There are video games, and then there's Halo. For millions of people around the world, the science fiction FPS is the reason they play games. It's the reason they bought an Xbox. It's the reason they signed up to Xbox Live. Master Chief is their hero, a modern day icon for a modern day generation.
And there's a very good reason why. Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 were fantastic FPS games with some of the greatest multiplayer ever to grace a console. But this brings with it problems. Just imagine the pressure on developer Bungie for Halo 3. Millions of gamers, all over the world, each and every one carrying with them their own reasons for loving the game, their own unforgettable experiences with friends on split-screen or on Xbox Live. And now, with Halo 3, they want new, better, more intense, more action-packed, more emotional and more epic experiences with Master Chief, the super-soldier they have followed to the ends of the galaxy and back for nearly six years, than ever before. How bad would it hurt if Halo 3 didn't live up to those lofty, and, if we're honest, unreasonable, expectations? Pretty damn bad.
But don't worry. We can finally end the heart-ache, the anticipation and the unbearable need to find out for yourself. Halo 3 is everything we hoped it would be, and much, much, more.
We've had the game in our hands for five days now, and in that time we've busted it wide open. We've finished the campaign and seen the final twists in the story arc that began with such a bang back with Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001. We've put more hours than we care to admit into the multiplayer, getting our hands on every weapon, every vehicle, and every piece of equipment the packed disk has to offer. We've saved films of our battles, watched them over and over from new, hilarious angles, and we've even made our own take on maps with the new Forge mode (more on that later). It's been a tiring but exhilarating five days, and not for a moment were we ungrateful.
'The last thing we saw was Master Chief saying he was "finishing the fight" while falling to Earth on a Forerunner ship.'
So let us begin where Halo 2 left off, a refresher for those of you who haven't touched the campaign in the last game for a while. The Covenant has come to Earth, looking for a way to activate the Halo rings, built long ago by the mysterious Forerunners. The Elites, led by the Arbiter, the other playable character from Halo 2, have changed sides and left the Covenant after revealing Truth (the religious leader of the Covenant) as a liar. The Halo rings won't actually bring about the Great Journey; they'll bring about the end of the Flood (remember them?) and, at the same time, the universe.
The last thing we saw was Master Chief saying he was "finishing the fight" while falling to Earth on a Forerunner ship. Millions of gamers across the globe collectively scratched their heads. "Is that it?" they asked. Perhaps now we can finally admit that Halo 2's campaign was disappointing. And in the same paragraph, we can finally reveal that Halo 3's campaign is everything but.
We're being very careful not to include any spoilers in this review. But what we will say is that it's not long after Master Chief gets up from his landing that he's in the thick of the action. The first level is a fairly slow-paced affair, reminiscent of the opening assault in Arnie action flick The Predator, and is clearly designed to ease newcomers into the game. But it also serves as a prime example of how improved the graphics are. You begin in a jungle-like environment, full of almost photorealistic trees, swaying branches and foliage that reacts when you move through it. There are loads of gorgeous little touches that force you to stop and take notice, like the sun blinding you for half a second before your eyes adjust, Covenant Phantoms cruising overhead, Brutes manhandling Human soldiers on ridges away in the distance. You'll find yourself blasting your way out of Human bases, driving across abandoned freeways in Warthogs and making assaults on Covenent held structures, before the story takes its first twist.
It's certainly next-gen stuff, but Halo 3 doesn't have the best graphics we've ever seen. There are some things we noticed that we weren't massively impressed by. For one, the water effects look merely average. The foliage isn't as impressive as Crysis' will be (assuming you've got a PC from the future), when it rains it isn't spellbinding and during cutscenes we noticed the odd character whose eyes did strange things. Take 2´s recent critically-acclaimed hit BioShock has more immediately stunning graphics, and indeed 2006's Gears of War trumps Halo 3 in the jaw-dropping adrenaline-pumping action category. But what must be remembered is that Halo 3 is a completely different game. Its levels are massive, on a scale greater than either of the previous two iterations. With levels this huge, and with so many enemies targeting "the Demon" at the same time, it's hard to achieve the same level of graphical splendour as a corridor shooter, which BioShock is in essence. While it's an impressive leap from Halo 2, the graphics won't convince those doubters who have seen screenshots and video of the multiplayer beta and thought "this is just Halo 2.5" to change their mind.
What we will shout about until the cows come home is how the game feels to play. As it has been throughout the series, you push forward through firefight after firefight and checkpoint after checkpoint, the pace effortlessly switching from tense and disturbing internal sections to vehicle-based assaults across miles of open ground. Each level will take you between an hour and an hour-and-a-half depending on the difficulty and your skill level, and has about three special checkpoints that you can start over from once you've quit out of the campaign. With the Elites on your side, alien forces are headed up by the promoted Brutes, who pose an altogether different threat. You'll find yourself facing them in packs, often with supporting Grunts and Jackals. The Brutes will sometimes be following orders from a chief who wields the devastating Gravity Hammer, which immediately goes down as one of the most destructive FPS weapons of all time. The Brutes are more savage than the Elites were in Halo 2, taking a lot of hits to go down. They'll even drop their weapons and just charge at you once you've shot them up a bit. You'll come to loathe sniping Jackals and, once again, kill the pack leader, and the Grunts scatter. Some of the little buggers will go kamikaze and run at you with primed plasma grenades. Watch out for those.