Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Good things sometimes come to those who sit patiently: Halo 3 review

Having finished Halo 3 a scant few minutes ago -- and having taken yesterday off work in order to play uninterrupted by annoying responsibilities -- I figure this is a great time to write that crappy game review I've always wanted to write. So here goes!

Warning: There be spoilers ahead. If you care, come back here after you get a life.

Go ahead, I'll wait.

Hmm.

Everybody else ready? Let's begin.

I see no real need to start off in the standard review fashion of rehashing the game's history, the previous two entries in the series, or the jaw-dropping amount of money it's going to make. You know all that anyway if you're reading this. If you don't, allow me to summarize for you:

Microsoft buys small game developer, invests tons of money, and game developer creates better-than-average first-person shoot-em-up on Microsoft's somewhat dodgy console, singlehandedly legitimizing its existence.

As I write this, Metacritic has collected 33 "professional" reviews of the game, none of which I have read. As Bioshock did last month, the game is causing these esteemed journalists to soil their pants in the sort of way that would have earned them sound ass-thrashings for their incontinence in high school. I have to agree with Yahtzee's comment on how the insane and ridiculous level of hype for these games eventually backfires when you realize that, well executed and beautiful as they are, after beating them you're still not going to be any more attractive to hot women who currently go out of their way to avoid breathing your stink.

You see, before I say one word about the game I'm already slightly annoyed by it. Whether it's rational or not, it's a bias and therefore should be up front in any review that claims to be objective. On to the real deal.

Visually, Halo 3 is impressive, but not new. On my dying 27" standard definition TV, the water effects are cool, the lighting has gotten better, and the sheen is applied liberally to all surfaces. While many gamers are really excited by these kind of environmental effects, I really don't care that much. The game is what matters. I doubt anyone will be disappointed by what's here, but it's not the Twenty-third Coming (or whatever we're up to for game messiahs). The art direction has again been pushed from Halo 2 as that game did from the first one; new ships, new weapons (though some are redundant, like the fuel rod gun/rocket launcher, and we see far too little of the flamethrower), and what seems like a grim determination to not repeat settings from the previous games.

Halo 1 fans no doubt remember dragging themselves through gray corridor after gray corridor after gray corridor, except sometimes when they were purple. Precious little of this appears in 3, and it's not missed. Yet there are fewer large open spaces than in 2. The number of vehicle segments has been scaled back as well; you only get one go with the Scorpion tank, a couple of brief periods in the super-jetpack Hornet, and a few Warthog outings. Eventually the forced variety and lack of cohesion in the play begins to feel a bit forced, as if the novelty is what you're supposed to care about rather than solid and flexible play.

The story is weaker this time around. Halo 2 offered the innovative device of switching back and forth between the Arbiter's story and the Chief's story. In addition to offering two distinct styles of gameplay, this also helped the story by telling it simultaneously from two viewpoints. One gets a rich view of the Covenant world and mindview through the Arbiter's eyes that the Chief would never have a chance to understand. 3 abandons the switching and tells the story entirely from the Chief's perspective, relegating the Arbiter to an AI NPC that follows you around and basically distracts the big evil from focusing solely on you. It feels unsatisfying to remember how much time was spent creating the Arbiter's character and then see him turned into a walking turret. The final confrontation between the Arbiter and the Prophet of Truth can't help but feel like an anticlimax.

A few other things in the story annoy me. So first Guilty Spark finds you, apologizes, helps you through most of the story, and then suddenly turns on you just before his role in the story has to end? I knew he'd be useless in the story once the new Halo was activated, and so I knew they'd have to get rid of him at some point before that happened. When you get to the control room, the dialogue is so predictable you'll be able to finish their sentences. Apparently they knew they needed Spark to activate the Halo, but didn't bother to find a more believable path in the story. Then there's the Flood. Truth tries to activate the rings, so the Flood help you. The second the rings are off, the Flood turns on you. And who didn't see this coming? The Arbiter and Chief look around, their body language thick with anger at the betrayal. Don't they remember being sent back and forth by Gravemind in Halo 2? Wouldn't they expect some kind of underhanded dealings? Captain Keyes also shows up just in time for her convenient extermination. The plot seems to lurch from point to point without much thought on how to get there.

Finally, I'm glad I sat through the credits to watch the end cinematic. I was all ready to rip Bungie a new one for killing the player offscreen at the end of the game, but they managed to save it by exiling him in the middle of nowhere while setting up the inevitable Halo 4. Regardless, the ending is just unsatisfying in a way that's hard to describe. The war, which began as a struggle against the Covenant, turned into a war against the Prophets, who were then killed, which then turned into a war against the Flood, who were then wiped out. We never get to see the real effect of the war on Earth, nor of the personal toll borne by those who survived. There can't be anyway, since every important character other than the Chief, Cortana, and the Arbiter gets whacked. What's left to care about? Why am I supposed to get teary-eyed when this Lord Hood guy gives a weak Gettysburg Address paraphrase on a dirty hill?

To the next point: The AI is just godawful. Countless times I was manning a turret and gleefully plugging infinite ammo at the bad guys when my own squad would calmly and without hesitation walk directly into my line of fire. Of course I'd cut them down before I could stop firing, so it got to the point where I had to make sure I was shooting over their heads. This was almost always too high to hit the bad guys. At times in the game I saw soldiers jumping on top of boxes or sliding down a hill to get to a battle. So why is it so hard to code them to go around a friendly turret or at least crawl under it? It's not like it's advanced soldering you only learn after five years in the freaking army! Enemies sometimes fly into battle on slow-moving rocket packs, making perfect targets for the sniper rifle. Brutes will drop bubble shields and then walk out of them, making it easy to pick them off. Snipers will give away their positions while still too far away to hit you with any accuracy. Grunts seem not to understand the concept of cover. There were too many lapses to list, and all of them together add up to a constant annoyance during play.

The point about thumbstick control being inferior to the mouse and keyboard has been made before, so I'll just amplify here that it does in fact suck and that the mouse/keyboard is in fact better. The major culprit is just not being able to turn your firing direction fast enough, as well as making it too hard to rotate your view at a comfortable rate. This problem isn't really fixable, so no need to hash it out further, but it does suffer by comparison to the PC.

Finally, the checkpoint/save system, which worked pretty well in the first two games, takes a step back here as well. Most of the time, getting past one knot of enemies or one particularly tricky bit of vehicle maneuvering earns a checkpoint as soon as you're in relative safety; however, there are times when you'll be in near-constant battle for upwards of a minute and make it past one or even two checkpoint positions without the game crediting them to you. At that point you become panicked not because you're being shot at but because if you get ganked by some cheese-rific enemy placement you'll have to fight the entire damn sequence over again. Again, this takes you out of the flow and just pisses you the hell off, especially when you take the same path, aggro 10 less enemies, and are awarded a checkpoint only 30 seconds after your previous one. The inconsistency is maddening.

After all that ripping, did I like the game? Well, yes. It's a solid, if unspectacular, first-person shooter that looks great and offers at least a try at a serious scifi storyline where most other games are happy to get by on violence and tits. It's got more bugs than it should, and the execution is off in some key places, but Halo fans won't be disappointed, and shooter fans will definitely find the good points to outweigh the bad.

But it's definitely not the Forty-second Coming.

**** (4/5)

1 comment:

Hen said...

Thanks for that - saves me buying a 360.