This review concerns Halo 3's multiplayer component. For a full review of its single-player and co-op modes, check out our Halo 3 campaign review.
If Halo 3's campaign is relatively unsurprising while still being a great third entry in a great series, Halo 3's multiplayer is a bona fide revelation that sets a new standard for complete, coherent, feature-packed multiplayer suites. It's just that good.
As a studio, even back before the release of the first Halo (raise your hands if you remember those ancient times), Bungie has always taken pride in delivering unique and creative multiplayer modes, and its blockbuster Xbox series continued that trend. Halo became a split-screen staple among friendly gaming groups, then Halo 2 provided Xbox Live's true raison d'etre, with a brilliantly simple party system, scads of customizability options, and some of the best stat tracking web integration of any game to date.
If you can believe it, the depth Halo 3's multiplayer puts the still-strong Halo 2's to absolute shame, while returning the gameplay focus to the one-gun-plus-grenade dynamic more similar to the original Halo's. There's no need to wait until the end of the review to summarize the bottom line here: Halo 3's multiplayer is some of the best to be found on any system, and once again Bungie has made the whole experience more streamlined than ever.
At the core of the multiplayer experience is a better-than-ever party system. Now, you can access any part of Halo 3 from its party screen. After inviting your Xbox Live friends into a Halo 2-style lobby, you can launch any aspect of the game that allows multiple people--and, impressively, that really is any aspect of the game.
Want to play campaign co-op? Just switch the gametype in the lobby to Campaign, and choose your options and starting level. Want to play a private custom game? Sure. Want to jump on Xbox Live? You can do that. Want to watch a saved film? Start it up--the host can control the fast forward, and each player can adjust his or her camera separately. Want to edit a level in Forge? Everybody can jump in and edit it together, or editing can be restricted to just the host, while the other players explore the level in real-time during editing.
All of this can be done without ever forming a new party. It is a mindblowingly elegant setup, one that seems so obvious in retrospect but is still practically unheard of.
The new Forge level editor, one of Halo 3's best additions, does not allow editing of actual level geometry, but rather the placement of weapons and equipment, objectives such as CTF flag returns and King of the Hill regions, teleporters, and decorative objects such as crates.
PC gamers might scoff at this, citing the PC platform's unique ability for users to create brand-new environments. True, Halo 3 does not offer anything nearly on that scale, but in limiting the extent of player customizability Bungie has offered something that is quite different and arguably much more fitting to Halo. More than anything else, the combination of Forge and the extensive gametype editor encourages players to create truly unique and new gametypes.
The range of possibilities seems nearly endless--even prior to the game's release, reviewers have already created bizarre gametypes Bungie never predicted, such as a "baseball" gametype using Gravity Hammers as bats and rockets as balls, with objective checkpoints as bases. Another member of the press created a bizarre gametype in which opposing teams must chauffer a specific member of their team to a series of checkpoints before the other team can do the same--but the checkpoints are floating in the sky, and the VIP must be transported in a helicopter-like vehicle. Meanwhile, both teams have players armed with heavy, long-range weapons on the ground, attempting to disrupt the airborne progress of their foes. It feels more like a bizarre take on Battlefield than Halo, with players waging a frantic war-like race simultaneously on foot, in tanks, and in the air.
Neither of those modes is available in the default game; both were made in a matter of minutes using Forge to adjust levels, and the gametype editor to adjust the rules of the game. Modified maps and gametypes can be saved and played with friends in custom games.
As a testament to the flexibility of the editors, Race, a Halo 1 gametype that was skipped for Halo 2 and remains absent for Halo 3, can actually be fairly competently recreated in Halo 3 simply by modifying the VIP gametype. As one of the few Race fans, color me impressed.
Exploring Forge further starts to hint at some potentially extremely wacky possibilities, such as elaborate platformer-like gametypes. Placing crates over a row of grav lifts results in an undulating respawning bridge, and one could easily imagine placing checkpoints all along such a creation as part of a larger progression of obstacles, with groups of friends doing time trials through it.
Even better, Bungie will be highlighting the best user-created content on its website, and players will be able to queue materials for download directly from the web. This kind of community spotlight is sure to keep the creativity flowing for years to come. Halo 2 already proved to be the most robust multiplayer experience available on consoles--Halo 3 is poised to grab that crown and hang onto it for the rest of this console generation, and probably beyond.
And the game itself? As much as I enjoyed Halo 2's multiplayer, largely for its Live implementation, I found the actual balance and flow not up to the standards of the first game. My complaints have been utterly demolished by Halo 3, which to me takes the best parts of Halo--the single-weapon, grenade-heavy gameplay, as well as the bizarre gametypes--and puts them back into the spotlight. Bungie also continues to improve and expand upon series multiplayer fundamentals, adding asymmetric maps and gametypes, bringing the total number of grenade types up to a wonderful four, scaling back the effectiveness of arguably overpowered weapons like the Energy Sword, and other such improvements.
Bungie's website, which provided extremely impressive stat tracking and account management for Halo 2, is back and better than ever for Halo 3. Its prior implementation was already the best in the industry, so it is no surprise that it gets that title once again. You can find any game you've played and do an in-depth statistical drilldown, as well as view a graphical representation of the battle highlighting the performance of any player in that battle. You can also check out uploaded in-game screenshots, taken from the film viewer, through the site. This time around, you can even check out stats from your campaign play-throughs, both in co-op and single-player.
The inclusion of saved films is a massive bonus to multiplayer, even more so than single-player. Different players will use it for different things--nearly everybody will enjoy savoring their best moments, and taunting their friends with particularly impressive kills, but the most dedicated multiplayer fiends will no doubt get deep into hardcore tactical analysis, observing the most common behavior of enemies on different gametypes and using that knowledge to fine-tune their own strategies. With the ability to share your videos with friends, or even watch them simultaneously, the trash-talking possibilities are more expansive than ever.
Those who played the Halo 3 beta will have a sense for the game's general multiplayer mechanics, but the full game presents such a staggeringly complete package that one actually feels bad for competing developers of other online-enabled Xbox 360 shooters.
There's more, such as the unlockable alternate player model components, the streamline player-muting ability, the official inclusion of the Zombie gametype popularized in Halo 2 custom games, and any number of other great touches, but if you derive any enjoyment out of the Halo series' style of multiplayer gaming, you should already be sold.
Halo 3 is a game that would be destined for Xbox Live permanence regardless of its quality, which makes it all the better that Bungie has truly gone above and beyond any reasonable expectation to deliver as complete a multiplayer offering as possible. It is genuinely an achievement within its realm.