Halo 3 Retrospective Review

Halo: The Master Chief Collection screenshot

“Don’t make a girl a promise if you know you can’t keep it…”

Things aren’t going well for the human race. At the end of the last instalment in the series, all the Halo worlds built by the mysterious Forerunners were armed and readied to fire by a breakaway faction of the Covenant led by the Brutes. While the Master Chief stowed away aboard a ship commanded by the final surviving Covenant Prophet, the AI Cortana remained behind, a captive of the Flood hive-mind, Gravemind. Now all that stands between humanity and total obliteration by the ringworlds are the Master Chief, the battered remnants of the human fleet, and a handful of Elites who broke from the Covenant.

This dark premise sets up the backbone of Bungie’s ending to the original Master Chief trilogy. While many fans were left disappointed by what they felt was a luckluster campaign and the introduction of a second playable protagonist, the Arbiter, in Halo 2, Bungie brought the war against the Covenant to a suitably bombastic conclusion with Halo 3.The result was critical acclaim and massive retail success, bolstered by a long-running promotional campaign the likes of which had never been seen before in the industry.

Despite more recent additions to the franchise, Halo 3 is still something of a bookend for the long-running Halo series – it is the last game developed by Bungie to center on the Master Chief’s story. After Halo 3, Bungie would make two more games for the franchise (2009’s Halo 3: ODST, and 2010’s excellent Halo: Reach), before handing the series off to Microsoft’s internal studio 343 Industries who followed it up with a remake of the first game and 2012’s Halo 4 (it seems the fight wasn’t finished, after all). In a lot of ways, Halo 3 is the pinnacle of the series’ development, beginning all the way back in 2001 with Halo: Combat Evolved – all of the added features, weapons, and Alien races make some sort of appearance through the course of the game, while many of its sequences and levels feel like something of a Greatest Hits compilation – wide, expansive levels, massive set pieces, and the most comprehensive multiplayer modes the series had seen up until that point.

halo 3_gallery_03That’s not necessarily a good thing. Despite Halo’s Juggernaut status as a franchise, “more” does not always equal “better”, and occasionally, the cracks begin to show. At times the game feels almost over-stimulated, with few pauses for the player to catch their breath – well, mentally, at least. “Got a second’s pause between being plasma-grenade suicide-rushed by a Grunt? WELL YOU’D BETTER RELOAD THEN,” the game seems to say. “Did you need a moment to understand the key bit of plot that just fell into place? Better make it quick, that Brute’s about to tear you limb from limb.”

Combat Evolved understood that intensity only works if you provide pauses in between the carnage. Whether due to the limitations of the original game’s code, or purposefully added by Bungie to allow the player to admire the sweeping landscapes of the ringworld, these respites from frequent Covenant assaults added to the game’s mystery and awe. One of the keys to creating any compelling science-fiction series is to establish some sense of exploration of uncharted spaces and ideas. By pausing combat at a few key moments and allowing the player’s thoughts to wander, the original Halo tapped into that sense of exploration while creating a wonderful sense of suspense.

It isn’t always that expansive, however. A few of the later levels away from earth put the Chief square in the jaws of Gravemind, in a violent struggle to find Cortana – if her conscious mind hasn’t yet deteriorated under Gravemind’s imprisonment. The penultimate level sees the Chief descending through a hellish vision of the Covenant planetoid-station overrun by the flood – one that would make H.R. Giger proud.

Beneath the flickering purple lights of the once-proud seat of Covenant power, thousands of Flood spores squirm over the oozing, living walls. Attacks come from every angle, with spores and horrifying Flood hosts pouring down from the ceiling. It’s a revolting, terrifying, nerve-wracking struggle to find the one person you care about most. It’s an awesome bit of design, and a perfect answer to the terrifying slog that was “The Library” level in Combat Evolved.

That being said, the problem with Halo 3 is that it lacks the sense of awe and discovery that made the original so powerful. Yes, the distant landscapes are all properly rendered now, and watching Covenant cruisers duke it out with humanity’s ships is still really damn cool, but the sense of mystery that surrounded the ringworlds has been lost along the way due to reams of exposition, expanded universe tie-ins novels and comics. In Halo: Combat Evolved, there was an eerie sense that something was amiss on the alien world. The rolling fields and tomb-like tunnels of Halo felt off-puttingly barren – save for all the Covenant who wanted to mount the Chief’s head on a pike. Bungie originally intended for Halo to have it’s own breed of dinosaurs wandering around, but they wisely left them out of the game somewhere along the development cycle, adding to the incredible sense of dread and isolation the game managed to convey, long before the Flood ever show up.

Occasionally though, Halo 3’s approach pays off. Some of the game’s strongest moments occur when you’re slammed into the heat of battle, with nothing to save you except your Spartan reflexes and a whole lot of bullets. Some of the more pitched battles have everything from dropships to tanks and even massive starships showing up to hit the Covenant back with everything humanity’s got. If Combat Evolved felt like the adventures of a marooned resistance, Halo 3 is a game of all-out war. Never before has a Halo game given you so many creative ways to wage death and mayhem. Have an enemy Wraith tank lobbing mortars on your position? Rush in close and bash the driver’s skull in with your power-armor knuckles. Or go for speed, and wear them down with plasma-fire from a commandeered enemy vehicle.

In the midst of this madness, when you’re careening across an alien desert at the helm of a Warthog jeep with two Covenant Ghosts bearing down on your six and the Marine in back grimly lighting them up with the gatling gun, you realize that this is a genuinely fun game. Despite all the changes and tweaks Bungie made to the formula over the years, Halo 3 still feels like, well, Halo.

Much of this is down to Halo 3’s excellent art direction. Yes, Bungie’s third game in the Halo franchise is bigger and shinier than ever – some of the larger battles show off some pretty impressive draw distances – but what’s more impressive is how the design of the human and alien races have evolved. Little touches– like how the Grunts’ methane breathers can be punched off in melee attacks– truly make you feel present in a unique sci-fi world, even when the textures and character models don’t quite convince up-close.

Since the Brutes take the place of the main “heavy” enemies you face in Halo 3 (as opposed to the Elites in previous Halo titles), their tribal armor and adornments have received loving attention from Bungie’s art department. Whereas the Brutes of Halo 2 felt somewhat slap-dash (think primates with cannons and bandoliers of grenades), their intricate armor (which almost looks to be inspired by something out of JRR Tolkien), and unique weapons make them one of the most unique parts of Halo 3’s art direction.

Surprisingly enough, outside of some ropey character models, the rest of Halo 3’s graphics and visual effects hold up incredibly well, considering the game will be seven years old this September and was released early into the lifecycle of the previous console generation. Running on the now-antiquated Xbox 360 hardware, Halo 3’s environments are lush and remarkably detailed. From the humid jungles of Africa, to the glittering metal corridors built untold millennia past by the Forerunner, in some ways Halo 3 is still the graphical equal of many games released only recently. Part of the appeal of Halo 3’s visual style is it’s reliance on high-contrast lighting and bright, open spaces. This is one of the series’ more visually diverse, rich titles. Traveling between radically different environments (in one key mission, you move from an alpine beach assault, through a maze of Forerunner installations, and emerge on a snow-swept plain), still looks amazing. Just as importantly, the game loads fairly quickly thanks to judicious use of streaming technology, though loading missions from the main menu takes a little longer than is reasonable. Overall, however, the game’s art direction, lighting and visual architecture are still top-notch, with visuals and loadtimes that on par with – perhaps sometimes superior to – many of today’s latest games.

Part of Halo 3′s success with immersion is down to the fabulous work by composers Marty O’Donnell and Micheal Salvatori. As we mentioned in our review of Halo: Combat Evolved, Marty O’Donnell’s compositions remain one of the standout features of the series, perfectly matching the mood of combat, or exploring the intricate structures left by the Forerunner. Halo 3 is no exception, with a theme underpinned by a jarring, two-note melody that demands your attention. Halo 3’s score feels appropriately epic. While O’Donnell is no longer working with Bungie –

Sadly, the same cannot be said of some of the game’s sound effects. It’s worth noting that a few of the weapons sound (and also feel) a little meek. While explosive weapons, like the Brute Shot, feel appropritely concussive, the returning Halo_3_06Assault Rifle sounds like a toy.

In general, the weapons of Halo 3 feel vague and unfocused, as if none were left on the cutting room floor in the interest of pleasing everyone. Sadly, that doesn’t work out so well – a few weapons only show up in a handful of sections of the main campaign, clearly making an appearance only to justify their existence in the multiplayer arena. Good luck tracking down your favorites, or finding ammo for them once you do. It’s a system that feels artificial, forcing you to choose whichever weapon the game wants you to instead of the nail-biting decision of picking a pistol over the rocket launcher you could run into in Combat Evolved.

I hope I’m not making Halo 3 sound easy. It’s not. In fact, it really is to the game’s credit that the harder difficulty settings were not watered down from previous titles in the series. The Heroic difficulty setting is a real challenge – trickier sections will find you scrambling for ammo and cover, praying silently while your shields slowly recharge.

Legendary difficulty has been known to make full-grown men cry. Snipers will drop you with single, impossibly-precise headshots, vehicle battles will see you blown to bits in a hail of concussion-grenades and flaming Warthog debris, and a Brute ripping his armor off to beat your cyborg skull in becomes genuinely terrifying. Interestingly enough, the harder difficulties completely transform how the game feels. On normal (or even occasionally on Heroic), you’re able to gleefully sprint into combat, dual-wielded plasma rifles spitting crackling death from their barrels, only to leap back behind cover when heavier units show up.

Boot up the game on Legendary, however, and your tactics change almost immediately. You’ll spend more time at a distance, desperately picking off less-powerful enemies and smashing Brute-armor with rifle fire, before finally wading in to wage grim combat against your wounded, larger foes. Combat becomes less an affair of  feeling like a machine-man  super-soldier, and more like picking off enemies while hunkered behind cover a la Call of Duty.  This may have been my own proclivities working on overdrive, since Legendary mode in Halo 3 curiosly enough seems to put your own tactics and playstyle into warp-mode. In short, Legendary in any of the Halo series will have you sweating bullets, and it’s a testimony to Bungie’s commitment to the franchise that the difficulty settings were not watered down in the interest of accessibility. It’s one of the most balanced difficulty systems of any game series in recent memory, and one of Halo’s enduring legacies.

It’s also where the series’ 4-player cooperative mode comes into its own, and many of the more expansive set pieces in Halo 3 feel designed to be played by 4 people working together. A case in point is The Covenant level, which sees you battling a huge amount of enemies on foot while attempting to bring down two towering Scarabs. Working in a team, two players could work jointly to board and destroy the massive walking tanks while the remaining players could take to the sky and provide covering fire from hijacked covenant Ghosts. It’s a wonderful sequence in single-player as well of course, but playing with friends really shows just how much thought Bungie put into ensuring that every single aspect of the game worked just as well side-by-side with partners.

Outside of the campaign, Halo 3’s fantastic competitive modes, while not quite as celebrated now as the multiplayer maps of Halo 2 and initially offering only 11 maps – increased to 24 over the course of 4 map packs – were bolstered by the groundbreaking Forge Mode, a sandbox level editor that let players to construct their own multiplayer stages and game modes. Level editors on console had been done before, of course – notably in the Timesplitter series – but never had they been this robust. Bolstered the ability to save and upload your creations to share with the community, along with gameplay clips recorded using the included video editor, Halo 3‘s multiplayer mode exploded overnight and is still enjoyed by many today.

In the end, Halo 3 was a solid entry to one of gaming’s most iconic franchises. Even at the time, however, it was not all that we hoped the ending of Halo would be; looking back, it’s something of a relief to know that Bungie would go on to make both Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, before finally handing the series off to Microsoft.

As a standalone game, Halo 3 is exceptionally good, with plenty to offer in both excellent multiplayer, and the Garry’s Mod-esque Forge mode. In the shadow of the franchise’s genre-defining entries, however, Halo 3’s campaign feels a little lacking. A little too-quickly paced, a little short, a little thrifty on solid plot, and visuals that felt a little rushed even at the time, it feels like a game on steroids where the cracks in Bungie’s ambitious design and universe-building were beginning to show.

Despite a handful of truly epic moments, looking back Halo 3 feels like a bit of a disapointment. It’s still fantastic, of course, but nearly seven years since its release, it’s easier to identify its flaws.It was a certainly a watershed moment for the series, though not always for the right reasons.

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Peter Yankowski

Peter Yankowski

Peter Yankowski is a freelance writer and blogger. When he's not getting blasted out of the digital skies by Messerchmitts, or cutting work to carve a twisty New England road, Peter writes about gaming news, history in games, and military geekitude.
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