Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Archive Review: Halo 3

(Xbox 360 Review)

(Note: This is a far longer review than is the standard on this website. Due to the grand status of this title it has proved vital to extend the usual length to cover every area.)

Finishing the fight

I’ve identified a growing pattern emerging from within the relatively young industry of computer gaming. The pattern is obvious, unhidden, and perhaps rather troublesome when we consider the implications. It has only become apparent in recent years because it has taken just over a decade for the industry to grow and find its prominent place in the hearts and minds of the younger generations.

Halo 3, Bungie’s beast, is a good example of the pattern. Here we have a computer game that was, is, and probably will continue to be dubbed by many as the very paragon of the medium. Countless internet forums, e-communities, blogs, and magazines are ablaze with talk of this title. But why? Is it just yet another example of expertly employed marketing and hype; driven ultimately by the Leviathan that is Gates’ Microsoft? Or is this an example of the gaming world yet again seeking a holy relic, a true masterpiece, in which they can proclaim to be the medium’s Magnum Opus?

If you are bored of this review already then you have two choices: either go back and stop reading here or scroll down a few paragraphs – I am in analysis mode. The pattern I am talking about is the constant declaration of greatness thrown at a title and swallowed up by the masses of gamers eager and desperate for the one real, beyond dispute, true God-game. We saw it with Halo in 2001, we saw it with Halo 2 in 2004, and by Grayskull we are seeing it with Halo 3 in 2007! Through perhaps a mixture of the processes I outlined above this game has been heralded as a masterpiece. But is it really? Via a mix of viral marketing, media hype, and fanboy hysteria Microsoft has succeeded in its plan and no doubt Halo 3 will sell with record-slamming velocity over the next few weeks leading up to Christmas '07. The burning question then is whether the game deserves the attention? We shall see.

In 2004 I sat up, like the suggestible, young naïve thing I was back then, and read the Bungie forums well into the early hours. It was release night and I wanted to read all the initial comments from those whom had camped it out to grab a copy. I remember it well; those dreams of impossible expectations being slowly shattered with every new comment. Halo 2, after all the spin, was only marginally better than the original – and even that remains a contentious line.

This time around I kept well away from the forums. I made no effort to read up on Halo 3’s development and attain some little gem of information that no one else knew about. I refused to watch the po-faced, superfluous movies available over Xbox Live and Bungie.net of the development team trying to come over all “rad” and in touch with the community whilst secretly working under the watchful eye of M$. In fact, it was only with a week to go until release that I even learnt of the fact the game had a co-op mode – something which Halo 2 seriously lacked at the time.

So, when the game finally arrived (who am I kidding, I went and bought it at 8am on release day) I was not expecting greatness. Been there, done that, I said to myself. Instead, I was open to the experience and had no idea what to expect. Within twenty minutes I laughed to myself; the game was Halo 2 with a paint job.

Firstly, let me dwell on single player. I went straight for heroic mode and hit the first level. Soon I was on the second, then third. I kept telling myself the tough, intense moments of crazy combat that we all associate Halo games with were around the corner. I kept on telling myself that for half the game, and then some. To put it bluntly Halo 3 is easy for any 'serious' gamer. By that I mean it just doesn’t require much in the way of skill, experimentation, tactic, or luck. It’s just not like the former two games in this regard.

So, I asked myself why it could possibly be that this game just didn’t seem very challenging. Perhaps it was down to the fact I’m just that much l33ter now, my FPS skills entering the realm of godliness. Maybe it was something far more majestic than this. Was it that in these last few years there had been some form of paradigm shift amongst our species, enabling us to excel in this field of digital battle? Nah. I soon realised what the cause was. Like always, the truth was simple and based on an undeniable fact: there were no Elites.

I’m willing to bet that at some point during the development of Halo 3, perhaps in the early stages, there was a debate and point of conflict over the implications on gameplay the omission of the Elites would have. Some, I’m sure, knew that without this ub3r covenant adversary Halo 3 would suck. Others, I guess, would insist that new enemies would take their place. These were likely programmers that had little to do with the previous games' development.

Bottom line: the new enemy that constitute the vast majority of the foes you face in the game, being the brutes, completely suck in all manner of ways. They were re-designed for this game as they were very poorly implemented in Halo 2 but they are nothing like I would have hoped to see. One must ignore the hype. Bungie insist they act as a group, the pack mentality, and do all manor of cool and intelligent stuff. They will insist but their assurances do not equate to reality. In reality the brutes just seem like a generic enemy, a fill em’ with lead target. They are dull, uninspired, and simply nothing like as challenging as the Elites were in previous games.

The chief and Sergeant classes of the brute race are significantly tougher than the standard ones but do not appear often enough. When they do show up they are often part of a mash of covenant forces and you rarely feel the sense of imposing struggle like you did whenever you encountered a dual plasma wielding Elite on legendary or heroic in the earlier games. A lot of this is down to the fact that brutes, unlike Elites, do not have re-generative shields akin to Master Chief’s. However, this is not the only reason. I am convinced the A.I of the Elites simply was better in the former games.

I don’t pretend to know much about the inner workings of my Xbox 360, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a Chinese man lived inside, but I get the impression things integral to Halo 1 and 2 were changed in the third game; the difference being the transition from Xbox platform to 360 platform. Perhaps the code was altered in ways that truly did affect the A.I. It just seems to me that even the friendly marines do stuff in this game that raises the unimpressed eyebrow of the gamers’ collective. The enemy, in all its form, tends to act defensively; rarely assaulting your position and instead playing the “lame” card and camping whilst either deploying bubble shields (brutes) or just spamming you with all manner of grenades (grunts).

Halo 3 tends to play out like this during almost every stage of the campaign. You continually find yourself being forced to flush the enemy out from behind crates and dark corridors. In the previous Halo games this simply didn’t occur. Instead, Elites would often lead attacks and bring the fight directly to you. They would also do more than just nade spam and often seemed as intelligent and unpredicable as a human opponent in online play.

In more general, review-like, terms I will sum the campaign element of Halo 3 up and then focus on the real body of this game, the multiplayer. Campaign mode can either be attempted solo or co-operatively with up to four players. Let me be clear about this: co-op mode turns what would otherwise be quite a generic affair into an awesome experience. Now I have completed the game co-operatively on legendary (the hardest setting) I have absolutely no intention or desire to go back and play the game solo. Why? Because there is nothing particularly exciting, shocking, dramatic, or even fresh about it. It’s the same old thing, essentially: ‘Master Chief, we suck and need you to complete every tactical objective by yourself with limited backup.’

In co-op mode it’s fun to play but you find yourself ploughing through in no time. Within hours campaign is conquered and you’ve, ‘finished the fight.’ There were points during the campaign where I was more inclined to stand around idle and just chat through my headset to my fellow players than actually truly immerse myself into the battle. For this reason I will conclude that campaign mode is really just nothing that special. Some levels plain suck, including the first few, whilst others are better but too short. An example of this is a level on a large highway. All looks cool as you storm off up the road in a warthog, but then suddenly the road comes to an end and it’s yet again time to enter a cutscene.

The cutscenes in this game, or whatever you want to call them, are just not that great. The graphics are only marginally better than I recall seing in Halo 2 (i.e. they suck essentially) but perhaps the most important point is that they are just not engrossing enough. During seminal plot moments myself and my Live buddies were chatting over the mic, eventually pretty oblivious to the story. We knew it before we saw it. I slowly started to realise this game was probably aimed at the mentality of those whom would find this gripping. This was all designed with kids in mind.

Once again, the big issue with the campaign mode is the constant repetition of locations. However, this time around it’s so blatant and unchecked you wonder if the majority of Bungie employees actually have the minds of goldfish; forgetting everything they programmed up until eight seconds ago. With Halo 3 not only do we see the usual repetition of interior corridors, rooms, and sections, which is an issue widely associated with the previous games, but we also see repetition of entire stages from the earlier titles. Once or twice I’d have simply considered this a mild homage to those, perhaps classic, moments from the other games. However, by the tenth time you or a buddy you are playing with spot yet another point where everything seems strangely familiar you are ready to annouce it a case of classic digital recycling.

The story tries hard to justify the repeated sections but fails. The intrinsic nuances of the world you inhabit have been designed so as to justify repeated interiors. I’m talking here about the way the covenant intentionally design their large ships via control + paste industrial processes.

If it were not enough that corridors etc are constantly repeated we also see with this title a new evil, and one in which I don’t recall encountering since the pre-CD days of gaming. This evil is one part laziness, two parts time constraint. Throughout the campaign you are constantly being ordered to go back the way you came, head on back through the route you just took, and reach the door you were closer to twenty minutes ago. In typical computer-game fashion, upon turning around, to essentially play out the whole level again but whilst facing it from the other direction, low and behold! The enemy has re-appeared in full force. Bungie rely on combat and combat alone to prevent boredom here. The problem is, without Elites, combat is just a case of nade spamming and waiting for brutes’ bubble shields to puff out.

We see the flood once again. I cried. Some will insist they are more fun to do battle with this time. That’s simply not the case. It’s exactly the same experience as in previous Halo games.

All one needs to do is check out Halo 3’s metacritic page to behold the insane, hall-of-fame, greatness being associated with this title by almost every major online review site and gaming magazine. I can state categorically that this is chiefly down to the multiplayer. It’s in the online action where this game shines. Campaign was clearly seen as less of a priority by Bungie this time around, more so than even with Halo 2. All the painstaking effort seems to have gone on the features of Forge, Theatre, and good old Matchmaking.


To sum forge up is rather easy. Think Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis. Remember that cheat when you could turn Sonic into any game item and then spam that item into the gameworld? Well, that’s forge – bar Master Chief turning into an item but instead becoming a godlike ball of creation.

Forge allows thirteen-year-old wannabe “haxxorz” (the vast majority of the Xbox Live community) to pretend they are great sages of code. They can, and will, host forge games where they patrol the skies of Valhalla and drop Scorpion tanks onto you from just below the altitude borders. Myself and my online buddies have had a good few laughs mucking around with forge in this manner. However, it simply fails as a seminal feature of online play. Bungie wax lyrical about how forge can be used to entirely alter maps, create wacky memes, and craft unique gametypes. In truth it’s just something to do at 3am after the fifth joint and a hard session on social slayer.

Forge also has some pretty serious limitations. You can’t, for instance, literally create a map. In other words, a map making tool forge is not. Wouldn’t it have been great to be able to design maps for Halo 3 via the 360 console? Instead, we can swirl the radio antenna around in mid-air whilst in edit mode. We can also create omg ramps that send warthogs high into the sky. The problem is it just gets boring, fast. It’s a novelty. End of discussion.


At first I was quite unsure about the idea of having every last moment of my Halo 3 gaming recorded and stored for all to see (if they were also part of that game). Living in Blair’s (now Brown’s) Britain I am accustomed to being surveyed by CCTV everywhere I turn. But now everything I do in a game can also be logged. In ten years time I predict that digital reality will be as surveyed as the real world. This is the beginning of a new phase of gaming – the phase of total accountability. Soon no one will be able to lie about their amazing killing sprees on any platform or game.

Using technology that doesn’t exist Bungie have managed to devise a system akin to magic. It records you. Every moment of your Halo 3 time can be viewed, edited, slowed down, sped up, paused, and even shared. It’s a brilliant feature. Already, my Live inbox has been influxed by contacts wishing to show me their moments of hilarity. There are flaws to this system though. Firstly, campaign videos cannot be edited, fast-forwarded, or re-wound. Apparently, for this to have been possible, according to Bungie, three fifths of the world’s resources would have been depleted by Microsoft mega-systems within two seconds. Also, the matrix probably would have become unstable and God forced to intervene.

Theatre mode is all about recording short clips of your team deathmatch moments. You can then attach them as a video to a Live message and add a comment with the file. Unfortunately, Bungie didn’t truly implement this feature like they should have. For a start they continue to go on about how theatre mode will essentially prove a meme creation tool. The problem is you can’t add music or a voice-over to your video. In other words, you can’t truly edit it – merely crop clips from a master file. You can’t do that much besides record moments. I was hoping for more myself.

The fact every game is recorded is clearly of no blemish to Halo 3. It is a very impressive feature. It’s just not a particularly integral one to the gaming experience. Again, this is a novelty. What really matters is the game itself – not the tools that come with it.


I soon realised upon hitting Matchmaking with my large party of comrades on the release night of Halo 3 that it was essentially Halo 2 with bubble shields and an inferior proximity voice system. The classic lobby-side bitchtalk of Halo 2 has been 360fied, with a seemingly even larger army of thirteen-year-old whiny pro-gamers to annoy consumer with. Thankfully, this time around you can set Matchmaking to search for opponents with good connections over searching solely to ensure quick results. This seems to work well and most of the time you will find you are playing with those players relatively geographically close to you. That is, of course, if you are in the US or UK. As the neat view of the globe Bungie have placed on the Matchmaking screen shows, Halo 3 is very much an Anglo-American affair. Isolated bands of gamers seem to be active in the far reaches of the yurals, and at least one player can be spotted in Africa, but on the whole it would seem the love affair with Halo 3 is not so much a universal phenomenon as it is an Anglo-American fetish.

It all seems in order connectivity wise. Lag is rarely an issue, but the same old server or client side biases to the ping rate which were seen in Halo 2 are often apparent here. It’s not a big deal though. Everything is essentially the same as it was in Halo 2. There are no great differences. Certain new game types, such as Infection, are great attributions but rarely see much play time.

The major issue here comes with the maps, or lack of good ones. With only one sixteen player specific map, being Valhalla, Halo 3 can hardly boast particularly large scale battles. Most of the time it’s a four versus four affair. Personally, I am shocked there are no new maps of any worth. Bungie were no doubt too busy working on Forge and Theatre mode to realise Halo 3 needed about ten new, large and decent maps.

Another factor here comes with the proximity voice system. I adored the way in Halo 2 you could not only talk to your team via the headset (teamchat) but could also, when not tapping the transmit button, yell out and hear your voice play through the speakers. It would seem that in Halo 3 the system is literally inferior to this 2004 title. Teamchat is no different but proximity does not let you hear teammates, only the enemy. On paper this may not sound like a big deal, but it is. No longer is it possible to run around alongside your team and annoy them with rap or deranged noises through proximity. Now they only hear you on the headset and you only hear the enemy via proximity voice when they are talking through their own teamchat channel. I was very unimpressed by this. Apparently down to “beta feedback” Bungie altered the system during the early stages. Real shame. It's also strange that in the wording of the voice options screen within the game it plainly claims one can potentially hear proximity voice from both friends and foes. Don't be fooled. This is not the case.

On the whole Matchmaking works well and is a great laugh. No other 360 title has this level of ease when it comes to playing within a party of friends and keeping together all night. But in this regard it’s no different to Halo 2. Sure it’s glossier but better? That is contentious I would suggest. About the only truly new feature here, besides the numerous but mostly unpopular new weapons, is the ability to slightly customise your avatar. As in Halo 2 you can select from an Elite or Master Chief and eventually unluck new helmets, armour, etc. It's neat but after playing a game like Tom Clancy's Vegas you won't be blown away by anything on offer here.

I get the impression Bungie were eager to supply gamer with that sense of finishing the fight. The story is conclusive but in that Pitch Black way where, deep down, you know some capitalist somewhere will eventually drag it all back up again. As far as I'm concerned the story was too alike to the Alien(s) movies and at points I even found this an annoyance. Without giving anything away I want to add that the actual ending to the game is about as satisfying as any Steven Seagal flick. There's this weird sense of it not being quite as it should, but then you realise Bungie clearly were briefed to only semi-conclude the tale. The last level is a love/hate affair I am guessing. I hated it, my co-op allies loved it. To me the old generic gaming template of basing a final stage on some race against time through exploding, collapsing, sets of platforms and/or interiors is too formulaic. However, I did get the short straw here and sat in the passenger seat whilst egging our driver on to completion. But when it came I felt no sense of just experiencing something ground-breaking.

Well, it’s time to round up this institution of a computer-game. When Ridley Scott was asked to direct Halo the movie he took one look at the script and immediately turned down the offer. I suspect I know why. The story is Robocop in space, and perhaps that makes the game an ‘80s cliché on the 360. Designed with fanboy kids in mind, this is just another corporate product. I don’t care what the major review networks will tell us, whilst counting the bribe money no doubt; Halo 3 is a plain average game, ill-deserved of its highly esteemed status. Technologically, I don’t deny the game is a marvel. However, in terms of gameplay and playability (those old gaming words often now forgotten) this is just nothing truly special.


+ Impressive Forge

+ Theatre

+ Good old Halo greatness

- (being alot like Halo 2)

- Lacklustre Campaign mode

8.9 / 10

This game is not the Messiah

by The Critical Alien
© 2007