One might have been forgiven for thinking that in the weeks and months building up to the release of the first-person shooter video game Halo 3, it was the defining media release of the year. And, by many accounts, it was. Few other movies or music releases can or have generated the amount of merchandise, branding, marketing and money that Halo 3’s release created. 10,000 stores around the country held midnight launch parties where lines jammed the streets with fans waiting to buy the game. In two months, Halo sold five million copies–the best-selling game of the year in the US, despite the fact it was released in late September. The game cleared $300 million in sales in a single week–better than any movie premiere could ever do in a week, let alone more than any films make in their lifetimes. Mainstream newspapers and magazines picked up the story–Halo was king.
With the branding, then, came the hype–and Halo 3 is no doubt one of the most hyped video games in recent memory. Players were presented with an epic storyline of a hero known only by his rank–Master Chief–saving humanity from an invasion of aliens bent on mutual destruction known as the Covenant. The hype sold Halo, and sold it too well; there was simply no way for any media product to attain or surpass the expectations placed upon it. But what about the game’s merits themselves? After more than a year in the wild, it is fair to say that enough time has passed for people to have played through the game many times and experience all aspects of gameplay. What, then, is the final verdict on the game?
Halo 3 is a first-person shooter like the previous bestselling games before it, and it has retained the distinctive gameplay formula. Equipped with an energy shield that recharges, you’re essentially a walking damage sponge, and on lower difficulty levels the pace is very much run-and-gun. The Halo designers have quipped about replicating “thirty seconds of fun” using the “golden triangle” of weapons, grenades, and melee attacks as options to the player, but Halo 3 cracks open the formula a bit. You can carry around heavy support weapons to lay waste to foes, albeit slowing your character considerably. A class of items called equipment invoke more strategy than simply dodging and shooting; laying down a power drain can surprise and break up foes for rapid dispatchment, while a bubble shield creates a barrier allowing you time to catch your breath. In practice, this doesn’t affect the single-player portion of the game as much as multiplayer and doesn’t represent a drastic change, but in addition to new or revised vehicles and weapons offers up a nice spice to veteran Halo players. The gameplay is solid and fine-tuned, and one of the best controls for any console shooter.
The campaign, on the other hand, is a weak point. At the end of 2004’s Halo 2, the developers drove off “Thelma and Louise” style with a cliffhanger. People were ready to fight to save Earth… and it cut to credits. Perhaps as a way of apology, the first five levels of the game take place on Earth, but the plot seems to stagnate while terrestrially bound. At the end of Halo 2, the Master Chief is stowed away on a Covenant-controlled ship. The Covenant’s leader, the Prophet of Truth, is dead-set on activating ancient and mysterious rings known as Halos from a location known as the Ark; what he doesn’t know (and the Master Chief, humanity, and a group of Covenant renegades known as the Elites do) is that the rings are actually weapons of mass destruction, designed to purge the galaxy of sentient life in case a virulent parasite known as the Flood should escape. The Ark, it is believed, is on Earth, and so to prevent the firing of the rings everyone must truck it back home, where the remaining Covenant have been laying waste to everything.
As Halo 3 begins, you basically get the rushed treatment of events told to you, but for the next several levels, nothing changes in the status quo. Truth is still digging away at an artifact believed to be the Ark, and you’re just getting closer to him. The in-level narratives are compelling and add meaning to the player’s movements besides “go to point A” and “Eliminate hostiles”; you’re rescuing your friends from aliens or disabling AA vehicles to enable an air assault. But these touches don’t distract from the fact that you learn little to advance your understanding of the main plot thread. Suddenly, Flood show up on Earth, a portal to what turns out to be the Ark is activated and the Master Chief and company head on through in order to activate the local Halo, destroying the Flood and their leader, Gravemind, while sparing the rest of the galaxy (the Ark is located outside the Milky Way entirely.) For what turns out to be half the game, we’re twiddling our thumbs, and then suddenly we’re headed across the galaxy. The real meat of the story simply cannot sustain an entire campaign, which is rather short; I bet all but three of the levels in about five hours on the Normal difficulty; even on harder difficulties the game isn’t likely to take any longer than 10 hours, or dramatically shorter if you decide to play through with up to three teammates. While the beginning and ending of the game are stellar and fulfilling, the events leading up to the ending (including a brief and boring boss fight) are not that memorable. The difficulty curve jumps in odd places, and some parts are just a tad repetitive. Overall, the campaign was good, but as a Halo fan I was well aware it could be much better.
Praise be to higher powers, then, that the multiplayer version is worth the $60-plus price tag alone. Additions to the already-addicting online and local network capabilities of the game include a “Forge” mode, allowing real-time game sandboxes, and a saved films feature which allows you to replay that awesome kill you got from all angles and in slow motion again… and again… and again. Matchmaking has been tweaked, and the campaign additions make much more of a gameplay impact with human players, adding elements of strategy and spice to the tuned format. With the ability to create your own custom gametypes, Halo 3 has and shall be a mainstay of parties and competitive play for years to come.
There are also some other miscellaneous bright spots among the game’s bits and bytes. The sound is excellent, with good effects and outstanding music which dynamically changes depending on game events. (The soundtrack is two discs of excellence which I recommend to anyone.) The visuals are not the best of contemporary Xbox 360 games, but the design is unique and strong. All in all, Halo 3 is an great game, but the hype and expectations masked the truth; it simply could not live up to the lofty goals placed on it.