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Halo 3 Review

I finished Halo 3 in one sitting. It’s been years since I finished a game in one sitting.

The first Halo, besides being a well polished experience from top to bottom, is definitely up there on my list of memorable gaming experiences. Not only for its whole aesthetic and presentation, but also for having been one of the few games I’ve played through backwards and forwards several times (mostly due to coop).

And I had such high hopes for Halo 2, but ended up feeling utterly cheated. Not because of the ending, cuz… I never got that far.

No it simply lacked the polish and style of the first game, with too few improvements to make up for it along the way. Everything from textures to storyline was just taken down a notch (with the notably exception of the gravemind, which was great!).

I dropped the game near the end, wanting nothing more to do with it. It was so obviously shoved out the door by Microsoft before Bungie had time to finish it up.

And well done Microsoft; that game went on to sell one cajillion copies, so they obviously knew what they were doing.

But I remember Gamespot having awarded Halo 2 with an astonishing 9.4, which was just downright outrageous. Halo 2 is a 7.5 at best. So I was curious whether the 9.5 given to Halo 3 meant that it was .1 more bullshit than it’s predecessor, or if it was actually justified, or if Gamespot had merely given into the comprehensive marketing campaign again.

As it turns out, it might very well be quite justified.

The Promise Delivered

Halo is the delivery on the combined promises of all those glossy science fiction book covers that adorned books, whose prose couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations.

Only back then, before you learned not to judge a book by its cover, you were ultimately disappointed nine out of ten times when picking up that book with the cool alien space ship, or the one with weird alien architecture rising out of the sea.

This is why Halo feels so familiar, even when you first sit down to play it. You’ve already seen it a thousands times. It’s a pastiche of sorts; but in the good way.

And it does deliver on those promises.

Even if the story and the characters are absolutely obscure and confusing to anyone but the developers and most be-read fans. And it is.

I mean I’ve played pretty much the whole trilogy from start to end. I’ve read the comic and some of one of the books and most of the wikipedia articles. And I have no clue. I was asked several times today, by people at work, ‘who are the flood exactly?’, ‘what is that thing buried in the Earth?’, ‘why are the elites with you?’.

I don’t know.

I sort of know, I guess. I mean, enough that I can enjoy the game. But I couldn’t tell you exactly what the deal was.

Strangely, Halo’s story, though more confusing and obscure, simply because it isn’t that well told, is still more interesting to me than Gears of War, even though Gears’ story is more clear.

It’s amazing to me why games are this bad at storytelling… It baffles the mind. Think about it. Microsoft spent a googollion on marketing, but Bungie couldn’t find the money to hire an outside consultant to oversee the story?

And all it takes is a few adjustments here and there, some cleaning up of the dialog and a sense of direction. Boom, you’ve got Star Wars 2.0.

The Greatness

It’s understandable that people who haven’t played Halo before have a problem ‘getting it’. It looks like so many other shooters, and while the graphics are great, they’re not that great. But that’s because it isn’t readily apparent just how well Halo’s game has been crafted.

Now I will say that by Halo 3, some inflation has diminished the pure perfection of the lineup from the first Halo. There are quite a few weapons by now, some of which you might only use once during the game—I for instance only saw the flamer once. And some weapons seem to cover the same ground as others.

But I hold that the different enemies, their advantages and disadvantages, combined with the way the weapons and vehicles work and the design of the, often arena-like level, is still superior to most other shooters out there today.

There’s some magic happening there, that even the dullness of the overall experience of Halo 2 couldn’t dim entirely.

And also, I’m just such a major sucker for the mysterious alien artifacts, hologram AI’s and ‘we’ve seen Aliens’ military tech that I can’t help but be giddy whenever Guilty Spark is humming his way through the library or cartographers.

And the names. The names! ‘The Truth and Reconcilliation’, ‘The Pillar of Autumn’, ‘Penitent Tangent’, ‘Cortana’. That stuff is amazing, really. You can take Markus Phoenix and shove him up the sphincter of the Gravemind, cuz I’m going home with Halo.

And of course, you can’t talk greatness and not mention the music. So I did. The music.

Execution

I don’t know that Bungie ‘promised’ anything for Halo 3, in terms of the single player campaign—other than the initial, brilliant, E3 trailer. Not like they did for Halo 2, where the idea of waging ground war in New Mumbasa had me doing cartwheels. In fact, Bungie has hardly mentioned the single player campaign up until the release of the game!

Probably a good thing though, as Halo 2 turned out to be not quite what I had expected; in the bad way…

As it were, Halo 3 doesn’t look quite as good as Gears of War. Very few things do. (Don’t mention Bioshock, alright? Bioshock isn’t that good looking!).

But man it looks good. Some of the views and environments just blows you socks clean off. So don’t wear shoes.

The gravemind levels—though long, as all flood levels apparently have to be—look… amazing. Just. Amazing. Nasty. Creepy. Some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen in a game, really.

Some of the snow levels… not so much—though the ice shader was right on the mark.

And while one of the trademarks of Halo was always how well it did vehicles, they feel more robust and polished this time around, than ever before. A good thing too, as there are several new vehicles, which are a very welcome addition indeed (I fell in love with the quad bike in particular).

However, because of the way the story is told and progresses, there are unfortunately quite a few places where it isn’t really clear what the goal is. Something about finding a thing and turning it on, or off, or shooting it… I don’t know.

It’s not always, and there were counterpoints to that as well, where light, music and motion was used expertly to subliminally guide the player forward. The gravemind levels, while definitely confusing, were actually rather well laid out for just that.

Oh, and Bungie: Don’t tease me by landing dropships near me, having everyone board it and then sending me back the way I came, through the same locations, to perform some menial task. Let me get on that thing and fly away! This was in particular a problem during the cavern base after the jungle, where I felt like a errand boy, when all I really wanted was to rip up the grass in a warthog.

The Full Package

I very much enjoyed myself. From start to finish. The worst were the moments were I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, but as soon as there was a clear goal, the game just rolls along underneath you.

There were sections of the game I didn’t want to leave again, a clear Halo trademark I think. The Cartographer in the first Halo being one such level; in Halo 3 I think the broken highway sections were definitely part of it (a bit Half-Life 2ish). And the fact that these came along regularly was very welcome. For me, these are mostly the outdoors levels, which give you some room to breathe and have fun, while I often find myself not having quite as much fun when trudging through corridors and caverns.

I played the last third of the game with Martin, a friend of mine, in splitscreen coop, and it was a joy. I already look forward to going back and playing the best parts again.

I got the limited edition (scratch-free, though the first he pulled down from the shelf wasn’t…), and I’ll be checking out the extras tomorrow.

For now, I’m all Halo’d out and I need by beauty sleep.

JournalMichael Heilemann