What's left to say about Halo 3? How about this: All the pomp and circumstance surrounding its launch sure have been distracting. Commercials that look like clips from a Hollywood movie, extravagant collectors' sets that sell for $130, limited-edition Xbox 360s with a green-and-gold Halo-inspired color scheme, and a midnight release that spawned lines snaking all the way around the strip mall. Microsoft's so-called "biggest entertainment launch in history" raked in $170 million in the first 24 hours alone.
Kinda makes it easy to forget it's just a video game we're talking about. Just another Halo, another first-person shooter with—like most games—its share of shortcomings. It features some excellent gameplay and tons of content . . . but the greatest game ever? It's probably not even the greatest game of 2007.
So what's the problem? Familiarity, mostly: Halo 3feels very, very much like what you know from previous Halos—more like a "director's cut" than a true sequel. (If Halo were made by Capcom, this one would be Super Halo 2 Turbo: Championship Edition.) Granted, it's a sequel to a sequel, you don't monkey with a good thing, blah-blah-blah. Even so, any sense of wonder or discovery is defused when the levels you're marching through and the enemies you're fighting look so unmistakably like the stuff you first encountered six years ago.
That's not to say Halo 3 looks last-gen—the scale is enormous at times, with sprawling battlefields bristling with enemies, vehicles and explosions, and the game's lighting effects are often quite lovely (an admittedly strange thing to say about a sci-fi game). But the character models are clunky, some of the maps are a bit bland, and "jaggies" abound—in a year that's given us the scintillating BioShock and Heavenly Sword, Halo 3 looks just a little bit . . . flat?
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Fortunately, it still manages to nail all the elements you expect a Halo to nail. The gameplay is as keen as ever, thanks to the series' always-amazing enemy, AI. Whether it's a firefight in a small outpost or a full-scale battle with an alien horde, Halo 3's enemies are consistently cunning, surprising—even amusing. They will pin you behind cover, flank you, unexpectedly rush your position, and generally force you to earn every inch of ground, making every encounter a blast.
But Halo 3's biggest achievements are its multiplayer features. In addition to online co-op (up to four players can team up and save the galaxy together), the game's competitive options are rich and varied—especially "The Forge," a mode that allows you to customize multiplayer maps down to the smallest detail, from where a shotgun is hidden to how high players can jump. Also fun is the ability to record footage and photos from your games; nothing beats the sadistic glee of sending a friend a video clip of him catching your rocket in the face.
Yes, Halo 3 does feel like more of the same, and longtime gamers suffering signs of Halo fatigue might do well to pass on this one. But there's no sense in penalizing a game for its familiarity, especially when it truly is an improvement on a winning formula. No, Halo 3 isn't the greatest game ever. But it is the greatest Halo ever, and that's no small thing.
Halo 3 by Microsoft for the Xbox 360. $59.99. ESRB Rating: M (for Mature). Score: 9 (out of 10).