Halo 3: Progress, Not Perfection

The newest rendition features excellent weaponry and vehicles and a vortex of multiplayer options but lacks narrative punch

Armed with a $10 million marketing campaign, Halo 3 aims to dominate the Xbox 360, and the world. The first-person shooter's main protagonist, the green-suited Master Chief, appears on everything from magazine covers to Mountain Dew. Halo 3 is arguably the biggest video game release in history, but unlike so many pretenders, this one largely lives up to the hype.

With Earth on the brink of annihilation, Master Chief continues his fight against the evil race of aliens known as the Covenant, and the infectious parasite called the Flood. Battling alongside his military buddies and a renegade alien named The Arbiter, he slaughters adversaries with a giant weapons cache, both human and alien in origin.

While we can talk endlessly about the game's high production values or fantastic pacing, gunplay still makes up the heart of the game. This time around, favorite weapons from past Halos return, e.g. the Needler and Plasma Sword, along with new weapons destined to be go-to firepower in both single- and multiplayer games.

We particularly like the Brute Spiker, a small automatic handgun that sends a barrage of bullets screaming at targets. New gun turrets, which spit 200 rounds of ammo, come in two flavors—chain gun and the Covenant Plasma Cannon. Both pack a deadly punch, especially useful against tougher enemies or a big group of enemies. Better yet, press the 'B' button to rip them off their stands take them with you, and the camera transitions to a cool third-person perspective for a nice view of the action. Other new goodies include deployable equipment like the bubble shield—pick these up along the way and deploy by pressing the 'X' button.

No Halo game is complete without human and Covenant vehicles, and the third installment includes plenty of wheels. The all-terrain Warthog returns, complete with a gun turret with unlimited ammunition, along with a new version that omits the weapon in favor of extra seating in back, making it easy to ferry soldiers across the battlefield. Master Chief can also navigate hostile terrain in the Mongoose, a speedy ATV that allows you to transport a buddy. We still prefer to blast the Covenant in the one-seater alien Ghost, unleashing hot plasma on their fragile bodies, or hop into a tank, the Scorpion, and obliterate alien scum using the powerful cannon.

To that end, Halo 3's single-player adventure surpasses its prequels by combining the best elements from the previous games. Like the original Halo, this action unfolds in varied large-scale environments, and like Halo 2, Master Chief can board enemy vehicles and toss off their drivers. Though the environments are larger than before, Halo 3 still doesn't qualify as a free-roaming sandbox game—once you move into an new area, there's generally no turning back. Even so, the game lets you tackle missions in various ways, sniping enemies from afar, flanking them on either side, or simply running them over with a vehicle of choice. Our only complaint was that many of the environmental themes—forest, beach, inside alien compounds—seem overly familiar, like remixed levels from the previous games.

Up to four people can play through the co-op game simultaneously over local LAN or online through Xbox Live. This completely redefines Halo 3's campaign experience. Even though the game supposedly levels up the difficulty based on how many people are playing, we recommend ratcheting up the difficulty settings to Heroic or Legendary to balance out the extra firepower. Dedicated fans will most likely replay the adventure at least two to three times, once on normal, once on a higher difficulty (just to reaffirm those awesome shooting skills), and then again with a few buddies.

As expected, the game's high-definition cutscenes look ready for the big screen and the orchestral music sticks in your head long after the credits roll. Composer Martin O'Donnell reuses and remixes familiar tracks from the other games, creating a fantastic score that adds tension and heroic overtones at just the right moments. Expect to see this soundtrack in regular iPod rotation once its available for download.

Despite all the praise, Halo 3's still not the mind-blowing masterpiece we wanted it to be. Bungie developers always said that they weren't looking to reinvent Halo, just refine. And so they did, which was disappointing in some cases. As with Halo 2, uninspired boss fights left us empty, with no build up and little or no fanfare upon completion. The game also cheats players out of killing some key bad guys, which lessens the game's impact. The game also offers absolutely zero backstory for new players, picking up right after Halo 2 ends. A short "the story so far" intro would fit in well with Microsoft's mainstream marketing strategy.

To offset the short single-player game, Halo 3's robust collection of multiplayer modes and features will drain hours of your life. Up to 16 players can terrorize each other across 11 enormous maps, either on their own or in teams. Start or join a clan, create a character (a female or male SPARTAN) and then customize the game, choosing maps, goals and weapons. All of the weapons and vehicles from the single-player game will be at your disposal, so you can char opponents with the Spartan Laser and turn them into street pizza by running them over with the Warthog.

The multiplayer mode also comes with a Saved Films feature, that lets you save video clips of the action and share them. Use this tool to preserve memorable moments, such as capturing that 25-kill rampage or the time you flipped your Warthog, landed on all four wheels and then smashed through several players. We recommend using it to humiliate adversaries, highlighting brutal slayings and tea bagging skills. Don't get offended. It's all in good fun.

On the other hand, Forge, a built-in level-editor doesn't meet our expectations. This mode lets you customize levels by moving and adding weapons, vehicles and props like crates and roadblocks. While it's a nice idea, you can't really change the level's basic architecture, and we'd much rather see a more robust editor that allows us to create more unique environments.

Despite Halo 3's overall greatness, we can't help but feel somewhat let down by the narrative's lackluster conclusion (but stay tuned after the credits roll for a coda that hits just the right note). But don't dismiss this game as Halo 2 in high definition. Microsoft and Bungie deliver a quality gaming experience that'll outlive its competition. Gamer, prepare to meet your new obsession.