Never before has a videogame been so confidently, so loudly touted as an event. The world’s richest man threatened to deploy it in a corporate smackdown. His Xbox chief called it the entertainment release of the year, predicting it would flatten the toughest heavyweights Hollywood had to offer. Ten months before it was due, it was advertised on national US television; four months before, it was previewed to hundreds of thousands of players in a month-long multiplayer beta. Halo 3, we were told in no uncertain terms, was it. The daddy. The big one.
Neither has a videogame ever been so sure of itself. Halo 3 makes its entrance with all the cocksure swagger of its hero Master Chief. It knows it’s an event, and every butch line of dialogue, every stirring swell of the score, every sweeping view, artful reveal and blunt reversal is wrung dry for excitement as it builds itself up yet further. It is the ultimate, chest-beating alpha game. It has an awful lot of bragging to live up to. Does it deliver?
Does it ever. Where Halo 2 got lost, Halo 3 starts out small, keeps it simple, and then just builds and builds and builds into an unstoppable steamroller of sci-fi action. Every time you think it can’t possibly top its own intensity, audacity and sheer scale, it outdoes itself, until it closes the trilogy with a climax that, in a very real sense, tears the house down.
It’s the most consistently accomplished Halo campaign to date, but it’s not long – nine chapters, some of them brief, some of them sprawling – and it’s not that new, either. Halo 3 is so rife with quotes from and tributes to the first game, especially in its latter stages, that at times it feels almost like a remake. The shape and tone of entire Halo levels have been reconstructed, but on the grandest scale – especially in the numerous, glorious orgies of freeform vehicular carnage.
You can’t blame Bungie: it’s not like Combat Evolved doesn’t have memorable moments to spare. And to be fair, Halo 3 adds more of its own than the second game ever did, and is also far more successful at giving each of its chapters an iconic, thrilling identity. The African sequence that forms the game’s first half is an atmospheric and beautifully paced progression, from tangled jungle to claustrophobic bunker to ruined savannah and, finally, a battlefront on the brink of a spectacular abyss.
Later on, the one-two punch of The Ark and The Covenant is destined to be spoken of in the same reverential tones reserved for Truth and Reconciliation and Silent Cartographer. On the other hand, one late level, Cortana, will attract the bile previously aimed at Library – in terms of frustration, though thankfully not repetition – but the fact is that a Halo game wouldn’t feel half as cathartic and heroic if you weren’t required to survive one gruelling ordeal.
As a story, Halo 3 is undiluted, shamelessly populist space-opera hokum, and frequently it’s just nonsense. It’s less bogged down in political intrigue than its predecessor, though, and told with such relish, such conviction, such cavalier disregard for any form of restraint, that it’s a pleasure to be swept up in. There is no shock on the scale of Halo 2’s Arbiter moment (and no attempt to shift the focus off Master Chief for one second), although some eyebrows will be raised at the game’s touchingly absurd stab at a love story.
The more important script in Halo 3 is that which drives the AI, however. The overhauled Brutes are definitely worthier opponents now – the first encounter with a tight-knit group of them will be a humbling moment for many players. As you blow away their armour and provoke them from military caution into insane rage, the sense that each enemy is an individual is even stronger than it was with Elites. The power structures and group tactics of the various Covenant races are a wonder to behold and fight, and are highlighted with vocal feedback that far surpasses what was already the best chatter in videogames.
The armoury is a relatively modest evolution of Halo 2’s. New additions are kept to showy novelties – the very gratifying gravity hammer and Spartan laser – or to copying weapon types from one faction to another (most human weapons now have an alien equivalent, and vice versa). There are sound multiplayer reasons for this, but it’s hard not to long for Halo’s line-up, where every gun had a distinct personality and strength. It’s also a little easier to get caught up in the inventory anxiety the first game very nearly banished. Weapon balance has been well sorted, though, with dualwielding less overpowering and the trusty assault rifle beefed up to its former guts and glory. And if the weapons don’t shake things up, the new equipment certainly does.
Not that Halo multiplayer needed shaking up; there’s a reason Halo 2 has ruled Xbox Live for three years straight now, and it must have seemed unwise to rewrite it, so Bungie hasn’t. It’s generous with new maps, most of which have the series’ traditional (and very rare in other games) combination of depth and detail with simple, intuitive architecture. The bravest, the immense Sandtrap, is also the best.
The controls are improved, the tactical options multiplied, even more so the opportunities for cruelty, hilarity and happy accident. Unafraid to add slapstick elements such as the man cannon, Bungie has intensified the ruthless pace and joyous extravagance of its game to scarcely believable heights, and a five-hour session will feel like five minutes.
In solo campaign and multiplayer matches alike, Halo 3 is, unlike both its predecessors, polished to absolute perfection. It may not move these modes far forward, but it knocks them into the best shape they’ve ever seen, and updates their vibrant visuals in a bold, hyper-real style that elicits gasp after gasp. Bungie’s talents could have left it there and been rightly satisfied that they’d made the best Halo to date, if not the freshest. But, being Bungie, they had to go one step further.
And Halo 3’s vision and deep, daring ambition are to be found elsewhere, too. They’re in the Forge map editor, the replay theatre and the co-operative campaign. Over and above that, they’re in the philosophy, the engineering, the game’s infrastructure, the community support and the sheer commitment that lays behind these modes, and the way they’re unified with the game at the most fundamental of levels.
As map editors go, Forge is fairly basic, only really allowing you to distribute items and furniture and alter a few basic rules. Its genius is to allow eight players to edit and play it as a regular game of Halo simultaneously, transforming it into an immediate and flexible mix of sandpit, physics lab, sports arena and theatrical stage. The replay theatre, again, is actually quite limited – lacking editing tools beyond the ability to record clips on the fly – but amazing in its seamless integration with and support for every other mode of the game, including Forge and campaign, not to mention multiplayer screenings and free hosting for every player on bungie.net. The co-op is even better, so far ahead of any peer in terms of features and scope that it probably won’t be equalled for years.
The total lack of compromise in each and every single detail is breathtaking. Everything works with precision, everything is set up the same way, every barrier within reason has been lifted, and you never need to do any of it alone. Halo 3 was built to be used, built to be shared, built to be loved and built to last. It’s a safe bet that it will still be enjoyed by a thriving community years from now. In substance it’s nothing new, merely a magnificent, beautiful monster of an FPS sequel. In concept and execution, though, Halo 3 is the future.
Halo 3 is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.