I wasn't exactly thrilled when I heard that the only way I could play Halo 3 in time to meet my various deadlines was by flying out to Seattle and spending two days at Bungie's Kirland studio.
It wasn't that I didn't want to play Halo 3, or that I didn't watch to check out Bungie, I just didn't want to spend a big chunk of the week doing it.
The plan was to have a bunch of journalists fly to New York and Seattle and spend the next couple of days playing through the entire game on their own. The first day, I was told, was dedicated to the single player campaign. I would have time to play through the entire campaign by myself and then through a chunk of it with other gamers in co-op mode.
On the second day I was supposed to play around with Forge, Halo 3's robust map editing tools, and do some online multiplayer gaming.
I bummed a ride from an X-Play guy from the hotel that first morning, arriving at the studios about 9 a.m. We didn't get started until about 10:30 a.m. and I didn't wrap things up until about 11:30 p.m. Taking into account breaks to eat and drink and... um, dispose of what I ate and drank, the game took 12 hours to play through on the second hardest, Heroic, level. I've heard playing through on Legendary takes about 20 hours and scores you an extended ending.
After finishing, I realized why they had insisted we come to them to play the game. It wasn't because they wanted to exert some sort of control over our opinions, or control our access, they just wanted to make sure we had the time, and undivided attention, to play through the game's campaign in one go. And it was worth it. It helped me view the game from a unique perspective I'm rarely afforded. I was, in playing the game from end-to-end in one go, able to appraise it more like I would a movie, noticing both the plot's highs and lows, but also the ebb and flow of level design and issues that cropped up on occasion.
While Halo 3 doesn't reinvent the genre, it doesn't need to. What it does instead is provide fans of the trilogy a sort of satisfying ending and a much more satisfying experience.
I've always held that one of the things that attracts fans of Halo to the game is its plot and characters. While Halo 3 does deliver on its promise to wrap things up, I found the plot a bit too convoluted to either follow or really care about. Sure, I wanted to see what happens, how it all ends, but that's not what drove me to complete the game. Instead the experience of playing the game was my main motivator for beating it.
I think the fact I didn't care about the plot was also because I didn't really form much of an attachment to the game's main characters. I wasn't invested in them because, I think, they didn't seem to exist outside of their momentary roles in the cut-scenes. Sure, some of the characters get involved in the firefights, but it wasn't enough to make me care what happens to them.
The Master Chief, while a cool character to play, was the epitome of this problem. I understand that the Bungie folks deliberately designed him to be a sort of placeholder for the gamer, a way for gamers to feel like they are the Master Chief, but while this occasionally added to the excitement of a battle, in the long run it killed any interest I had in the Master Chief outside of what happened when I was controlling him.
Fortunately, the experience of playing through the game was rewarding enough to make up for the lack of big pay off at the end.
The game's controls are mostly unchanged, you do get the addition of the item button, which allows you to deploy and make use of a variety of equipment. While that doesn't change the way you control the game, it does effect the way you develop your strategy for going through a level.
For instance, I discovered that you can use the grav lift in ways perhaps not initially intended. I accidentally dropped one in a doorway and effectively blocked people from making their way through the door. Another time I used it in a low-ceiling room. Once I hopped on the lift, the device pinned me to the ceiling, allowing me to surprise enemies when they walked through the door.
But again, this doesn't really change the feel of the game. Halo 3 is Halo 2 with better graphics and better artificial intelligence. Mostly.
While the multiplayer still doesn't impress me graphically, the single player is a much smoother, more detailed looking beast, from what I could tell. I was happy to discover that the developers decided to expand their pallete when creating levels this time around as well. Instead of the sort of repetitive levels of Halo 2 there were bits of the campaign that takes place in lush jungles, on frozen plateaus, in futuristic buildings, even underground. To compliment the variety of aesthetic in the game level design, the developers also seemed to mostly, mostly stay away from the more annoying back-tracking levels found in earlier Halos.
The game's AI was really weird. On the one hand it was simply brilliant, seemingly infusing bad guys with such interesting tactics that the decisions they made seemed based more on emotion at times than hardwiring. This resulted in a campaign that seemed different enough every time you died and had to repeat something, that it was almost fun to replay levels.
The enemies use of weapons and equipment, in particular, really fascinated me. Snipers would move positions, drastically, from one take to the next. Sometimes setting up far away immediately and trying to pick you off as you passed through a particularly narrow bit of the map. Other times the same sniper would abandon that position and work its way behind you to kill you if you're too slow.
I was also fascinated to watch how enemies use the bubble shield, sometimes dropping one to protect themselves, other time actually using it to protect a stationary comrade while it tried to charge or out flank you.
In a word the enemy AI is amazing. The same can't be said of the AI of your cohorts, in particular the human grunts who often charge into battle with you during specific sections of the game. There were several sections in the game where I was repeatedly killed by my own men, either be grenade or more frequently by a vehicle. And it wasn't just me. I actually asked around. The AI of the good guys is as bad as the AI of the bad guys is good... if that makes sense. I don't even know how that's possible, but I believe nearly everyone in the group with me felt about the same way.
Fortunately, that's not as huge an issue as it might sound. Sure, it's frustrating at times., but nothing that ruined the experience, just lessened it a bit.
The game, even on the heroic setting, had few levels that were so difficult as to be annoying. Though it was interesting that the game seemed to have these choke points, sections of the game where the difficulty rose significantly and the possibility of a player completing it in one go were next to nil.
That wasn't that big a deal though, it broke up the otherwise somewhat fast pacing of the game, forcing you to reapply yourself and really knuckle down in some areas.
I won't go into particulars, because I don't want to ruin anything for you, but there were also a number of levels that were a sheer joy to play. They were, in fact, so fun that I hope to go back and play them again. And typically the fun of playing these areas wasn't really about plot or scenery as much as it was about the set up and the way the level unfolded.
The game seems to, besides those occasional choke points, zip along through a rather straight forward plot, delivering chunks of plot and plot twist, character information and what have you to a very steady beat. The cut-scenes are welcome as much for the information they contain as they are for the break they afford you from the sometimes strenuous gameplay.
These cut scenes take control of Master Chief, of you that is, and play out before your eyes as if you've gone from being the hero to a spectator. That didn't bother me until the very last seconds of the game, when a challenging, perhaps the most challenging level of the entire game ends by ripping control from you and forcing you to watch the last bit of dialog, of plot, of information come to you as if you had nothing more to do with the experience than a person sitting in movie theater.
And it felt wrong.