James Ransom-Wiley is our most learned reviewer, having been locked in a small room with Halo 3 weeks before most had even managed to get it leaked into their hands. From there, Jason Dobson fills the role of 'teh n00b' -- his Halo experience can be summed up in a single statement: Um, I know it's a space-alien shooter... Finally, yours truly, Jared Rea, is the be-all-end-all Master Chief groupie. Shall we proceed?
We jump in where Halo 2 abruptly fell off.
Jared: There is an instant feeling of payoff found within the opening moments of Halo 3. That all the novel reading and extended fiction digging was, for once, actually worth it (hi Star Wars). This of course means that newcomers to the franchise may be left in the dark, but the typical array of exposition concerning vital plot points remains, though much more condensed and friendly than ever before.
Through twists and revelations, the much hyped finish of the fight was quite possibly the most well handled finale in gaming history. And by that I mean, it ends exactly how it needed to. Before I came into Halo 3, I had a list of situations that, if they were to occur in Halo 3, I would grab a pitchfork and riot down the streets. Though Bungie managed to cross off everything, by the end, the fanboy within was satiated. And to that I say, bravo.
- James: When the marines shook me awake, I didn't know why I was in a jungle or where I was headed. I knew the enemy was now the Brutes and we were after their wormy Prophet. But I couldn't remember ditching Cortana; though I did sorta miss her. Bungie lost me with the 'dualing' plotlines of Halo 2, but I enjoyed the dramatic glue of this finale. A pervading humor helps ground the exaggerated sentiments. As for the ending, well, there is one and it certainly satisfies -- as does the relative absence of the 'Little Shop of Horrors' plant.
- Jason: It's hard to imagine another game as eagerly anticipated as Halo 3. Despite its popularity, however, I have remained relatively ignorant of the Halo experience. Oh sure, I was familiar with the terms, and knew enough to silently nod and smile as conversations among friends turned to talks of Covenant and Spartans, but the series, I had convinced myself, was not my cup of tea. I say this so you can appreciate the fact that despite this, Halo 3 sucked me in and made me a fan. Granted, coming into the single player campaign in the third act of an overarching story is daunting, though this isn't exactly The Grand Illusion; the story doesn't so much sell the experience as does the experience itself.
Press X to Veto.
James: If it ain't broke, just tweak it. It's a predicament that developers of hugely successful franchises must face. When does it get stale? Bungie's smart to call it 'quits' for the Chief (for now), allowing Halo to be spun off into an RTS and that Pete Jackson something-or-rather.
Halo 3's gameplay doesn't offer any surprises, unless you count those X-button items (which are actually useful -- and necessary on the hardest difficulties). It's a wonder that no one has been able to clone Halo's distinct brand of action -- more so, it's a testament to Bungie's dedication to craft. And in six years, with only three campaigns, we're not bored yet. 'Halo' is still fresh, and well preserved in this sequel. Pacing has come along the furthest (AI the least), and in one moment you may be sitting down to the game's opening cinematic, while in the next the credits roll.
- Jason: Something that grabbed me about Halo 3 is that while the story is told in typical fashion through chapters and linear levels punctuated by scripted skirmishes, there is still a remarkable sense of freedom in how the game lets you as the redoubtable Master Chief go about accomplishing your goals. If I had to find one nagging gripe about the game, it would have to be with Halo 3's checkpoint system, which is even at the best of times unpredictable. There are often long stretches of fighting that will go without a single checkpoint, followed by multiple checkpoints placed literally seconds apart, making the whole system feel entirely random.
- Jared: This is also the first shooter in history where, upon completion, I simply started over to experience it again. There is no "Library" and there are no moments like in Halo 2 where you groan any time you enter a tank. Halo 3 is an extremely solid, impeccably paced adventure that never seems to tire itself out. The intricate balance that we found in the multiplayer Beta is still here and though its hard to believe, the final product is even better. It's so easy to brush off what Bungie has done here as "not offering any surprises," but that comes across as such a slap to the incredible wealth of depth provided by the new equipment system, vehicles and weapons. If the original Halo was "Combat Evolved," this is 'Combat Perfected.'
Got your back, Master Chief!
Jared: I have to wonder as to what evil deity Bungie sold their souls to for netcode like this. I've wrapped up a Legendary campaign, gone back for more and I have yet to experience any abnormality while playing. Whether it's myself or a friend hosting, the connection has been solid to the point where I almost forgot we were actually on Xbox Live.
The inclusion of the scoring system only sweetens the experience and makes it so that I don't even mind helping out straggling friends in the earlier levels. Whether it's co-operative or competitive, turn on those stats! It feels great to see those headshot numbers after a friendly, yet all together rowdy session.
- James: Um ... I tried. Got this error message: "The party may have an incompatible network setup. Your setting is MODERATE NAT, which can be less compatible. Visit www.bungie.net/router for more information." From there, I was referred to this page. Guess my router didn't make the cut ... Split screen, anyone? [Update: I linked up with a different friend -- apparently our NAT settings make nice -- and co-op ran without a hitch. Yee-haw!]
- Jason: Even as someone who watched the series from the sidelines, I realize that Halo 3 's longevity rests not on the shoulders of its single player game, but rather on the strengths of its numerous multiplayer modes of play, not the least of which is the ability to take on the game's campaign with a buddy (or three) at your side. Still, all but one time I tried to take part in a co-op game I was met with a cryptic error message and a sudden urge to pull my hair out. I doubt this was the intent.
Needs more sparks.
Jason: The interesting thing about Halo 3 is that while it doesn't really excel in any one area, the game is near-perfectly balanced to a degree unlike any other game in recent memory. While other titles may outshine their peers in one area, presentation for instance, many times the end result is that other areas of the game are neglected. Halo 3, on the other hand, is not the prettiest game, especially by next-gen standards, nor is its world the most diverse or original. Still, in looking at the series as a whole, the relatively short graphical leaps between titles give Halo a kind of symmetry you don't often find in video game trilogies, especially those that span multiple years and consoles. This is not a game you break out to show off the Xbox 360's horsepower. Rather, it's one best suited to demonstrate plain and simple fun.
- Jared: Halo 3 is a perfect example of why art is more important than tech. Is Halo 3 the greatest looking game ever? Nope. Is it the best looking Xbox 360 title? I wouldn't bet on that one either, yet I still find myself roaming around the environments and taking screenshots from the insignificant ('sup seagulls!) to the ridiculously epic set pieces that can be found throughout Halo. It may not be mind blowing 100% of the time, but to call it ugly or "Halo 2 HD" is sign of ignorance to be sure.
- James: Graphics. That one factor that matters in the "popular" vote. Halo 3's cute, but not gorgeous. Maybe a 6 and change on 'Hot or Not.' What's important is that the visuals are never a crutch, allowing Halo 3 to deliver on more important issues.
From the composer of the Flintstone kids jingle...
Jared: Marty O'Donnel truly outdid himself when he put together the score to Halo 3. The final level, I believe, is the true testament of just how important his contribution has been to the series. A somber, yet melancholy opening that sets the tone for the finale gives way to a sense of controlled chaos as our heroes race upwards to their final destination in true, Dawn of the Dead style. Were it not for Marty and his incredible score, that scene and many, many others would simply be regaled as "and then I hit L to throw a grenade."
- James: We can all agree that the Halo scores have been nothing short of iconic. But I want to give a nod to all the bits of chatter heard throughout the game. One of the most difficult tasks for a developer is to mimic life, and with so much attention paid to perfecting physical animations, there's a tendency to overlook sound as a crucial component of that end. Let's face it, people love to gab, and so do their anthropomorphic counterparts. Bungie certainly took this truth to heart. There are more than 30,000 lines of dialogue in Halo 3. Damn.
- Jason: Sound is often a misunderstood, sometimes wholly ignored element of game design, yet Halo 3's epic score and cheesy yet still believable dialog expertly compliment the experience, rounding out any of the campaign's otherwise rough edges to create the near prefect equivalent of a summer popcorn flick. For a game as shallow as Halo 3 is, it's amazing how the sound design goes such a long way towards deepening the experience.
How the world ends.
James: There is something cathartic about Halo, which causes my mind to slip back into innocence. The game's complexity is in it's simplicity, in that it captures the essence of what made more modest games of yesteryear so fun. That's what made the original Halo so groundbreaking (it really was linear evolution), and why, in memory, it's still the bigger milestone. In reality, Halo 3 is simply superior. I say again: If you play games, play Halo 3.
Jason: Halo 3, like those that came before it, is a welcome addition its console library. Few, if any games this year are likely to measure up to the success this title seems destined to enjoy. What's more impressive is that the game's draw is evident even from a pedestrian standpoint, making Halo 3 an even more substantial feather in the Xbox 360's already considerable cap. It will be interesting to see how the franchise continues to evolve now that the trilogy has come to a conclusion. For me, I'm simply inclined to go back and play though the previous two games, realizing now just what I missed out on.
Jared: It's a shame that a title so brilliantly crafted is so perfectly situated to become the polarizing icon of the console wars. Even if someone could scientifically prove that Halo 3 was a masterpiece, haters would still hate and fanboys would simply gush themselves dry. In the end, however, Halo 3 was well beyond my expectations and I fully intend to play it for years to come.