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Published: Wednesday, 9/26/2007

Firing range: Halo 3 review

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Sofa King 671, you're toast.

I mean it. I'm coming for you.

Like death from above.

Like white on digital rice.

As soon as I finish this review of Halo 3, the much-anticipated finale to Microsoft's blockbuster trilogy for its Xbox gaming units (and the reason so many people called in sick yesterday morning), as soon as I explain why the online multiplayer portion of Halo 3 is alone worth its $60 tag, and why the single-player mode brings the story line to a surprisingly ho-hum conclusion - well, then I plan to hunt you, the one with the screen name Sofa King 671, to the ends of Xbox Live and beyond. I will log on someday, leap back in the fray, and roam the coldest reaches of this vast worldwide digital battlefield until my honor has been avenged.

Perhaps there's your review:

Halo 3 gets personal.

See, generally we talk about games now the way we talk about movies, and so the media review games the way they review movies. Which is understandable: Like any eagerly anticipated sequel, Halo 3 was launched at midnight, after a marketing campaign that rivaled the unveiling of a summer movie, complete with soft-drink partnerships (Mountain Dew); it has the production budget of a mid-range studio film (around $40 million), and was released in 17 languages on seven continents, and is expected to sell 4 million copies even before the holidays. (Picture an opening day box office take of $150 million.)

Moreover, any review of Halo 3 is not unlike a review of Spider-Man 3 - initially, it's critic proof. What matters to fans of the series is how the story line ends. In this case, how Master Chief (our hero) "finishes the fight" with that messianic alien Covenant and the squishy monster Flood. Storytelling wise, Halo 3 takes its cue from that other circular franchise, The Lord of the Rings, and picks up where Halo 2 left off, without pausing to explain its history. Earth is still doomed. The Covenant still has dissenters, who have now joined the humans (indeed, you fight alongside Arbiter, a heavy from Halo 2 who looks like a linebacker with a Venus fly trap for a mug). And Master Chief, our faceless soldier in a hermetically sealed suit of emerald space armor, has literally tumbled out of the sky.

But really, I ask just one thing of a fiery first-person shoot 'em up:

Did it make you sweat?

Did it make you feel?

Halo 3 has a droning monastic theme song as iconic in the gaming world as the opening jewelry-box twinkle in the Harry Potter movies. Professional actors lend their voice to the characters (Terence Stamp, for instance, gives his high-toned chill to the Covenant leader). Nice touches. But a more accurate way of telling you if a game works, particularly a franchise that's 6 years old and on the cusp of looking long in the tooth, is how bleary-eyed and shaky and upended it leaves you feeling the next day.

Here's the poop:

I received a review copy of Halo 3 on Saturday morning, played through the single-player campaign, and felt as though I were touring a greatest-hits reel of the previous two Halo installments - I was entertained but the levels seemed overly familiar and I blew through its nine short stages faster than I wished. The pace is almost too quick. I was done in less than nine hours of play. (If you're a seasoned player, skip the "normal" difficulty; I suspect the popularity of the series has led developers to make it less frustrating to newcomers.)

Pretty soon, I ached to get back to my year-old copy of Battlefield 2, which might move even faster, but offers far more soldiers and characters on screen at any one time. Halo 3's single-player simply seems uninspired, thin, and more like a studio sequel than its developers Bungie might even realize - it's the game you know you're getting, with a few tweaks (new weapons, a cool new motorcycle thing), but generally, a formula so successful it mustn't dare venture too far from itself.

This being the first Halo title exclusively for the 2-year-old Xbox 360, the look is more detailed than previous chapters; in particular, the landscapes capture that wispy air-brushed look of an old sci-fi paperback (or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album cover - take your pick).

But the character animation is not quite state-of-the-art for a next-generation console game. One more gripe: The A.I., the artificial intelligence that gives the enemies some variance and foresight in the heat of combat, is iffy. And your fellow soldiers are not much better: I climbed into a dune buggy, headed into battle, but first played a comical game of no-you-go-no-you-go with the (computer) driver of the other vehicle. And when they're driving, and you're riding shotgun (literally), play gets aimless.

Where Halo 3 made me giddy - and definitely bleary - is that ambitious, addicting multiplayer option, where it's kill or be killed. Which, to many, is all that matters. I know a fair share of gamers so enamored of the online play of the Halo series, they've never bothered to play story mode. (Indeed, Halo 2 is the most played game on XBox Live.) Old players will want to know there are 11 new battlefields - check out the snow field that juts machinery out of the ice like some remake of The Thing. New weapons? How about a great big hammer? (A very Itchy and Scratchy touch.) As for new players: the online play is seamless and the matches are fair and broken into a slew of easy-to-comprehend experience levels.

But where Halo 3 goes even above and beyond mere online play is its new interactive doohickeys. One of the charming aspects of the series has been its elasticity. Bungie has always allowed just enough variance in the design for players to invent strategies and even applications the developers themselves never planned for. Past Halo installments have led to short films edited from clips of game play and even a live talk show (where players head to a quiet nook and simply chat). Halo 3 doesn't fight this creative co-opting. You can tinker with layouts. You can shoot films of games, edit the angles together, then download the results to a file-sharing site.

Clearly, Microsoft understands its audience and put its brains into the online functions. Which is not so surprising: Without the Halo series (which is exclusive to Xbox), it's hard to say whether Xbox would have ever taken off - and whether Microsoft would be a player in the console wars. Or in layman's terms: The multiplayer battles on Halo 3 kept me up to almost 4 in the morning. I came to work in a baseball cap. I probably wasn't alone: There's a map of the world on Halo 3 that shows where others online are located. Each player is represented by a dot of white light. At midnight Tuesday, dots were across the globe, but the East Coast of the United States became a solid white mass of light, and by the time I went to bed and the game had gone on sale on the West Coast, that light flowed right to left, filling the outline of the country. Sofa King 671, you're in there somewhere.

And you can't hide forever.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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