Sunday, September 30, 2007

Have You Finished the Fight?

The dust has settled since the Tuesday release of Halo 3, which earned $170 million in 24 hours, making it the highest-grossing entertainment launch ever. Bravo, Microsoft.

My history with Halo begins on Thursday, August 14 ,2003. The day of the storied blackout that rendered the Northeast United States powerless. I was in the Port Chester EB Games, set to purchase an XBox and two games: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Halo: Combat Evolved. Naturally, the power went out when I was at the register. So, I had to wait a day. Halowned.

When I finally got the game, I realized that I was missing out on something special in not purchasing an XBox earlier. The single-player campaign provided an immersive storyline, intuitive weaponry, and some great controls. I had previously been exposed to its multiplayer during my freshman year at the University of Connecticut, but I could never get used to it. Now, with the campaign under my belt, I returned to UConn ready to immerse myself in the Halo subculture. And it was fun. A lot of fun. It was easily the best time I've had with a video game since Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. Along with the rest of the sizeable gaming community on campus, I waited with baited breath for the 2004 release of Halo 2.

Luckily enough, I was working for the school paper during my junior year, and went to cover the midnight sale of Halo 2, which was released on November 9th. Dozens of gamers with no intention of going to their morning classes, lined up at the school's bookstore to be among the first to fire up the highly anticipated shooter. It was a fun story to write, and, while it's no Hunter S. Thompson piece, I think it turned out to be a nice read. It also gave me an excuse to buy the game since,well, I was there. And as a journalist I owed it to the public to get the full experience of the midnight sale. Yeah, that's the ticket.

While Halo 2 was a fun game, with some massive improvements on the first, the single-player campaign left me flat. Its ending, which leads directly into Halo 3, was far too abrupt to be satisfying and felt unfinished. Thankfully, the online multiplayer gave us the most comprehensive online experience on consoles to date.

Halo 3, on the other hand, never feels unfinished. The storyline is more than satisfying, wrapping up all of the loose ends of the previous two games and giving us plenty of reasons to revisit each stage. The story's pretty simple. Once again, you're the cyborg supersoldier Master Chief, putting the fight to evil alien religious zealots called The Covenant, who are attempting to activate their Halo superweapons. You'll come into conflict with The Flood (think space zombies) once again, along with a few surprises that should delight longtime fans of the series.

The graphics are polished, with everything from the shine of Master Chief's visor to the ripple effects on the water having a "wow, this is next-gen gaming" effect. And the AI is pretty amazing, from your allies to the brutes, grunts, drones, hunters, scarabs and other assorted baddies. Enemies scurry from grenades, panic when you take down commanding officers and get more aggressive when necessary.

The game should take you around 10 hours on most difficulty settings, perhaps less if you're taking advantage of online co-op, in which you can team up with 3 other players online to take down The Covenant. I finished on Wednesday night and was blown away by the final act, which was a great way to bring the series full-circle. However, one level toward the end, called "Cortana," was inexcusably difficult. I'm not sure if it was poor level design or downright sadism from the programmers, but this level was HELL to get through. It was easily the most frustrating first-person shooter stage I have ever played.

It took me so long to write about Halo 3 because you can't properly review a Halo game without acknowledging online multiplayer. I finally tore into it yesterday afternoon, which became last night, which became early morning today. It's just the most addictive online play I've ever encountered, with plenty of match types, weapons and vehicles to play around with, not to mention Forge, which gives you the option to customize multiplayer maps. This should have gamers hooked for years to come.

As for the online community, it's pretty good. I've met a lot of cool players on there, with a minimum of shrill, racist 12-year-olds. That's a good thing. But then again, I'm sure this game is on a lot of Christmas lists. So get the mute button ready.

Moral of the story, if you have an Xbox 360, you're only hurting yourself if you don't get this game. It succeeds at all levels, and meets each of its lofty expectations.

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