First Look: Halo 3 is Here

"Commander, this is Kilo Two-Three," crackles your helmet radio. "Lost my wingman and our only Hog." You're puzzling where Kilo Two-Three could be when a couple squealing Grunts lob bursts of green plasma in your squad's direction. Too late--your force shield sizzles as you jerk left. Explosions thoom-thoom-thoom somewhere up ahead. An enemy ship swoops in low on your left flank, tilts open, and spits out reinforcements. Distant beams of pulsing light rise from alien monoliths against a horizon that tapers strangely upward, curving toward a circular zenith like some giant, galactic bracelet. Behind you, Scorpion tanks trundle forward to back your assault. You scope a group of juking enemies with your battle rifle, scanning for a headshot, waiting, waiting...and as the cellos and drums kick up, it hits you--they didn't change a thing.

Our hero looks even better on the Xbox 360.
Our hero looks even better on the Xbox 360.
Really. In fact, Halo 3 turns out to be so reliably "Halo" in terms of its story and shoot-everything gameplay--even the order in which series hallmark villains appear--that you might imagine you're playing a remake of the original. A really pretty remake, to be sure, and one that manages to finally spill a few secrets some have been waiting six years to uncover, but with Halo 3 Bungie isn't really out to change hearts and minds. This is still the same Homeric shooting gallery you played back in 2001 muscled up for a higher-definition audience with some extra toys, overhauled multiplayer, and of course, plenty of "Can you give me a hoo-ah, soldier?"

Back in the Fight

The original Halo involved a genetically enhanced super-soldier with two first names (Master Chief) battling a fanatically religious alien race known as the Covenant over an orbital construct inspired by writer Iain Banks' Culture--a synthetic space habitat cum interstellar weapon shaped like a hoop. The sequel let you again play as the Chief, but also intermittently as his defeated Covenant nemesis, the Arbiter. Their stories dovetailed in a dash to stop a parasitic race called the Flood from spreading while simultaneously preventing the one weapon capable of instantly destroying the Flood (but also the known universe) from firing. Halo 3 picks up shortly after Halo 2 ends, depositing you as Master Chief on Earth in the midst of a full-scale Covenant invasion.

The same epic vehicle battles have made their way into Halo 3.
The same epic vehicle battles have made their way into Halo 3.
Making your way through the game involves sniping, strafing, slicing, and gun-butting enemies capable of the same and more as you battle through gorgeously realistic (albeit one-way) jungles with bendable flora, dusty ravines, pine forests, industrial wastelands, military bases, and, occasionally, the insides of glinting alien ships and facilities. Enemies are more engaging than ever, shouting tactics to each other; teasing, "I want his head on a pike," (or was it "bike"?) when you die; and joking, "No inappropriate touching," when crowding toward your hiding place.

Levels, while linear in general, are now broader with multiple attack approaches. Fed by the Xbox 360's ability to display more objects in finer detail, canopied rivers and ridges become crisscrossing webs of sniper fire as Covenant Jackals perch in enormous trees or snuggle into distant cliffside cubbyholes that are tough to spot but easy to be hit from. You're forced to probe more tactfully if you play the game at its intended ("heroic") difficulty setting. Enemies seem smarter, darting into and out of cover with frightening alacrity, and tending to advance using cover while moving at right angles instead of bum-rushing carelessly.

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