Expectations for Halo 3 couldn't be higher. Its predecessor, Halo 2, set the single day entertainment record, earning $125 million and ultimately selling 9 million copies. The original entry in the Halo trilogy, Halo: Combat Evolved, was an exclusive launch title for the first Xbox and is still regarded as a watershed industry event. More to the point, Halo is credited with putting the Xbox on the map: Microsoft sold a copy of Halo for every Xbox it made.


As George Lucas learned with "The Phantom Menace," however, it's sometimes hard--if not impossible--to please the most ardent fans. (Unless you're Apple, apparently.) Technical advances don't amount to much if the plot, game play, and overall atmosphere don't meet and exceed the previous games in the series. What's odd about all this, of course, is that Halo 2 (see my review), in particular, wasn't even that great of a game, at least the single player campaign. That said, it went on to be the most popular multiplayer title in the history of Xbox Live. Clearly, the multiplayer mode more than made up for any other issues.


But its 2007 now and here's Halo 3. It's an Xbox 360 exclusive title, and Microsoft is counting on it to sell millions of the consoles, reduce the sales gap between the 360 and the market leading Wii, and bump off the moribund Sony PS3 for good. Honestly, Halo 3 should have no problem accomplishing these goals: Microsoft is going to sell a gajillion copies of this game. (Since first writing this, Microsoft has announced $170 million in opening day sales.)


But I have to be honest here. I'm not sure, at least not yet, that the actual game lives up to the hype. Having played through the single player campaign once so far--and I'll do it again at least one more time--I'm a bit perplexed by what Microsoft has delivered in Halo 3. It's good looking, yes, but not as impressive as titles like Gears of War (see my review) or BioShock (see my review). To be frank, it's not even close. The game play itself is solid if a bit tired, familiar without trying anything truly new and exciting. The musical score is excellent, but then it should be: It was great when Microsoft first used it in Halo 2 three years ago.


Indeed, it seems that the success of Halo 2, in particular, has prevented Microsoft from doing anything daring or interesting with Halo 3. The single player campaign seems like a throwaway expansion pack Halo 2, as if the developers realized that everyone was going to focus on multiplayer anyway. (As they did with Halo 2, frankly.) It's also quite short, and could easily be finished in Normal difficulty mode by a determined teenager during a sick day home from school. (Which I imagine is exactly what happened all over the country on September 25.) The weapons, the settings, the enemies, the vehicles, they're all the same, with just minor additions here and there. It's like a slightly higher resolution case of déjà vu. I'm positive I've played this game before. But there was a 2 in the title instead of a 3.


OK. But it's Halo 3, a certifiable blockbuster, and so it warrants our attention. In this first part of this review, I'll focus on the Halo 3 single player experience. Then, later in October, I'll review the multiplayer components, including the traditional deathmatch stuff and the admittedly exciting new cooperative play modes, separately. This may not make sense if you're not a committed Halo fan, but think of it this way: This is essentially three different games--single player campaign, 4-player co-op, and traditional multiplayer--in a single box, and in each case, Microsoft has at least designed the title with replayability in mind. The company's goal, of course, is to ensure that Halo 3 is an ongoing concern for Xbox 360 users years down the road. My initial opinion is that Halo 3 will succeed wildly simply because of the multiplayer modes. But we'll tackle that next time. For now, let's see what the game offers to the solo gamer.

Plot

As the third and final installment in a video game trilogy, Halo 3 concludes the story of Master Chief, a "cybernetically enhanced Spartan super-soldier" who fights for the human side in a galaxy-wide conflict with the Covenant, a group of alien races led by a fanatical and religious sect called the Prophets. By the time of the Halo trilogy, the human-Covenant war has lasted for decades, and the humans are losing. But then something unexpected happens: Almost simultaneously, the humans and Covenant come across a ring world in the depths of space. (Yes, straight out of the classic Larry Niven science fiction series.) The ring world is called Halo, of course, and while the Covenant leadership believes it to be the physical embodiment of their demented religious prophecies, it is in fact a devastating weapon, capable of destroying all life in the galaxy. The humans discover Halo's purpose and that it was made by yet another alien race, long dead, called the Forerunners. And then there's the mysterious Flood, a virus-like life form that exists on Halo and attacks any and all living creatures, mutating them into more Flood.


In the original Halo game, Master Chief destroys Halo, but discovers that there are more of these ring worlds scattered around the galaxy. In Halo 2, available for both the original Xbox (see my review) and Windows Vista-based PCs (see my review), the Covenant secretly tries to find the other Halos and enable them, an act that would doom all life in the galaxy but, the Covenant believes, also fulfill their religious destinies. The Covenant discovers that an earth-based artifact called the Ark is needed to activate the Halo ring worlds, so they launch a massive attack on the planet. As the game ends, Master Chief is racing back to earth to "finish the fight." Meanwhile, back on the Covenant home world, an internecine war has broken out, pitting different types of Covenant creatures against each other; some of the aliens, it seems, have realized that their fanatical religious leaders are taking their race towards certain doom. They strike an uneasy alliance with the humans.


As Halo 3 opens, you once again play Master Chief as he tries to save earth from the Covenant invasion and discover the secrets behind the Forerunners, their Halos, and the Ark artifact that the aliens want so badly. You'll often work alongside a Covenant Arbiter, whom you also played for about 50 percent of Halo 2 (sequences which, in my mind, where horribly misguided.) This time, fortunately, you only play Master Chief. Your goal is simple: Prevent the Prophets from activating the Halos with the Ark and destroying the galaxy. Save mankind from destructive. Rescue your babelicious computerized companion, Cortana, from the clutches of yet another bizarre alien life form. Of, and kick a lot of butt along the way.

Game play

Anyone who's played a previous Halo title will feel right at home in Halo 3. The controller scheme, the settings, the weapons, the enemies, the ships and other vehicles, and even the very feel of the game are quite obviously Halo. Nothing important has changed: If you know and love Halo or Halo 2, you can jump right into Halo 3 and feel right at home. You'll need to figure out only one major change: In Halo 3, there are now a number of equipment choices to choose between, including such things as the heavily hyped bubble shield, which is quite nice.


For the most part, Halo 3 is a first person shooter, though there are certain sequences where the perspective changes. If you detach a large bulky gun from a turret (or take such a weapon from the corpse of one of the larger enemies), the view switches to third person, and you can see Master Chief in front of you, holding the weapon. Likewise, when you commandeer a vehicle of any kind, the view switches immediately to third person view--as it did in Halo 2--giving you a better feel for the surroundings. These changeovers are seamless and easily managed.


As with previous Halo titles, the driving sequences are actually pretty fun, though some can get quite long, especially the final sequence of the game, which is very reminiscent of the end of the original Halo. More troubling, Bungie has made the game very uneven. It's split into nine missions, most of which are quite short. But suddenly, in mission 8, you're forced to suffer through an incredibly difficult and mind-numbingly boring and repetitive series of sequences. From there on through that final driving sequence in mission 9, the game is very, very hard, and much more difficult than previous missions. It's unclear why it suddenly gets so much more difficult.

Graphics and sound

When Microsoft launched a limited Halo 3 multiplayer beta (see my review) earlier this year, many users complained that the game didn't offer the high-end graphical treatment they had expected, given the three year gap between titles and the advanced capabilities of the Xbox 360 console. No worries, Microsoft said at the time: The version we saw at the time was tuned for multiplayer--where the game would have to deal with a disparity of connection speeds for each of the 16 possible players per game--and didn't reflect how wonderful the single player game would look. As a long time first person shooter fan, I believed this explanation, and I've seen games--like the Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six series--that seriously detuned the multiplayer modes graphically to account for these issues.


Well, that's not what happened. The single player version of Halo 3 is absolutely superior to Halo 2, with more detail and an often crisp look to the graphics. It is, however, not nearly as beautiful looking as some of the top-tier Xbox 360 titles that have come out over the past year, and it's disturbingly obvious that this game doesn't represent the graphical state of the art in any way at all. Indeed, in a bizarre issue that I've not seen in a video game in several years, the plot-driven cut scenes in Halo 3 are dramatically better looking than the actual game. So as the game switches between cut scenes and actual game play, it's very jarring. Other Xbox 360 games simply use the same engine for the cut scenes and the game itself, and these transitions are quite seamless.


Overall, while any long-time Halo fan is sure to pine over the clearly seen damage to Master Chief's breastplate (which, frankly, is far more clearly seen in cut scenes than in the game itself), the detail in grass, leaves, or other foliage, the newly defined Brutes and Flood, and other improvements, the reality is that Halo 3 simply isn't a first class graphical extravaganza. In fact, it has more in common, graphically, with Call of Duty 2--a two year old title--than it does with modern and graphically lush games like BioShock and Gears of War. Graphically, this game is still very much Halo 2.5.


I do, however, offer up a theory why this is so, and if true, it partially if not fully exonerates the game maker, Bungie. Unlike any other console game I'm aware of, Halo 3 allows up to four gamers to join forces online and play through the single player campaign together. This can happen over a home network, of course, but more importantly, it can happen over Xbox Live as well. So you could conceivably play the single player campaign--or just parts of it, it's up to you--with three other people, all of whom could be in different countries around the world. I haven't tested this feature yet, but I do understand the ramifications of it. And my guess is that Bungie specifically detuned Halo 3's graphics so that this incredible new game play option could work properly. If this is the case, then they did the right thing: Halo 3 still looks pretty good, thank you very much. And for a shooter, speed is more important than high-end graphics. That said, the company would have been better served to have communicated this compromise to gamers up front. A lot of people are going to be seriously disappointed by the quality of Halo 3's graphics.


Sadly, Halo 3 still lags occasionally, even when you're just playing the game on a single console by yourself. Sometimes, you turn around to face a number of new opponents and the game just stops, very briefly, and then springs back to life. This used to happen in the Xbox version of Halo 2 quite a bit as well, and it's yet another way in which the new game seems to be channeling its predecessor. And not in a good way.


As noted previously, the music is incredible but almost exactly the same soundtrack that was supplied in Halo 2. The sound effects are excellent, and as always, the throw-away lines from the Covenant, especially the sideshow comedy of the Grunts, are humorous.

Not-so-final thoughts

Obviously, I'll have a lot more to write about Halo 3 in the coming weeks. For now, however, I'm left with a somewhat unsatisfying feeling. The single player Halo 3 experience is good, even very good, and I'm looking forward to playing through it again and discovering some of the game's secrets, which include an updated skulls system that will only make sense to long-time Halo fans. Graphically, Halo 3 is improved over its predecessor, as it should be, but not as much as you'd expect from a first-tier Xbox 360 title. Musically, you've heard almost all of it before. From a game play perspective, its Halo all right, which gives it a certain cachet, but then we've done this all before. And the single player campaign is surprisingly short given how long we've waited for the game. I realize my review won't change the big picture one way or the other: You're going to get Halo 3 or you're not. And of course, the multiplayer components will make a big difference towards making this game a timeless classic like its predecessors. But looking at just the single player experience, Halo 3 is decidedly middle of the road. I was expecting more.