Twenty Years of Halo: Halo 3

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios.  Halo 3 was developed by Bungie and ported by Gearbox and 343 Studios.

I’ll be honest here; half the reason I wanted to do this retrospective is for an excuse to play this game again.  Halo 3, along with one of those Naruto games, was the first game me and my brother got for the Xbox 360 and it was one of the most memorable experiences I ever had with a game; right up there with playing Super Mario Bros for the first time and getting my mind COMPLETELY blown by No More Heroes.  No other first person shooter felt as pitch perfect and brilliantly executed as this one, and the shiny new graphics of the next generation of consoles make it feel like a new era of games had started.  We all know how the seventh generation went however with military shooters supplanting more fanciful fare like this, but looking back on it fourteen years after its release, does it hold up?  Does it FINISH THE FIGHT as the marketing proclaimed, and do we get some closure on the storylines that have all been building to this finale to the trilogy?  Let’s find out!!

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Following the events of Halo 2, The Master Chief finds himself back on Earth with what remains of the UNSC and an unlikely ally in The Arbiter.  The Covenant haven’t destroyed the planet yet as it appears they are digging for some sort of Forerunner artifact that was APPARENTLY on Earth this whole time and will lead them to The Ark; essentially the control station for ALL of the Halo rings which will allow The Prophet of Truth (the last remaining prophet) to fire them all off and start The Great Journey which is the end goal their doomsday cult.  Making matters more difficult is that Cortana is still on High Charity (the Covenant city that was infected with The Flood at the end of the last game) instead of with The Chief and also that the UNSC are on their last legs, but another unlikely ally from Chief’s past, 343 Guilty Spark, has decided to help him, the UNSC, and the Elite defectors in stopping The Prophet of Truth and hopefully destroying The Flood (along with its leader Gravemind) without having to wipe out the entire galaxy to do it.  Narrative wise, which is the part that ALWAYS flew right over my head whenever I played this game, it’s a mixed bag of give and take.  The story has been stripped down to its barest elements which is GREAT in so many places throughout this game; focusing on the moment to moment pulse pounding action and stakes instead of drowning us in lore and backstory.  There’s hardly a single level like say The Library which drags on forever as it rambles on to give us some world building, and The Chief definitely feels more engaged here than he did in Halo 2.  However, the drawback to this approach is that it’s all sizzle with very little meat to chew on.  The Arbiter is easily the best character in this entire franchise, and yet because he’s tagging along with you the whole time he doesn’t get his own missions anymore so he feels like something of an afterthought throughout too much of the game.  There are also a WHOLE lot of conveniences here just to give us more set pieces like when a Halo ring just ALL OF A SUDDEN appears out of nowhere to set up the final confrontation (and to justify calling this a Halo game I guess), but the two things that just didn’t fit well with me were The Flood and Guilty Spark.  Honestly, I don’t know what Guilty Spark’s game here is or what they’re trying to accomplish.  It seems like a turn to the good guys for flimsy reasons, and then the final straw for it to go back to being a bad guy feels even flimsier.  Did we NOT just spend the entire game working our way to DESTROYING all this stuff and the Flood along with it?  The metal jerk has a problem with it NOW!?

“You promised me cake back on the first Halo ring!  If ANYONE should be mad, it’s ME!”

And of course The Flood as the eternal boogeyman of the series feels completely perfunctory; so much so that every one of their appearances is heralded by a hole in space opening up just to spit them out.  Despite The Gravemind having much more presence in this game and tying at least somewhat into Cortana’s fate, it’s still not a particularly compelling threat and I was much more invested in the conclusion to the Covenant War than anything involving them; even if The Prophet of Truth is a bit too mustache twirling here.  I don’t remember him being THIS much of a megalomaniacal villain in the last game, and the book Contact Harvest portrayed him as someone with a lot of cunning and rationality, but I guess when their back is against the wall there’s not much more to do than crank up the zealotry.  Sadly he’s really the only Covenant villain as they don’t have a Brute leader like Tartarus in Halo 2 to give us a bit of context for The Covenant’s continued loyalty to The Prophet of Truth.  Halo 2 had a lot of layers on the Covenant side of things, and while they have done a decent job here fleshing out The Chief, it feels like everything else got a bit TOO stripped down.

“MWA HA HA HA HAAA!!”     “Does he normally do that?”     “Look, we’re on a time crunch, okay?”

Still, when this game hits, it hits like a freight train and it’s not like the narrative is BAD because it’s stripped down.  I enjoyed almost every single cut scene in here and the characters who are still around from the previous games definitely have their moments to shine.  Johnson felt a bit underutilized for most of the campaign, but he REALLY comes into his own at the end when he’s forced into more or less being the instrument of humanity’s greatest crisis, and the loss he feels at the death of Miranda Keyes is palpable; as is the heartbreak at watching him continue to move forward and fight afterwards despite the grief he’s clearing feeling.  I’ve railed repeatedly about the politics of the books and the overreliance on jingoistic machismo to justify bizarre and downright awful ideas, but this kind of stuff where we watch someone overcome the crushing weight of their duty is what makes stories like this shine.  The Master Chief isn’t cool because he can punch aliens really hard, it’s that he’s always prepared to do what’s next and put himself at risk for a cause bigger than himself.  It’s also why The Elites are such compelling characters in this as they are certainly a prickly bunch but do things with a sense of honor and purpose that makes every scene of them working together with the UNSC an absolute joy to watch.  The fact that we don’t have an Elite spin off series feels like a GIGANTIC missed opportunity for the franchise.  Speaking of the Elites, the Arbiter once again steals the show with the way he finally enacts his vengeance against The Prophets, and the moments where he and The Chief interact are IMMENSELY compelling if too few and far between for my tastes.  Perhaps I’m telling on myself as too much of an easy mark for this kind of buddy shtick, but that opening scene where Chief sticks a gun under his chin and the dude doesn’t’ flinch STILL gave me goosebumps, and that moment where The Flood comes out of the woodwork with The Chief and Arbiter standing back to back as allies in combat… well it kinda makes up for the more straightforward narrative when moments like that are as AWESOME as they are.

“REUNITED, AND IT FEELS SO GOOD!”     “Will you PLEASE stop saying that.”

And that brings us to Cortana who DEFINITELY has a better role to play here than she did in the last game.  She’s absent for most of the story, but it’s better than her chattering inane objectives into your ear like the last time around, and the scene where Chief finally finds her is perhaps the most compelling and affecting scene the guy has in the franchise.  As I said, Chief is a character who is compelling because he fights forward despite the odds, but the key to that kind of character working is that they need something or someone to ground them; someone they can be more of themselves around or something that makes them want to fight instead of just being a convenient tool.  Superman needs his Lois Lane and Chief needs Cortana, and you can call it whatever you want; friendship, love, unresolved issues with Dr. Halsey, but his relationship with her is where he lets his guard down and you can see pieces of himself that he keeps buried down beneath the armor and the bravado.  I’d say that Cortana’s character is a bit… underwritten here as she’s mostly there to be the princess he’s chasing after and her dialogue is almost entirely about her being broken (the games so far haven’t done a GREAT job with female characters as the only other one ended up dying just to raise the drama) but there’s no doubt that their relationship is the heart of this franchise and is right up there with The Arbiter’s plight as reasons to CARE about what’s going on in the game beyond how good the gameplay itself is.

“Why are you HERE, John?”     “I came here because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”     “I’m a Smart AI, John.  I KNOW which movie you stole that line from.”     “If the quote fits!”

So story wise, I’ll give this a solid thumbs-up!  It certainly gives us the catharsis and payoffs you want at the end of a trilogy, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle as the gameplay had high expectations for it as well.  Not only being the flagship game for a new console, but being a sequel to two games that were already revolutionary for the previous generation certainly put a lot of hype on this and Microsoft pumped it up even further with their extensive marketing campaign.  After playing the remasters of the other two games I was actually curious is this was going to be the one that felt a bit out of date as it didn’t have any glossy textures or updated cut scenes for the Master Chief Collection, but even without extensive touch ups (from what I can tell, there’s a bit more lighting, a better framerate, and a somewhat higher resolution), it’s clear that this is a step up from the previous two.  Audio is better with more NPC lines throughout, the physics have a lot more punch to them (grenades can REALLY send someone smashing into a wall), and an overall improvement to the AI.  The Brutes feel a BIT easier to take down (the whole game feels a little bit easier), but they move well and can really create havoc with the right weapons.  Grunts are still fun to pick off and their exuberant reactions feel organic in a way that few games can manage, and the gosh-darn Jackals are a thorn in my side with their extremely precise and extremely effective rifles.  They can be a LITTLE overbearing at certain points, but they help bring the challenge up a bit and give you a reason to constantly be scanning across the well done environments.  What stood out to me the most though was the technology on display as the extra processing power of the Xbox 360 meant that things could be much more sprawling and much more complicated.  The other two games did have their moments of free roaming like action, but they were ultimately very linear experiences with only so many moving parts at any one time.  Halo 3 expanding greatly on this and many of the levels are much more sprawling with various approaches to take and LOTS of enemies with engaging AI to fight against.  The first mission is perhaps the best in the game as they threw EVERYTHING at the wall to show off the new tech and the expanded scope.  The jungle environments are densely layered with foliage, branches, and ledges to give a greater sense of verticality, and the intrusion into the base that The Covenant are holding Johnson feels like a precursor to the modern type of open world shooters that were popularized by Far Cry 3 and its ilk.  You just stand there on the ledge seeing the various enemies patrolling the area and the various buildings with multiple stories and entry points that you can approach it at, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun even to this day!  The more sprawling levels do come with two minor caveats however.  Halo’s checkpoint system feels a bit lacking as “progression” isn’t easy to define when there’s not a clear forward path, so there are many instances where you’ll go for five solid minutes of seamless action only to eat a grenade and have to start the whole section over again which can make things a bit tedious on the higher difficulties.  Also, Halo’s weapons can be VERY situational, and so it’s harder to predict what loadout you’ll need until you’re already too far ahead to go back and find something more suitable.

There was a sniper rifle RIGHT THERE!  WHY DID I GO WITH THE BRUTE SHOT!?

Like in the last game you do have the option to dual wield but I made a point of it to not use that at all to see if I was hampered in any way and frankly I wasn’t.  MAYBE it can be helpful with The Flood whenever they decide to swarm, but only if you’re low on grenades and frankly your trusty ol’ machine gun can get things done in a pinch.  Speaking of grenades, I’m not so sure it was a great idea to add new grenade types and limit the number you can carry.  It just means more switching between grenades which can get hectic in the heat of battle and frankly you’re going to find way more plasma grenades than anything else (especially the fire grenade), so it feels like you’re leaving way too much behind at the end of each battle compared to the other two games.  Similarly, the Equipment is a great new addition and I LOVE the Bubble Shield, but it also has a scarcity issue where some equipment only shows up once in a blue moon (I may have found auto turrets TWICE in the whole game) and honestly the only one I used consistently was the Bubble Shield.  The Hexagonal dome is definitely a striking image, and it proves to be invaluable in the more wide open areas where enemies can be coming after you on all sides and you just need a break to recharge your shields.  The new feature I ended up using the most this time around was detaching the turrets.  Unlike with dual wielding I DEFINITELY felt the increase in fire power which made it a suitable tradeoff for being unable to access your grenades and equipment, and frankly it just looks cool to have that third person perspective while shooting enemies to bits.  It’s ESPECIALLY fun to land on one of those scarabs, rip off the plasma turret, and then blast its core to bits only to jump off and watch the explosion turn that giant pain in the butt into nothing but scrap!

TRY STEPPING ON ME NOW, YOU MECHANICAL JERK WAD!!

The Halo games were already fantastic first person shooters, and the bump in technology allowed it to flourish in brilliant ways; not reinventing the wheel by any stretch but definitely giving us a more immersive and deep experience that, at least for me, looks to be the pinnacle of the series.  We’ll see where the other games take us, but it’s going to be hard to top this one.  And yes, once again I kept getting run over in this game, though not by the Marine NPCs!  If there’s ONE area of the AI that could use a bit more improvement it’s with those guys as they can help a LITTLE bit but not much in combat, and the fact that they just kinda stand around when I’m getting mowed down by Brute Choppers isn’t exactly winning any brownie points with me!

“We’re here to help, Chief!”     *WHAM*     “Where’d he go?”     “Uh-oh…”

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RETRO REVIEWS

I’ve actually enjoyed going back and seeing what people thought of these games when they came out, but I’ve got to say that I’m kind of disappointed by the reviews I read.  In general they talk about the single player campaign for a few paragraphs in straightforward and somewhat unimpressed tones before jumping into the gaggle of features in the multiplayer; including the new maps, Forge mode, and the Video Editing tools.  I actually did play some of Halo 3’s multiplayer in the Master Chief Collection after finishing the campaign, and to Bungie’s credit it is still a fun and well balanced experience.  Unlike a lot of other shooters that I got into for a bit like the original Modern Warfare and more recently Apex Legends, there’s less downtime as the engagement remains pretty consistent and you don’t die as quickly so you can be in combat and feel like your accomplishing something instead of just getting attacked from behind and dying almost immediately.  So yes, a good chunk of this game is in fact the multiplayer and is frankly why the game ended up scoring as high as it did with critics, but I was much more interested in what they thought of the campaign itself and there was really only one review that I felt had some real meat to it which was the one from GameCritics.com [https://gamecritics.com/halo-3-review/] even though I disagreed quite a bit with it.  Still, they bothered to reference the Believe campaign and how it fits into (or fails to fit into) the larger narrative of the series as well as the overuse of religious imagery and terms to impart a sense of gravitas to an otherwise straightforward game, so hey at least SOMEONE’S talking about something other than how well the matchmaking is!  The thrust of the review is about a lack of innovation; few new mechanics, some outdated graphics, and a story that tries too hard to be about something without ever hitting the mark.  For me, it’s less that the writer Daniel Weissenberger is wrong about anything in particular, but I find myself very far from where he decides to frame things.  He talks about the lack of a truly coherent ideology for The Covenant or moral complexity in the schism between them and The Elite which is true but also what kind of makes them so insidious despite how ineffective they are when faced with The Master Chief and The Arbiter.  The Covenant has always come off as a bureaucratic nightmare who uses their veneer of spirituality and to fuel zealotry for less than holy ends; though this is much more explained in the expanded universe materials than in the games themselves and The Prophet of Truth is much less compelling here than he was in the second game or in the books.  More than that though, I think he’s missing the forest for the trees in some areas as the games have always been more isolated and singularly focused experiences, so the lack of a more coherent and richly complicated status quo is (at least for me) made up for by the moment to moment stories being told in each level; imaging what The Chief is thinking as you scan the horizon looking for the best way to attack or the moments where the fate of the universe fall on a couple people in one room making both good and bad decisions.  I guess the added context from the books and fourteen years of hindsight has done a lot to smooth the cracks over for me where they were much more blatant at the time.  I don’t mind the lack of innovation in the combat that bothered Weissenberger because I saw what shooters became in the wake of Halo and always preferred that style to what came after.  I’ll take some backtracking in the levels if it means that everything doesn’t happen on one giant blobby open world and I’ll take the silly grunts and hit or miss humorous quips over any number of drearily written SUPER SERIOUS games!

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Perhaps we’re reached the melancholy stage in this retrospective and I’m sitting her pining for a game industry that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  Certainly not with Bungie’s recent releases, and seemingly not with 343 Studios as Halo Infinite seems to be moving away from the series roots to chase after modern trends.  Well we’re a VERY long way off from any of that and I’m sure there’s still some great stuff to talk about along the way, so join me next time as we look at the OTHER peak for me in the story of Halo, which was Red Vs Blue: Recreation!

Next: Halo 3 Essentials & Halo Landfall
Previous: Halo Believe & Iris

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