The five days we spent with the game, incidentally, was more than enough time to complete the campaign. Playing co-operatively on the normal difficulty setting, it took us about 15 hours to work our way through to the end, although we were stopping at every opportunity to admire the scenery. Heroic is about right for an experienced Halo player. But you'll definitely want to go two-player co-op, or even make use of the new four-player campaign co-op either on XBL or via system link (only two players can play campaign on one console) for the legendary difficulty setting. This, admittedly, isn't a feature we've been able to try out as of yet, but we'll get you a report as soon as we do.
So, having seen the campaign through to the end, how does it stack up against the competition? There's a lot about the campaign we can't talk about, but what we will say is that the game has that unmistakeable, sci-fi epicness that has become a trademark of the series, and some very special Halo characters make a welcome (and not so welcome) return. The storyline can be a tad difficult to follow at times, and we sometimes found it hard to make out what characters were saying during cut-scenes. The mission environments aren't hugely varied (Halo: Combat Evolved was criticised for recycling the same areas over and over again), but it's full of fabulously heroic science fiction twists and turns, and definitely won't disappoint Halo fans. The fact that newcomers might struggle to understand why they're doing what they're doing just serves to highlight Bungie's approach to the game. It feels like it's for those of us who have been there all along. No tedious training mission, no effort to justify itself, just the confidence to do what it does best - cracking firefights, spectacular vehicular combat and fabulous fun. While BioShock might have had the more absorbing and clever storyline, we were much more satisfied when we finished Halo 3.
As far as fun goes, Halo 3 is certainly a more enjoyable play through than Halo 2, if only because the transition from weapon combat to vehicle combat is smoother and, well, there's just more to play with. There was more than one occasion where we thought "this is just like the original Halo". While some might welcome this back to basics approach, others might criticise the developers for a lack of new ideas. Did we feel as completely blown away as we did by Halo: Combat Evolved? Probably not, although the final couple of hours are the most impressive graphically and completely engrossing, where BioShock went downhill fast towards the end. But it's a close run thing. Campaign verdict? Better than Halo 2 by a plasma grenade throw, but just behind Halo: Combat Evolved by the skin of Master Chief's teeth (if the big guy has any).
With the campaign sorted, we turned our attention to the multiplayer, and it's here that Halo 3 again demonstrates its confidence in its foundations. As many people commented after playing the multiplayer beta, Halo 3 multiplayer is fundamentally the same as before, apart from new weapons, vehicles and maps. The addition of equipment spices things up a little, but doesn't revolutionise the combat. Truth be told, it didn't need an overhaul, just a lick of next-gen paint, and that's exactly what the game has got.
'The intensity and thrills of the multiplayer are hard to beat anywhere in gaming.'
The intensity and thrills of the multiplayer are hard to beat anywhere in gaming. That's why Halo 2, despite its less than impressive storyline, continued to be the most played game on XBL for so long. Expect Halo 3 to take over from Gears of War at the top of the online tree, and expect it to stay there for a very long time. Indeed many Halo fans will completely bypass the campaign and head straight for the multiplayer, such is its appeal. There aren't many games that get the hairs on the back of your neck reaching for the sky, but your first Halo 3 multiplayer game with friends will certainly do that.
While you can't do four-player campaign co-op on one console, you can in multiplayer, and it was this mode we pumped most time into. As a result, we haven't yet got the most out of the maps that are designed for more players (the game supports 16 at most), like Valhalla, and Sand Trap, but once the XBL servers are up and running following the game's official release, we'll bring you a full report.
Of the new maps, we had most fun four-player on Narrows, a map designed for two to six players. As the name suggests, it's a long, narrow installation in the sky, with two grav lifts on either side. We just ended up flying through the sky, trying to melee each other in mid air. Classic Halo hilarity.
Equipment can certainly get you out of a lot of trouble (the bubble shield is a Spartan's greatest friend), but it doesn't change the dynamic of the game. It simply adds a dash extra to the already delectable mix. Experienced players will instantly feel at home, employing similar tactics and skills as before. It'll take you a while to instantly recognise the various equipment symbols that pop up on the top left of the HUD, but once you do, deploying them will become second nature. If you were good at Halo 2, you'll be good at Halo 3. Melee is much improved, as are grenades. While dual wielding proved so effective in Halo 2, you'll almost always want one hand free for a grenade lob and a sneaky assassination when the heat is on.
There really isn't much more you can say about the multiplayer on Halo 3. It's certainly the most complete of the three games. It's bigger, badder and more destructive, but it's not that different. If you think about it, that's all we really wanted, and needed. There have been a few criticisms post multiplayer beta that there's nothing new worth getting excited about. But this misses the point. You should get excited about it, because, even after all this time, there isn't a better FPS multiplayer experience out there. A familiar experience of course, but great nonetheless.