halo3_112621428_Full“Finish the Fight.”

So goes the tagline for Bungie’s penultimate entry in the series that made them such a force in the industry (it’s also a rousing track from that game’s soundtrack).

This, of course, was before Microsoft’s expensive new custodian of the franchise announced a new trilogy and a new antagonist for us to fight. But in the run-up to Halo 3‘s September 2007 release, we all knew we’d be ending the Flood threat one way or another and bringing (at least this part of) the epic galaxy-spanning space opera to a close. For me, it’s the perfect final chapter for a trilogy that has pretty much defined my last decade of gaming.

I’ve said before that I’m a massive Halo fanboy (behold my awesome Halo 3 and Reach Legendary Editions); I’m one of those strange people that has read (and thoroughly enjoyed) all the books, watched Halo Legends and Forward Unto Dawn multiple times and spent hours upon hours trawling through Halopedia entries trying to piece together the many and varied mysteries of the universe Bungie created.

Yet strangely, the first time I played Halo 3, I was a little underwhelmed. Not massively so – I still enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps I’d simply hyped it up too much in my head, imagining what would happen and where the story would go for so long that nothing could match up to the ideal trilogy-closer that I’d created in my mind. Yet subsequent playthroughs ended up cementing Halo 3 as my favourite game in the series.

halo3_112850381_Full

Halo has always been one of those games that you need to dig a bit below the surface to uncover its real depth. Sure, you can slap it on easy or normal and just grab a rifle and fly through enemies, rushing through the game to the final encounter much as you would in a Call of Duty game. But sticking to a single weapon means missing out on the variety of firearms at your disposal, a collection of weaponry where every gun earns its place and has a specific use. Similarly, running from encounter to encounter in Halo 3 without exploring off the beaten track means you’ll never find any of the game’s hidden skulls or terminals, secret items that respectively modify gameplay and uncover backstory from the distant past.

Adding to this combat depth, Halo 3 also introduced equipment into the mix. The precursor of what has since become Halo: Reach and Halo 4‘s armour abilities, equipment were single-use items that gave you access to, amongst others, a health regenerating field, a gravity lift to quickly reach higher areas and the now-iconic bubble shield. The first time I fought my way through the campaign, I played Halo 3 much as I had its predecessors, mostly ignoring equipment as it seemed like an unnecessary extra. Yet like everything in the game it has its place, and learning how and when to use equipment to its full potential takes time, experimentation and a bit of thought.

It was actually while playing through the level ‘Cortana’ that equipment really came into its own. Most people feel the level is the lowest point of the game (Halo 3‘s ‘The Library’, if you will); I always quite liked it for it’s creepy descent into the Flood-filled nest that High Charity had become, and because it meant Chief would finally be reunited with Cortana. I just found it a bit tough (on Heroic and above, because let’s face it, if you’re not playing Halo on at least Heroic you’re doing it wrong). Equipment really comes into its own in ‘Cortana’, helping you to overcome the swarms of tougher ‘pure form’ Flood that have infested what was once the capital of the Covenant’s interstellar empire.

Halo 3 also massively expanded the scale of encounters. The first half of the game takes place on a besieged Earth, as Master Chief, the UNSC and their Sangheili allies attempt to fight off the Prophet of Truth and his Covenant loyalist forces before they can reach the Ark, the Forerunner artefact that holds the power to activating the entire collection of Halo rings scattered throughout the universe. This setting gives the opening hours of the game a sense of continuity with the first handful of levels from Halo 2; granted, the environments are wider than those found in the second game, but Halo 3‘s beginning retains that undeniable sense of forward momentum that drove you through the more linear campaign of Halo 2.

halo3_112522687_Full (1)

The encounters are certainly bigger though, and nowhere is this better exemplified than both games’ Scarab battles; whereas the sole Scarab encounter in Halo 2 is an entirely scripted affair, Halo 3‘s Scarabs (of which there are four) are entirely AI-driven. The Chief’s first encounter with one on Earth takes place in a large dust bowl arena with various other small vehicles swarming around the armoured behemoth’s legs, and the Scarab itself has free reign over the terrain. The larger scale and more open nature of the encounter also afford the Master Chief a number of ways to take the Scarab down.

Halo 3‘s best encounter, however, comes in the latter third of the game, in its finest level: ‘The Covenant’. The game massively opens up in the second half as we finally reach the Ark, the extra-galactic control station for the Halo Array, and it’s here that we find the largest levels and the biggest battles. ‘The Covenant’ begins with a beach landing and an assault on Covenant forces entrenched in Forerunner installations along the coast before taking to the skies for an aerial dogfight over the sea. Later, we’re bombing through a forest in a warthog, leading to a tank ride down a snowy mountainside. At the bottom, we’re confronted by a pair of Scarabs. This encounter, of which you can see a screenshot above, is the best battle in the entire game; there’s the Scarabs, there’s banshees and hornets buzzing overhead and on the ground you can jump into a mongoose or a ghost.

And how do you go about taking down those twin Scarabs? Well, you could fly overhead in a hornet and bail out, landing on the top deck, weapon in hand. What’s far more entertaining though, is to hit the ground, get in a mongoose and speed toward a conveniently-placed icy ramp. I’d played this encounter a number of times before I’d even thought to try this, and when I did it was glorious. Tyres somehow gaining traction in the powdery snow, I stormed up that ramp, flying off the lip of the slope and I soared. Here’s proof:

halo3_112524355_Full

I jumped out of the vehicle before landing, my momentum carrying me forward, and the mongoose hit the the Scarab before I did. It tumbled end over end on the top deck, rolling straight through that poor Brute chieftain as it went, removing him as a threat just before I hit the deck running. It might just be the best piece of player-driven inspiration I’ve ever experienced in a game.

Halo 3 also added a couple of major features into the series’ formula: Forge and Theatre. Forge allowed players limited map editing abilities; while the base geometry of a map could not be changed, each level has a budget that can spent on various pieces of scenery, weapons, equipment and vehicles. Once the community got to grips with this of course, it ended up spawning thousands of Rube Goldberg machines! I’ve messed around quite a bit in Forge on both Halo 3 and Reach (and though I’ve not yet tried it, the mode remains in Halo 4, having been made much more intuitive), and I couldn’t imagine coming up with something like the contraption in that link. And I spent hours in Halo: Reach‘s Forge World creating an enormous, multi-tiered bridge between all of the constituent parts…

Theatre mode is essentially a replay mode. Whether it’s in campaign or multiplayer, your latest play sessions are held in temporary storage for you to look through. You can save entire replay films, create shorter clips and capture screenshots (fun fact: every image in this piece was made by me in theatre mode from my own campaign runs) and then export them to your own fileshare for others to view. But Theatre’s killer app is its detachable camera; you aren’t tied to your player avatar in theatre mode, you’re free to completely ignore the carnage at ground level and float off to explore the parts of levels that you’ll never otherwise see, or capture birds-eye-view screengrabs of your own in-game exploits.

I have spent hours upon hours in Theatre mode, sometimes watching back some of the cool things I happened to do on a particular run, sometimes simply pausing the action and exploring every nook and cranny in the level, sometimes just framing awesome images like the two that bookend this article – both created from campaign runs. Unfortunately, campaign theatre has been dropped in Halo 4, which is an enormous shame given how spectacular the game looks; I begin to drool thinking about the screenshots I could capture in that campaign. Theatre remains in multiplayer modes though, which means I’m often saving films from competitive sessions where I managed to do better than usual.

There are many reasons why I love the Halo series; the minute-to-minute gunplay, that guns-grenades-melee holy trinity that leads to what Bungie call “thirty seconds of fun, over and over again”, the vehicles, the scope, the beautiful and mysterious sci-fi vistas, the story and the relationship between Cortana and the Chief, and the fact that, thanks to large environments and fantastic AI, encounters can often turn out wildly different each time. What makes Halo 3 one of my games of the generation though is how everything comes together to create such a dense videogame experience: from the trilogy-closing spectacle of the single-player to the fiercely competitive yet supremely balanced multiplayer, and the creative Forge and Theatre modes that allow any of us to create crazy and beautiful things, Halo 3 is one hell of a package.

halo3_112848655_Full

Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia

Advertisements