons and enemy volume and proximity, to make a more solid and rewarding gameplay experience than in Halo 2. The fast-paced mix of hurling out grenades, taking cover, then running and gunning, or waiting for the perfect snipe moment when infiltrating a base, is noticeably more refined.
Bungie has come up with some seriously good examples of how singleplayer FPS gameplay should be designed; they've worked on how to get adrenaline running, how to force you to take cover and strategically attack, and it feels more engrossing than the previous two games. Although the plot does feel a bit cheaply tacked on at times, this is definitely the SP gameplay we wanted out of Halo 3.
The intensity of close-quarters combat is also much improved; the combination of gunning and beating down enemies in campaign has rarely been as satisfying, and weapons like the Energy Sword and the Gravity Hammer really connect the player with the furious impact - especially effective against some of the tougher, more heavily armoured enemies. Other new weapons, such as the detachable plasma turret, is particular fun, and the flamethrower (which also switches to third person perspective like the turret) is fantastic for taking out some particularly ghastly enemies later in the game. Halo 3 makes it fun for you to practise your combat in real gameplay scenarios, trial and error if necessary, to get to the next checkpoint, and in doing so, prepares you for significantly tougher later levels.