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Halo 3


The original "Halo" remains unique in its tone and approach, as while the first game offered huge battles, there were also moments of deeply eerie quiet, a growing sense of dread and an incredible feeling that some major key to the mystery of the game could be lurking around the next corner. Marty O'Donnell's wonderfully haunting and moody score also added to the game's outstanding and different feel.

In the first game, human super soldier Master Chief and a band of soldiers landed on a ring world in space after being chased by Covenant (a group of aliens looking to wipe out the human race) forces. The humans find out that the Covenant want to use the ring world as a weapon, so it became a race to the finale. However, the two battling parties quickly found out that they were not alone on the ringworld known as "Halo".

The second game opens pretty much where the first one ended. The Covenant are pissed that their holy ring world as destroyed, largely due to Master Chief. Meanwhile, Master Chief has returned to a space station overlooking Earth, participating in a ceremony honoring Captain Keyes, from the first game. His daughter also attends the ceremony. However, it's not long before the humans are facing some party crashers - a Covenant fleet, whose sights are set on breaking through the human's defenses and heading towards Earth.

The first game had a rich feeling of mystery as the different elements of the Halo story were revealed. The second game was something completely different: while it had the volume and scope of a sci-fi blockbuster, the battles took place in relatively narrow environments (a change from the wide-open fields of the first game) and the sense of mystery that the first game was overflowing with was largely absent, as the story took a backseat in the second game. To the fierce upset of many, "Halo 2" ended with a cliffhanger - right as it seemed as if it was really building up to something.

Playing the third game, I often thought to myself that this was what the second game wanted to be but wasn't. "Halo 3" starts off right after the end of the second game. Covenant forces are headed to Earth to find the arc, and Chief has caught a ride, leaving Cortana behind - where's she has ended up in the clutches of the Gravemind (I thought one of the most interesting elements of "Halo 2" was the mysterious Gravemind.) As the game opens, chief falls out of the sky (literally) and is recovered in the jungle, where the battle begins. Chief, however, is initally displeased to see the Arbiter, an elite who joined the side of the humans towards the end of the second game when the elites broke off from the covenant.

This time around, the main enemy are the brutes, who were seen in the second game, although in very different fashion. Bungie has admitted to adding Brutes late in the development of the second game, and it showed: the creatures were not particularly fun to fight (it felt like a chore, in my opinion) and their attacks were rather repetitive. This time around, the brutes are not only a little more stylish, with different body armor signifying different classes, but they are bringing a new set of weapons to the party and also, they are a little smarter in their attacks. There's even a "pack" mentality, where their leader can, for example, tell the brutes in their pack to all throw grenades. Bungie has stated that they wanted to really rework the Brutes after their appearance in the second game and the results are quite successful, as the creatures are definitely more exciting adversaries this time around.

One surprise this time around is that the Arbiter, who the player played as in several levels of the second game, has been moved towards the background here. There were mixed reviews (understandably) to players playing as another character in the second game and as the third (and, according to Bungie, final) game in the series, it's good to have the Chief in focus. I didn't mind the Arbiter, but I think what not playing as the character helps this time around is that you aren't bouncing between two characters in two different places, which made for a rather choppy flow in the second game. Yes, the flood does return, as does its apparent leader, Gravemind. Cortana does return, showing up first in a series of flashes that become a little irritating, as while some of them are interesting and mysterious, others don't really have much to offer.

As for weapons, the game set of weapons as the prior game still returns here, but there are many new additions, the most exciting of which is the gravity hammer. Seen at the end of the second game (although not something you actually got to use), the gravity hammer sends enemies (and anything else that happens to be nearby - boxes, etc.) flying many feet in the air.

Other new weapons include the Spartan Laser (a giant, ultra-powerful laser cannon that takes a few seconds to charge), the brute Spiker (a Brute submachine gun), the Mauler (a brute shotgun), the flamethrower and the ability to take gun turrets off and into battle with you (when you take a turret, the game goes into third person perspective.) The assault rifle from the first game does return here, as well. There are also a couple of new grenades (including a spike grenade) and equipment to pick up and use (such as the bubble shield, a dome-like shield that can be deployed for a limited amount of time.) The brutes also make use of the equipment, like the shield.)

There are also different vehicles, such as an updated warthog that more marines can ride in, as well as the Mongoose, an ATV that can ride one passenger holding on the back (a fact memorably goofed on in the recent "Personal Spaces" episode of "Halo" machinma series "Red Vs. Blue".) There's also brute vehicles, including the brute Chopper (a really violent Big Wheel) and the brute Prowler (sort of like a brute warthog.) Also, we get a new Marine flying vehicle, the Hornet (which is sort of like the human version of the covenant Banshee.)

The AI of the characters has gotten noticably more intelligent over the years, as well. Although the marines in the game still are not perfect by any means, their driving and fighting skills have improved since the second game. Enemy AI is also much more intelligent, using different tactics such as the brute's "pack" mentality. What also impresses here is the amount of activity on-screen at any one time. The environments are once again bigger and more open, and yet the fights are also greatly expanded, with many vehicles (including the Scarabs, which return from the second game and are able to be destroyed this time around) and battles going on on-screen at once. While the levels seem bigger and more open, one irritation is that there are a few instances where you have to retrace your steps, which is rather irritating.

Although many not the most the XBOX 360 is capable of, graphics have improved noticably from the second game, with much more detail and texture to characters and environments. Lighting and particle effects are also frequently stunning and the framerate remains quite smooth, despite all the activity that's often going on in the game's many battles.

Sound is where the "Halo" series has always impressed the most, between the game's emotional and powerful score and the detailed sound effects. This time around, the game's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is magnificent, with extraordinary use of the surrounds to put the players in the middle of enormous scenes of warfare, with banshees flying overhead and tanks and other vehicles locked in battle on the ground around you. Voice work is often superb, and there are some amusing lines from the covenant if you stop to listen.

As for difficulty, keep in mind that players may find easy and normal are, well, easier than normal. More experienced gamers will want to go to "Heroic" or "Legendary", as those difficulty levels see much more aggressive enemy AI. Controls have also been modified slightly, but it took me little time to adapt. Overall, despite a few minor irritations, "Halo 3" remains an excellent conclusion to an outstanding trilogy.

Halo 3 Multiplayer: Riding Off With the Flag

XBOX Live: As remarkable as the campaigns themselves have been in the "Halo" games, what really became legendary about the second game was not so much the campaign as the XBOX Live play, which allowed players to take on other players from around the globe in fierce matches of slayer, capture the flag, assault and other variations. The different maps were mostly (I'm still not a fan of Warlock) beautifully and creatively designed for maximum enjoyment and fans have played countless hours online since the game's release. Even still after the launch of "Halo 3", people still continue to play (at the time I'm writing this, 113,000 matches have been played on "Halo 2" in the last 24 hours.

However, given the launch of "Halo 3" (as of this writing there have been 1,457,965 players online in "Halo 3" in the last 24 hours, and 4,784,795 matches played) in that time frame), one can expect the "Halo 2" numbers to slowly creep downward. Additionally, once players start getting into matches, they will see that a lot of fun improvements have been made this time around. There are 11 maps at this point in time and, while many of the old game variations have returned, some new ones also appear. The maps are once again quite well-constructed, as even "Last Resort" (clearly a remake of "Zanzibar" from "Halo 2") is a solid improvement over the map from the second game that many know and love. "Valhalla" (somewhat similar to "Coagulation"/"Blood Gulch") is another highlight, with a base on either side and plenty of rivers and hills in-between. The huge "Sandtrap" is another great map, as well. Additionally, during the matchmaking process, if the majority of players "veto" the map/game type, a new one will be chosen.

As many likely have already seen, teleporters have been replaced by the "Man Cannon", which launches you (and anything else you can push into it) into the fray. Plus, while it's fun to be literally launched into battle, it also gives you an overhead perspective and may result in you getting the jump on another player. However, being out in the clear blue also allows you to be a target for a sniper sititng elsewhere in the map. The new weapons appear in the multiplayer, as do new vehicles.

A couple of new multiplayer options take things to another level, including "Forge". Using this, players can edit the maps in a multiplayer game, choosing to go up and become a monitor. You can't defend yourself in this mode, but you can move things around the game (bring your team a vehicle or try and drop one on the other team), spawn new maps and items (although there is a cost per item and budget.) You can also save and share your edited maps that you've done in Forge.

Finally, there's also "Saved Films". Thought you pulled off a particularly incredible move in a multiplayer game? You can go back to the game and replay the entire game, complete with VCR-style controls. You can fly around the map and take a look at the action from different angles, as well. You can take screenshots and share your favorite multiplayer clips with friends.

Overall, multiplayer is - once again - majorly entertaining and Bungie has really done an amazing job trying to raise the bar from the incredible height that they achieved with the multiplayer for the second game.

Note: The game is available in a regular single disc edition, a limited edition with bonus features (note: many have reported that their limited edition discs have been scratched due to the packaging, so while Microsoft has announced a replacement program, buyers may be best going with the regular edition right now) and a Legendary Edition, complete with additional bonus features and a special Master Chief helmet case.

Final Thoughts: "Halo 3" is a phenomenal conclusion to the trilogy, offering an epic story that is more satisfying than the second game, action on a much bigger scale and a multiplayer section that has been improved from the immensely entertaining multiplayer of the second game.