Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Halo 3: Limited Edition Review

Halo 3 is a game that needs no introduction. Simply put, if you're reading this review than you probably already own a copy of the game or will be getting one between now and Christmas. Heck, the main reason you own an Xbox 360 is probably in part if not completely for Halo 3.

That being said, now that Halo 3 is finally here and we can finish the fight that was begun nearly 6 years ago, I'm finding it a very difficult game to review. Simply put, I love the Halo franchise. As a trilogy, I believe it's the most entertaining, successful, and innovative FPS series of this millennium to date, and its impossible for me to not like Halo 3. As I mentioned in my review for Gears of War however, I'm not a professional reviewer, I don't get copies of games for free, and I'm an average Joe consumer. This means that whatever game I play, no matter how huge or small a release, I need to call them as I see them, and based on that principle, I'm finding it difficult to write about everything I both like and am disappointed about with Halo 3. Perhaps the best way for me to do this is to give you a quick summary of how I perceive the entire series:

In November of 2001, Bungie released Halo: Combat Evolved at launch with the Xbox, and it was an instant hit; the Xbox's highest rated game (as per Metacritic here) period. Not only was Halo: Combat Evolved filled with great, fast paced FPS gameplay, a compelling storyline, and great presentation, but it also proved that a console could have a solid, no-nonsense FPS title; much to the dismay of PC fanboys everywhere. Halo: Combat Evolved wasn't just a traditional corridor crawl, it mixed vehicles into an FPS better than any other shooter before it, had indoor/outdoor areas on the same maps without any loading, and introduced a more realistic two weapon limit to the genre. Halo: Combat Evolved was a great innovation and rightly carried the Xbox forward.

In November of 2004, Bungie released Halo 2 to the Xbox, and it quickly became the fastest selling video game in history. Halo 2 built upon the great gameplay of its predecessor, and added vehicle boarding, new weapons, enemies, and vehicles, and of course dual-wielding. While dual-wielding wasn't new to the genre, if you look back it was usually only done in a limited fashion in other shooters. The freedom Bungie gave to players with dual-wielding as well as with the variety and choice of vehicles throughout the levels, well they not only enhanced general FPS gameplay, but they also allowed for interesting player choices that literally would change how players could approach different battles, greatly adding to the Campaign's replay value. What weapons you took or what vehicles you chose to use, or not to use for that matter, completely changed how every battle was fought. That is a feet that very few shooters have accomplished to this day. Halo 2 also took players in a different story direction with the Arbiter. Halo 2 is much more narrative than Halo: Combat Evolved, and it really explored Covenant politics, what they were trying to achieve, and Halo 2 gave personality and purpose to humanity's great enemy.

Halo 2 ended on that well known cliffhanger that left many players screaming in rage, and at long last Halo 3 is here, the end of the trilogy, and yet as I began playing the Campaign, I found myself frustrated with the game. Not with it's difficulty or even the gameplay, but with the story I've come to love so much and how it was progressing forward.

Halo 3 is comprised of 9 Chapters, and now that I've completed the Campaign, I can't help but feel that the first 4 Chapters of the game, nearly half of Halo 3 itself, should have been the end levels for Halo 2. Granted, we would have missed out on that really nice large battle I can't get into for spoiler reasons, but plot wise, the end of Chapter 4 would have made a great ending to Halo 2. So much of Halo 3 felt like it should have been in its predecessor, and that is an overall feeling that Halo 3 conveys throughout.

Unlike its predecessors, Halo 3 is not an innovative title. It takes the tried and true gameplay of Halo 2, mixes in some new weapons and vehicles, brings back some artistic design and themes from Halo: Combat Evolved, and launches on a next gen console. Sure, it adds in Equipment, but Equipment has been done before in so many other shooters for the last decade that its hardly an innovative concept.

Let's also quickly talk about the game's graphics engine. Halo 3 looks nice, certainly better than Halo 2 and it makes great use of HDR lighting, but its no Unreal Engine 3. According to Bungie in their most recent Weekly Update, Halo 3's native resolution is actually less than 720p, so it's not even a proper HD title. That unto itself I can live with thanks to upscaling, but Halo 3 is already showing it's visual age and it's only a week old. While many of the effects and graphical scale of the battles could not have been accomplished on an Xbox, it still feels very much like an Xbox title.

Even the wonderful musical score feels old. The majority of the music are remixes of previous tracks from the series and there's very few new tunes in Halo 3. While I still love the soundtrack, most of those new songs are forgettable and if you look at how many great new tracks Halo 2 added to the series, you'll see why I'm not overly impressed with Halo 3's soundtrack. At least they didn't include any annoying sell-out tunes this time.

In a nutshell, my major gripe with Halo 3 is that it feels like a game that's stuck in between the last gen and this one, and it simply concludes what mainly should have been done in Halo 2. Hypothetically speaking, if Bungie would have put the first 4 Chapters into Halo 2, what else could Halo 3 have featured story and Chapter wise? Oh, perhaps that Arbiter storyline that was such a huge part of Halo 2. Remember how you spent just under half of Halo 2 starting that wonderful civil war in the Covenant, and how the Arbiter was a nice, deep character with a lot of inner conflict. Well, in Halo 3, his storyline, and that of the Elites, has been given a back seat with little further exposition, and the Arbiter himself has been rendered into a low quality AI sidekick. Considering how much I loved the Arbiter and his levels from Halo 2, I was very, very disappointed at this exclusion.

Now that I've gotten all that out of the way, let's talk about the good. This is a Halo title, after all, and despite it's innovative shortcomings, it's still a blast to play. The battles are fun and it looks like there's going to be as much choice and replay value as what we saw in Halo 2. They're going to be multiple ways to play through each of the 9 Chapters, and while the Normal AI wasn't anything special, thus far the game is proving more challenging and fun on Heroic (damn Jackals).

There are some plot holes that still irk me (like how did Johnson and the Arbiter arrive on Earth before the Chief, who was entering Earth's orbit at the end of Halo 2 while they were still on Delta Halo? And why are the Hunters and Grunts back with the Covenant when they sided with the Elites in the civil war? Were the Elites offering a poor benefits plan or something?), but once you get past the fact that most of the game should have been released 3 years ago, it is a solid, touching story that finishes things off nicely. I really did feel a strong emotional connection with the Chief at the end, and such a connection is evidence of strong storytelling.

As I've mentioned, the battles themselves are larger by far than what we've seen before, and things can get really intense. The Brutes have taken the place of the Elites in the Covenant, and they've really added and expanded upon their own themes and identity from Halo 2. Many of the game's new weapons and vehicles are of Brute origin, and while I didn't much care for the Chopper, I did love the Spiker, and the Gravity Hammer is hilarious to wield. My only gripe with the Brutes is that Bungie basically dumbed them down and made them clones of the previous game's Elites, as the Brutes in Halo 2 were more savage and bullet sponges. In Halo 2 they were much more intimidating, especially when they berserked.

In terms of the other additions, I simply love the Mongoose. I find it tricky to handle because it's so fast, but its sheer speed is what makes it so much fun to drive, and what makes it so useful in some of those large battles that I can't mention. I also really like the Spartan Laser, which is pretty much an anti-anything weapon so long as you've got good aim, and I also love how you can detach turrets and walk around with them in third person.

Now, onto the Limited Edition content. The metal case is very nice, though that whole faulty design flaw and subsequent scratched discs is a real downer. I really wish they could have just gone with a nice case like what they had in the Halo 2: Collector's Edition. Best case ever, in my opinion. Case issues aside, the rest of the bonus content is well worth the coin. The Beastiarium is a nice source of extra story info on the game's races, and the content on the Essentials DVD is very thorough, much better than what was on the Halo 2 Bonus disc, and this time the documentary doesn't make Bungie look like a bunch of slackers. It comes with some extra Themes and Gamer Pics for your console, and Warthog Launcher is one of the best inefficient uses of time I'll ever find. So long as you're discs don't come scratched, I fully endorse picking up the Halo 3: Limited Edition.

Now, I know my review has focused mainly on the negative of Halo 3, and many of you may be thinking that I've been to critical, however as I've mentioned, I love the Halo franchise, and I simply want it to be the best that it can be. While the time for such changes has past, I still feel it important to point out its shortcomings because I do want to like it so much, because I had such high expectations for the game that were not met.

In the end, does Halo 3 live up to the hype? No. Is it the definitive next gen shooter? No. Is it Halo and a lot of fun to play. Yes. As I mentioned in opening this review, if you don't already own the game, you will. Despite it's flaws, it is Halo, it's the end to a 6 year journey we've all been part of, and it is a new media global success. Just keep in mind that Halo 3 is not perfect, but that its still fun to play. Now go finish the fight.


Anonymous said...

good review. did you feel that the campaign was too short at all?

Juxtapose said...

I actually didn't have much of a problem with the Campaign's length; found it was on par with the previous games. My play-through took about 9 or 10 hours.

Granted it was no BioShock or Doom 3 in terms of length, but 18+ hour shooters are rare these days, and rarer that they're good and not dragging things out.

Anonymous said...

The storyline I feel was a very good length, given the content it had. It didn't drag things out and gave you away to drag it out if you wanted to (Terminals, skulls). Now that I look back on it, I did find it strange that suddenly the Arbiter is just a flat character, instead of the well-known revolutionary we came to know in Halo 2. Also, I was surprised, and disappointed, that I found myself up against hunters. That is not to say that I did not like fighing hunters in Halo 2, infact I loved and feared them. What disappointed me was that they seemed to be almost dumbed-down. I mean, I find them a breeze even on legendary. It only takes about 2-4 grenades stuck to them to kill them, something which isn't exactly all that demanding, with the introduction of spike grenades. Also, on the topic of plot shortcomings, who are the two new elites that join you? I mean, in Halo 2, where your co-op friends are understandably Spartans, you cannot have another Arbiter, and I find it strange to have two random elites, seemingly of low- or mid-level rank. The backstory of the Forerunners is great, but the backstory of the characters you are directly involved with would have been great.
I am with you in that I love the Halo series, infact I sometimes can't get my hands off of it, and would love to download/buy Halo:CE(Only reason I haven't is because I have no other motivation to do so, plus I would be turned off by the graphics), however lately I have been noticing the flaws of this end to the trilogy.

P.S. If the Halo 2 story had ended after The Storm/Floodgate (Fourth/fifth levels of Halo 3) instead of where it did, I do not think the cliffhanger would have been as great (And what would fill in the levels taken away from Halo 3?). The graphics of the Xbox 360 allowed portal to The Cradle (That is what the portal/thing that activates the portal to the Ark is called, right?) to be shown beautifully. Plus, that cliffhanger was just awesome, why would you want to take that away? Oh, and Floodgate really should have been replaced with a little venture into the Cradle (The flood-infested ship crashes into The Cradle, so instead of going back through the same level, you actually discover new terrain. Also, there really was no close-quarters level that included both flood and brutes.

Your welcome for the possibly-longer-than-neccesary-and-maybe-a-bit-late comment.

Juxtapose said...

Comments are always welcome, so long as they're constructive, at any point; even long after somethings posted.

I also found Hunter battles disappointing. Not only where they few and far between, but they were always a joke. Not quite the joke they were in Halo: Combat Evolved, but certainly far too easy. The best Hunter battles were Halo 2, hands down.

The two Elites who join you in the Co-Op campaign have a convenient back story (you can find it in the official online manual), but really, the game is meant to be the Master Chief and the Arbiter; that's why those new Elites weren't in any cut scenes. For storyline canon, only look at the Single Player Campaign, not Co-op.

The Cliffhanger ending of Halo 2 pissed most people off, actually, and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who considered it "great." They could have still done those levels and made them look good, but of course things would have been different.

Really though, that where the game should have ended. There's plenty of other content that could have been put into Halo 3, like that Elite storyline that was completely forgotten. Imagine playing as the Ship Master trying to maintain the Quarantine of High Charity...