The wait is over, and after midnight last night, gamers all across the country dove into the Halo 3 experience. In my first few hours with the game, I'm already impressed.
Take a look at that picture to the right. Take a good long look. It's important because it's not merely another media screenshot off some website, what you're looking at is possibly the most satisfying kill I've had yet in my short time with Halo 3.
Taking a little test run on Valhalla, a Banshee menacingly hovering over me, I make a quick dash for the Missile Pod, and launch myself off of the Man Canon - backwards. I line up my shot while soaring through the air and the result is the brilliant splattering of destruction you see before you.
After the game I went into the saved films ('theater') and took a screenshot, as well recording a short clip, to capture the moment. From there it's as simple as heading over to Bungie.net and (provided you have a Bungie.net account) downloading the screenshots from your profile. This is one of the small, but satisfying, features that make Halo 3 all the more special.
Although I still have a lot more time to spend with the game (and I mean, a lot), I'd like to drop some initial thoughts and impressions on you, starting with the campaign.
As soon as you pick up the game, you feel it, the utter inescapable feeling of excellence and fine tuned precision running through the veins of the game, a precision and feel that plays better than any first-person shooter, ever. If you've played either of the two previous Halo games, you know what I'm talking about. Although we may all take it for granted by now, any evaluation of Halo has to start with it's core controls and mechanics, which are the tightest and most refined around. The weight and the responsiveness of the weapons all feel perfect, aim takes concentration, especially under fire, but not ice-cold precision and reflexes, unless you're playing on the higher difficulty levels, in which cases it's pretty tough. Nevertheless, Halo has remained not only the best FPS, but also the most accessible. It's easy to pick up and play, but not easy to master.
What jumped out at me immediately in the first couple of campaign missions was the enemy AI. I'm playing through my first run on the 'Heroic' difficulty level, citing the Bungie podcast that said normal would really be for new players, and more experienced players should play on Heroic or Legendary, especially on the first level which would be "too easy" on normal. Suffice to say, Heroic provided a healthy challenge.
Your enemies are smart, not simply in how they operate as individuals, but as a team. Grunts, the small infantry soldiers, will usually charge in and unleash waves of plasma pistol fire, while the crack shot Jackals will take up sniping positions and pepper you from above. The Brutes will usually hang back and provide heavier fire from behind the line of Grunts in front of them. Your enemies will utilize this formation brilliantly, shifting, flanking, and generally trying to control your movement until they have you where they want you.
Not only are Covenant organized in their attacks, but in defense and even in retreat. Particularly on the first level, a jungle mission with plenty of camouflage and uneven surfaces, they would regularly entrench themselves in a highly defensible position, lining up against rock walls, setting up snipers, and essentially forcing you through the narrowest passage, right into the Brutes with heavy fire. There were even a couple of times when I got baited into chasing down a stray Grunt only to turn the corner and be greeted by a pack of Brutes, ready to ambush.
Too many first-person shooters boast great enemy AI, and to be honest I haven't been impressed with any of them in the past, not even the previous Halo games. Halo 3 is the first shooter I've ever played where I really felt like the enemy AI was not only a challenge, but actually quite formidable, and at times even fighting and maneuvering smarter than I was.
My only real complaint about the solo campaign, is that your ally AI is actually quite stupid. The Marines are fine, generally doing a good job of providing cover fire and trying not to get killed, while still performing bravely. Where the frustration comes is when you're playing solo and the Arbiter, meant to be controlled by another player in co-op, goes into complete retard meltdown mode. On more than one occasion I was pinned down, out of ammo, and the Arbiter would do nothing more than stand there. Not only was he not shooting or moving or doing anything, he wasn't getting shot at. It's one thing for your ally AI to be bad, but something is seriously wrong when the enemy AI doesn't fire on a target wide out in the open. Granted, this is only in my small time playing, but I was surprised to see something that sloppy in an otherwise outstanding game.
On the plus side, playing co-op is a blast, particularly is you've got some people who can really hold their own and utilize team work well. Solo is still definitely a great experience, but the co-op adds another level of depth to it.
There's a special feeling that comes over you when you first get your hands on the Grav Hammer - the feeling of, "I'm going to bash somebody's face in and send their shatter teeth flying across the map." It's a good feeling.
The variety of weapons in Halo 3 is actually one of the most enjoyable aspects about it, giving you range and freedom to choose favorites and combos that fit you and your playing style best. Some of the more creative new additions include the aforementioned Gravity Hammer and the Brute Spiker, two of my personal favorites.
One of the most appreciated 'additions', however, is the return of the Assault Rifle (formerly the MA5B, now re-branded the MA5C). The AR is a far superior starting default weapon than the SMG from Halo 2, it's more accurate, more powerful, and while it does have a shallow clip to balance things out, the added accuracy and fire power make it a fine weapon in medium and close range situations. On a side note, the Sniper Rifle also feels somehow improved, less twitchy, a tighter control.
The maps are all well designed, and boast a healthy variety, from the small closed quarters of Guardians and Narrows, to the wide open expanses of Valhalla and Sandtrap. Each map is unique, and they all seem to be better suited towards one particular game type or another, but they're all fun.
One notable addition to the match making system, after any match, you can choose to 'party up' and continue to play with the same group of people for as long as you choose. While this has always been easy to do with people on your friends list, this makes it easier to hook up with new players easily, avoiding the additional steps of having to send friend and party requests in the post game.
Excuse me, I have some Brutes to deal with
I won't post my thoughts on Forge just yet, because I haven't really had a chance to play with it. All I'll say from the few minutes I've dabbled with it is, it has a load of potential, and it can be as great as people want it to be, provided folks have the creativity to do cool things.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've pulled myself away long enough to write this, I have some more multiplayer pwnage and Brute stomping to get to.