LEIPZIG, Germany--Halo 3 may be darn near finished at this moment--we're talking a matter of days, according to Bungie's Brian Jarrard--but that doesn't mean the famed developer is finished revealing new features to be included in this massively anticipated sequel. At Games Convention, we got to take a first look at the Forge, an unexpected but very welcome surprise inclusion in Halo 3 that will let you tinker with every aspect of your multiplayer maps short of the basic level geometry itself. It's one-part level editor, one-part Garry's Mod, and it looks like it's going to make for some particularly madcap multiplayer experiences.
You can use the Forge mode all by yourself if you just want to tinker with Halo 3's maps, but it supports up to eight players in a game simultaneously, so you and all other players can be editing the map at the same time as you're slaying within it. It works like this: You jump into a multiplayer map as a normal playable character, so you're still running around as Master Chief with a gun sticking out from the bottom of the screen. But you can jump into "edit" mode at the touch of a button, which essentially turns you into a floating camera that you can fly all around the map at will. (In a multiplayer setting, your character will turn into a hovering Monitor like 343 Guilty Spark when you're in edit mode.)
So what can you do in edit mode? It would be more appropriate to ask what you can't do. You'll have access to the full list of weapons, vehicles, power-ups, spawn points, and everything else that you as a player can use in some fashion in the main game, and you can spawn any of those into the environment whenever and wherever you like. Feel like laying waste in a scorpion? Drop it in right in front of you. You can't add as many scorpions as you like, though; each map will have a specific memory budget, represented at the bottom screen with a dollar figure and also a bar graph. Each item you add to the map subtracts a little from the budget, so you can only add to the limit of the remaining memory. Of course, you can always delete other objects if you want to add something else.
The Forge will obviously be great for customizing a map extensively while you're offline, and once you've saved a new configuration, you can upload it to Xbox Live for all other Halo 3 players to access. But as we mentioned, the Forge also serves as a multiplayer mode of its own. You can have a full competitive or team-based game going, with each player still able to freely access the edit mode. So you can pop in any vehicle, weapon, or power-up that suits the situation at hand, which means you'll see battles quickly escalating as players attempt to one-up each other with better and better weapons and items. Furthermore, you can delete other players' spawned objects the same way you can delete your own, so if you're fast enough on the controls, you can erase that warthog or scorpion before the other player even has a chance to use it. The implications for potential hilarity in this mode are obvious, we figure.
Given that the Forge lets you create saved films just like the multiplayer and campaign modes, the potential for interesting fan films with this tool is huge as well. The game isn't actually saving any images with these films, just positional data that the engine can use to render and replay your movies on the fly, which naturally makes the uploads and downloads for these films very small. However, you can save screenshots of the game and upload them to Bungie's Web site, and we were pleased to find out that these screenshots will actually be of higher resolution than the 720p resolution the game renders at (one-and-a-half times bigger, to be precise). We foresee a lot of gamers applying Halo 3 wallpaper to their computers after release, thanks to this feature.
During the Forge demo, Jarrard took the opportunity to show off a few of Halo 3's new vehicles and weapons that we didn't get to see in May's multiplayer beta. There's the brute chopper, which does in fact look like a big gnarly motorcycle with an enormous front wheel. He said it will play similarly to the ghost, but best of all, it has a boost ability that you can use to literally plow through most other vehicles of similar size. Then there's the brute's prowler, a beefy hovering vehicle which is basically like the Covenant's version of the warthog. It's got a manned, rear-mounted turret similar to the warthog, but this one can also accommodate two passengers, one on each side in addition to the driver, so you get to transport four players in total.
On the weapon side, we saw the new firebomb grenade, the last of the game's grenade types, which explodes in a burst of flame and then leaves an area of fire burning around its detonation point for a few seconds. Similarly, we saw the new flamethrower, which Bungie has been trying to include in a Halo game since the first one was in development. This one shoots a jet of burning fuel, which you can also paint along the ground to leave a trail of flame just like the firebomb. The flamethrower can overheat if you use it too long, though. Then there's the gravity hammer, a wicked-looking, long-axe-type weapon used by the brute chieftans in the campaign mode. This is similar to the energy sword, except it also does a good amount of area-of-effect damage every time you connect with it.
One of our favorite new weapons is the mauler, which is basically a one-handed shotgun that you can dual-wield. Obviously, it's not going to pack the same punch as a full shotgun, but the principle of the weapon is the same, and we figure popping off shots from two of them at once will give you a pretty good chance of scoring some hits. Finally, we saw a deployable energy shield that only provides protection on one side, rather than the 360-degree coverage of the bubble shield. The advantage of this one-sided shield is that you can fire through it with human projectile weapons. However, it will still stop Covenant energy weaponry, so this thing ought to be especially handy during the campaign mode.
And speaking of that campaign, we saw some more of it that's new since E3. Specifically it was the third mission, entitled Tsavo Highway, which sees Master Chief starting off in a bombed-out human marine bunker, after which he jumps into a warthog to proceed toward an unknown destination. Given that the Covenant has already begun its full-scale assault on Earth by this time, the ruined highway was full of enemy forces, making the way forward difficult. Master Chief had to hop out of the warthog several times to engage grunts and brutes coming in on Covenant drop ships. Jarrard spoke about the campaign's difficulty settings while showing us the level. In essence, it sounds like easy and normal will be more accessible than in the past, while heroic and legendary will be even more difficult (if that's even possible, in the case of the latter). He recommended that anyone with any previous Halo experience at all should play the game on heroic their first time through, since there will be drastic differences in enemy placement and density.
As we've reported recently, Halo 3 is "99.9 percent" finished, and Jarrard confirmed that Bungie is literally a handful of days away from stamping its seal of approval on what will undoubtedly be one of this year's biggest game releases. Check out our Halo 3 launch center to get all the details on the game before next month's launch date.