Although claims of Halo 3 being the ‘biggest entertainment release in history’ aren’t fallacious you can’t deny that Microsoft’s marketing men have perhaps gone a bit overboard with the Halo 3 hype. We remember back in the days of the Dreamcast when a somewhat modest Sega were more than pleased to announce that Sonic Adventure had outsold the current #1 album by Shania Twain. We also recall that ex-Teletext videogame page Digitiser pointed out that S Twain was an anagram of W Stain.
After a panning over Halo 2’s abundance of dull corridors Bungie has done the right thing and gone back to Halo 1’s original winning formula of open battles and fantastic vehicular combat. At times it even feels like a re-make of the original – there’s a beach landing scene that manages to surpass the legendary Silent Cartographer level and the environments are incredibly similar, with Master Chief starting off in Africa for a spot of jungle warfare before stopping off in desert, snow and alien surroundings.
It’s anything but a case of the same old stuff though – pretty much right from the off new weapons are available, including the grunt pummelling gravity hammer. Then you’ve got two “new” grenades (one is just a poor clone of the sticky plasma grenade, hence the quote marks), secondary support weapons such as the much touted bubble shield and gun turrets that you can tear off their tripods and carry round in third-person-o-vision. The AI is as good as ever with a few surprises here and there while some of the secondary items really come into their own when used in mutli-player. Placing a trip mine or grav-lift in the path of an oncoming jeep always provides a giggle. We think Master Chief jumps higher now too, which sounds trivial but does actually prove quite tactical.
Mild spoiler: the zombie-like Flood are back, although for most encounters you’re joined by your alien allies the Elite who are a dab hand at thinning the numbers. The Arbiter is no longer a playable character, at least in single player, but makes frequent appearances as a gun-buddy. It’s the new vehicles that are perhaps the biggest stars of the show though, with the alien chopper resembling something out of a Star Wars pod race and a massive carrier complete with a warthog in the back that – again staying with the Star Wars theme – looks like a Jawa sandcrawler. Four of the nine campaign levels feature extensive vehicle scenes, and like before if you’re no good behind the wheel then a fellow solider can give you a lift.
Ever since the first screenshots of Halo 3 were released the visuals have been under heavy scrutiny but we’re pleased to say that things have come a long way since beta. The amount of detail on certain objects is staggering – we’re talking visible scratches and dents – and there are some stunning views to be had. It’s worth taking a breather every now and then to take a look around at the surroundings – usually there’s a battle going on overhead or maybe, if you’re really lucky, one of the well-hidden skulls (Halo 3’s answer to Gears of War’s dog tags) nearby.
People were still playing Halo 2 online right up until the release of Halo 3, so Bungie clearly hasn’t been short on feedback where multi-player is concerned. Then there was the public beta too, obviously. Beginners (we detest the term ‘noobs’) can mess around in the basic training matches to get their confidence levels up before taking on the more chaotic 16 player matches, and if you’re enjoying the challenge of the opposition you can ‘party up’ after a match to carry on playing together. Don’t like the choice of somebody’s map? Then you can put it to a vote. Fed up with all of the maps? Then design one yourself in The Forge map editor. Chuffed to bits with your 10 kill ‘brutality’ spree? Go to the theatre and watch it again. This isn’t the only rewarding part of multi-player – killing skills are rewarded with new ranks and armour so you can customise your own character. It’s a flawless package that clearly has had just as much time spent on it as the single player game, if not more.
So why would you be disappointed with Halo 3? Well, the single player mode is fairly short at around seven hours and if you don’t have online access you’re going to miss out on a wealth of achievements (not to mention merriment). You can however play a score based co-op with four players, and if you replay the game on legendary difficulty the length magically doubles. The fact that only 16 players can compete online seems odd considering that PlayStation 3 launch title Resistance could cope with 32, while Warhark managed an impressive 40, but there’s still plenty of fodder for your plasma rife. Anything else? Hmm… the grunts still have annoying high pitched voices. See: we’re really struggling here. But if anything the existence of Halo 3 prompts a question – if every game had three year development spans, public betas and funding by Microsoft’s bottomless pockets would they all end up this good?