Regardless of how you felt about its cliffhanger ending, there's no denying that Halo 2 was a gigantic success that raised the bar for what we, as a game-playing society, expect out of a good console-based first-person shooter. In the years that followed, plenty of games attempted to duplicate the Halo formula, with varying degrees of success. But there's still nothing quite like the genuine item. Luckily for all involved, Halo 3 is a positively amazing package that offers extreme satisfaction across all of its different parts. Maybe now you can finally retire your Halo 2 disc and really move into the next generation of games.
Halo 3 is an interesting mix of established protocol and intriguing new stuff. For example, the gameplay doesn't stray too far from Halo 2, which, in turn, didn't exactly reinvent the original Halo. Don't take that as a negative, because it means that Halo 3 plays extremely well, with the same types of light tactical considerations that have made the series stand apart from other, faster-paced shooters. The balance between your guns, your grenades, and your melee attack has always given Halo a unique feel in the genre, and those same considerations apply today, both in the campaign mode and in multiplayer. You'll also have new weapons and items to consider, such as a host of Brute weapons. One example is the spiker, which is an exciting automatic pistol that fires quickly and decimates opponents, especially if you're holding a pair of them. Another is the mauler, which is a one-handed shotgun that can level enemies up close. You'll even find weapons so huge that your movement speed slows when you carry them. When you use these weapons, the camera pulls out to a third-person perspective so you can see your missile pod, plasma cannon, or flamethrower as it fires. And then there's the gravity hammer. Originally shown in Halo 2 (where it wasn't usable by the player), the gravity hammer is a large melee weapon that will wipe out most regular enemies in one swipe. Needless to say, it can be especially fun in multiplayer settings. The end result is gameplay that feels wholly familiar without retreading the same ground too heavily.
The campaign is structured in much the same way as past Halo games, with multiple chapters and effective streaming that ensures you'll see load times only between chapters. There are also lengthy vehicle sequences to break up the on-foot action. You'll pilot the classic Halo vehicles, such as the Ghost, a hovering one-person craft that's fast and deadly, and the Warthog, a dune buggy with a turret mounted in the back. You'll also see new vehicles, such as the Brute Prowler, which is a two-person vehicle with turrets. Like in previous games, the vehicles are fun to use. Also similar to previous games, the artificial intelligence can't drive very well, so if you're playing alone, you'll usually want to grab the steering wheel rather than the weapons.
The concept of "equipment" is new to the series. These deployable special items have a variety of effects. The most obvious example is the bubble shield: You (and your enemies) can walk through it, but bullets and explosions bounce right off. It's especially entertaining when your enemies use it, given that you can just walk through and bash them with the butt of your gun. You'll also find items that make your shields regenerate more quickly, and others that drain enemy shields and stop their vehicles dead in their tracks. These items also show up in multiplayer, where they're a little more interesting.
Halo 2's ending was widely criticized for being too much of a cliffhanger and leaving you with no sense of progress or resolution whatsoever. It's good news, then, that Halo 3's story doesn't suffer from that problem at all. It opens immediately following the events of Halo 2: The Covenant is on its way to Earth, continuing its religious zealotry and attempting to activate the floating space weapons known as Halos, which could destroy civilization as we know it. The Master Chief and the other Earth forces of the UNSC are in hot pursuit to stop them, with newfound allies such as the Arbiter coming along for the ride. We'll spare you the specifics because they're quite compelling and should be seen firsthand. All you really need to know if you're on the fence about Halo 3's campaign is that it's a delicate balancing act that manages to provide satisfying closure for the trilogy, make perfect sense of all the cryptic events in Halo 2, and leave you filled with anticipation for more adventures set in the Halo universe. Not bad for a game that will take most players between 10 and 15 hours to finish on one of four difficulty settings.
But you'll probably go through the campaign more than once, thanks to the inclusion of a strong co-op mode. Previous Halo games have let two players go through the campaign; Halo 3 ups that number to four players and lets you do the whole thing over Xbox Live, if you so choose. This is a really fun way to experience the campaign's nine chapters, and you can choose to go through them in any order, provided you've already played through it alone. Furthermore, this method of play (which you can also do alone) lets you turn on scoring in campaign mode, in which you earn points for kills and lose them for dying. This adds a sense of competition to the co-op, and there are also achievements associated with finishing chapters with high point totals. You can also customize the experience a bit by turning on a series of unlockable modifiers that open up as you collect hidden skulls. The skulls are stashed around the game, and some of them do things such as increase the amount of damage you'll need to deal to take an enemy down, remove the heads-up display and make your weapon invisible, and so on. This gives the story-driven section of the game some more replay value, although it doesn't get significantly more difficult as you scale up the number of players. Consequently, finishing the game on legendary difficulty is a breeze if you're rolling through with three experienced fellow triggermen.
In addition to the four-player co-op action, you can also play competitive solo and team-based multiplayer matches with up to 16 players on 11 different maps. There's a lot of depth to the multiplayer modes, ranging from simple stuff such as deathmatch and team deathmatch (still referred to as slayer and team slayer here), to more objective-based gameplay such as capture the flag. Another similar mode is called territories, in which the two teams fight to defend or attack various control points around the map. You'll also find a mode called infection, where a percentage of the players start as sword-wielding zombies and must convert the members of the other team by killing them, until only one non-zombie remains. Each of the maps can handle any of these game modes.
Like in Halo 2, you can customize these game types, and there's more to customize this time around. You can change things like starting weapons, the weapons that appear on the map, whether the motion sensor is active, the force of gravity, the game speed, whether the players all have active camouflage or not, and much, much more. The multiplayer is as strong as it has ever been thanks to the addition of new weapons and tweaks to old ones. Swords have been made much more interesting this time around: If two players run at one another with energy swords and attack at the same time, the swords clash and the players bounce off one another. This makes all-swords matches totally wild. The gravity hammer is also big fun in multiplayer matches, both because it crushes enemies that are foolish enough to get too close, and because you can smack incoming rockets to bat them away, which makes for an interesting game of baseball.
The weird thing about this last concept is that, with the addition of the Forge, you'll actually be able to build some sort of crude baseball variant if you want. Forge mode is a map editor, but not in the 3D modeling sense that you're used to seeing in PC shooters. You can't edit level geometry with Forge, but you can spawn, remove, and move objects and items around the level. All of the editing is done in real time, and you can pop in and out of edit mode by pushing up on the D pad. You can also play this mode with other players, letting everyone run around in edit mode to spawn Warthogs, rocket launchers, and whatever else is already on the map. On the surface, that doesn't sound so exciting. But in practice, it's a weird and potential-rich addition to the game because there are a ton of little secrets and tricks you can use to manipulate the objects in ways the developers may not have intended.
For example, take the fusion core. It's Halo's version of the exploding barrel, and by default, it blows up when you shoot it or drop it from a significant height. It also takes 30 seconds to respawn. You can modify it to respawn every 10 seconds and, with help from another player's rifle fire, you can coax it into respawning in midair, where it tumbles to the ground and explodes every 10 seconds. Naturally, if you surround that spot with more stuff that explodes, you'll have a fun little physics-based bomb that respawns and explodes every 10 seconds. If you've ever messed around with Garry's Mod, a similar physics-based toolbox for Half-Life 2, then you'll recognize this as a simplified take on that idea when you start using it for more than simply adding a few weapons to a map or moving spawn points around. Though many players probably won't get hooked on Forge tinkering, it's an extremely powerful addition that may just take over your life.
You'll be able to easily share your Forge creations with other players via a handy file-sharing system that lets you quickly send map configurations and gameplay types to your friends. You can also set a certain number of items as publicly shared, and users can go to Bungie's Web site to browse and rate the shared items. Additionally, you can flag items for download on that Web page, and the next time you fire up Halo 3, it'll download the items you've marked. It's a very slick interface that makes moving stuff around very easy.
You can also use the file-sharing options to send screenshots and saved films. Saved films are replays of action from any of the modes in the game, from campaign to multiplayer to Forge sessions. The game automatically stores the last 25 or so sessions, and you can choose to save them more permanently from there. Once you've got them, you can edit them down to key kills, weird single-player behavior, or the strangest Forge stuff you can come up with, and then save them for sharing, just as you would with a map or game mode. Much like Forge, the saved-films feature doesn't really sound like much, but Halo 3 is a very replay-worthy game, and you'll probably run into plenty of little moments that you'll want to save for posterity. Another nice touch is that the films aren't locked to one perspective. You can detach the camera from your player and fly anywhere on the map, or change it to any other player's view, as well. The only real issue is that rewinding and fast-forwarding are a little clunky. So if you've got something you want to save that's at the end of a 45-minute session, you'll have to hold down the fast-forward button for a long time to get to that moment, and if you miss it, rewinding can be a real pain, too. Once you've figured out the little idiosyncrasies of footage manipulation, it's not so bad.
Halo has always had a very strong artistic vision, and the graphics have always been just good enough to convey the necessary imagery without becoming huge technical powerhouses. That's not to say that the game isn't technically impressive, because it maintains a smooth frame rate throughout, and looks very sharp overall with plenty of great lighting and other nice effects. But the visual design overpowers its technical side and really stands out. Given that the game takes place in a wider range of locales than the previous two games, you'll see a lot of different, colorful environments, including deserts, snow, jungle settings, great-looking building interiors, and more. The enemies, many of which are returning from past games, also look great.
The sound in Halo 3 is a good mix of old and new, much like the rest of the game. You'll hear the familiar Halo theme music and variants thereof. You'll also hear plenty of great new music, including one suspenseful track with a heartbeat-like sound that manages to get your heart pounding as well. Most of the voice cast from Halo 2 returns to voice their respective characters, and they again turn in terrific and believable performances. You'll also hear a ton of combat dialogue, both from the marines that fight by your side as well as the enemies you're fighting, who don't seem to appreciate it when you kill one of their comrades. Our favorite line from the Covenant was probably "You've killed my brother for the last time," which is pretty hilarious.
As games start to consider user-generated content, it's becoming clear that more and more games will be ready to give you back just as much as you're willing to put into them. On the surface, Halo 3 is every bit the sequel you would expect it to be, in that it delivers meaningful upgrades to both the story-driven and competitive sides of the package. However, it's the addition of the Forge level editor and the saved films that give the game an even longer set of legs, legs that will probably keep you running at full speed until Bungie figures out where, exactly, to go from here.