Monday, October 29, 2007

Halo 3: The Review

The burning question on every "Halo" fanboy's mind - did Master Chief send the Covenant and the Flood packing?

Well ...

Bungie's highly anticipated Xbox 360 shooter, "Halo 3," puts you back into the role of Master Chief, the Spartan warrior known in "Halo" and "Halo 2" for kicking butt and taking names. The game starts with Master Chief being revived after falling from the heavens like a meteor. In single player campaign, you play as Master Chief. In the co-op campaign, you play as the Arbiter, the Elite leader of an alien race booted from the Covenant who are now allies with humans or as a Spartan - depending on your controller. Up to 4 players can take part, and up to 16 can play over Xbox Live.

The action is set in 2552 and takes place in Africa in this installment. Master Chief and his crew of Marines battle the Covenant, work to stop the Flood and the Halo network. Halo is this terraformed ring that surround planets. The Covenant has found a way to activate the Halo, which could destory Earth. The other menace is the Flood - a parasite that consumes planets and turns residents into puppets for their use. And you thought you had a rough day at the office!

Master Chief's healting abilities are back, and there's no memory effect for your energy field, definitely a welcome addition from previous installments. You can actually skip the setup menus, which appears as you are revived and a tech asks you to look up and down.

Hot and heavy ...

The action starts very quickly and very evenly. The graphics will hit you - for me, I was playing it on a wall at 120" running at 1080i and the environments are crisp and colorful. Since most of the game is set in the jungle, the environs are so lush. I have played "Halo 2" on my projector before and it's one of the prettiest games on the original Xbox. In "Halo 3," the graphics are a jump, but not as much as the leap from "Halo" to "Halo 2."

The gameplay is solid, though I wasn't a huge fan of the loading times. It's obvious that the programmers and developers at Bungie are really, really pushing the design envelope on the 360. The next "Halo" could be multidisk, in my opinion. I am not sure if gamers would welcome this, but apparently from releases of multidisk games (et. "Blue Dragon"), this could be the wave of the future.

Back to "Halo 3" - the enemy AI is strong this time around and get even more intense on Heroic and Legendary settings. For this review, I went with easy and normal. The Grunts, Jackals and Drones are standard pushovers, though their weapon upgrades make them formidable on the more difficult levels. The Brutes and Hunters are much tougher. Some of them tote this killer weapon called the Brute Gravity Hammer. Get this - one hit and your enemies get pwn3d. During multiplayer, I watched a player get 6 consecutive kills with that hammer.

Several new weapons make appearances in "Halo 3." The venerable assault rife is back and standard issue for most Marines and Master Chief. The submachine gun, pistol battle rifle, the coveted sniper rifle, shotgun and rocket launcher are back, but the Gatling chain machine gun, flamethrower and the missile pod (as well as the Covenant plasma cannon) steal the show. The weapons are usually mounted and can be detached for mobile use. Sweet ...

"Hay Covenant scum, how do you like your ribs?"

The alien weapons include the Needler (unfortunately, it's not dual-wielding this time around), the Energy Sword, Plasma Pistol and the Carbine. The Brute Shot, a rocket launcher of sorts, gets my vote for sickest alien weapon of the year. You have a few Covenant guys giving you fits? Pull out the Brute Shot and that's all she wrote.

"Halo 3" also features a lot of new equipment to help you finish the fight. There are the Tripmine, a mine that has a magnetic pulse that can stick to vehicles, an EnergyDrain, which when deployed sucks the energy out of enemy vehicles and Gravlift, which allows you to have a portable trampoline to move people (and vehicles) vertically. The coolest new piece of equipment is the Bubbleshield. Let's say you are getting blasted, there's no cover within several hundred feet and you need a few seconds to recharge your shields and get ready to open a can on the Covenant/Flood/online gamers. You can deploy the shield and create a sphere shield. Now that's what I am talking about ... I hope my local Wal-Mart will carry these soon.

Also new to "Halo 3" at the plethora of modes that gamers can choose from. The co-op campaign allows up to 4 gamers on the same 360 to "finish the fight." The only real gripe I have with co-op campaign is if your player dies, you have to wait for the other co-op player to find a safe LZ for you to respawn. While this is not a bad thing if the action is not intense, during a firefight, look out.

And now, the bad news ...

The other gripe I have is the loading times for maps. On a smaller map, it can take up to 30 seconds for it to load. For bigger maps, let's put it like this - I walked to my bathroom next to my Man Space, washed my hands and came back and it was STILL LOADING. Playing multiplayer maps won't interefer with making that killer souffle.

Despite the load times for maps, multiplayer is where it's at. Besides co-op, there's matchmaking (no, you aren't hooking Master Chief up with a date off, Forge and Theater. Matchmaking groups players automatically online based on skill levels. Forge, a new features, allows gamers to move objects, equipment and hazards on any multiplayer level. That rocks.

Theater, also a new feature, allows gamers to view, edit and take screenshots from films (yes, even you can be the next George Lucas - or in my case, Uwe Boll) from campaign and multiplayer and with a gazillion different camera angles.

Bungie's cord ... not

Probably the one of the coolest features (it was disabled at the time of my review) is the Bungie Favorites. This is a new service that aloows gamers to get new maps, game types, films and screenshots from Bungie. There's also a file share program that allows players to share their films, film clips, maps and game variants. These are all free, btw.

There's also a paid service called Bungie Pro, which allows gamers to up their file share capacity on Xbox LIVE.

The only really bad thing about this game? You will need a hard drive to play it. And based on some of the levels, you'll need as much disk cache as possible for this big daddy (no, not the "Bioshock" Big Daddy ...)

Gameplay, with the exception of the load stutters, is awesome. It's definitely smoother than "Halo 2," and combines killer graphics with great sounds. The game runs at 720p/1080i and 1080p. It lowers it for regular TVs, but this game BEGS to played big. During our "Halo 3" frag fest, my wall displayed 4 screens that each showed tons of detail, and was just like having 4 high-end 42" plasma TVs hanging on my wall. And who said the graphics were horrible?!

The sound is to die for. The "Halo" score was always good and worked well with game play. The burp of the sniper rifle, the revs from the Mongoose ATV, the Barry White-like soundover for the Arbiter all work to produce some sweet sounds. It is one of the best sounding games on the 360.

"Bioshock" or "Halo 3"? Which one rules?

There is so much more I have to say about "Halo 3," but the real question on 360 gamers' minds is ... how does it compare to 2K Games' smash hit "Bioshock?"

For starters, both are intense FPS that boast eye-candy, delicious graphics, sweet and silky gameplay and some of the best experiences on the 360. "Bioshock" brings freshness to the tired FPS genre (Do you realize I have blasted over 100K Nazis?), beautiful art deco style and virtually no load times, but it lacks multiplayer. "Halo 3" has the familiar, tried-and-true style with enough multiplayer options and maps to give even the most diehard gamer hours upon hours of fun.

So, which shooter has the crown? I'll say ... it's a draw. While "Bioshock" is definitely in the running to capture Game of the Year honors, "Halo 3" has the shock and awe to win the masses.

Let me head to the Man Space and get back to you with the verdict.

Why should I care: Have you been under a rock? The "Halo" franchise is THE most popular series on the Xbox. "Halo 3" has over 1 million - yes - 1 million preorders, according to Microsoft and is expected to slow Sony Playstation 3 sales to a crawl.

The good: One of the most anticipated titles EVER on the 360 - sweet, crisp graphics, stellar multiplayer, create - mod a map, intense gameplay, tons of new vehicles and weapons, and the list goes on and on ...

The bad: The bad rubber tab in the limited edition tin - the stuttering gameplay when it loads a new region - the horrendous load times for multiplayer maps.

The ugly: My Master Chief, during the frag fest, got hit soooooo hard, he went vertical like 30 feet. Thanks, Phil. And my *so-called* video that looks like a Jackal from "Halo."

The verdict? 9.8 (out of 10) - Master Chief really shines in the *final* chapter of "Halo." The rich graphics, killer sounds and tons of new features make it, by far, the best "Halo" yet. However, the load times for multiplayer maps, and the stuttering during gameplay when another region loads are not acceptable. Though minor, it's the reason it didn't get a perfect score. For the Xbox, it was acceptable. For a next-gen console? No.

If you do get a copy of "Halo 3," I definitely recommend getting the Limited Edition for $69.99. The extra $10 is worth it, and as long as the discs aren't scratched, it's a killer bargain.

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