Review: “Halo 3”

“To war… *click*”

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the few who still hasn’t played Campaign but wants to, you might not want to read this review right now. It contains spoilers for the whole Campaign.)

Like a lot of Halo fans, I closely followed the development of Halo 3. I watched all the ViDocs. I listened to all the podcasts. I read the EGM articles. I watched G4TV’s E3 coverage just to see the Halo 3 Campaign trailer. And of course, I participated in the public beta. After all those months of waiting, September 25 finally arrived. I stood outside of GameStop that night to pick up my copy of Halo 3 (Legendary Edition, of course). Now that Halo 3 has been out for several months, I feel that I’ve gotten familiar enough with the game to offer my thoughts on it. This is rather late for a review, but I prefer not to do “first impressions” or anything like that, at least not with a game series like Halo which I’ve invested a lot of time and interest in. I like to get familiar with whatever I review. Plus I’ve been preoccupied with other projects.

So, how does Halo 3 stack up against the first two games? As many who are familiar with me or my writings know, I regard Halo 1 as one of my all-time favorite games, and one of the best FPSs ever made. As for Halo 2, while I enjoy it and consider its graphics, music, and story to be excellent, I regard it as inferior to the original due to such things as an excessively linear Campaign and a number of changes made to the gameplay, which I described in detail in my September 2006 article “My Thoughts on the Halo Series: An Open Letter to Bungie.” In that same article, I also talked about what changes and additions I think should have been made to Halo 3 to make it a better game than Halo 2. Did things turn out the way I would have liked? Not quite.

Halo 3 falls somewhere between the first two games in terms of how good it is. While it corrects many of Halo 2’s flaws and has overall better gameplay and also brings some great new stuff to the table, it has flaws of its own that keep me from regarding it as being of the same caliber as Combat Evolved. Of course, while I could just say “I like Halo 3 more than Halo 2 but not as much as Halo 1,” and leave it at that, it’s not like me to be so simple and concise in my writings. Like the rest of my articles, this review will go rather in-depth, so expect a long read. While it won’t be as long as my “Open Letter” article (it has about two-thirds the word count), it will have a similar layout, being divided into several sections each devoted to a particular aspect of the game (though some sections will have interconnecting material).


The Master Chief is back again to kick ass and take names. But does Halo 3 kick as much ass as he does? Read on to find out. (click image for full size)

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Technical Aspects
General Gameplay
Campaign
Multiplayer
Extra Features & Miscellaneous
Conclusion

TECHNICAL ASPECTS

Let’s start with the basic components of the game’s inner workings: graphics, sound, and physics. Like Halo 2, Halo 3 uses a proprietary graphics engine coupled with a middleware physics engine. But, being a more recent game on a newer system, it has advanced in these areas.

Graphics

Halo 3 is one of the most impressive-looking games I’ve seen this console generation. While it doesn’t exhibit quite the same graphical horsepower of other contemporary shooters like Gears of War and BioShock, it still has the top-notch quality one would expect from a next-gen Halo game, and is in many ways superior to its peers. The art direction is incredible as always, with beautifully designed environments and imaginative character and mechanical designs. The verdant jungle of Sierra 117, the Forerunner architecture on the Ark and Installation 04-II, the grotesque Flood infestations on High Charity, and the amazingly detailed backgrounds and sweeping vistas throughout the whole game are all incredible. While many if not most shooters these days go for a gritty aesthetic that employs almost nothing but brown, grey, and black (plus red for blood), I applaud Bungie for going against the grain and making a shooter that makes good use of color to complement its wonderful art. The game is also highly-detailed on the smallest scales, just like the first two games were, and textures are of very high quality. Objects such as weapons are nicely designed and textured despite their small size, and grass and other foliage are well-implemented. Explosions look spectacular as well, whether it’s the electrically-charged blast from a plasma grenade or the massive conflagration from a destroyed Scarab. The lighting and particle effects are great, too, and the HDR was very well done, as are other graphical tricks like motion blur and depth of field (the latter in cutscenes only). And, of course, there’s the water, which is perhaps the best video game water around today, surpassing even that of BioShock’s, which, while well-made and perhaps as good or better-looking from a strictly aesthetic viewpoint, was largely non-interactive. Halo 3’s water is very dynamic and has waves, turbulence, and other features that make it very convincing.

Finally, another place Halo 3 excels at is its draw distance. While games like the Unreal Engine 3-powered Gears of War — widely regarded as the bar for graphical quality for current-gen shooters (Crysis doesn’t count, being a PC-exclusive title geared for high-end systems) — are praised for their detail, not only do they often have intentionally limited color pallets, but so they also have relatively low draw distance. They take place mainly in small arenas and narrow corridors, with little to nothing in the way of large, open environments. Their backgrounds are often poorly detailed as well. Halo 3, on the other hand, has a massive draw distance that extends quite a few in-game miles. Unlike its prequels, which used matte paintings for distant backgrounds due to technological limitations, Halo 3’s backgrounds are composed mainly of actual stage geometry, with matte paintings being relatively few in number. Distant islands, mountains, and artificial structures are all actual objects. Even the skies are real 3-D constructs. While they can’t ever be interacted with during gameplay, they certainly boost the immersion factor by making it feel like I’m playing in a living, breathing environment.

There are only a couple of minor issues I have with Halo 3’s graphics. First off, though the game does look very nice, Bungie didn’t reach their own bar they set with the Halo 3 announce trailer. One has only compare that trailer to the end cutscene on The Storm. Second, the frame rate goes down noticeably during a couple of the cutscenes. Third, while Halo 3 doesn’t have the “pop-in” of textures like Halo 2 did, it has a similar “phasing-in” of certain objects. For example, I noticed the bodies of some enemies I killed slowly materializing and de-materializing as I walked towards or away from them. This wasn’t at a long distance either. It was rather close up. Some foliage also shows this “phase-in.” I find this quite odd considering the draw distance Halo 3’s graphics engine is capable of. Fortunately, it’s nowhere near as prominent as Halo 2’s pop-in, which was a major blemish on an otherwise very good-looking game. Third, certain character animations seem kind of off in some parts. For example, during his speech on the view screen at the beginning of Crow’s Nest, Truth’s movements seemed rather rapid and artificial, unlike the slower, more fluid motions he had in Halo 3. Finally, while the spark effects are improved from Halo 2, they still aren’t near as good as Halo 1’s. Overall, though, these problems are only small flaws on Halo 3’s otherwise superb graphics.

(Further reading: “The Graphical Evolution of the Halo Series”)

Music, Sound, and Voice Acting

One of my favorite things about the Halo series is its music, and Halo 3 doesn’t disappoint. Bungie composer Marty O’Donnell and his partner Michael Salvatori have once again created one of the finest musical scores in contemporary games. Advances in technology have resulted in improved production values as well, and the score’s quality is on par with the works of Nobuo Uematsu and many Hollywood composers of note. While many familiar themes — “A Walk in the Woods/Heretic, Hero,” “Under Cover of Night,” “On a Pale Horse,” “Leonidas,” and the all-too familiar Halo theme (featured as the tracks “Truth & Reconciliation Suite” and “Halo” from the Halo: Combat Evolved OST), among others — are revisited, Halo 3 introduces new themes of its own, such as “To Turn a Tide,” “Farthest Outpost,” and the ubiquitous “Finish the Fight” fanfare. As in the past, the music is very eclectic, and includes bombastic orchestrations, haunting vocal arrangements, and techno that ranges from subdued etherealness to dark menace. Halo 3’s music is among the best of the best, and I made it a point to get the soundtrack as soon as I could. It is currently one of my most frequently-played albums.

Halo 3’s sound effects are great as well. Explosions and gunfire sound much deeper and have more bass than before. There are also some gruesome, fleshy sounds whenever someone is ran over by a vehicle, stuck with a spike grenade, or shot by a sniper rifle. Also, there’s that cool little beeping sound made whenever someone is stuck by a plasma grenade. Finally, probably the most notable aspect of Halo 3’s sound design is the way gunfire sounds different depending on distance. For example, the sniper rifle’s loud blast sounds like a distant, sharp pop from way off.

The voice acting is, as always, very good. The dialogue is well-written as well, even the little one-liners in the combat dialogue. The Marines have many great and funny lines (“Tank beats everything!”), as do the Grunts (“Feet, don’t fail me now!”). Most of the main cast returns, including Steve Downes, Jen Taylor, Keith David, David Scully, Ron Perlman, Robert Davi, Dee Baker, and Tim Dadabo, all of whom had stellar performances. The supporting cast is great as well, and includes series regulars like Pete Stacker and Andy McKaige, as well as new talent like veteran voice actors John DiMaggio and Steve Blum, and even cast members from other popular series, such as Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk from Firefly, Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Galactica, and several of the guys from Red vs. Blue (where’d David Cross go, though?). Two of the main characters were recast, with Justis Bolding taking over the role of Miranda Keyes from Julie Benz, and Terrence “General Zod” Stamp taking over the role of the High Prophet of Truth from Michael Wincott. While I like the voice acting in Halo 3, I’ve taken exception to the latter recasting. Wincott’s performance as Truth in Halo 2 was outstanding. He pretty much defined the character, much like how Steve Downes, Keith David, and Dave Scully defined their characters. While Wincott’s Truth was a manipulative, silver-tongued schemer and opportunist, Stamp’s rendition of the character makes him sound more like just another old, deluded religious zealot, much like Regret from Halo 2, only more haggard-sounding. Truth just doesn’t feel like the same character. It’s not that Stamp is a bad voice actor. It’s simply that he wasn’t suitable for the role of Truth. I missed Wincott’s presence greatly, and I really wish he could’ve been able to come back to perform Truth in Halo 3.

There is also one technical issue with the voicing, and that is the fact that combat dialogue isn’t loud enough. If it’s being broadcast over a com-link, I can hear it just fine, but if it’s a person right there talking to you, or if it’s coming from a radio (like on a crashed ship), it’s often very hard to make out what they’re saying without cutting the TV or stereo up really loud. It’s as if they’re mumbling half the time. This problem is most frequent with Marines and the Arbiter. I’m not sure if it’s the music or ambient sound drowning them out, or the dialogue is naturally that low of a volume, but I don’t like the fact that I have to turn my volume up higher than normal to hear what’s being said. This was never a problem in Halo 1 or Halo 2. Similarly, the sermons that Truth broadcasts via hologram on several occasions throughout the game are tough to hear, as they often begin in the middle of combat while the player is a good distance away from the holographic emitter thing. This isn’t a technical issue with the sound, but rather a timing issue. In Halo 2, Regret’s sermons never started until the player had eliminated all the nearby enemies.

Physics

Like Halo 2, Halo 3 uses the Havok physics engine. However, as a game three years more recent, the version it uses is more advanced (IIRC, it uses Havok 4.0, in contrast to Havok 2.0 which was used in Halo 2). The physics in Halo 3 are more comprehensive than ever before, and are not limited to vehicles, crates, and other commonplace objects of that scale. Small, round objects like grenades and equipment roll downhill. Pieces of debris can be blown around by explosions, with sometimes disastrous and/or funny results, most notably the now infamous “death by traffic cone.” Water can carry away bodies and weapons and flows around objects. Dead bodies can be knocked around by melees (this was actually in Halo 2, though it only affected Grunt, Jackal, and Drone corpses, and even then only when struck by weapons with powerful melees like a rocket launcher or sword). The death animations are overall well-done, and scripted animations are generally used only at the beginning of a death, with ragdoll physics governing the rest of the sequence. However, dead bodies that are thrown through the air or knocked off a ledge seem to go rigid after a few seconds and exhibit no spin until they react with part of the stage geometry. There’s also a small bug where if you snipe an enemy in the head, they’ll sometimes be launched into the air only to teleport back down to the ground.

While Halo 3’s physics really aren’t a massive leap forward, they’re certainly very comprehensive and have noticeably benefited from the last three years of technical advancement, and are overall very good and what I’d expect from a current-gen Halo game.

GENERAL GAMEPLAY

Now we get to what matters most. A game can have all the great graphics and sound in the world and/or a compelling story, but those are just bells & whistles that add to the immersion and atmosphere of the title. While those things are important, they don’t mean much of anything if the game plays poorly. Halo 3 is a great technical and artistic achievement, but how does it play? I will now compare and contrast each of Halo 3’s gameplay elements to what we saw in the first two games. (Note: All ranges are determined via the sniper rifle’s range indicator.)

Melee Attacks

The melee attacks were probably my biggest problem with Halo 2’s core gameplay. This was due to the horribly random lunge ability that was introduced. The melee lunge, which had a maximum range of about 4 meters, not to mention an exceptionally wide angle which allowed it to strike enemies off to one’s side so long as they were within the player’s field of view (the range was reduced the greater the angle, though), would frequently fall short of an enemy or bounce off of them — even if they were stationary, like a sleeping Grunt, for instance — or send the player flying past their enemy, which could leave them wide open and sometimes resulted in sending them flying off of a ledge and perhaps to certain death. Overall, it was very unpredictable. Even when it did succeed in actually hitting an enemy, there’s the fact that the lunge is computer-controlled — once the player is within range and hits B, they are automatically propelled bodily into the enemy —, which means there’s little timing or skill involved to successfully land a melee attack. Furthermore, host advantage played a huge role for melee combat during online play. This maddeningly chaotic and skill-mitigating disaster made me despise close-quarters combat in Halo 2.

In Halo 3, the melee lunge has returned and is nearly identical in its basic mechanics. It has a maximum range of 4.87 meters (approx. 16 feet) and it still has a wide angle. During the beta, it seemed that the randomness element from Halo 2 had been eliminated. Indeed there was almost no chance of the lunge missing. All the crap with melees bouncing off people and sending you flying off ledges was no more. While this was certainly not the optimum melee system (more on this in a bit), it was certainly preferable to all the random thrashing about that was in Halo 2.

However, the release version of Halo 3 introduced a new form of randomness by way of a health-based system that affects simultaneous melees. It can be summed up by the phrase “He who has more health wins.” If two players are weak enough to where a single melee can kill them, and they melee each other at approximately the same time, the player with less health will die (I’m not sure what the rules are if they happen to have the same amount of health), even if it’s a difference of only one hit point. It’s often impossible to be sure if you’ve done more damage than your opponent, particularly if you both have comparable weapons and started shooting at about the same time, so it’s frequently a total crapshoot as to who survives in the event of simultaneous melees. Personally, I think the “who has more health” system for resolving simultaneous melees, while better than the “who melees first” situation in Halo 2 where host advantage plays a major role, is inferior to how things worked in the first game. In Halo 1, when two players who are weak enough for a melee to kill them melee each other at the same time, they both died. That’s the best way of dealing with the issue of simultaneous melees.

Fortunately, Bungie altered the melee system in the first auto-update. Instead of simultaneous melees being resolved by having the player with the least health die, both players will die if their remaining health is close enough to each other (an amount about one quarter the total amount of default health & shields). While I still think it’d be better if both players died if they’re weak enough, rather than by having some arbitrary difference in health levels determine who wins the encounter, the current solution for determining what happens in the event of simultaneous melees is better than it was before the update.

Of course, even ignoring the simultaneous melee resolution system, there’s still the biggest flaw with Halo 3’s melees: they still lunge. Since they lack the random, finicky quality of Halo 2’s melees when it comes to connecting with an enemy, there’s almost no chance of missing a melee once within the proper range. There’s still little in the way of timing or skill, as the computer is doing most of the work. The only thing the player has to do is be in range. For example, if your enemy is weak enough (six AR rounds worth of damage or more to shields) and you attempt a melee attack, you are almost guaranteed a kill, as that lunge isn’t going to miss, unless you are unfortunate enough to get caught on a piece of stage geometry. To add to the skill-mitigating nature of the lunge, the melee attacks are also disproportionately strong compared to their ease of use. Technically, they are about as strong as they’ve always been (the damage is about the same as a jumping melee in Halo 1). It’s just that the damage is a bit excessive considering how little effort it takes to land a melee attack in Halo 3. Since it’s so easy to melee someone now, melees should inflict somewhat less damage than they currently do (maybe about three-quarters), though heavy weapons like the rocket launcher, Brute Shot, and Spartan Laser should inflict the same amount of damage they currently do.

Personally, I don’t know why Bungie didn’t just reinstate non-lunging melees like those in the first game. They took proper timing to execute properly, plus they had a decent contact range that didn’t require a lunge to close the distance between you and the target. Whenever you missed someone in Halo 1, it was always your fault; you were either not in range or you didn’t time it right. If you did time it right and were within the proper range, you’d always land the hit. No random BS. Halo 1’s melees were as close to perfect as you could get, and to this day, I still don’t get why Bungie saw fit to create that damnable melee lunge. It’s an inherently flawed design, not to mention it’s something I’ve never seen in any other FPS of note. While it’s obviously too late for them to get rid of the melee lunge in Halo 3, hopefully if Bungie does another game in the Halo-verse (or creates an FPS based off a new IP), they’ll end up ditching the whole melee lunge concept and bring back non-lunging melees. For now, though, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. At least Halo 3’s melees aren’t as bad as Halo 2’s, and the “fix” Bungie implemented in the first auto-update is an improvement to the original “who has more health” system.

Dual Wielding

Dual-wielding makes its return in Halo 3. However, it isn’t the prominent feature it was in Halo 2 thanks to Bunging making single-wield weapons (usually the AR and sometimes the BR) the default spawn weapon in practically every gametype. However, dual-wielding isn’t completely dead, and it has its place. It’s primarily for close-range domination, as most dual-wield combos are able to outgun most single-wield weapons in close quarters (the exceptions are the sword, shotgun, and hammer). Also, many dual-wieldable weapons are found together in pairs of like weapons (e.g., two SMGs sitting next to each other) in multiplayer. These changes give some incentive to attempt dual-wielding. The increased firepower dual wielding provides still comes at the expense of not being able to melee or throw grenades. There are some issues with a couple of the dual-wieldable weapons, particularly the Mauler (see the Weapons section below for specific examples), but overall, the dual-wielding mechanic is improved from Halo 2 since it has been deemphasized in favor of single-wield weapon starts, and has been relegated to a very specific role. Of course, I thought it would’ve been better if Bungie had simply ditched dual wielding in its entirety, and made weapons like the Spiker, plasma rifle, and plasma pistol all good single-wield weapons, much like they did with the Needler.

Weapons

Halo 3 brings back many weapons from the previous games and introduces several new ones, including an entire new class labeled “support weapons.” It has by far the largest arsenal of any Halo game to date, with a total of 23 weapons (not including grenades). But, like Halo 2’s arsenal, I have some issues with certain weapons. Some of the returning weapons have improved, while others have either stayed the same or gotten worse. Also, a couple of the new weapons leave much to be desired.

Perhaps the biggest issue affecting Halo 3’s arsenal as a whole is the fact that aim assist was reduced considerably, which might have been a good thing except that Bungie also decided to eliminate hitscan, which was used in Halo 2, and made all the weapons fire “projectiles” like they do in Halo 1, meaning that the player’s shots have actual travel time. In addition projectile speeds are generally slower than in Halo 1. For example, the BR and Carbine’s rounds travel at about 540 m/sec, or 18 meters per frame, vs. 900 m/sec (30 m per frame) for Halo 1’s pistol. When playing online, this has a bigger impact on gameplay than one might expect. The delay firing the weapon and the shots actually landing, combined with the reduced aim assist, means the weapons are generally less consistent and effective and have an almost “mushy” quality to them. This is especially a factor when playing online as sub-optimal network conditions can make these weapons even more inconsistent. If they were going to eliminate hitscan and reduce aim assist, at the very least they should have made weapons like the BR and Carbine more accurate to compensate, but they didn’t even do this.

Of course, there’s more to the weapons than how they function in gameplay. From an aesthetic viewpoint, the weapons are more detailed than ever thanks to the 360’s graphical capabilities. Also, the reloading animations are improved from Halo 2, where the player’s avatar (i.e., Chief/Spartan or Arbiter/Elite) never cycled the bolt on the rifles or pumped the shotgun when reloading these weapons from empty. However, the reloading animations aren’t accurate representations of weapon reloading, unlike in Halo 1 where the weapon reloading animations almost perfectly replicated what we would see in real life. For example, the sniper rifle’s bolt is never pulled back when the weapon is reloaded from empty, and the shotgun is pumped every time it is reloaded, even if there is still a shell in the chamber. I realize this is relatively trivial compared to many other things in the game, but the accurate reloading animations in Halo 1 really added to the depth of that game. At least Halo 3’s reloading animations aren’t as stagnant as Halo 2’s

Also, there’s the new feature where if you have two weapons, the one that’s not in use can be seen on a player’s back or leg (depending on size). I think this is pretty neat, as weapons don’t simply appear and disappear into and out of hammerspace, plus it actually lends some strategy to the gameplay by letting you know what weapons your opponent may have slung or holstered.

As I did in my “Open Letter” article and my review of the Halo 3 beta, I’ll now address each weapon (or weapon type) specifically in its own subsection, going over whatever pros and/or cons they have, and what changes I think should be made in future updates.

1. Assault Rifle

The Assault Rifle, after having been absent in Halo 2, makes its return in Halo 3, and is the default spawn weapon in most gametypes. It looks the same, but it’s actually a new model (designated the MA5C), complete with a smaller magazine (32 rounds, down from 60) and a few other tweaks. While it’s great to once again have a standalone weapon as the most common spawn weapon, I have mixed feelings about this weapon. It kills very slowly, taking nearly two seconds to kill someone — almost twice as long as it did in Halo 1. Even though it takes the same number of shots to kill someone as it did in Halo 1, its rate of fire has been cut almost in half (8 rounds per second, down from 15 rounds/sec). Of course, this is a common feature of Halo 3’s weapons. Except for power weapons, which are typically able to kill in one shot, Halo 3’s guns do noticeably less damage over time than those in Halo 2 and especially Halo 1.

Another problem is that, despite Bungie’s claims that it was going to be effective at mid-range, it still has rather poor effective range. It is more accurate than it was in Halo 1, but not by a very substantial degree. Based on comparisons of damage over time at a given range between the two games, the AR’s accuracy has increased by about 33% for full-auto and upwards of 50% for short, controlled bursts. While this is a noticeable increase in range, it doesn’t mean much considering the weapon’s low damage over time and the original AR’s pitiful range. At short range, the MA5C is not bad at all and is actually quite effective, but things change at longer ranges (>20 meters). Using short, controlled bursts does greatly improve the AR’s range, but by the time it takes to kill someone, they’ll have already found cover. Also, considering the fact that it’s still a bullet hose and thus essentially a spamfire weapon, a good percentage of the player’s shots will still miss, thus reducing the damage over time even more. While the AR can potentially kill in just under two seconds, in practice it’s going to take around twice as long if not longer to kill someone at longer ranges.

The AR, while a decent weapon, needs an upgrade. Its damage over time needs a boost by either increasing its rate of fire or its per-shot damage, or both. It could also use even greater accuracy than it currently has. That being said, the AR, as it is, is still an overall decent weapon. While I generally dislike gametypes where you start with a bullet hose as opposed to something accurate and headshot-capable like the BR, Carbine, or Halo 1’s M6D pistol, I never feel helpless while using the AR in Halo 3. It’s certainly a hell of a sight better than Halo 2’s lousy SMG, especially considering the fact that the AR is single-wield-only, which has obvious benefits. The AR’s return has done wonders in greatly reducing the “half-gun syndrome” that plagued much of Halo 2’s gameplay.

2. Battle Rifle & Covenant Carbine

I’ve already discussed these weapons at length in my series of articles discussing mid-range weapon balance in the Halo series, so I won’t go in-depth here. Needless to say, there’s room for improvement. As mentioned earlier, more than anything, they needed an increase in accuracy to make up for the lower aim assist and lack of hitscan in Halo 3. Also, the BR should have been made a semi-auto weapon. They’re still some of the best standard-issue weapons in the game, though, and I make frequent use of them due to my preference for mid- to long-range combat. The BR and Carbine are my preferred weapons in most situations when I don’t have a power weapon, and once I do acquire a power weapon, I usually keep one of the two on hand.

If there’s anything Bungie could do to improve these weapons without drastically changing their basic functionality, it’d be to simply remove all shot spread from them. This simple change could go a long way into reducing the spamfire element. I’d also suggest giving the BR a higher rate of fire (2.4 bursts/sec like in Halo 2 instead of the current 2 bursts/sec) and increasing the Carbine’s per-shot power to where it only takes six shots at minimum to kill someone, adjusting the rate of fire if necessary.

3. Shotgun

Halo 3’s shotgun falls in between Halo 1’s and Halo 2’s in how effective it is. The randomness of Halo 2’s shotgun, caused by features like “donut spread” and random pellet counts (3 to 10 per shot, averaging around 6 or 7), was fortunately not carried over to Halo 3. However, the shotgun’s range, while improved somewhat from Halo 2, is still terrible. While it can kill with one or two well-placed shots at 5 meters (similar to Halo 1’s shotgun), the damage it does drops off exponentially at further distances. At 10 meters, it takes around 3 to 5 shots, at 15 meters, it takes around 9 to 12 shots, and at 20 meters, it takes well over two dozen shots, and this is all under optimum conditions. By 25 meters, the pellets literally vanish into thin air. Essentially, the Halo 3 shotgun is practically useless past 10 meters. Compare this to Halo 1, where the shotgun could kill in 2 to 3 shots at 10 meters, 3 to 5 shots at 15 meters, and 4 to 7 shots at 20-25 meters, and the pellets didn’t disappear until around 80 meters.

While its range still sucks, at least the shotgun is more consistent in Halo 3. I’ve so far managed to get 17 Shotgun Sprees and 3 Open Seasons across all my games in Matchmaking, which is more than I can say about Halo 2’s god-awful “slotgun.” Overall, it’s an average weapon — not nearly as good as it was in Halo 1, but somewhat better than it was in Halo 2. Consistency is nice, but it isn’t quite enough to make up for pitiful range. If it’s at all possible, I’d like to see Bungie cut the shot spread on the shotgun in half in a future update.

4. Sniper & Beam Rifles

Sniper weapons are much more difficult to use in Halo 3, thanks to the negligible aim assist, lack of hitscan, and the addition of recoil, which causes noticeable muzzle climb. It takes a lot of practice to snipe proficiently. Indeed, while I was a terrible sniper when the game first came out, I’ve improved a lot, and have managed to acquire quite a few Sniper Sprees and several Sharpshooter medals. The practice of “no-scoping” seems to be more difficult as well, as I’ve both gotten and have been the victim of no-scopes less frequently than in Halo 2. Sniping is overall far more of a challenge in Halo 3 than it was in Halo 2, and that’s a good thing.

Another thing I like about the sniper weapons is that overpenetrating shots have been reintroduced. In Halo 1, the sniper rifle was capable of penetrating unshielded targets. That ability has actually been enhanced in Halo 3, which I really like. Sniper weapons can actually shoot through targets that are fully shielded. I’ve managed several double kills with one shot in multiplayer. If someone is able to line up two or more targets like that, they deserve that multikill.

Also, there are two little details about the sniper rifle I really like. Halo 3 brings back the monitor on the scope, but unlike Halo 2’s full-color display, it’s a green & black wire-frame display, which is pretty neat. Also, the range indicator from Halo 1 has returned, which is something I missed in Halo 2.

My only issue with sniper weapons is the fact that muzzle climb was added to the beam rifle. As a directed-energy weapon, it should experience no recoil. Considering the fact that its ammo is much more limited this time around (the battery is good for no more than 10 shots in multiplayer), not to mention its different firing mode and the fact that it cannot be reloaded, it should lack recoil in order to compensate. Also, I’ve been wondering why the beam rifle is so rare in multiplayer. It’s only on Snowbound on default, and on “Team Covies” in BTB. Hopefully, in a future update, recoil will be removed from the beam rifle, and the weapon itself will be more common.

5. Grenades

Halo 3 adds two new grenades to the mix, at the cost of being able to carry only two of each type. The fragmentation and plasma grenades from the two previous games make their expected returns, and then there are the newcomers: the spike and incendiary grenades.

Fragmentation and plasma grenades are about the same as they were in Halo 2. Frags still arm when they first come in contact with the ground, unlike in Halo 1 when they didn’t arm until they came to rest. Both grenades still have short fuzes and the same small blast radii. The plasma grenade is still also capable of killing a fully-shielded enemy in multiplayer if they are standing at the blast center, which kind of defeats the purpose of the plasma’s distinguishing characteristic: having to actually stick the grenade on your opponent’s body for an instant kill. It really should do no more damage than a frag grenade when it doesn’t stick to opponents. Personally, I wish the frag and plasma grenades functioned identically to their Halo 1 counterparts, though at this point, I’d simply settle for an increase in their blast radii. One thing I really like about these grenades, though, is the increase in the amount of force they project against things. This comes in handy against enemy vehicles. In Halo 1, grenades could easily flip vehicles over, but in Halo 2, they barely budged anything other than the lightest objects. In Halo 3, their blasts are once again capable of destabilizing or overturning Warthogs and other light vehicles, which is a good thing (though oddly enough you still can’t grenade weapons to yourself from a distance like in Halo 1).

The spike grenade is an interesting new device. Instead of having splash damage like other explosives, the spike grenade expels a cone of shrapnel when it detonates. This shrapnel is dangerous, being capable of ricocheting off walls, and anybody that catches the full force of the blast will die instantly. Also, the spike grenade is, like the plasma grenade, capable of sticking to enemies and vehicles. However, the spike grenade’s shrapnel cone seems like it could be more effective. Its narrow angle makes it very difficult to use offensively, thus making the spike grenade a mainly defensive weapon when not used to stick opponents. Perhaps the angle of the shrapnel cone could be widened somewhat, and more spikes could be added to the blast.

Finally, there’s the incendiary grenade (a.k.a. “firebomb” or “flame grenade”), which was not announced until a few weeks before Halo 3 was released. I really like this weapon due to its unconventional dynamics and the fact that it’s a fire-based weapon (FIRE! FIRE! Huh huh!). It can be stuck to an enemy for a near-instant kill, much like plasma and spike grenades. Indeed, this is by far the best way to make full use of the device. Also, rather than conventional splash damage, the firebomb leaves a pool of flame on any surface it strikes. These flames, which persist for several seconds after detonation, can cause significant damage to anyone who walks through them. The only thing I dislike about incendiary grenades is the fact that they’re so rare. In Campaign, they are only found on three levels. They can be acquired from Brute Stalkers on The Ark and The Covenant, and several are found lying about on the stage Cortana, but that’s it. In multiplayer, they are not present on any map by default, and are only available in custom games via Forge. I hope that Bungie adds flame grenades to matchmaking in the future. Not only would it be great to actually make use of that fourth grenade slot, but the fact that incendiaries were kept secret for so long just for there to be a dearth of them in the game is something that really bugs me. Unfortunately, according to a recent Weekly Update, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ever be added to Matchmaking, as they’re supposedly “performance hogs” (too graphically intensive, maybe?) which presumably would cause “significant horror in a big matchmaking game,” perhaps by increasing lag or causing slowdown. Of course, this could be resolved by having only one fire grenade spawn per map, and making their respawn time slower than other grenades. That way, there wouldn’t be a ton of firebombs being tossed around all the time, though we’d still have access to them. I don’t know one way or the other, but I’d imagine this situation wouldn’t detract from the game any more than the flamethrower does. Also, since the performance issues are apparently only a problem is “big matchmaking games” (whatever that means), and according to a friend, they were used in relatively large numbers in a medium-sized custom game with no problems, I don’t see why they couldn’t be placed in playlists with small numbers of people (e.g., Double Team, Lone Wolves, and perhaps also 4v4 playlists like Team Slayer) on a trial basis to see how they’d work out. Of course, this is with the caveat that they’re not as common as frag, plasmas, or spike ‘nades on any given map, just to make sure they’re not being thrown around as frequently as the others.

6. Plasma Pistol

The plasma pistol is yet another weapon I have mixed feelings about. The best change made to it is by far the reduction of the amount of homing on the overcharged shot. While the overcharged shot was almost impossible to dodge in Halo 2, which resulted in the aptly-named “noob combo,” it has little homing in Halo 3, and it’s hard to get a lock. In fact, it seems to have even less homing than it did in Halo 1, which I think is nerfing it a little too much. Essentially, the overcharged shot is good only at close ranges, or against stationary or unaware enemies. Still, it’s better to have almost no homing rather than the excessive homing found in Halo 2.

Other things I dislike are the facts that the battery is constantly and rapidly drained when overcharging the weapon — which makes little sense given the negligible homing the overcharged shot has — and that the overcharged shot is still incapable of damaging unshielded enemies. (As a side note, the overcharged shot is also lacking aesthetically. It looks like a tiny green fuzz ball, rather than the sparking green comet-like blast of Halo 1.)

However, the charged shot has a new ability that I really like. It is now capable of disabling vehicles for several seconds. This feature has come in handy on quite a few occasions.

The standard fire mode of the plasma pistol is something that Bungie really dropped the ball on. Even when dual wielded (which is something you don’t get to do much since there’s normally only one plasma pistol on most maps), the plasma pistol is so weak that even with a really quick trigger finger it takes way too long to kill someone with its normal shots. Without the stun ability the normal shots had in Halo 1, the plasma pistol becomes practically useless aside from the overcharged shot’s abilities, which was also the case in Halo 2.

Personally, I think Bungie should have made the plasma pistol identical to its Halo 1 incarnation. Both its normal and overcharged shots should have the exact same offensive abilities as in the first game, stun included. I’d still keep the Halo 3 plasma pistol’s ability to disable vehicles, though. The plasma pistol would have been an effective, well-rounded weapon if this had been the case. In fact, it probably could’ve been reverted to a single-wield weapon just like the Needler. However, while it’s certainly not the noob weapon it was in Halo 2, the plasma pistol’s Halo 3 iteration leaves much to be desired.

7. Rocket Launcher

The rocket launcher has been improved from Halo 2, mainly due to the removal of the ability to home in on vehicles. This ability has now been transferred to the missile pod (see below), thus making the rocket launcher nearly identical to its Halo 1 incarnation. However, the blast radii of the rockets are still rather small. While I think the one-hit-kill radius should stay the same, the outermost parts of the blast should be extended by another meter or two. Other than that minor gripe, the rocket launcher is about as good as I could hope for. It’s still one of the ultimate anti-personnel weapons, and despite the lack of homing, it’s still a great anti-vehicle weapon. Not only is a single direct hit enough to destroy light vehicles, but, like the frag and plasma grenades, the rockets also project more force than they did in Halo 2, giving them the ability to flip light vehicles much more easily.

There is one new feature to the rockets, and that is the fact that they can be deflected by explosions, the shockwave from a gravity hammer, or a sniper rifle round. While it’s an… interesting addition to gameplay, I don’t care for it given the explosion-filled madness of Team Rockets or even a regular Team Slayer match. I think that only the hammer should’ve been able to deflect rockets.

8. Needler

Out of all the returning weapons, the Needler has been improved the most. While it was regarded as a joke in multiplayer in the previous Halo games, it’s actually a very effective weapon in Halo 3. This is due to the increase in homing, needle velocity, and the duration needles remain stuck in opponents. Overall, it’s one of the best mid-range weapons. It’s not too effective, though, as it’s much harder to use in close quarters and is ineffective at very long ranges (where it’s incapable of homing), plus you pretty much have to keep a “red reticle” lock to get it to home properly. But at mid-range, though, it’s a hard weapon to defend against when used properly. While it takes little skill to use (it does home in on targets, after all), it’s not exactly the most ubiquitous weapon, and you’re likely to only get one, maybe two kills per magazine before having to reload, and like most other magazine-fed weapons, the Needler starts with three magazines, with four magazines being the maximum a player can carry. Overall, Bungie did a very good job upgrading the Needler, and it’s about as good as I could have hoped for.

9. Spartan Laser

The Spartan Laser — a.k.a. “splazer,” or “laser cannon,” as I call it — is essentially an anti-vehicle sniper weapon. It’s accurate, equipped with a 2x scope, and is at least as powerful as the rocket launcher. It will destroy any medium or light vehicle in a single shot, and its immense power makes it a very potent anti-infantry weapon as well. The laser beam is also capable of penetrating multiple targets. However, the anti-personnel abilities of the laser are mitigated somewhat by the time it take to charge the weapon up (three seconds, compared to most weapons that can kill in less than that), as well as the fact that, unlike the rocket launcher, it requires more aim and has negligible splash damage, plus its battery is good for five shots at most. Also, the laser beam is a single, thin beam, unlike in the beta where it fired off several tightly-clustered beams. Overall, it’s a good weapon, and I enjoy using it, particularly on big, vehicle-filled maps like Sandtrap, as well as during VIP gametypes.

My only real complaint is the fact that it’s very rare in Campaign. You get one at the start of The Covenant, and after you exhaust its five-shot battery, that’s it. You get one more in the last stage when you fight Guilty Spark, and you lose it right after that encounter. I wish it had shown up a little more frequently in Campaign.

10. Mauler

The Mauler, a dual-wieldable Brute shotgun-pistol, is new to Halo 3. It looks and sounds awesome and has several features that keep it from being a direct clone of the human shotgun, including a faster rate of fire, lower damage, quicker reloading (due to having a detachable magazine), slightly larger shot spread, and the aforementioned ability to dual-wield it. Unfortunately, it’s also perhaps the most broken weapon in the game. While weaker than the shotgun, it still does a large amount of damage at close range. A single shot at close range can completely disable shields (and probably does damage to health as well), which is more than enough to where a follow-up melee will kill the opponent. This attack form is so fast and powerful that it’s even capable of defeating the shotgun, sword, and hammer. The Mauler-melee combo’s effectiveness is amplified by the fact that the melee lunge is almost incapable of missing. This makes the Mauler-melee combo one of the most abused facets of Halo 3’s gameplay, and it makes close-quarters combat not all that enjoyable. While the Mauler is dual-wieldable, there’s really not much incentive to wield a pair of them. While dual Maulers can kill instantly with simultaneous well-placed shots up close, a single Mauler can still defeat it, since if someone dual-wielding them doesn’t kill the person using a single Mauler outright, the latter player can simply follow up his shot with a melee, which is quicker and takes less effort thanks to the melee lunge. This wouldn’t be that bad of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the Mauler is a very common weapon in multiplayer. On most maps, it’s at least as common as the AR, BR, or other dual-wieldable weapons.

Fortunately, Bungie appears to be gradually phasing out Maulers on several maps, including Construct and Guardian. However, they wouldn’t have had to do this had they made the weapon right in the first place. An interesting feature of dual-wieldable weapons in the Halo series is that some of them do differing amounts of per-shot damage depending on if the player is wielding one or two of them. A single Mauler should do a good bit less damage that it currently does. At most, it should only do as much damage as six AR rounds, which is the minimum damage required in order to get a kill with a follow up melee. This would require the player to get even closer and get better with their shot placement. A pair of Maulers, though, should still do enough damage to kill instantly when fired at the same time. Personally, I think the Mauler would have been fine as-is if Bungie had abandoned the melee lunge for Halo 1-style melees.

11. Energy Sword & Gravity Hammer

The sword is functionally the same as it was in Halo 2. It has the same 8-meter, physics-defying lunge (plus a quicker, shorter-range slash), and is just as powerful as ever at close range. However, it has received several downgrades which keep it from being the overpowered “noob stick” it was in Halo 2. It has a limited power supply, which is only good for ten kills at most. It also has to be fully drawn and activated before the player can attack with it. Finally, the increased efficacy of the shotgun allows the sword to be countered much more effectively.

Halo 3 has also introduced a new “sword clash” system in which two players armed with swords will bounce off of each other if they lunge or slash at each other at the same time. I’ve only played a few all-swords matches, but so far, I don’t much care for the clash system. There’s been many occasions where I and my opponent constantly bounce off each other (and we both know to hit B after the initial lunge), neither of us dying until either one of us makes a mistake, bounces off at a bad angle, or are killed by another enemy who took advantage of the situation. I suppose this feature has its purpose (what that is, I don’t know), but it’s really annoying.

The gravity hammer is new to Halo 3, and is the Brute equivalent to the sword. Like the sword, the hammer is battery-powered. The hammer also lunges whenever the right trigger is pulled, and a direct hit from the hammer results in an instant kill, but the lunge’s range is much shorter. What makes the hammer different is the fact that it produces a massive shockwave, which is an area-affect attack. If the player is up close but missed hitting his opponent with the hammer, the shockwave will cause some damage and knock the enemy back a good bit. This is particularly useful in stages with lethal drop-offs (e.g. Epitaph, Guardian), but can be a liability in close quarters if there are allies around. The shockwave can also deflect grenades and rockets, and can even knock vehicles around. In Campaign, the hammer is very effective against multiple enemies, particularly the Flood, unlike the sword which can kill only one enemy at a time. The shockwave uses up less battery power than a sword strike, but unlike the sword, which uses up battery power only when it actually kills someone, the hammer consumes energy every time the trigger is pulled. Pressing B allows the player to strike with the hammer’s handle, which does less damage and produces no shockwave, but expends no energy.

Overall, the hammer is an interesting new melee weapon, and has plenty to distinguish it gameplay-wise from the sword.

12. Fuel Rod Cannon

The fuel rod cannon (or “FRC” for short), the primary Covenant heavy weapon, makes its return in Halo 3. It functions pretty much the same as it did in Halo 2, and even has a very slight tracking ability when used against vehicles. This weapon is relatively abundant in bigger, outdoors stages. The FRC is one of my favorite weapons, and I have a habit of collecting them whenever I come across one. Also, if I’m driving a Warthog, I try to equip the side passenger with a FRC. Combining a fuel rod gunner with the LAAG gunner in back makes the Warthog more than a match for any enemy vehicle.

However, like in Halo 2, the FRC is so far not available by default in any multiplayer map or gametype. Unlike Halo 2, however, it can be placed in custom games (via Forge). After testing it in customs, I don’t see any reason why it can’t be placed in Matchmaking. It’s less powerful than the rocket launcher despite having more ammo, taking two direct hits to kill and enemy. Also, the fuel rods have a smaller blast radius and lower velocity than rockets do. Given these facts, there’s no way it could be considered “overpowered.” I think that Bungie should consider adding the FRC to Matchmaking on a trial basis, just to see how it works out.

13. SMG, Spiker, & Plasma Rifle

The M7 submachine gun, the standard dual-wieldable bullet hose, is back, and with some upgrades. The muzzle climb has been reduced substantially. It now takes a second for the recoil to kick in, and the rate of climb is less pronounced. Also, the unusual “ring spread” from Halo 2, which occurred when firing the SMG in short, controlled bursts, is gone. A single SMG isn’t the most formidable weapon in the game, but it’s somewhat effective at close range, and its 60-round magazine means it has to be reloaded less frequently than any other human weapon.

The plasma rifle is still essentially the “plasma SMG” it was in Halo 2, but it’s been improved as well. It’s certainly more accurate than it was, and it appears to do somewhat more damage. Of course, it’s still a very good shield-breaker weapon.

Finally, there’s the Spiker, the Brute equivalent to the SMG and plasma rifle. While it’s simply another dual-wieldable bullet hose, it has a couple of features that keep it from being completely redundant. For one, it’s more powerful than its siblings. It’s more accurate as well, which is good considering the relatively low velocity of the spikes. The spikes also have a noticeable arcing trajectory, and they can bounce off of walls when fired at them at low angle. Their ability to ricochet has questionable offensive value, but it seems to be effective as suppressive fire.

Since they’re dual-wieldable, these three guns can be mixed and matched with each other, with certain combinations being more effective than others. Dual plasma rifles are by far the weakest when used in multiplayer. However, in Campaign, they are particularly effective on smaller, weaker enemies, and can quickly kill Flood Combat Forms and Sentinels. Dual SMGs are rather effective at close range, and can do more damage over time than the AR can. Also, like dual plasma rifles, dual SMGs are very good against groups of smaller, weaker opponents. Dual Spikers are perhaps the best twinned weapon, as they’re more accurate and do more damage than dual SMGs and especially dual plasma rifles.

However, these pairings are not nearly as powerful as the plasma rifle/SMG and plasma rifle/Spiker combo. While the plasma rifle doesn’t do much damage against health, it can tear through shields in short order, and combined with the superior health damage of the SMG and Spiker, these combos are by far among the most effective close-range methods of attack. While it takes longer to find a plasma rifle to complement one’s SMG or Spiker, it’s definitely worth it. On the occasions I actually decide to engage an enemy in close quarters in multiplayer, I’ll frequently use the plasma rifle/SMG combo if a shotgun or sword isn’t available.

Of course, I think it would have been better if the plasma rifle and Spiker had been good single-wield weapons. That way, they’d be the Covenant equivalents of the AR rather than of the SMG (the SMG, of course, could then be eliminated as a redundancy).

14. Brute Shot

The Brute Shot has been tweaked a bit from Halo 2. Its grenades do less damage now, but the weapon’s ammo capacity has been increased from 4 grenades per belt to 6. It also fires a bit quicker, too. My favorite change by far is the fact that the grenades detonate on impact. This stands in contrast to the Halo 2 Brute Shot, which had very bouncy projectiles. I never really cared much for the Brute Shot in Halo 2, but I make frequent use of it in Halo 3. Overall, I find it to be a good weapon. The only change I would make would be to increase its damage somewhat; 3 direct hits to kill, rather than the current 4, which would make it capable of yielding two even kills per magazine. I’m still satisfied with it as-is, though.

15. M6G Pistol

The M6G Pistol, a.k.a. the Magnum, falls somewhere between Halo 1’s M6D and Halo 2’s M6C in terms of performance. It’s still dual-wieldable and lacks a scope, its accuracy is better than the M6C’s, and its per-shot power falls in between the M6D and M6C. However, it fires much slower than its predecessors, with a rate of fire of about 2 rounds/sec. One notable aspect of the M6G’s firepower is that is does less per-shot damage when dual-wielded. While it takes no less than 5 shots to kill when single-wielded, it takes at least 7 shots when dual-wielded. This results in only a 20% increase in power (5 pulls of the trigger vs. 4). I wouldn’t mind this so much if it weren’t for the M6G’s sluggish rate of fire. Dual pistols do no more damage over time than the AR or BR, in contrast with the other dual-wieldable weapons, which can kill much quicker (particularly dual Maulers, which can kill instantly). This is especially problematic considering the relatively low effective range of the M6G, which is lower than other weapons of comparable accuracy due to lack of a scope. This is not to say that dual M6Gs aren’t effective. It’s just that they aren’t quite effective enough. Even dual M6Cs in Halo 2 were more effective despite their piss-poor accuracy for a semi-auto weapon.

Either one of two things should happen to the M6G in a future update. Either its rate of fire should be increased somewhat (say, to 2.5 rounds/sec), or it should do the same per-shot damage when dual-wielded as it does when single wielded.

16. Sentinel Beam

The Sentinel Beam has been improved quite a bit from its Halo 2 counterpart. It’s much more powerful, though to balance things out, it consumes its battery power much quicker. It’s a very good weapon to use against Brutes and Flood. Sentinels are also quite vulnerable despite it being their own weapon (energy weapons have always been their biggest weakness).

However, the Sentinel Beam is rarely encountered in Halo 3. In Campaign, it is found only in the latter half of the game in somewhat limited quantities (destroyed Sentinels are the main source, though some can be found lying about as normal weapon pickups). It’s completely absent in multiplayer on default settings in all maps and gametypes, but can be added to custom games. As with the incendiary grenades and fuel rod cannon, Bungie should add the Sentinel Beam to Matchmaking in the future.

17. Support Weapons

This is an entirely new class of weapon to the Halo series. They’re very powerful, but they slow down movement and, most notably, shift the player’s viewpoint from first-person to third-person — something that was previously restricted to vehicles. With a couple of exceptions, they are typically found as a turret, which provides them with infinite ammunition. However, removing them from their base to carry them around makes it to where they have a finite ammo supply. When their ammo is exhausted, they become useless as they cannot be reloaded.

The most prominent support weapon is of course the AIE-486H, which is a Gatling gun almost identical to the Warthog’s M41 LAAG. It has a rapid rate of fire and does good per-shot damage, making it a very formidable weapon. It is almost always found as a turret. When removed, it comes with a 200-round ammo belt. Also, in addition to the movement restrictions common to all support weapons, it generates substantial muzzle climb during sustained fire, much like the SMG, which requires the player to continually adjust their aim.

The plasma cannon is essentially a gigantic plasma rifle, and is the Covenant counterpart to the AIE-486H. It has nearly identical offensive capabilities, and is usually found as a turret manned by Grunts, though some Chieftains carry one around as well. However, it’s rather rare in multiplayer, as it’s not found on any map by default.

The missile pod is similar to Halo 2’s rocket launcher in that it is capable of homing in on vehicles. However, it comes with a complement of 8 missiles — it is typically found lying on the ground, and is found as a turret only on the level The Storm — that are noticeably weaker than rockets are. While rockets can destroy most vehicles with a single direct hit, the missile pod can take several direct hits to destroy a vehicle. Also, while the missiles can kill infantry with a single shot, they have practically no splash damage, which almost necessitates getting a direct hit. Overall, it’s a very effective anti-vehicle weapon, and its relatively low per-shot damage (compared to the rockets or laser), very limited ammo capacity, and mobility restrictions mitigate the lack of skill typically required of homing weapons.

Finally, there’s the flamethrower, which is my personal favorite. It has a rather short range and a somewhat limited fuel supply (it’s never found as a turret), but it is extremely deadly. A short burst of fire is enough to kill any enemy, though it takes a couple of seconds for them to die, which gives them the chance to take you down with them. While it’s rather rare — it’s found only on the three Flood-only stages in Campaign, and on Construct in multiplayer — it’s still amusing to go around barbecuing your enemies to death. Burn, baby, burn!


Halo: The Flamethrower! The Kids Love It!

Vehicles

1. Warthog

There’s not much to say about the old ‘hog. It performs about the same as it did in Halo 2. Its weapons are largely unchanged as well. The M41 LAAG is fortunately not as powerful as it was in the Halo 3 beta, though it could still stand to do a bit less damage and/or have less accuracy. The Gauss cannon seems to be the same as it was in Halo 3. It also has a monitor much like that of the sniper rifle, which is a neat addition. Finally, as always, the Warthog’s dashboard is amazingly detailed.

There is also the new troop transport permutation of the Warthog. It lacks weapons, but can carry up to six passengers. Unfortunately, it is very rare, showing up only twice in the whole Campaign (and the second time you can use it, you encounter no enemies), and heavy weapons aren’t quite abundant enough to arm enough passengers to give yourself any kind of decent firepower. It’s also absent in multiplayer — and cannot even be added via Forge — but given the relative uselessness of having, at best, maybe one player armed with a heavy weapon as a passenger (plus, AI are typically better shots when shooting from the passenger seat), with the rest armed with standard-issue weapons, it’s no big loss.

2. Ghost

The Ghost hasn’t changed that much either. It handles pretty much the same as it did in Halo 2, though it seems to hug the ground even tighter, as it’s more prone to flipping when traversing steeply inclined surfaces. Its plasma cannons seem about the same strength also, at least in multiplayer. The only really notable gameplay change is the fact that the fuel tank on the Ghost’s left side is no longer an exploitable weak spot. I actually liked that feature in Halo 2, and I wish it had been retained. Finally, the Ghost’s dashboard display is very impressive-looking, with more detail than ever, including a monitor much like that of the sniper rifle and Gauss cannon.

3. Mongoose

The Mongoose, originally planned for Halo 2 but ultimately scrapped before release, finally makes its appearance in Halo 3. It’s very nimble, and, while its maximum speed is less than the Warthog’s, it can maintain its top speed even when going through water or up all but the steepest hills. However, as it’s small and lightweight (it is an ATV, after all), it is prone to flipping, and explosions can send it flying for a good distance. While it lacks any offensive abilities besides ramming people — which is very difficult to do — you can at least have someone riding on the back, preferably armed with a heavy weapon like a rocket launcher. It’s perhaps most useful for rapid transport, such as running a flag carrier back to your own base in CTF matches, or making your way to a power weapon before an enemy can. Overall, it’s an interesting addition to gameplay.

4. Chopper

The Chopper, which is basically the Brute version of the Ghost, is a pretty awesome vehicle. As it’s not a hovercraft, it cannot strafe, and handles more like a human vehicle. It moves rather slowly compared to other light vehicles, but it is almost impossible to flip it over. It does have a boost feature like the other Covenant vehicles, which makes up for its slow base speed. The boost function ties into the most interesting feature of the Chopper: the massive circular saw-like implement at the front of the vehicle. Using the boost to ram into other vehicles (except tanks) will usually destroy the other vehicle. In addition to its powerful ramming attack, it’s also equipped with a pair of slow-firing but powerful auto-cannons. Overall, the Chopper is a fun vehicle to use, and it shows up frequently on several Campaign stages (though it’s rarely encountered in multiplayer, being found only on Sandtrap by default).

5. Prowler

The Prowler replaces Halo 2’s Specter as the Covenant equivalent to the Warthog. It handles well and has a decent top speed despite lacking a boost feature (it’s the only Covenant vehicle to lack said function). Like the Specter, it has a plasma turret and can hold two passengers on either side. Its plasma cannon is vastly more effective than the Specter’s, which I always found to be rather useless. When you first get one in Campaign early on the stage The Ark, I always like to equip a Marine with the rocket launcher found next the nearby Pelican wreckage. Combined with the firepower from the turret, the Prowler can be a very devastating vehicle.

The Prowler is a very impressive vehicle from an aesthetic viewpoint as well. It looks awesome with that large, spinning engine (which sounds great), and the dashboard display is, like the Ghost’s, very detailed, complete with a monitor like the one on the sniper rifle’s scope. Overall, the Prowler is a good vehicle.

6. Scorpion

The Scorpion hasn’t changed much, aside from the coaxial machine gun being replaced with a machine gun turret. The turret cannot be operated by the driver, and thus must be used by a friendly AI or another player. I’m guessing this was done to make it less powerful in multiplayer by requiring two players to get the most out of it, but it’s not found in Matchmaking at all (it will be in the upcoming map Avalanche, though). It’s still found on two occasions in Campaign (you must briefly leave it the first time, but you can get it back later), and is just as effective as ever, even without being able to use the machine gun while driving. It handles the same as it does in Halo 2, which is good, as I liked being able to fire in one direction and drive in another. Overall, the Scorpion is still the ultimate in heavy firepower, and I enjoy using it.

7. Wraith

The Wraith handles somewhat differently than it did in Halo 2. It still has a boost function, but overall the vehicle feels “floatier” than before. It still has the same arcing plasma mortar, which is as effective as it’s always been. The player also has access to the smaller, weaker plasma cannon, which was previously only usable by enemy AI in Halo 2. However, the driver cannot operate it, as it’s a turret that must be operated by another player, just like with the Scorpion’s machine gun. This requires two players to get the maximum effect, which keeps it from being too powerful in the hands of a single player. Another new feature of the Wraith is the addition of a weak spot underneath the rear armor plating. This makes the Wraith especially vulnerable to attacks from behind. The AI in Campaign seems to be good at protecting this weak spot, as the gunners are very good, and the driver will try to keep facing you if it’s not preoccupied with something else.

In Campaign, the Wraith seems excessively fragile when you manage to board it. A few melees can easily destroy a Wraith, even when boarded from the well-armored front. Why meleeing a Wraith while boarding it does as much damage as a rocket is something that makes no sense to me. I found out the hard way that you have to be very cautious when boarding if you actually want to use the Wraith for yourself. I can understand it being destroyed by throwing grenades inside of it, but not by bludgeoning it with your bare hands.

Halo 3 also added a new variation to the Wraith: the Anti-air Wraith. AA Wraiths are encountered on several occasions in Campaign, typically as targets that must be destroyed as part of a stage’s objectives. While they typically only fight back with the plasma turret, they will occasionally fire their very powerful primary weapons at the player. They make an interesting new addition to the lineup of vehicles in the game, despite the fact that the player cannot use them (not without exploiting a glitch, anyway).

8. Banshee

The Banshee has changed noticeably in Halo 3. It still has the same boost feature and loop & barrel roll maneuvers it had in Halo 2. The player can also use its fuel rod cannon in multiplayer now. However, it can no longer hover, and it cannot fly straight up or down anymore, being restricted to a maximum angle of about 45°. During the beta, I expressed dismay at its restricted movement. However, I’m glad this restriction is still in place, as Bungie decided to de-nerf the Banshee. During the beta, the Banshee was very fragile, and concentrated AR fire from a couple of players could shoot it down in short order. However, in the final version of the game, the Banshee can take a tremendous amount of punishment. Weapons like the AR and BR do little damage to it, and it takes several seconds of concentrated fire from the Warthog’s LAAG before going down. They can even withstand being stuck by a plasma grenade. The plasma pistol and power drainer can disable it, but this requires the Banshee to be low to the ground and relatively close to the player. The only thing that can effectively destroy a Banshee outright is a heavy weapon like the laser cannon or missile pod. Due to Halo 3’s vehicle damage system (see below), if a competent pilot can avoid those weapons, and can keep out of reach of vehicle-disabling equipment or potential boarders, they’re almost unstoppable. The Banshee is perhaps more powerful than ever before in multiplayer, and I really hope that Bungie decides to re-weaken it in a future update.

Another complaint I have about the Banshee is the fact that you never get to use it in Campaign. You get to fight them on occasion, mainly when piloting the Hornet, but you never get to fly one yourself. You never find one lying around, and you can’t board them. I really miss being able to use the Banshee in Campaign, especially considering its prominence in the first two games.

Bungie really dropped the ball on the Banshee, and overall I’m really disappointed in how it figures into Halo 3’s gameplay. At least it looks great.

9. Hornet

The UNSC finally gets its own flying vehicle in Halo 3 in the form of the Hornet. You get to use this thing on two separate occasions in Campaign on the stage The Covenant. The Hornet is slow, but it has impeccable maneuverability, befitting its nature as a VTOL. It can hover in place without falling, it can strafe, and it can move vertically as well (though it cannot point straight up or down). Its weapons — dual machine guns and homing missiles — are very effective. Also, it can carry two passengers on its sides. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable vehicle.

Unfortunately, it’s not in multiplayer. I’m not sure how much punishment it can withstand, but I doubt it can be any more powerful than the Banshee. The Hornet is much slower, for one, and the missiles are slow-moving and can’t home in on infantry. Given its slow speed, a player armed with a missile pod or laser cannon could easily shoot it down. Also, an enemy could get underneath it, where it would be incapable of defending itself. It’s going to be added to the upcoming map Avalanche, though I wonder if it’s going to be effective enough to bother using.

10. Non-playable vehicles

The Phantom dropship from Halo 2 returns, and has received a couple of changes. For one, its side plasma turrets are gone. Instead, the sides of the Phantom open up for troops to disembark, while a gunner Grunt covers them with a plasma cannon (troops can still be deployed through the grav-lift at the bottom of the ship). I thought this was a neat addition, and provides a bit more variety on how to engage enemy troops deploying from the Phantom. More notably, however, is the fact that you can finally shoot Phantoms down. I’ve always wanted to be able to shoot down enemy dropships in the first two games, so I’m glad you’re able to now. It’s immensely satisfying.

The Scarab walker has received some upgrades as well, in addition to a newer and much more impressive visual design. Rather than being a piece of scripted, moving stage geometry that carries enemy troops, it actually has AI. The first time I played through Campaign, I was really impressed by the Scarab. The thing was so massive and was a unique encounter. There are multiple ways of taking it out, including boarding it after disabling its legs, boarding it by jumping on it from a high place, or attacking it from behind while in a vehicle to take out the rear armor (preferably after taking its legs out). Once you hit the weak spot (for massive damage), the thing collapses and explodes in spectacular fashion. However, after having played through Campaign multiple times, the “wow” factor wears off quickly. The Scarab, despite having AI, doesn’t really do all that much. It just stands in one spot, trying to face you to keep you from getting to its weak spot if you’re in a vehicle. It makes no attempt to actually come after you, even though there’s plenty of room for it to move about the arenas you fight them in. Fighting Scarabs becomes very routine after the first few times. Still, the end results are always very cool. Scarab battles in Halo 3 are good, but could be better.

Finally, there’s the Pelican, which is the same as always. It mainly exists to drop off supplies and reinforcements. The only time I recall it providing armed support was a scripted sequence on Sierra 117 where Hocus shoots down a pair of Phantoms. However, that doesn’t bother me all that much.

11. Vehicle Damage System

Halo 3 has the same damage system as Halo 2, wherein a vehicle’s “health” is tied into the health of its operator. That is, in order to destroy an in-use vehicle, the operator must be slain. However, unlike Halo 2, vehicles are much more resilient than before, so the vehicle is more likely to stay intact when the operator is killed (plus a vehicle that’s not in use can take a good bit of punishment before exploding). The only notable exceptions to this rule is the Banshee, which almost always explodes when the operator dies (he is enclosed entirely within the vehicle, after all), or when the vehicle is shot by an extremely powerful weapon such as a rocket launcher, laser cannon, or tank cannon, which of course almost always destroys both driver and vehicle. However, the vehicle damage system in Halo 3 still has the same shortcomings as the Halo 2 system.

The most notable aspect of the tying in of vehicle damage with operator health is that when the operator’s shields are down, he can retreat from combat in his vehicle and wait for his shields to regenerate. This gives an in-use vehicle the ability to absorb a potentially infinite amount of damage without being destroyed, assuming the driver manages to keep his health up during the entire time he is operating it. Just like in Halo 2, this system has clearly demonstrated its capacity for abuse. As perhaps the most notable example, the Banshee’s power, maneuverability, and capacity to absorb rather large amounts of small arms fire makes it very difficult for players on foot to compete against without use of a laser cannon or missile pod. The Banshee pilot can simply make an attack run, and then fly away to cover while his shields regenerate from whatever damage he sustained. Of course, this could apply to any vehicle in the game. A competent driver/pilot could spend an entire multiplayer match mowing down his opponents without ever getting destroyed, regardless of how much small arms fire he has absorbed. Vehicles are already powerful enough as it is, and their ability to absorb unlimited amounts of damage so long as the driver can keep his shields up makes them even more so.

Halo 3 should have used the same damage system used for Covenant vehicles in Halo 1’s Campaign. They had a simple damage meter, similar to the player’s health meter, except it was non-restorable. Once the vehicle took a certain number of hits, it would be destroyed. If your vehicle’s health was in the red, it was a clear sign that you’d probably want to abandon it and look for a new one. This would’ve made it to where players would have to be more cautious, as damage could not be repaired. This would have allowed vehicles to remain powerful — and for the Banshee to retain its Halo 1 maneuverability — while simultaneously keeping them in check. I doubt it’s possible to change Halo 3’s vehicle damage system to something like this, so hopefully it’ll show up in a future Halo game.

12. Boarding

Boarding functions much like it does in Halo 2. Once you’re close enough to an enemy vehicle, you hit the action button (RB in default controls), and you can kick your enemy out. However, Halo 3 adds some new features to boarding. Depending on the vehicle, when you hijack an enemy and remove them from their ride, you inflict damage as well. Also, in addition to damaging the enemy, they are briefly stunned, severely restricting their movement for several seconds. Personally, I don’t like the latter feature. Boarding is already effective enough at removing careless drivers from their ride. Losing your vehicle is already punishment enough, but being immobilized in addition to inflicting damage is a bit too much. It’s adding injury to insult. Getting boarded is pretty much an automatic death sentence in Halo 3, unless your teammates are able to help keep you alive. I say keep the damage, but remove the stun effect.

Equipment & Power-ups

Equipment is probably the most notable new addition to Halo 3’s gameplay, and has received considerable attention in coverage of the game. The “mysterious new function” of the X button, thought by fans to be anything from a cover system, to a sprint feature, to the new button for activating team chat (my personal theory), turned out to be the deployment of a variety of gadgets that ranged from shield generators to a device that emitted an EMP-like effect. Most equipment is neutral in nature when deployed, and affects friend and foe alike. It’s an interesting, though not revolutionary, addition to gameplay. However, I still forget to make use of equipment when I find it, since it’s new to the series. While equipment has been one of Halo 3’s main hallmarks, the equipment selection has become more limited recently due to several pieces either being removed from Matchmaking, or not being in it to begin with. What’s the point of having all these new toys if you don’t get to play with half of them? Nevertheless, while equipment is an interesting new gameplay dynamic, I wouldn’t miss it if it disappeared from Halo 3 or didn’t show up in a hypothetical future Halo game. It’s good, but I could do without it.

Here are my thoughts on each item:

1. Bubble Shield

The most familiar and common form of equipment is this shimmering, transparent, Buckyball-like force field that blocks all incoming and outgoing attacks. It’s come in handy on many occasions, and I’ve gotten to like it.

2. Power Drainer

Whereas the bubble shield is a defensive item, the power drainer is primarily offensive. It emits a blue EMP-like energy field, which rapidly drains energy shielding, destroys Brute powered armor, and temporarily disables vehicles. Overall, it’s very useful — and dangerous, if you use it carelessly or if an enemy throws it at you. In fact, I managed to get my first (and to date, only) ranked Extermination using a combination of a power drainer and a BR. (See Slot 2 in my File Share)

3. Portable Gravity Lift

This thing is useful for getting up to high places easily, and sometimes for sending an enemy vehicle flying overhead if it charges at you, but not for much else. It’s okay, but I tend to not bother with it, except on Highground to get up to the laser spawn quickly when outside the base. This is perhaps the most situational piece of equipment in the game.

4. Regenerator

Emanating an energy field that looks like radioactive swamp gas, this item regenerates your shields at faster than the normal rate. It comes in handy sometimes, but it feels very hit-or-miss to me. Sometimes it works really well, but other times it never seems to do anything for me, particularly if my shields aren’t at full capacity when I deploy it. Maybe I’m not using it right, but because of my experiences with it, I typically don’t bother with the regenerator unless I’m sniping from a covered position, or if my shields are already up to begin with.

5. Radar Jammer

The radar jammer is good for infiltrating bases or for covering your retreat in multiplayer, but it’s of questionable use in Campaign, as it seems to do little to confuse enemies (apparently, they don’t use motion trackers). It has since been removed from Matchmaking, apparently due to a glitch. Hopefully this problem gets resolved soon so the jammer can be re-added to Matchmaking.

6. Flare

Like the radar jammer, the flare is useful mainly for providing distractions, as it affects everyone around. Also, it doesn’t seem to be very useful in Campaign, as Covenant units don’t appear to get blinded by it. Also like the radar jammer, the flare has been removed from matchmaking due to a glitch.

7. Trip Mine

This proximity mine, found only on Sandtrap and Rat’s Nest on default settings, has received a downgrade in power from the beta. It was once about as powerful a rocket, with a seemingly larger blast radius. It does less damage now, and, while it’s still lethal, it is possible to survive the blast. Of course, as it’s large and constantly emits light and a beeping sound, it’s easy to notice. At least, my enemies seem to notice it quite often. My teammates, on the other hand… Well, let’s say that they seem less attentive. I have managed to kill several enemies with it, though. One thing I miss even more from the beta is the trip mine’s ability to magnetize itself to vehicles.

8. Portable Cover

Portable cover — essentially the Covenant stationary shields from the first two games, but now in equipment form — is found mostly in Campaign. It’s not quite as effective as the bubble shield, since it doesn’t cover from all directions and can be disabled by explosions or gunfire, but it can still be rather useful.

9. Auto Turret

The only piece of equipment of Forerunner origin, the auto turret is of questionable use. Only available in Campaign, they are hovering, stationary, Sentinel beam-like devices. They are easily destroyed, they seem to take a while to notice enemies, plus they don’t seem to do much damage to enemies on higher difficulties. That changes if they turn on you, which they will after you kill Guilty Spark if you deployed them by the entrance to the control room and they are still intact. I found that out the hard way when I kept getting killed by them during the escape from Halo on the last stage.

10. Invincibility

Very rare, but very useful, the invincibility item, as its name suggests, renders you immune to all damage for several seconds. You only find them in Campaign, and are almost always acquired from Brute Chieftains. However, you must kill the Chieftain before he uses it himself.

11. Powerups

In addition to equipment, there are the two traditional powerups: active camouflage and the overshield. In Campaign, the active camo is actually a piece of equipment rather than a regular item that automatically activates when picked up (like it was in Halo 1), which I thought was a nice touch. Like the Arbiter’s camo in Halo 2, it can be used whenever the player wants, though it’s a one-time use item since it’s a piece of equipment. I try to collect the camo equipment whenever possible. In multiplayer, it is a standard pickup, however. The camo itself is vastly improved. Unlike Halo 2’s active camo, which was so poor that you could easily see a camouflaged opponent from a rather long ways off (and thus it was not really worth picking up), Halo 3’s camo is at least as good if not better than Halo 1’s. Even at relatively close range, it’s very hard to spot a camouflaged opponent, especially if they’re not moving.

The overshield, on the other hand, has considerably reduced effectiveness. Unlike in previous Halo games, which provided you with two extra layers of shielding, the Halo 3 overshield only provides a single extra layer by default (this can be changed in customs via Forge). Not only that, but it still automatically drains away over time (and rather quickly, I might add), plus it still has the same glowing effect from Halo 2 that basically says to your enemies, “Hey! I have an overshield!” In a future update, the overshield really needs to be made to provide two extra layers of shielding instead of just one, because as it is right now, it’s really not worth the trouble of picking up.

Heads-up Display

The HUD has improved a lot from Halo 2. The shield bar is larger and in a better location at the top center of the screen, which makes it far easier to monitor. The HUD is overall less cluttered due to the removal of a lot of superfluous text. Picking up ammo or grenades simply displays a number (e.g., “+37”) above the ammo or grenade counter. There’s also the customizable “call signs,” which make identifying and communicating with teammates much easier. Also, the curved nature of the HUD, the translucent outline that matches the lines of a Spartan helmet’s faceplate, and the “powering-up” animation whenever you spawn makes it feel more like an actual heads-up display, rather than a simple set of graphics that exist solely to let the player know how much ammo or health he has left. Also, the Elites have some more noticeable differences in their HUD, as opposed to in Halo 2 where theirs was simply a pink-colored Spartan HUD (it’s now pale blue-green in Halo 3). Instead of a grid flashing across the screen when the HUD powers up, a single line scans down the screen. Also, the grenade indicator is shaped differently, and the translucent borders are shaped differently.

I do have a few gripes with the HUD, though. First off, some of the on-screen text, particularly range indicators, is very tiny and hard to read, even on a big TV. Second, I dislike how enemy names pop up directly over their head when you’re looking at them. If anything needs small text, that does. It would have been even better if they were situated towards the top-center of the screen like in Halo 1. Finally, while the FOV is great on widescreen TVs, on standard 4:3 TVs it still has the somewhat low FOV that Halo 2 did. The FOV for 4:3 displays should’ve been increased to what it was in the first game.


The Halo 3 HUD (click for full size)

Shields & Health

Not much to report here, as these things operate pretty much like they did in Halo 2. Shields regenerate at about the same rate, and health regenerates as well. I don’t mind regenerating health despite my preference for non-regenerating health restored by health packs, but I would have liked to have a health bar that lets me know how much damage I can take once my shields are down. I don’t like having unknown variables, especially for something as important as health levels.

Fall Damage

I’m still kind of mad that fall damage was not brought back in Halo 3. I’d rather have fall damage than “man cannon” gravity lifts or a sword lunge (the latter is supposedly the reason fall damage was removed from Halo 2, as the acceleration from the lunge could kill a player with fall damage on if they missed and hit a wall). I always thought fall damage added a lot of depth to gameplay. As Rampancy.net’s Narcogen said some months ago in a discussion regarding fall damage and gameplay balance: “A game where all the weapons, regardless of superficialities like graphical effects, behave in exactly the same way, is perfectly balanced. And perfectly boring. A well-balanced game offers a set of options that have different positive and negative aspects such that the sum total of all options allows players to define a playing style by the choices they make. By having no bias in direction — no damage when falling — paths that travel horizontally are no different than paths that travel vertically. No different in any way. There is no tactical choice involved. All paths that lead to the enemy, like all weapons in my previous example, are equal because they are exactly the same. A map that has fall damage can offer options and be balanced. One approach, for instance, might require a long drop that would weaken the player, but be the shortest and fastest possible. A longer route would cause no damage, but take longer. That’s balance. Not having any fall damage at all isn’t balance; it’s just making things the same.”

Despite all the arguments regarding “realism” or events in the novels where some Spartans survived a terminal velocity impact (though not without sustaining injury), gameplay should be the main concern. All other considerations are secondary. Fall damage was one of the things that made Halo 1’s gameplay great, and I greatly miss its presence in the sequels.

Player Movement

Players run noticeably slower in Halo 3 than they did in Halo 2 and especially Halo 1. I feel like I have giant lead boots on half the time. When I went back to play some Halo 1 Campaign after having played Halo 3 for several weeks nonstop, I was surprised at how much faster I moved. While the player receives a much-needed 10% speed increase in the MLG playlist, the default speed found in Campaign or the rest of Matchmaking is too slow for my tastes. I think 110% speed should have been the default speed for the whole game.

Glitches

While Halo 2 was riddled with easily exploitable bugs — most notably, those that affected multiplayer, such as superbouncing, button combos (e.g., BXR, BXB, double & quad shot), and other almost game-breaking things many people used to cheat with — Halo 3 is relatively glitch-free. There’s really nothing all that noticeable, besides the thing on The Pit where players can hide underneath a ramp, protected by an invisible bulletproof barrier. However, this glitch is in my experience rarely used outside of Infection (though it still needs to get fixed). Overall, I’m satisfied with things in this particular area, and it’s nice that Halo 3 has hardly any notable glitches.

CAMPAIGN

The Campaign is by far my favorite part of the Halo series, and is the main reason I bought Halo 3. Halo 1 not only had large, open, outdoor stages — the first time I ever saw anything quite like that in an FPS — and awesome encounters with enemies, but it had a great story as well. You land on this mysterious ring-shaped megastructure, gradually learning about its terrifying true purpose. You also learn that the ring’s builders have some sort of vague mysterious connection to humanity. Halo 2 upped the ante on the storytelling, showing us the inner workings of Covenant society and introducing the Arbiter. Actually allowing us to play as an Elite character in Campaign was a gamble, but it paid off in my opinion. It really added a lot more depth to an already great story. While there were a few major missteps with the Campaign’s gameplay (excessively linear and constrictive stages, a cheap Legendary mode, and poorly-implemented boss battles), the story, fights, and imaginative environments made for an enjoyable experience. It’s not as fun to play as Halo 1’s Campaign, but the non-gameplay elements were great.

Halo 3’s Campaign has improved on many of the problems with Halo 2’s Campaign. It’s also a major spectacle to boot. The stages look great and are generally well-designed, the cutscenes are wonderfully constructed, there are quite a few “wow” moments (e.g., when the Covenant cruiser flies overhead on Tsavo Highway), and it’s overall very fun. I also like the fact that you have the ability to select from various “insertion points” at the Campaign menu, which allows you to start a stage at certain points in the middle, rather than having to start at the beginning every time like in the first two games. Even little details like the very cool loading screen are nice.

However, while it’s better than Halo 2’s Campaign, it’s still not as good as Halo 1’s. Almost, but not quite. Though I’ve derived a lot of enjoyment out of Halo 3’s Campaign, it still has some noticeable flaws. I will now go in-depth on how Halo 3’s Campaign stacks up against its predecessors.

Stages: Designs, Encounters, etc.

Halo 3’s stages have generally improved from Halo 2’s. On average, they are less linear, provide more varied approaches to enemy encounters, and provide larger arenas in outdoor environments, and are in general just better-designed. However, they still fall short of the designs seen in Halo 1. There are no stages in the vein of Halo or The Silent Cartographer, which allowed you to progress through the stage in a relatively free-form fashion (The Ark comes close on a couple of occasions, though). Also, while there are many large arenas outdoors, they still lack the scale of those in Halo 1. For example, while Assault on the Control Room/Two Betrayals had several canyons hundreds of meters in length, and the stage Halo had a couple of comparably large areas, the only areas of Halo 3 that come close to that size are the arenas where you fight the Scarabs on The Ark and The Covenant. In terms of scale (particularly playable area) and linearity, Halo 3’s Campaign falls somewhere in between Halo 1’s and Halo 2’s, though in general it feels closer to Halo 1’s.

While the stage designs in Halo 3 are generally good, the encounters are hit-or-miss. While practically every encounter in Halo 1 gave the impression of being well thought out, a lot of the encounters in Halo 3 feel rather dull and uninspired. I think this has a lot to do with a combination of factors, including enemy units employed, enemy AI, and stage layout. Still, there are many very fun encounters throughout the game. While I rarely enjoyed any encounter in Halo 2 that didn’t involve Elites (Brutes & Flood in H2 = boring), Halo 3’s encounters are on average an improvement.

There is one other issue with encounters in Halo 3, and that is the distinct lack of three-sided battles, which were commonplace in the first two games. Many encounters involved two enemy factions and had them fighting both you and each other. In Halo 3, when there is more than one hostile faction present, they are always grouped together in such a way that they work together against you. The only exception is during the last stage, when it’s you versus the Flood versus the Sentinels in a brief three-way skirmish. Three-sided fights are something I miss quite a bit.

There are a few non-gameplay elements that pop up on occasion that add to the “wow” factor of the Campaign. For example, there’s the part on Tsavo Highway where a Covenant cruiser flies overhead, and then there’s the part on The Ark where the Forward Unto Dawn arrives to drop off some tanks.

Now for more detailed mini-reviews of each stage. In addition to commentary on designs, encounters, and presentation, I’ll be giving each stage a number score based on the overall fun factor. (Note: Story elements are generally ignored in these ratings, unless they happen to have a more direct effect on gameplay.)

1. Sierra 117

Like the introductory levels in the first two games, this gorgeous jungle-based level is very linear and constrained. However, it opens up into small arenas on occasion, which provide more varied approaches to combat. The dam area at the end is overall well-constructed, and offers a good bit of variety as well. For example, you can snipe the dam enemies from the cliff where you first arrive at the dam area, you can snipe them from the dam tower further down, and you can even go up under the main dam walkway and try to attack the dam enemies from behind. The dam battle is pretty damn fun. (Okay. Sorry about all the dam puns.) Overall, a good start for Halo 3’s Campaign. Score: 8

2. Crow’s Nest

While it’s one of my least favorite stages in the series in terms of gameplay and aesthetics (it’s very dull and drab), Crow’s Nest does offer a couple of interesting encounters. Also, the layout of the stage is interesting. While it involves a lot of backtracking, it really gives the feeling of having to help defend and evacuate a base, and keeps it from being a straight-line progression from beginning to end like most other levels. Overall, though, it’s merely an average stage, and has perhaps the least replay value of any in the game, as, unlike the stage Cortana, there’s little in the way of non-gameplay elements (story, etc.) to supplement it. Score: 5.5

3. Tsavo Highway

As Halo 3’s first big outdoors stage, Tsavo Highway offers both vehicular and on-foot action (mostly the former). There are several interesting encounters, one of which is the infamous battle right after you’re forced to abandon your Warthog. Taking place in a rather open area (especially compared to most other on-foot areas), you’re faced with a large group of Grunts and Brutes, the latter including several of the jetpack variety as well as a fuel rod cannon-wielding Captain. Once you’ve wiped them out — either from a distance via the sniper rifle you find at the bridge at the start of the area, or from up close in the mess of vehicles and broken pipes — you get attacked by a pair of Phantom dropships. You can hang back at the bunkers and face down the Brutes the Phantoms deploy (probably the most common way players approach this fight), you can go back to the catwalk where you got the first sniper rifle, or you can shoot the Phantoms down with a fuel rod cannon and save yourself a lot of time. Finally, there’s the Wraith you have to deal with at the fight’s end, which can be a challenge since you’re on foot. Tsavo Highway is one of the better stages in the game, and I rather enjoy it. Score: 8

4. The Storm

With a good mix of indoors and outdoors combat, The Storm offers a good bit of variety. The indoors areas are well-constructed and offer plenty of variation. However, the exterior lakebed areas where the whole of the stage’s vehicular combat takes place can be somewhat of a hassle for reasons I mentioned earlier. You’re tasked with taking out enemy AA Wraiths, but they’re guarded by numerous Ghosts and Choppers. The second outdoors area in particular is chock full of enemy vehicles, giving the battle a demolition derby feel. Once the AA Wraiths are cleared, you have to deal with a Scarab. As I mentioned earlier, fighting a Scarab is very exciting the first couple of times, but after a while it gets to be rather routine, which detracts from the enjoyment of fighting them. There are some interesting on-foot battles after the Scarab, as you have to deal with a pair of Hunters and a Chieftain in addition to a host of regulars. Finally, you have to destroy a giant anti-aircraft gun, which is guarded by rather large group of enemies. The arena you fight these guys in is small, but the terrain is varied enough to allow for a couple of different approaches, and the encounter is a good challenge. Overall, this is a decent stage, though it’s way too short. It has less playable area than almost any other stage, except for Floodgate (the next stage), which uses the same geometry but eliminates the lakebeds used to host The Storm’s vehicular combat. Score: 8

5. Floodgate

This level shares a similar relationship with The Storm that Two Betrayals did with Assault on the Control Room. Floodgate occurs in Voi just as The Storm did, but this time you go through it the opposite direction, plus it takes place in the dark and is filled with Flood. The Flood have a few new tricks up their sleeve, and are an even bigger freak show than they were in the first two games (see the “Enemies” section below for details). This stage also gives you the first glimpse of a fully-developed Flood infestation. The highlight of this level, though, is the triumphant return of the Elites. Seeing Rtas Vadum’s flagship the Shadow of Intent arrive and drop off Elite reinforcements was a great moment. It was awesome getting to fight alongside Elites (besides the Arbiter), though unfortunately it’s for a rather short time. It’s also only one of two occasions where you get to do so the whole game. Floodgate is a dark, atmospheric stage where you and the Elites get to kick ass, but the stage is very small and short, and can be finished in 20-30 minutes even on Legendary. However, this might be a good thing since the Flood, even with their new upgrades, still aren’t as fun to fight as the Covenant. Perhaps to make up for its brevity, the last part of the stage where you go inside the infested Covenant ship could have had at least a few Flood to fight besides the Infection Forms that burst forth from those pustules, which can infect the dead Elites. Score: 6.5

6. The Ark

This level opens up with an outstanding cutscene where the Elite and Brute ships engage each other, while the Dawn deploys its dropships to land on Installation 00. The stage itself looks great, with a good mix of desert sands, sedimentary rocks, unusual crystalline formations, and Forerunner structures. There’s even these neat little Covenant torch things that turn on whenever you get near them. The gameplay starts off much like Truth & Reconciliation from the first game. There’s a dropship insertion followed by some sniping action against enemy infantry. You also get to fight another pair of Hunters in these early parts, which is made especially challenging as you don’t have access to any heavy weapons at the time. Before long, though, you’ll be engaging in vehicular combat, and you’ll be doing so for most of the rest of the stage. Things really start to pick up when the Forward Unto Dawn arrives. This was a very awesome sequence. The Dawn’s approach blows away all the debris in the field, and she deploys some Scorpions and Warthogs while a Pelican brings in some troops. Finally, you and your column of tanks — which, by the way, beat everything, or so I’m told — and ‘hogs start tearing through the enemy as you make your way to the Ark’s Cartographer building, which is guarded by several Wraiths, a Phantom, a bunch of smaller vehicles, and the second Scarab of the game. The interior of the Cartographer building offers some surprisingly good encounters. The final encounter is particularly interesting, as the Brute Chieftain, at the behest of Truth, challenges you to a one-on-one fight, while the jetpack Brutes stand back and watch. Of course, you’ll have to take them and the Carbine Jackals hidden off to the side out once you kill the Chieftain.

This is probably my favorite level in the game, and its design is very interesting. Not only does it look great, but the layout is perhaps the best example of Bungie’s approach to making levels feel big in Halo 3. The Ark is perhaps the biggest stage in terms of size in the game and, along with The Covenant, takes the longest to finish. However, its total playable area is noticeably less than Assault on the Control Room or Two Betrayals from the first game. While there are many open areas of decent size for vehicular combat in most of the stage, as mentioned earlier, the only part that comes close to matching the size of one of the canyons in Assault on the Control Room is the part at the end where you fight the Scarab. Instead of several large areas each hundreds of meters of long that you only have to go through once, there are several smaller areas and pathways, some of which must be revisited. In other words, The Ark makes good use of its relatively smaller area compared to AotCR by requiring that you backtrack on several occasions — a method that, while something I don’t necessarily approve of (it’s a design shortcut, IMO), does a good job of making the stage feel bigger than it is. This design approach makes the distance you have to travel greater than it would have been otherwise, and, combined with the time it takes to deal with all the enemies, it makes it to where it takes quite a while to beat the stage compared to the other stages in the game. It takes me 45 minutes to an hour to beat The Ark, depending on difficulty, how many times I die, and how I pace myself. This is still a good bit less than AotCR, though, which generally takes me over an hour to beat on Heroic and Legendary if I don’t speed run the thing. The Ark is fun and is a good-sized stage, but it could have been even bigger. Score: 9

7. The Covenant

This is the other really big stage in Halo 3, and probably my second favorite. The first half of the stage is a sub-arctic taiga-like environment very reminiscent of the stage Halo from the first game, while the second half is a barren, snow-covered region. There’s tons of variation in the encounters, including the initial LZ where you have to eliminate an AA Wraith, the vehicle battle at the first tower, the first Hornet sequence, and the final outdoors part where you have to fight a bunch of vehicles and two Scarabs. I repeat, two Scarabs. Like The Ark, this stage is long, taking upwards of an hour to beat, but it’s not particularly large in terms of playable area as compared to the big Halo 1 maps.

If I have one beef with the stage, it is the last part when you get inside the Ark’s control center. Since the stage involves the ultimate end of the Covenant Civil War and the Covenant itself, you’d think you’d have a massive clash with the Chief, Arbiter, and a bunch of Elites (and maybe some Marines as well) would have been involved in that final charge to eliminate Truth and stop the rings. However, Bungie thought it would be neat to have the Chief and Arbiter go in alone, and then out of the blue have the Flood team up with them, and then predictably turn on the heroes once Truth is eliminated. As for the Elites, they don’t do anything but help deactivate the towers. You fight alongside them very briefly at the third tower and they sometimes also follow you in vehicles to the Scarab battle, and after that you don’t see them for the rest of the game (aside from the Arbiter, of course, as well as Half-Jaw in the cutscenes). While The Covenant is a fun stage in terms of gameplay, the parts that affect the storyline could have been better done. The only part of that I liked is seeing the Arbiter skewer Truth. Score: 8.5

8. Cortana

Taking place in a Flood-infested High Charity, this is perhaps the least-liked level amongst fans of Halo. Personally, I thought it was okay, at least on Heroic and below. Granted, the Flood are less interesting to fight than the Covenant, but the stage is very creepy and gross-looking, containing a mix of Flood infestation as well as exposed Covenant infrastructure. It’s very claustrophobic, though, with narrow tunnels and hallways for the most part, with a few larger rooms. The Flood are ferocious and many in number, but they are manageable, except for a few occasions on Legendary where you have deal with several Ranged Pure Forms in addition to swarms of Combat Forms attacking from all sides. Also, you’re subject to several of those Cortana and Gravemind “moments,” which is a main element of this stage. The highlight of the level, of course, is the reunion of the Chief and Cortana. It was a very touching scene. Who would have thought a cyborg and a sentient AI could be such close friends? After that, you get to destroy High Charity’s reactor, though this part is very simplified compared to when you destroy the Pillar of Autumn’s reactor in the first game.

Personally, I think this could have been a bigger and more open stage. Instead of taking place in the narrow hallways of High Charity’s engineering section, it could have taken place in the civilian areas in the center of the city. Despite seeing all those skyscrapers in the background on High Charity during Halo 2, you only fought through the towers. You could have fought through a Covenant urban environment that was infested by Flood, ultimately making your way to the In Amber Clad and detonating its engines. Still, it’s a somewhat above average stage, though one of my least favorite in the series in terms of gameplay. Score: 6

9. Halo

The final stage takes place on an unfinished recreation of Alpha Halo from the first game, specifically the control room region from AotCR/Two Betrayals. The frigid environment is spectacularly rendered, as are the control room, phase-pulse generator rooms, and other Forerunner structures. However, the trek to the control room is a rather tedious and underwhelming fight again wave after wave of Flood. Once you get past that, you have to fight 343 Guilty Spark, who flips out when the Chief, Arbiter, and Johnson try to activate the ring, as doing so would destroy the installation (I’ll detail this fight later on). After you kill the Monitor, you finally get to fight in the first and only instance of three-way combat in the game, as the Sentinels and the Flood fight each other and you. This is the only stage you fight the Sentinels on, which really makes their inclusion as enemies seem kind of tacked on.

The highlight of this level is the Warthog run. Like the “Maw Run” from the end of Halo 1, you have to drive your Warthog through a dangerous obstacle course in order to get to a ride so you can escape a doomed Halo installation. Rather than escaping a spaceship that’s about to explode, you now have to drive through an under-construction environment. Rather than the snow and rocks you saw on AotCR and Two Betrayals, you see the artificial infrastructure that lies underneath. As some posters pointed out on in a recent discussion at halo.bungie.org, this merely drives home Cortana’s line from the first game about a tunnel not being a natural formation (she always did have a penchant for stating the glaringly obvious). As for the Warthog run itself, it’s much longer (about 5 km long) and feels more epic than the Maw Run. While there’s no self-destruct timer like in Halo 1, if you take too long the ground will collapse from under you. The whole run is filled with hazards that keep you on your toes, from falling support beams to parts of the ground falling away in front of you, to swarms of Flood and Sentinels. It all ends with a death-defying jump off of a ramp and into the Forward Unto Dawn’s cargo bay. While the stage starts off slow with a dull Flood battle, the excitement of the Warthog run more than makes up for it, and is a satisfying conclusion to the last stage of the game. Score: 7 (4 for the Flood fight at the beginning, 9 for the Warthog run, 7 for everything between)

Story

I’m not sure what happened here. The first two games had great storytelling, and not a stage went by without some bit of plot exposition. In Halo 1, we had the secrets of the ring constantly unveiled. Rather than just a Big Dumb Object for the player to fight aliens on, the Halo was revealed to be not just an artificial habitat, but also a weapon of mass destruction designed fight the parasitic Flood organism, and was built by an advanced civilization known as the Forerunners some 100,000 years ago, which apparently had some sort of connection with humanity. Halo 2 ramped up the storytelling aspect even further, delving into the internal politics of the Covenant, and introducing the Arbiter. This of course further tied in to the Forerunner-Flood storyline began in the first game. In addition, we are introduced to the Gravemind, the intelligent Flood hive mind foreshadowed by the “Keyes blob” from Halo 1, which expands on the story even further.

Halo 3, however, is a bit different in terms of story & plot development. While the first two games were constantly developing the story, Halo 3 doesn’t do much of that until around the halfway point of the game. Indeed, the first four levels are essentially filler. We are not told anything we didn’t already know beforehand: the Earth is under attack by Truth’s forces, which are trying to uncover an artifact known as the Ark which can remotely activate all the Halos, the Elites have teamed up with the UNSC, the Flood have escaped Delta Halo, and Cortana is a captive of the Gravemind on High Charity. This was all known before Halo 3 even came out, and was pretty much established by the end of Halo 2’s Campaign. There are a few of those cryptic transmissions from Cortana, but they don’t do much to advance the plot, either. They only serve to reinforce the fact that Gravemind is trying to “hack” her. However, it is interesting to note that most of those “Cortana moments” (as they are called by many fans) are direct quotes or paraphrases of Dr. Halsey’s dialogue from Fall of Reach, which I thought was a nice touch (I also must be the only one who isn’t annoyed by the Cortana and Gravemind “moments”). Cortana is, after all, a computerized “clone” of sorts of Halsey’s brain. In any case, the entirety of the first four levels of the game can be summed up as “Regroup, get to Voi, and stop Truth.” That’s it.

Things don’t pick up until the end of The Storm, as it’s revealed that the artifact Truth uncovered was not the Ark, but rather a portal to the Ark. The Ark itself is actually another Forerunner megastructure designated Installation 00 that’s located over 250,000 light years above the galactic plane. After the arrival of the Elites, who assist in eliminating some Flood that got past the blockade at Delta Halo, the Chief retrieves a holographic message from Cortana from the Flood vessel. She explains what the Flood is up to and that she has a plan to defeat them without activating the array. We also have our first real interactions between humans and Elites in one of the best cutscenes in the series. Afterwards, you go to the Ark to kick ass and take names. Being on the Ark itself reminds me somewhat of the first game, where you’re on this mysterious new artificial world. Just like you learned that the Halo wasn’t simply some artificial habitat, it starts to become evident that the Ark is more than simply a place to remotely activate the Halo array. The Ark also introduces the “terminals.” These Forerunner computer stations tell the story of the events surrounding the Forerunner-Flood war from 100,000 years ago. Each of the terminals in the game has different content on certain difficulties, and they really add a lot to the depth of the Halo story. This all also ties in with the Iris ARG that ran during the buildup to Halo 3’s launch, which itself did a decent amount of storytelling regarding the Forerunner-Flood war.

The second stage to take place on the Ark is The Covenant, and this is where the Covenant Civil War comes to a close. Unfortunately, very little in this stage or any previous stage did any more to advance this particular subplot. While the society, religion, and internal politics of Covenant society was a major focus of Halo 2, this has been severely downplayed in Halo 3. Aside from the Arbiter and (to a much lesser extent) Rtas ‘Vadum, the Elites hardly ever show up in the game. The Arbiter himself has been demoted from a player character to being the Chief’s sidekick, and even then he’s not even around for almost half of the game. Truth’s sermons don’t offer anything of substance, and we still aren’t told anything about his true motives. The cutscenes that take place inside the Citadel are perhaps the only real plot development we get in regards to the Covenant, and Truth finally has dialogue that actually serves to advance the plot, and he finally shows some semblance to his personality in Halo 2. Unfortunately, this is too little, too late. To make things worse, instead of the Elites joining the Arbiter and the Chief for the final assault against Truth’s forces, we end up having the Flood join up with us, which predictably ends in “trading one villain for another.” I really hope I’m not the only one who found this to be something totally unnecessary and tacked on. The Gravemind offering to “lead you safely to your foe” isn’t exactly what I’d call helpful towards advancing the plot, not to mention he’s already shown that he’s a very untrustworthy fellow, what with wanting to consume the entire galaxy and all. This encounter would have been far more meaningful if the Elites and Marines were involved. Instead, they just sit outside playing in the snow while they leave it up to just the Chief and Arbiter to take out a several hundred meter-long gauntlet of Brutes, Grunts, and Jackals.

Of course, I blame the de-emphasis on the Covenant aspect of the story on the people who decried that very aspect in Halo 2. For whatever reason — resentment for the Arbiter sharing the spotlight with the Chief, or the game ending with him, or his stages generally being not as fun as the Chief’s, or plain-old anti-Elite “bigotry,” or something else entirely — a lot of people complained about the dual storyline of Halo 2, and Bungie caved in, making the game almost entirely Chief-centric. The Arbiter, a very well-developed and interesting character, has a severely reduced role and is no longer a player character outside of co-op. The Elites are around for what amounts to perhaps half an hour total between their two appearances. The two Covenant factions never have any meaningful interaction until the Arbiter confronts and exacts his revenge upon the Prophet of Truth. Finally, once everything’s all said and done, we aren’t told anything about the fate of the Covenant aside from the fact that the Elites have ensured Sangheilios’ safety. Almost every bit of story development for the Covenant outside of Halo 2 has been relegated to expanded universe materials (e.g., Contact Harvest, the Bestiarum). The omission of any substantial story development regarding the Covenant subplot has infuriated me to no end. I hope all you haters who bitched about it are happy. You got what you wanted, you damned philistines.

Okay. Now that I’m done venting about that, let’s continue. Once you’ve dealt with the treacherous Brutes and the liar Truth, it’s up to the Humans and Elites to deal with the Flood by executing Cortana’s plan. Towards that end, we’re shown that the Ark isn’t just for activating the Halo array. It’s also capable of building new Halos, and the newly-built ring is far enough away to not pose a threat. Cortana’s plan needed a bit more exposition, however. We aren’t told how she knows the true nature of the Ark (its location, its ability to create Halos, etc.). She just does. Perhaps she learned it from Mendicant Bias, and this is his atonement he talks about in the final terminal, but in the end we don’t know. Whatever the case may be, without some kind of explanation, Cortana’s whole scheme, involving the appearance of a new Halo out of the blue at a location well outside the galaxy, is little more than a plot device. It’s a reasonably well-crafted plot device, but it’s a plot device nonetheless.

In any case, the Chief has to rescue Cortana, who has the Index file she acquired in the first game. Unfortunately, she’s still a captive of the Flood, and she’s being violated by the Gravemind, who’s trying to learn what she knows. Once you rescue her and destroy High Charity, it’s off to the still-under-construction replacement for Installation 04 to finish things once and for all. Of course, the Gravemind is right on your tail, and is intent on stopping you from doing so as well as making the ring his new home since you burned down his last one. Once you succeed in getting to the control room, Guilty Spark goes completely rampant and kills Johnson, since activating Halo right then would destroy it as well as the Flood. Spark then engages the Chief and drops a couple of more lines emphasizing the Forerunner-human connection. The Chief wins, activates the ring, and he, Cortana, and the Arbiter successfully escape, and that’s The End. The ending itself is wonderful. The memorial service on Earth and the finals scenes with the Chief and Cortana stranded in deep space were very moving, well-acted and set to great music. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that the ending is the best part of the entire Campaign, and it deserves two thumbs up.

Overall, Halo 3’s story feels poorly handled compared to those of its predecessors. In addition to an entire subplot being seriously downplayed, the whole first half of the game was filler, and all the story development is crammed into the latter half. Perhaps the biggest chunk of the storytelling was in the terminals, rather than in the cutscenes or in-game dialogue. Everything story-related just feels rushed. The “Finish the Fight” tagline gains a whole new meaning, as that’s about all you do. Halo 3 is essentially no more than a resolution. Perhaps if they utilized the first four stages to do some actual storytelling, and maybe if they introduced the Elites earlier and did at least some development with the Covenant subplot, then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, but as it stands, Halo 3’s story is rather weak compared to the first two games. Indeed, the story is perhaps one of the most frequently complained about aspects of the game, though the exact points of contention vary from person to person. As a side note, I think that the Covenant aspect of the story would have benefited from some Arbiter-centric stages. Since the Campaign proper was going to be all Master Chief stages, perhaps there could have been a couple of unlockable bonus stages where you play as the Arbiter, similar to how you could unlock bonus single-player stages in Goldeneye and Perfect Dark.

Another thing I don’t get is why Bungie didn’t use this opportunity to resolve a lot of the loose ends from the previous games. For example, we still don’t know for sure the nature of the relationship between humans and the Forerunners (though the available evidence, particularly a scene in Contact Harvest, all but confirms they’re one and the same). We don’t know if the Covenant blockade at Delta Halo was entirely successful at eradicating the Flood there (besides High Charity and the one cruiser that got past the blockade). We also don’t know why the Forerunners went through the trouble of making the Halos habitable when their primary purpose is to eliminate all sentient life in the galaxy, or why they bothered storing Flood specimens on them. We don’t even know what happened with the Arbiter, Johnson, & Co. during the time between the end of Halo 2 and the beginning of Halo 3, or what happened in the months between the events at the Ark (ca. early November 2552) and the memorial service on Earth (March 3, 2553). Halo 3 also raises some new questions, such as the nature of the planet in the Legendary ending. Of course, while the Halo trilogy may be done, there’s still other games in the works as well as more expanded universe material in the future, so hopefully one day we’ll finally have all the pieces of the puzzle in place and all the missing timeframes filled in.

Difficulty

The Legendary mode in Halo 2 was notorious for being excessively cheap. Two elements contributed to this: excessive health and damage bonuses for the enemies and, most notably, sniper Jackals. The latter is not much of an issue any more, as sniper Jackals have been toned down quite a bit (see the “Enemies” section below for more). However, the enemy still seems to have massive damage bonuses, though their health bonuses don’t seem as big (either that or their baseline health levels are generally lower than in Halo 2). For example, a Brute can kill you with a short burst of Spiker fire or a single Brute Shot grenade on Legendary (though they can’t kill you with a single melee anymore). Whether this is due to certain weapons having higher base damage in enemy hands, the percentage increase in damage being grossly higher than on lower difficulties (enemies inflicted 1.8 times normal damage in Halo 1’s Legendary mode), or a combination of the two is unknown, but it’s clear that on Legendary the enemies do several times the damage than the player can inflict. However, other elements, such as the slow speed and often poor intelligence of the Brutes, serve to mitigate their dangerousness. Things are especially problematic when enemies are in vehicles, though. As I’ve pointed out before, enemy vehicles are already very powerful, but on Heroic and especially Legendary, the damage and health bonuses enemies have makes facing enemy vehicles a nightmare. Going up against them on foot is suicidal — compared to Halo 1, where they were manageable despite being tough —, and even when you’re in a vehicle yourself, they can take you out much quicker than you can take them out. Nevertheless, Halo 3’s Legendary mode is a much more fair challenge than Halo 2’s. It’s fairly hard, but there are only a handful of occasions that got tedious.

Artificial Intelligence

One of Halo 3’s big selling points for the Campaign was its artificial intelligence. Bungie hinted that it was going to be really good, based on commentary in Weekly Updates, podcasts, and interviews. Some members of the gaming press even claimed that it was among best AI they’ve seen in a recent title. However, while the fundamentals established by the first two games are still in place, there hasn’t been any real improvement. In fact, in some cases it seems inferior to the AI from earlier games. The rank-and-file Brutes in particular can be rather stupid. They seem to lack basic concepts of cover or strategy. There have been many occasions where they just stood out in the open, not once bothering to take cover when I started shooting at them. While they will shoot back, they still pretty much just take whatever you dish out to them. They also seem to utilize equipment rather haphazardly. I’ve also noticed that sometimes they won’t even bother to jump out of the way of a charging vehicle. They’ll frequently just sit there cowering as you make roadkill out of them (certain other bad guys do this as well). Likewise, they often don’t bother to dodge grenades even though they can obviously see you throw one at them. They’re also not good about pursuing the player or trying to root you out of hiding spots. For example, on the bunker battle on Tsavo Highway, if you decide to stay in the bunkers and fight the Brutes dropped off by the Phantoms, they will absolutely refuse to advance beyond a certain point. They never attempt to charge the bunker to get inside and kill you. While the Brutes occasionally exhibit some semblance of intelligence, these guys are still dumber than a bag of hammers most of the time. No wonder they lost to the Elites despite outnumbering them three to one. The only thing the Brute regulars have going for them is numbers and firepower. They’re not always stupid, and occasionally exhibit a decent degree of intelligence, but they do stupid stuff frequently enough for it to be a problem.

One of the worst instances of poor AI is the Jackal regulars. They are nowhere near as aggressive as they once were, and they frequently don’t bother firing back and they don’t move around all that much. On at least one occasion, I had one just stand right in front of me and stare, huddled behind his shield just a few feet away. That’s all he did. I waited and waited, and he never took a shot. I finally decided to put the little retard out of his misery. This was obviously an unusual and extreme case, but nonetheless the Jackal AI isn’t near as good as it could be.

Friendly AI isn’t anything to write home about either. Marines seem more focused than they used to be, but they lack any concept of battlefield tactics. They’re still cannon fodder. The Elites seem a lot better, though that might have more to do with the fact that they’re far more resilient than Marines are. Your allies still can’t drive for shit. They’re slow as hell and have no sense of direction, not to mention they can’t ascertain hazards properly. In fact, I recently witnessed an Elite drive a Warthog off a ledge on The Covenant. Did he not see it or something? However, if they’re gunning in a Warthog or Prowler, they seem slightly better at picking off targets, and if you have a guy in the passenger seat with a rocket launcher or fuel rod cannon, you’re almost unstoppable unless you yourself are a bad driver.

While Halo 3’s AI may in actuality be technically superior to that in the previous games, it doesn’t show. In fact, Halo 1’s AI demonstrated an overall better illusion of intelligence. For example, Elites in Halo 1 were fast, agile, aggressive, and constantly on the move. They rarely if ever stood out in the open taking potshots at the player, not bothering to take cover when getting shot at themselves. Jackals were likewise far more aggressive, better at dodging and utilizing their shields, and were always moving about. They certainly didn’t sit there like a knot on a log, waiting for death. The only real weakness with Halo 1’s AI was the fact that enemies wouldn’t react to you past a certain distance. Even Halo 2 — despite having AI that wasn’t quite as good as Halo 1’s — had enemies that were generally more intelligent and better fighters than Halo 3’s.

However, it’s not all bad. Enemies seem to notice you at longer ranges better. Their driving AI is great, particularly in the cast of Grunts driving Ghosts, as they attack, retreat, and advance in a generally sensible fashion. Grunt infantry is also fairly decent, as they seem to advance, retreat, throw grenades, and so forth at the right place and time, and I’ve seen them occasionally engage in flanking maneuvers. Their decent intelligence is ironic considering that they’re the cannon fodder while the rank-and-file Brutes aren’t as smart despite being the top warriors. Unfortunately, they’re still weak and panicky, which makes them easy to pick off. Finally, the gold-armored Brute Chieftains are the exception to the rule of dumb Brutes. They seem good at dodging (despite their overall sluggishness) and deploying equipment appropriately, they’re aggressive and generally move about quite a bit, and aren’t pushovers.

Still, despite having six years to advance from the first game, I’m surprised that the AI hasn’t received any significant improvement in terms of how they perform in combat. In fact, I think it can be argued that the AI in the Halo series has gotten slightly worse with each new game, and I’m rather frustrated by the frequent stupidity exhibited by Halo 3’s enemies. Bungie’s approach to AI is to make enemies harder, not smarter, on higher difficulty levels, which allows them to show off a wider variety of behaviors. While this is good in principle, it means little if the AI doesn’t act smart often enough. The only thing most enemies in Halo 3 have going for them is massive damage bonuses, not brains. As Julian Gnam said over at the Halo Monks forums, “You can die repeatedly in Legendary. … However, whenever you do die, it’s never because the Brutes did something smart, it’s always because you made a stupid mistake or because of the huge health/damage bonuses given to the enemy.” Personally, I’d rather have a game where my enemies can outsmart me rather than simply outgun me. Hopefully, Bungie does a better job with the AI if they do another Halo game in the future. Halo 3’s AI just doesn’t do anything for me, and its inconsistent and frequently lackluster performance really drags down the overall fun factor of the game.


A demonstration of how poorly Halo 3’s AI can perform. Played on Heroic difficulty.

Enemies

The basic enemies of the Halo series are pretty much established — the several species of the Covenant, the Flood, and the Forerunner Sentinels — and there are no truly new enemies outside of a new Flood form. In fact, we’ve actually lost a couple of enemies, including the Enforcers from Halo 2 and, most notably, the Elites, who are now allies. However, with a new game comes changes to the enemies we do have.

1. Brutes

The Jiralhanae have usurped the Elite’s place as the top warrior class of the Covenant military. Like the Elites, the Brutes now have a stratified organization consisting of several ranks which replace the ranks held by the Elites in previous games. For example, the jetpack Brutes replace the Elite Rangers, the Brute Stalkers replace the stealth Elites, and the Chieftains are rough equivalents of Elite Zealots and Ultras. Brutes also have destructible “powered armor” which acts similar to Elite shielding (including vulnerability to anti-shield weapons), except it does not regenerate once destroyed (I’m not sure if it does if it’s merely damaged). The Chieftains are especially interesting, as their armor is immune to certain weapons, most notably plasma pistol charged shots and spike and plasma grenades (plus the hammer-wielding Chieftains frequently use the invincibility equipment). This powered armor concept is a great alternative to Bungie’s approach in Halo 2 of just giving them tremendous amounts of health to compensate for their lack of shields. While their AI leaves much to be desired, they are far more interesting to fight than Halo 2’s Brutes.

2. Grunts

Everyone’s favorite cannon fodder/alien comedy relief has returned, and they are just as good as ever. The Grunts fight in much the same way as they always have, but they have a couple of new tricks up their sleeve. First off, Grunts are often found piloting Ghosts on big outdoors maps, and they are damn good at it. Second, and most notably, is their new suicide bomber attack. I still remember my first playthrough on Sierra 117, when I wiped out most of a Covenant group, the next thing I know, a lone Grunt charges me screaming, with an armed plasma grenade in each hand. I wasn’t expecting that, and he ended up blowing me sky high. That was the most random and hilarious thing I’ve ever seen them do. Like the Brutes, parts of a Grunt’s armor can be shot off, specifically, their methane tanks and gas masks (one wonders why they don’t suffocate after a while). Grunts are definitely my favorite enemies in Halo 3.


“FAITH AND DEVOTION!”

3. Jackals

The standard Jackal units are boring enemies to fight. As I mentioned earlier, they don’t seem particularly intelligent and aren’t terribly formidable fighters. In Halo 1, they were agile, always dodging and moving, making good use of their shields, and they were ridiculously fast shots with their plasma pistols. In Halo 2, they were still suitably aggressive, plus they had the plasma pistol with its impossible-to-dodge charged shot. Now, they seem like little more than living shield generators.

Sniper Jackals have fortunately been nerfed from Halo 2. Not only are they fewer in number, but they also no longer have near-100% accuracy on Legendary, they take a bit longer to notice you, and they now wear a headpiece (apparently some kind of optical gear) that emits a telltale purple glow. They also tend to stay in a single spot even if they’re under fire. They still aren’t slouches, though, and are very deadly if you let your guard down.

Carbine Jackals are the primary mid- to long-range specialist Jackals, and are more plentiful than sniper Jackals. While the Carbine does less damage than the beam rifle, a Carbine Jackal can be a dangerous opponent on high difficulties. A group of them can kill you in short order on Legendary or even Heroic if you don’t watch yourself. However, like sniper Jackals, they don’t move around all that much, and tend to stay perched up in high places.

4. Hunters

The Lekgolo are tougher than ever in Halo 3, and they were already pretty tough in Halo 2. While their beam cannons still aren’t quite as deadly as their fuel rod guns from Halo 1, the Hunters are incredibly deadly. Their hand-to-hand combat skills have improved even more, they are far more aggressive, it’s harder to hit their weak spots, and they even have armor plating on their “stomachs” now, which means you almost have to attack them from behind if you don’t have some sort of heavy weapon. Also, Hunter pairs seem to work together as a unit better than they have in the past. Like Brutes and Grunts, parts of a Hunter’s armor can be destroyed, specifically, the part of their back where the long spines protrude. If you can somehow manage to blow that off, it makes hitting their weak spots much easier. Overall, the Hunters are far more interesting to fight than ever. Also, there’s one interesting detail of note, and that is the fact that when you shoot a dead Hunter, you can see the little individual worms that make up their bodies fly out of the corpse and writhe on the ground.

Unfortunately, they’re also quite rare. You only come across eight of them in the whole Campaign, compared to 12 in Halo 2 and 48 in Halo 1. There’s one pair on The Storm, two on The Ark, and another on The Covenant. One of the pairs on The Ark you simply plow through with a tank, so that really doesn’t even count as a fight. They didn’t stand a chance. Only the Hunter pair at the beginning of The Ark you have to fight without any vehicles or heavy weapons at your disposal. There should have been at least twice and many Hunters as there were, if not three or more times as many. Halo 1’s Hunters may have been easy to kill, but at least they were relatively much more common. In fact, Halo 1 contained 70% of the entire Hunter population in the trilogy (not including the two pairs that were your allies on the last level in Halo 2). The extreme paucity of Hunters in Halo 3 is something I truly lament. It’s such a waste for such an awesome bad guy to be used so rarely.

5. Drones

There’s nothing really all that different about the Drones in Halo 3. Like in Halo 2, they attack in large swarms and fly about rather unpredictably (though the first batch you fight on Crow’s Nest tends to stay attached to the wall instead of fly about the room). They’re actually one of the most dangerous enemies due to their overwhelming collective firepower and their ability to fly, plus they’re vicious little buggers. They have a bit less health than they did, but that’s about it. There is one little detail about them I like as well, and that’s the detailed compound eyes their character model has now, as opposed to the tiny blue-green dots they had in Halo 2.

6. The Flood

The Parasite has a few new tricks up its sleeve. Infection forms can now infect any dead bodies they happen upon, not just defeated Combat Forms. In fact, they even infect live victims on occasion. The infection process is, for the first time in the series, completely illustrated in graphic fashion. They also tend to attack in much larger swarms like they did in Halo 1, which makes them even more dangerous since they do significant damage individually like in Halo 2. Carrier Forms contain a whole mess of Infection Forms, which makes them even more dangerous. Combat Forms — which come in a new Brute variant in addition to the classic human and Elite variants — are fought in much the same way as they were in Halo 2. The Infection Forms lodged in their chests can be shot out, which will kill them (though another Infection Form can resurrect them), though this is hard to do against the Elite variant due to the fact that they are frequently shielded. They can still be gibbed by explosions and certain other attacks (the gibs are nicely done, too). Melee attacks — and not just those from the sword or hammer — are actually rather effective against Combat Forms this time around, and can actually gib them.

Of course, the biggest addition to this zombified freak show is the Pure Form, which is new to Halo 3. The Pure Form, a new stage in Flood evolution, can modulate itself between several variants: Stalker (the base variant), Ranged, and Tank. The Stalker variants don’t normally attack directly, but are fast and can climb walls and ceilings. A Pure Form will often transform into the Stalker phase to get from place to place quickly. The Tank variant is a massive, brutish hulk, slow-moving but possessing a devastating melee attack and a large amount of health. The Tank variant can also spit out Infection Forms. The Ranged variant is probably the most infamous due to its ability to annoy the player to no end with a constant barrage of dangerous, long-range projectiles. They tend to sit in one place constantly spamming the player, and you constantly have to be on guard against them. Taking them out is often a top priority, which is made even more difficult since you typically have to deal with a bunch of other Flood at the same time. All the Pure Form variants are extremely resistant to most weapons — only melee attacks (particularly from the sword, hammer, and Brute shot), the Needler (invaluable against Ranged Pure Forms), explosives, or fire-based weapons will do anything substantial to them.

While the Flood still aren’t as fun to fight as the Covenant, their upgrades and new additions to their ranks have made them more interesting to fight than in the past. I also like the fact that they talk now (technically, it’s the Gravemind speaking through them), which was very creepy.

7. Sentinels

The Sentinels are rarely fought in Halo 3, as they only become enemies on the last level after you kill Guilty Spark. They seem little different from their Halo 1 incarnations, though they look better and explode nicely. I’ve always though they provided a nice break from the constant Covenant and Flood battles, and I’m kind of disappointed that they didn’t feature as enemies more than they did in Halo 3.

Allies

As usual, you have plenty of help from AI-controlled buddies.

1. Marines

Not much to say here. Like I mentioned earlier in the AI section, they seem a bit more focused, and while they can be rather helpful, they’re still essentially cannon fodder. They’re still also terrible drivers. Their new armor looks great, and as always, they provide plenty of humorous banter for the player to listen to.

2. Elites

The proud warriors of the Sangheili race have joined humanity in the battle to stop the Prophet of Truth. They’re much better to have around than the Marines, no small thanks to their seemingly better combat skills, not to mention their strength and energy shielding. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, you only fight alongside them on two occasions during the entire Campaign. What was once the most prominent species has been reduced to mere bit players in the grand scheme. This was a very bad move on Bungie’s part, as far as I’m concerned.

3. Sentinels

Not much to say here. They provide a bit of indirect support, helping to fry Covenant and Flood forces on a couple of occasions. They’re decent at their job as well. But mostly they just hover about, not doing much of anything, at least until they turn on you on the last level.

4. The Flood

Like I mentioned earlier, this was a big “WTF?” moment for me, and I didn’t care much for this contrived and predictably short-lived alliance. At least they were good at kicking Covenant ass.

Boss Battles

Along with linear stages, one of the worst aspects of Halo 2’s Campaign was the addition of old-school boss battles. Regret and Tartarus (and the Heretic leader, to a lesser extent) were one-off enemies who were governed by wholly unique sets of rules. As Narcogen said in regards to the fight with Tartarus, “Everything you’ve learned about how to play Halo up until that moment goes right out the door, replaced by a mini-game where you have to repeat in lock-step a series of actions in order to reach your objective.”

Fortunately, the only boss battle in Halo 3 — the fight against 343 Guilty Spark —really isn’t much of one. The Monitor is one of the least formidable foes in the series. He’s slow and easy to hit, he’s a terrible shot, his repulsor field thingy doesn’t really do much, and he possesses no special defenses beyond being immune to all weapons besides the Spartan laser, which Johnson gives you at the beginning of the fight anyway. I actually found this fight a little too easy. Perhaps he could have had a few Sentinels backing him up, giving the encounter a feeling similar to the fight at the beginning of Two Betrayals. Plus, it would’ve made sense if he called for reinforcements considering he just got blasted in the back by a big-ass laser gun. Well, at least it wasn’t some tedious mini-game like the boss battles in Halo 2, and old Sparky dies in spectacular fashion. So long, light bulb.

Co-op Mode

One of the most welcome new features in Halo 3 was the ability to play cooperatively with up to four people over Xbox Live. Also, unlike the previous Halo games, each player plays as a separate character: player 1 gets to be the Master Chief, player 2 is the Arbiter, and players 3 and 4 get one of two new Elite characters unique to co-op mode. While it has the occasional bouts of bad lag, co-op plays remarkably well over XBL, and I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of enjoyment being able to play with friends online. After all, it’s not like you always have friends over at your house to play co-op with. I have to give Bungie major props for this addition.

Campaign Scoring

Campaign scoring is an interesting new addition. It provides a decent competitive aspect to co-op, and offers a goal for single-player besides getting to the end of a stage. There are even Campaign-specific medals for headshots, Needler kills, multi-kills, splatters, and several other style-based kills, as well as point multipliers for finishing the stage within a certain time and/or with certain skulls activated. While I haven’t utilized this feature all that much, I think that since it gives the feeling of playing an arcade game, in the long run it’ll increase the replay value, since playing for the sake of playing might wear thin as time goes by. After all, you can always keep trying to beat your best, or someone else’s best for that matter.

Skulls

Halo 2 introduced hidden skulls that, when picked up, alter the gameplay in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. Skulls have returned in Halo 3, and have been better integrated. While in Halo 2, you had to acquire the skull every playing session to activate it. You turn off the system, and you lose the skull’s effects. In Halo 3, once you pick up a skull, you never have to do so again. Once you do, you can simply turn them on and off via the Campaign options menu. This has eliminated the aggravation of having to go find a skull every time you wanted to activate it, which is especially beneficial considering that some skulls (particularly IWHBYD) are hard to get.

As for the skull’s effects, they’re quite varied. Some directly affect gameplay by changing enemy behaviors or making them more difficult, by altering weapon effectiveness, or by giving certain handicaps to the player. Some are just for fun. The Grunt Birthday Party skull is always good for some laughs, and IWHBYD unlocks a ton of extra combat dialogue. All in all, skulls are a good way to extend the replay value of the Campaign, and I’m glad Bungie has integrated them better into the game.

MULTIPLAYER

Unlike Campaign, I’m having a hard time consistently enjoying multiplayer. It’s very hit-or-miss for me. This is due not only to problems with the basic gameplay — various weapons-related issues, a flawed melee system, etc. — but also a number of other factors specific to multiplayer itself. However, it’s not nearly as bad as Halo 2’s multiplayer, which had even more problematic gameplay and suffered from rampant cheating due to numerous glitches. Now for a more detailed look at how Halo 3’s multiplayer stacks up compared to that of the first two games.

Stages

Most of the multiplayer stages in Halo 3 are rather underwhelming. They all look great, but they don’t play so well. However, I feel that this is more of a consequence of the basic gameplay elements such as weapons and the like (Vociferous of Ascendent Justice points out other reasons as well). For example, Construct, perhaps my second most-hated map in the entire series (second to Elongation), is disliked by many due to (among other reasons) the fact that many players have a tendency to camp the top of the grav-lifts while armed with Maulers or swords. There are very few ways to get to the top, and most of the ramps end up close to the tops of the lifts anyway and are all very exposed. However, once Bungie added a Team BRs gametype to this map for Team Slayer, it’s become far more enjoyable, going from bad to acceptable. People actually cycle around the map instead of camping the lifts. Likewise, Team BRs on Guardian, which also removes Maulers (a weapon that dominated this map on default settings as well), has really made that map more enjoyable. It goes to show you that sometimes the map itself isn’t bad, but rather it’s the weapon setup that makes it bad. In a similar vein, I think a lot of Halo 2 maps would have played better if it weren’t for certain gameplay mechanics. For example, I think I would have liked Lockout a lot better on default settings if there was both A) a good single-wield spawn weapon and B) power weapons that respawned on a timer. Conversely, Tombstone, despite being a faithful remake of Hang ‘em High in terms of stage design, was nowhere near as good as the original due to various gameplay differences between Halo 1 and Halo 2, most notably, the lack of fall damage.

Of course, even with good weapon setups, several of Halo 3’s maps still don’t do anything for me. In addition to Construct (w/ default weapons), I fail to get any enjoyment out of Narrows (though it’s one of my better stages), Isolation feels increasingly mediocre the more I play it (though I liked it at first), and I don’t care for the default version of Foundry found in Matchmaking. Standoff would be more fun without the Warthogs; despite being an open outdoors environment, the stage is too compact for vehicles, except maybe for Mongooses. Epitaph is okay, but I haven’t been able to really get a feel for it in team games since it is only found on FFA and Doubles. Hopefully it’ll be added to Team Slayer and other 4v4 playlists in the future. It’s not like it’s too small to hold eight people.

There are a couple of maps that I really enjoy, though. I like Valhalla and Sandtrap due to their open outdoors environment, which fits well with my preference for mid- to long-range combat (though I wish vehicles would be removed on ranked Team Slayer in Valhalla’s case). Highground is okay despite the kooky spawns, and I’ve gotten to like Snowbound, which is one of my better maps. Last Resort is good, as Zanzibar was a favorite map of mine in Halo 2 so long as people didn’t superjump (Last Resort, as a Halo 3 map, has the added bonus of not having that glitch).

Matchmaking: Playlists & Gametypes

Matchmaking functions much like it did in Halo 2, but there are a few changes of note. The playlist selection menu is better organized, with ranked and unranked playlists being separated into separate submenus. Also, I like the addition to the “party up” option to Matchmaking, which eliminates the annoyance from Halo 2 of having to send a friend request to someone you just played with before they could join your party. The playlist selection is good as well, and I like the addition of the Social Slayer playlist. Team Tactical is interesting as well, though I haven’t played much of it. Up until recently, my only beef with the playlist selection is the fact that Bungie had yet to add a Team SWAT playlist. I played a ton of SWAT in Halo 2, and it is the only reason I actually go back to play that game on XBL. However, it was brought back for Halo 3 for a couple of weekends, and will become permanent soon.

However, many playlists have some questionable gametype selections. One of the most notable is Shotty Snipers on Team Slayer. As far as I’m concerned, Bungie should just reintroduce Team Snipers, and move any sniper-centric gametype like that there. Also, as someone who dislikes the notion of mixed playlists in ranked, I wish objective-based games like Oddball would be removed from Lone Wolves. I’d also like to see MLG split up into separate Slayer and Objectives playlists. Also, I’d like to go into Rumble Pit with some buddies and not have to keep constantly getting gimmicky gametypes like Hammerzeit. I know it’s not ranked, but I’d still like to have a regular FFA Slayer match sometimes. However, it’s not all bad. For example, Bungie has recently added BR starts to many maps for Slayer gametypes, which I wholeheartedly approve of. While I consider the BR to be too spammy for its role, it’s a hell of a sight better than spray-and-pray AR starts.

Weapon Spawns

One of the biggest improvements to Halo 3’s multiplayer is the weapon spawn system. Unlike Halo 2’s utterly broken control-based system, where “power weapons” (rockets, sniper, etc.) never respawn as long as they’re being held by a player, Halo 3’s power weapons respawn on a timer, like in Halo 1. However, Halo 3’s system isn’t quite identical to Halo 1’s, as the timers don’t appear to be regular, though, and the weapons can take quite a while to respawn. The return of timers is a boon to multiplayer, as it results in less weapon whoring, and discourages camping by giving players the incentive to cycle around the map to acquire the power weapons as they respawn, lest their opponents get them first.

Voice Communication

Communications have improved noticeably in Halo 3. In team games where the teams have four or fewer players, broadcast voice is always on, which is good as it eliminates the aggravation of having to constantly hit the D-pad to talk to your teammates. Also, it’s a lot easier to mute players. Not only can you mute annoying miscreants by simply selecting their name — either at the pre-game lobby or during a match via the “A-hole button” method — but you have the option to set your default voice settings to “Mute All” and “Team and Party.” The only problem with the latter is that it resets to the default setting whenever you turn the game off, which isn’t an issue with any of the other player options. Hopefully this gets fixed in a future patch.

Player Spawns

Player spawn points in multiplayer are rather bad on some maps. Highground and Isolation in particular are really bad about respawning enemies right behind you. I don’t know if this is by design or by accident, but it’s really annoying. Also, in Multi-team and Double Team, it’s pretty inconsistent on whether you spawn with your teammate or not. In one Multi-team match on Narrows, I spawned far away from my teammate at the very beginning of the match, while one of the other teams spawns together not 20 meters away from me. Being clearly outnumbered and caught by surprise, I was promptly torn to pieces.

Perhaps the most egregious problem with Halo 3’s spawns are on symmetrical or semi-symmetrical two-base maps, e.g., Valhalla, The Pit, Standoff. In Team Slayer maps, you always spawn at or near the base you started on. For example, if you spawn at the waterfall base on Vahalla, you will always spawn on that side of the map, never at the middle hill, the turret field, the Pelican, or the lakeside base. The spawns are there, but there’s an invisible line on either side that demarcates a “cannot spawn past here” barrier. Compare this to Coagulation, where even if you spawned at one base, you could spawn at the other base or at any of the other spawn points scattered across the map. The inability to spawn somewhere else besides your own base simply encourages spawn camping and is simply bad gameplay.

Ranking System

I like the binary ranking system of Halo 3. The standard numerical ranks from Halo 2 have returned. This system functions the same as it did before, though it seems easier to rank up than it once did (I’ve attained a 45 in Lone Wolves and have gotten up to a 41 in Team Slayer, which is much higher than I’ve ever gotten in Halo 2). The new EXP system, which issues a military rank on basis of number of games won (both ranked and unranked) as well as the highest numerical rank you’ve achieved in ranked playlists, gives you a good sense of how often an opponent plays as well as their overall win-loss ratio. I think it could have been integrated into Matchmaking a little better, though. After all, it’s possible for a team of Captains with average win-loss ratios that goes into Team Slayer to get put up against a bunch of Brigadiers and Generals (who got their high ranks in other playlists) with outstanding win-loss ratios. That said, it’s not a major issue, but it’s something Bungie could look into if they decide to implement a similar binary ranking system in a future game.

EXTRA FEATURES & MISCELLANEOUS

Forge

One of the most notable new features is Forge, which allows you to move, eliminate, replace, and position any of a number of items, including weapons, vehicles, spawn points, teleporters, and a whole host of things on any multiplayer map. While it doesn’t allow for players to alter stage geometry or create new maps from scratch, it does let one change some things around to their specifications. The map Foundry is great for Forge, as it was built specifically it. There’s also a custom powerup exclusive to Forge. Looking like the active camo or overshield (except yellow), this item can grant the player any of a number of attributes the player assigns it, including invisibility, increased speed, increased damage, and so on. It can even be made to grant debilitating effects, making it a power-down.

While Forge is great for a fun distraction — whether it’s simply making havoc with huge piles of fusion cores or doing something more clever like creating Rube Goldberg machines on Foundry — and in the right hands can be used to make some interesting map variants, I’ve found myself a little annoyed by the item restrictions placed on the player. Every level has some form of weapon or vehicle that cannot be placed on it. For example, why can’t I put a plasma cannon, fuel rod gun, Carbine, or Prowler on Valhalla? I wanted to make a Forge variant of that map using those things, but that’s impossible due to Bungie’s item restrictions. I can understand not allowing a tank on small levels like Guardian, but not allowing the full set of weapons on all maps, or the full set of vehicles on big maps like Valhalla? Even Halo 2 allowed you access to all weapons (except the fuel rod gun) via custom options. These limitations even bleed over to basic custom options, as, for example, you can’t even start with Carbines. This was a bad move on Bungie’s part, and really serves to detract from what is otherwise a very good new feature.

One other thing I wish Forge had that it doesn’t is the ability to alter weapon attributes: damage, shot spread, rate of fire, etc. That way, I’d at least have the ability to have my ideal Halo arsenal in my own custom games. At least that wasn’t something that was announced and later dropped.

Saved Films & Screenshots

Another feature new to Halo 3 is the ability to actually watch replays of any recent games (Campaign or multiplayer) and save them for future viewing (this feature was planned for Halo 2 but eventually scrapped). There were many occasions in the first two games where something awesome or hilarious (or both) happened, or something entirely random and bogus happened, but unfortunately those moments could never be saved except as memories. You were never able to go back and say “Hey! Look at that! Far out, man!” or ask “How in the hell did that happen?” or prove whether or not you got screwed in an encounter by some random BS. The saved films feature allows all of this. It’s very versatile, and allows you to fast-forward, play in slow-motion, change the view from first- to third-person, see every player’s perspective, and even detach the camera entirely to fly around the stage to view the action from any angle or distance. You can even make short clips of a particular part of gameplay, or even take screenshots. The user interface can be a bit awkward for certain functions — for example, you can’t save a film to your library from the post-game lobby, and the only way to do so is to go to the Theater lobby, which can be a hassle if you’re in a party —, but that’s about the only complaint. Saved Films is probably my favorite new feature, and I use it quite frequently.

Armor Permutations

Halo 3 has greatly expanded the degree in which you can customize your character’s appearance in multiplayer. In Halo 1, you could only change your Spartan’s color. In Halo 2, you could pick from either a Spartan or Elite, you had greater color options (primary & secondary), and you had numerous emblems you could add. Halo 3 not only expands on the variety of options from Halo 2, but it also adds many new Spartan and Elite armor variants. There are several different kinds of helmets, shoulder pads, and chest plates. The possible amount of configurations is staggering, and can account for a wide variety of player tastes. Of course, you have to work for most of those pieces of armor, as they can only be unlocked via the completion of certain tasks (beating certain levels, accomplishing certain achievements, etc.).

One armor permutation, the Recon suit, is currently Bungie-exclusive, and is only given to non-Bungie personnel if they’ve done something to impress them, despite the repeated requests of “I can has Recon?” Personally I would have rather had Recon available as an unlockable permutation, and I wish Hayabusa had been the Bungie-exclusive armor. It’s far more distinct than the Recon (plus I think it’s ugly), so if Bungie wanted something to make themselves stand out that didn’t involve flaming heads, Hayabusa would’ve been it. That way, people would really have motivation to try to get an exclusive samurai-esque Spartan armor. Now Recon, on the other hand, looks like any ordinary suit of armor — far less distinctive than the Hayabusa, but definitely better looking in my opinion, but definitely not unique enough to warrant any attempts at impressing Bungie. Most people probably want Recon because it’s exclusive, not necessarily because it looks distinctive.


You can’t “has” Recon (left), but you can have the far more distinctive Hayabusa (right).

Medals & Achievements

Like Halo 2, Halo 3 has numerous medals that are rewarded for specific types of kills. Most of the multiplayer medals are those that carried over from Halo 2, but there are a few new ones, including ones for larger multi-kills (e.g., Killtastrophe, Killionaire) or killing sprees involving the usage of a single weapon (e.g. Shotgun Spree, Sharpshooter). Two of the tougher ones to get are Perfection and Extermination, but it sure is satisfying when you do manage to get one. There are even a few Campaign-specific medals, including “Super Detonation!” for Needler kills or “Plasma Combo!” The only things I dislike about the medals are the facts that Killtacular was changed to a five-kill multi-kill and Running Riot was changed to a 15-kill spree (as opposed to four and ten kills, respectively). In particular, getting a Killtacular is damn near impossible in any ranked playlist due to team size restrictions, and even in Social Slayer or BTB it’s insanely hard to get. Why’d Bungie have to do that to the classics?

Also, like every other Xbox 360 game, Halo 3 has unlockable acheivements. Most of them are Campaign-specific — finishing levels, beating the game on a certain difficulty, finding skulls or all the terminals, or getting a certain amount of meta-game points on a particular level. Several others can be unlocked in either Campaign or multiplayer. A few, however, can only be unlocked in multiplayer. Fortunately, Bungie wisely avoided mistakes made by certain other prominent developers in creating multiplayer achievements — for example, the ill-conceived achievements Epic made for Gears of War multiplayer, which resulted in people ignoring teamwork in order to get an achievement — by making them unlockable only in FFA (and all but one of those in Lone Wolves only), assigning them a low point value (only 5G apiece) and by making them relatively simple rather than something that would involve long, drawn-out grind-fests. However, some of them are very hard (some would say nearly impossible) to get despite their simplicity, which ironically has encouraged players to work together despite the free-for-all setting required to get them. Of course, that probably has a lot to do with the fact that acquiring several armor permutations requires the unlocking of said achievements, in addition to the sheer difficulty in getting those achievements legitimately. Perhaps in their next game (assuming it’s a shooter), Bungie could negate FFA teamwork by not making inordinately difficult achievements, or by not tying unlockable content to them, or by not having multiplayer achievements at all. That said, though, Bungie’s achievement list for Halo 3 is one of the best I’ve seen for a 360 game to date.

CONCLUSION

Like its predecessors, Halo 3 has been a spectacular success, getting high ratings from critics and selling over 8 million copies, which pushes the series’ total gross from game sales alone to over $1 billion. Hundreds of thousands of people play it on Xbox Live every day. It’s by far the best-selling game of 2007, and is now the best-selling Xbox 360 game ever not to mention the best-selling first-person shooter ever, as well as the 13th overall best-selling non-pack-in console title ever. But does it deserve such acclaim? Perhaps.

At the most basic level, Halo 3 is a very solid game, retaining all the things that make Halo what it is, including the “golden tripod,” the excellent controls, and the well-integrated vehicular component. It’s also an impressive artistic achievement, with awesome graphics, sound, and music. The Campaign is fun and is an awesome, action-packed spectacle. Finally, Bungie has introduced a number of great new features such as saved films, as well as some fun new gadgets (plus they finally got the Needler right). However, even if all the basics are in place, it’s the details that can make or break a game.

As I’ve outlined in this review, Halo 3 has fixed several of the things that were wrong with Halo 2, yet it has many problems of its own, most of them gameplay-related. For example, to list the biggest problems, most of the weapons are in serious need of improvement, the melee system is terrible, and the AI in Campaign is mediocre. Overall, the gameplay is still lacking in many ways. It takes more than toning down the tracking on the plasma pistol, giving the sword a battery, and deemphasizing dual wielding in order to achieve really good gameplay (as opposed to merely decent gameplay).

Personally, I blame a lot of the problems with Halo 3’s gameplay on the totally unnecessary and ill-conceived changes Bungie made when they made Halo 2. In the three years between the launch of Halo 1 and Halo 2, I don’t recall hearing people clamoring for lunging melees, or the removal of fall damage, or for the addition of dual wielding, or for a plasma pistol charged shot that could not be dodged, or for a massive increase in auto aim, or for the replacement of the pistol with something that’s essentially a more accurate & headshot-capable version of the AR (though the pistol itself was complained about by many), or for homing capabilities for rockets, or any of the other things I and others like me have criticized in the past. Halo 2 could’ve been Halo 1 with better physics and graphics (which were things the sequel did improve on) as well as a few tweaks to the weapons but otherwise played the same, and it still would have sold millions. Bungie didn’t have to do what they did to the combat, but they did anyway, and unfortunately some of that was carried over to Halo 3. Why they changed so much of the gameplay, we’ll probably never know. But it sure as hell wasn’t something necessary they had to do to attract more people. Most people were going to buy it anyway, and they probably didn’t even know it was going to be much different from Halo 1, if at all.

You see, one of the things that made Halo stand out was Bungie’s philosophy of “30 seconds of fun,” as explained by Jamie Greisemer in the “Making Of” ViDoc that came with the Halo 2 Collector’s Edition DVD’s bonus disc. This simple and efficient formula worked extraordinary well, and is one of the things that made Halo “combat evolved.” It allowed for a lot of variation and depth despite the relative simplicity of Halo’s gameplay compared to certain other shooters (particularly tactical shooters). However, the formula’s success is entirely dependent on the basic gameplay elements: weapons, melees, AI, and various other nuances. Change the way a weapon performs or alter the melees or introduce some other change, and it can affect how fun the “30 seconds of fun” is. While Halo 1’s gameplay had its own flaws — weapons like the AR and plasma rifle couldn’t compete with the pistol at mid-range and were barely effective against it at close range, the vehicle damage system was inconsistently applied, and the Needler sucked in multiplayer — it was still vastly superior in all ways to Halo 3’s gameplay. The weapons were better, the melees were better, it had fall damage, the AI gave a better impression of intelligence, and the stages (Campaign and multiplayer) were better-designed, and so on and so forth. It was and forever shall be the superior game in my eyes. All it needed was a few tweaks to the gameplay, and it would’ve been perfect, and all of its gameplay could’ve carried over to the sequels.

But I digress. While I don’t consider Halo 3 to be a masterpiece or anything — it’s far from the best game of all time, and I wouldn’t even label it “Best Game of 2007,” and of all the games released last year that I’ve played, I’ve enjoyed BioShock (my favorite FPS since Halo 1) and perhaps even Crackdown more than Halo 3 —, it most definitely is a good game, and is better than most of the garbage that comes out these days. Despite all its flaws, I still get a fair amount of enjoyment out of it. I like the multiplayer component a good bit more than Halo 2’s — in fact, it’s still the best XBL-compatible multiplayer shooter available —, and the Campaign is fun as well despite the so-so AI and poor plot development. While I can’t say I’m not disappointed by a lot of things in Halo 3, I don’t regret buying it (I got the Legendary Edition), and I’m never getting rid of it.

Scores

Gameplay: 7. The basics are solid, but most of the common weapons are mediocre, the melee and vehicle damage systems are deeply flawed, and the AI performs poorly much of the time. Nevertheless, the gameplay is overall still vastly improved over Halo 2’s.

Graphics: 9. Superb art design, great use of color, high draw distance, and impressive attention to detail makes this one of the best-looking games around today. There are a few minor but noticeable issues, though, which keeps it from getting a perfect rating in this category.

Music & Sound: 10. Halo 3 has one of the best original scores ever in a video game as well as excellent sound design and great performances from the voice actors. Few games sound this good, and Marty & Co.’s work is nothing short of perfection. In fact, the music is so awesome that the one audio issue — excessively low volume of some in-mission dialogue — isn’t enough to bump this rating below a perfect ten.

Story: 6. The first four stages are almost entirely filler, the Arbiter was demoted to a mere sidekick who’s MIA for over a third of the game, the Covenant civil war subplot was severely downplayed, and many loose ends still exist. When the story picks up, it’s too late into the game, making things feel extremely rushed. However, the terminals scattered throughout the latter half of the game greatly expand the background of the events surrounding the Forerunner-Flood war.

Extra Features: 9. Saved films, Forge, Campaign scoring, file sharing, online co-op and so forth are all welcome features. However, Forge has many unnecessary item limitations, particularly in regards to weapons.

Replay Value: Very High. Campaign is enjoyable, and I always enjoy playing online with my friends. Despite various gameplay issues that negatively affect the overall fun factor, Halo 3 nevertheless is enjoyable enough to play on a highly regular basis.

Drive-in Totals: One cyborg super-soldier with bad-ass alien sidekick, hundreds of dead bodies, damn dirty apes, floating psychotic AI, suicidal Grunts, parasitic zombie hordes, gratuitous Prophet skewering, gratuitous Marty O’Donnell, Warthog-fu, plasma grenade-fu. Three stars. Check it out.

Overall Score: 8 out of 10. While it could’ve been a lot better than it is, it’s a very fun game that offers better gameplay than most other games currently on the market as well as a ton of great extras, not to mention it looks and sounds incredible. Overall, it’s a very good sequel, and in most ways an improvement over Halo 2. Still not as good as the original, though.

Other Halo 3 Reviews & Critiques

Halo 3 – Game on! by Rockslider
Halo Repair by Nick Suttner, 1up.com Associate Reviews Editor

Advertisements

10 responses to “Review: “Halo 3”

  1. Overall, it was a good writeup, really in depth. A couple discrepancies with your information though. First, the physics glitch with crouching is gone as of the update. Also, you pointed out that the Scorpion is included in matchmaking, but not the Hornet (it is included in Avalanche as well, but not as it appears in campaign).

    I agree with you on some points, disagree on others. However to do with equipment, I really enjoy having it in the game. When I first heard about it I was a bit weary of the idea but I’ve grown to like it. As for the MLG paylist (or MLG in general), I don’t really care for it but the change in movement speeds (and gravity) are really noticeable and I hope that Bungie implements this into normal matchmaking in the future.

    The battle rifle needs to be more accurate and the Carbine has to do more damage per shot and have more accuracy as well. I remember in the Beta the Carbine was ridiculous. More often than not I would pick it up instead of the BR, but alas, no more. You nailed the problem with the Mauler. It’s damage needs to be nerfed to a point where a shot+melee does NOT kill. Of course the shotgun can do this, but there is only ONE shotgun on a map if ANY.

    As for maps you (and me) tend to agree for the most part with Vociferous. I was gonna put a link in here but you already referenced the article. Anyways, I think the large maps in Halo 3 are the best of the series so far. I just played Avalanche yesterday and I think they did a great job with it. The same can’t be said for the smaller maps though. I think the problem with the Halo 3 maps is the fact that the artists have so much more graphics power to work with to make the levels look nice, that they spend more time tinkering around with that that making simple maps (just look at Ghost town, it looks amazing). Halo 1’s maps were really just geometry and nothing more. I can’t imaging how many iterations of each map they were able to push out until they got it right. That started to change in Halo 2. Bungie seems to have made some simple (eg. Lockout) and some not so simple (Backwash, the swamp level I think) and the ones that resonated with me were the simple ones. But as for Snowbound, I can without a doubt say that it is my least favorite map in all of the three games. The shield doors are cool, but it leads to a giant camp fest in the bases. Epitaph makes better use of the doors simply because the map has a lot more ways to get in and out.

    One of the great things about Halo 1 for me is it was always played in LAN settings with people I knew. No host griping or 14 year-old wannabe pro gamers made for an entirely different experience. Personally, I don’t think it would have changed for the better if Bungie re-released Halo 1 for XBL. I’ve played XBC (Xbox Connect) for Halo 1 and it is just a terrible experience simply because of constant high-ping games (I know Halo 1 was never meant for non-LAN play as it sends larger packets of data back and forth as opposed to Halo 2/3’s smaller packets).

    As for why Bungie changed the game between Halo 1 and 2 the way they did, I don’t think anyone will ever know, but if I had to hazard a guess I think it has to do with the “Wii” generation that the game industry is in right now, where games are getting easier simply due to the fact that it equals more sales if more people can play the game. Imagine the average Halo 2/3 player right now (that probably hasn’t played Halo 1) going into matchmaking with the Halo 1 pistol. It would not be a pretty sight, simply put.

    Again, great article. Hope to see more in the future.

  2. I agree with alot of your complaints with Halo 3, namely the absence of Covenant culture/history, Truth’s new voice, lack of information about the Covenant post-war, and many, MANY others.

    Good job. 😀

  3. Perhaps I missed it, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention some of the atrocious dialogue spurted by Hood & Miranda {OP of Crow’s Nest, ED of Floodgate}. Dangerous level of cheese in those moments, perhaps an attempt to appeal to the masses to a greater extent.
    Good review though, I largely agree with you what you’ve discussed.

  4. haha was just browsing. yeah it’s incredible how much you can write on just one game. and i’m surprised at your patience to be able to write it, too. [plus the statistics and all that]

    brilliant =D

  5. Wow. That was the most in-depth review for a game I’ve ever seen. I admire you willingness to be objective, despite your love for Halo 1. The only complaint I have with the review is this: As I hardcore-Halo fan who enjoyed the campaigns story overall, I feel somewhat bad because I’m afraid that I cannot logically justify liking it! 🙂 Anyway, you’re awesome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s