Friday, January 11, 2008

2007 in Review - Halo 3

Probably the most anticipated game of forever, Halo 3 was released in the end of September. As expected, upon its release, my friends list was one long list of "Playing Halo 3", something I hadn't seen since Gears of War and something I hadn't seen and participated in since Halo 2. It even got my buddy Solstice to pick up an Xbox 360 to Finish the Fight.

Halo has reached that level of success and popularity where it has become fashionable to criticize it. While I agree that it is not perfect, they do get so many things right that it's not uncommon to hear gamers wish for its features in other games. Just as an example, Halo 2's matchmaking system was a revolution in getting people to play together. Their concept of a party has been likened to a "virtual couch", because it is just so easy to get people together to play game after game as long as they like.

The game feels very similar to Halo 2 in many respects. It doesn't seem like quite as big a jump as Halo 2 was from Halo 1. But it is much improved. For one thing, instead of starting with a single useless weapon, you start with the classic assault rifle. Why is this so key? Because for one thing, the assault rifle is capable of taking down a fully armored and shielded Spartan, so you spawn with a fighting chance. For another, because you're not automatically encouraged to dual-wield, grenades are back.

The new gimmick in Halo 3 is equipment. For most of the beta, these new toys didn't seem like much more of a novelty, with limited tactical use. When I realized what it could do, though, was one game of capture the flag. I was running down to the beach with the enemy flag on High Ground. I was about halfway down, and the enemy team had just left the base and were in hot pursuit. Unprotected, I never would've made it to the score point. However, I had a bubble shield. I tossed it down and kept running. The shield was just big enough to give me enough cover to finish my run back to the base and score. And that's when I got it.

Another new innovation was 4-player co-op campaign. It requires a little planning, because you can't just drop-in, drop-out — an entire party must play the level from start to finish. But this was a welcome addition, even if it was used for such a short time, as I and three other Geezers were able to play through the campaign on Legendary and finish it in the first week. It's a shame the replay value on that is so low, because it's something I hope more developers take the time to implement in games.

The campaign story was fairly well-told. Learning more about the Halo universe, learning a little more about the Forerunners, was satisfying. The Master Chief story arc is at an end, it would seem, but at least for me, there are still so many unanswered questions, about the Forerunners and their technology in particular, their past, and the future of humanity and the Covenant. What was controlling the Ark? Installation 04 was destroyed a very short time prior to Halo 3; did it just happen to have a replacement almost ready, under automated construction for thousands of years? Or did it begin building when 04 was destroyed? If the former, that's fairly lucky; if the latter, that's impressive, that this factory can automatically start and construct what it did in so short a time; which makes me wonder how long ago the Forerunners died, and how long everything has been functioning on autopilot.

Multiplayer is just as good as before, and then some. Although clan support is not there, personally I haven't felt the pain, because most of my "clan friends" are on my personal friends list already. As that grows, though, it's going to get more inconvenient. But that's a rant for another day.

There are a few new game types, and a bazillion tweaks and options for creating variations. Rockets at high speed and low gravity, or gravity hammers with low gravity, is a lot of fun. "Rocket Race", where you race around on indestructable Mongooses trying to get from checkpoint to checkpoint while knocking your opponents off course with rocket blasts is good for a lot of laughs. The main issue here is, because there are so many options, they don't suit well for trying to tweak "on the fly". You almost always forget something, so if you haven't planned ahead and taken it into the Forge for testing, it tends to be a lesson in frustration instead of fun. But it's nothing a few open-minded Geezers can't put up with once in a while.

The Forge has enabled some fairly creative game types. Although not a full-fledged map editor and definitely not perfect (often, the results still require a little "honor system" when the map doesn't behave as expected), it does provide a lot of opportunities for fun. I'm a little partial to the Spikeball courts myself, which work out to a game of dodgeball either on a beach or in a pool (depending on whether you use the specially-forged Sandtrap or Zanzibar variant).

Probably the one feature that's spoiled me for other games is the automatic saved films. Every game you play is automatically saved in cache, and can be permanently saved in a fairly small file. From these, you can snip out clips or make screenshots, and you can share them with others fairly easily. Being able to share films is very cool, especially since it's not really a "film", but a copy of the game data. This means any film or film clip, you can pause, rewind, move the camera to a different angle, or detach the camera completely and see what was happening on the other side of the map. And from any of these films, you can pause, position the camera, and snap a screenshot, which can then be downloaded from It's very cool to come into work and set my desktop background to a screenshot from a game I played the night before.

This has, as I've said, spoiled me for other games, though. I was playing Geometry Wars one night (came on the 512MB memory card I picked up for half price as an open-box item — lucky score, that), and at some point during the game's chaos, something hit me. No idea what it was. My first thought? "I need to go look at the film and see what happened."

This game is poised to last. New games are still being created with the Forge and nearly limitless options (even more so with the extremely Forge-friendly Foundry map, which I'll be getting later when it's free; I'm a little too cheap to spend $10 on a new map pack of 3 maps at this point), and the party system is still unmatched (I still don't know why other developers don't just "copy what Bungie does" — party management is still a common complaint in many best-selling titles, even after Halo 2 showed them how it's done). It's also accessible. This is one game that, no matter where I am, I can pick up and play. I don't have to spend time "levelling up" a character, or having to pre-select a character class. Not that those aren't good concepts, but they require thought and planning, and when you're in the mood to just pick up the controller and go, Halo offers that.

It's just my opinion, think what you want of it, but I think Halo is a great game with solid gameplay and fantastic multiplayer. There will always be those that hate anything that appeals to the masses, but I think this game is well deserving of its status.

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