Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Halo 3

Halo 3 is not original. Don’t expect a revelation here, most of the ideas are brought forward from earlier entries to the series, and even then they wore their influences on their sleeves (see Iain M Banks’ “Consider Phleibas” for more Ringworld based fun). It’s also not a long game, with the single player game clocking in at around seven hours on easier difficulty levels. However, it is one of the most refined first person shooters ever to hit the Xbox 360. Though, with this being Microsoft’s flagship franchise, this should really be expected.

Halo 3 follows on directly from Halo 2, as one would expect, resuming mankind’s (more specifically, the ever present Master Chief’s) war against the religious alien collective, the Covenant. Though the plot is nothing special, it does push the game forward with a nice sense of pace- something many games actually manage to fail with. The only real problem with the story-telling is the Playstation One-esque flashbacks involving the character “Cortana”, which seem horribly dated for a game with such high production values.

Graphically, many people have complained that it’s not as detailed as the recent “Bioshock”, and they’d be right. But Bioshock was all about small rooms and smaller corridors, and that’s not what Bungie have gone for. This is a full on wide-screen epic, with hundreds of events all occurring on screen at once across huge landscapes. There are nice touches to the detail though, the plants move when touched and though the metallic shine is still very bright, it adds a great sense of style.

The AI handles the myriad of enemies amazingly well, as they take cover, regroup, claim the higher ground and use all of the weapons on offer to devastating effect. This brings a great deal of freedom to an otherwise incredibly linear game, as the enemies react and adapt to the players movements with ease. This is shown at its peak when you shoot a squad captain, the smaller enemies (Grunts) will run to find a new leader. Fighting the Grunts did make me feel a little guilty, as not only are they appalling at fighting, but also due to their overly cute voices (oddly reminiscent of Invader Zim’s “Gir”).

They do, however, add to the character of the game which incidentally is one of the game’s best features. As the series has progressed, Bungie have adopted a more and more comic book feel to the proceedings, and why not? It is, after all, the tale of super soldiers fighting in impossible situations. This experience is carried over into the surprisingly solid voice work, with appearances from Superman 2’s Terence Stamp, Hellboy’s Ron Perlman, as well as most of the male cast of Firefly.

A great feature is that you can now play as both the Master Chief and the more recent addition to the series, the Arbiter, in the co-operative campaign which supports up to four players. In the single player game, these characters are present but are controlled by the computer, and this is where major blemishes appear in this otherwise overwhelmingly shiny game. When handling the enemies, it’s close to the level of tactical control seen in RTS games like “Dawn of War”. When controlling friendly units, it provides the level of strategy of a pinball table. The Arbiter in particular suffers from rank stupidity, seemingly deciding to catch bullets rather than dodge them.

On to the multiplayer side of the package and Halo 3 really comes into its own. Mainly because you can mute the other players’ voices without turning the sound off. This let’s me play without being called a “noob”. Genius. I took a barrel load of abuse once on Halo 2 for playing it for the first time (a heinous crime, I know), so to be able to ignore them was a bonus. The use of skill matching, however, means that you never have to be in a situation where you feel out of your depth. It works brilliantly, scaling almost perfectly as you improve/forget what you’re doing. Not once did I feel that I had been poorly matched, but still always felt challenged.

The weapons are equally well balanced, with size and weights being taken into account as well as the option to dual wield smaller weapons, so there isn’t one that seems to dominate over the others. Additionally, the teleport points are in less frequent use in the multiplayer, replaced by the hilariously named “Man Cannons”. There’s a lot of amusement to be had playing with them, as they fire the player around the map. Sadly though, it’s pretty likely that people will learn how to take advantage of these by learning the trajectories and speeds. These people don’t like games to be fun.

At the moment though, there aren’t any areas of Halo 3 being exploited, and that’s what makes the multiplayer special. The game is so tightly designed, in terms of both game play and controls, that losing feels like the players fault, rather than through easily abused game mechanics (here’s looking at you, Gears of War).

The only real innovation in the game comes in the multiplayer mode “Forge”, where the players simply press up on the D-pad, and act as a level editor in real time while the battle takes place. This is a fantastic idea, and could potentially give Halo 3 that next-gen feel it deserves. Unfortunately, it’s poorly implemented. It could be great, but can only be played locally or Xbox Live “buddies”, rather than through matchmaking. Hopefully this will be resolved in one of the inevitable patches that all games have these days, but at the moment it’s a feature that’s left close to useless.

Halo 3 is an easy recommendation for people who just want a fun game, but not necessarily wanting the mould to be broken. Nothing new is brought to the table, but that’s not really a problem with the level of quality on show. Much in the same way the recent “Transformers” movie refined the summer action blockbuster; this is a perfect example of the first person shooter polished to the Nth degree. In fact, as an overall package, it’s difficult to see how other developers will better it. It may even suggest that they try something different, but that’s unlikely.