As a single-player experience, Halo 3 plays like a retelling of the first Halo, bringing together elements of the first two games that had both succeeded and failed. The scale is grander, but not on the level proposed by the recent ad campaign. Bungie avoids doing its best Call of Duty impression; instead presenting the most well paced and plotted Halo ever. Gameplay is still mostly consumed by small pockets of self-contained battle, open to interpretation (be that a head-on assault, patient warfare, or the run-on-by tactic), but Bungie has finally mastered timing, switching up environment and swapping from first-person shooter to third-person-vehicle play at just the right moments. Instead of dragging out a particular sequence -- as in the original Halo -- you'll often be thrust into a new scenario wanting just a little bit more of the last.
Where Halo 3 is likely to be criticized is in its distinct Haloness. This is not the Xbox 360's graphical showcase, falling short of benchmarks set by Gears of War last year, and more recently Bioshock. Bungie has never (overtly) shot for this goal, but as the top billing in this year's remarkably rich end-of-year games lineup, mainstream consumerism is always going to judge prettiness first, performance second.
There are still old kinks in this MJOLNIR armor. An inconsistent -- just downright random -- checkpoint system will sometimes trap you, cornered in one case by a dozen Brutes and a turret gunner, and other times be nonexistent. (We did find that the system tends to reward players who slowly fight through areas, rather than dash through). But you can dash through! We avoided, almost entirely, a difficult level inside a Flood ship, by simply running past the waves of zombie-like creatures. Mostly, difficult passages can be avoided, unless you're crippled by friendlies.
The UNSC is still enlisting an army of dumbbots, whose highlights include ceaselessly ramming a Warthog into an anti-vehicle force field, like birds into glass. Smash. Reverse. Smash. Reverse. Smash. Reverse further back. Smash! This would have been the subject of our first game clip, if only game clips could be recorded from campaign episodes (unfortunately, only screenshots can be taken -- unable to capture this distinct moment of stupidity). The truly difficult sections in Halo 3 are those that call for teamwork, but are played alone. You can spend dozens of attempts swapping between the driver's seat and the turret, trying to maneuver through a chaotic vehicle battle with NPCs who shoot at distant targets when you're under fire from yards away or, when called to drive, park onto a wall and wait for a Wraith's incoming mortar. Yep, all dead. Again.
Will Halo 3 live up to the hype? No. There isn't perfection here. There isn't an absolute, please-all quality. But this is Bungie's masterpiece. And there's still so much more to be said and experienced. If you play games, play Halo 3.