Halo 3 Was The Last Great Halo Game

Ten years ago Halo 3 was released for the Xbox 360. A dozen years ago I lived in England's beautiful Lake District, in a cottage at the top of a very big hill. It was a nightmare if you ran out of milk, but behind that rustic stonework lay gaming nirvana.

I shared the house with another guy, let's call him Mike, and we had two TVs and two 360s set up in the living room.

Mike and I went to work every day and, when we came home, we'd make dinner then play Halo 2 all night. This was our lives, and it was bliss. We changed our Xbox Live gamertags to accommodate our dual identities in Team Slayer, me driving and him on the cannon, becoming the Hog Man and Gunner Justice.

Above all else, we scoured magazines and the web for news of Halo 3, the sequel to what we knew was the greatest game ever made. To this day I can recall that living room perfectly — and the giant Halo 3 poster on the wall, equidistant between our TV screens, with that unforgettable tagline.

"Finish the fight."

I give this background because it's easy to forget, in these sad days for the once-great franchise, that Halo 3 really was the biggest thing around.

The Xbox 360 had stolen a march on PS3 thanks to its earlier release (and standout titles like Gears of War) but that meant an almost two year wait for the faithful as Bungie toiled on the game.

By the time Halo 3 was released I had left the Lakes, I didn't see Gunner Justice much anymore, and even the Halo 2 mania had dried up. My anticipation, still, was white hot.

Halo 3 was one of the few times a sequel has deserved the build-up, and the reasons why say a lot about the nature of Bungie as a studio — and where it would subsequently go.

This was a visionary shooter, establishing the template that would eventually lead to Destiny.

Let's take something like the campaign's giant, open environments, and consider how Bungie constructed them and how a player moves through them. Most shooters even now load in the level's elements as they're required, spawning enemies behind doors and triggering events when the player crosses a given line.

Halo 3 included a brilliant feature whereby you could record your entire playthrough of a given area and then watch it back — with full camera control.

Here you could see that, as you and a friend began to push through the opening area (Halo 3 offered four player online campaign co-op in 2007), the enemies at the end of the level were already there. You wouldn't reach them for maybe 40 minutes, but there they were. Grunts tottering back and forth, Elites patrolling their patch, and Jackals periodically checking their sights.

You could see the ripples as the Master Chief got closer, and witness enemies reacting to your presence well before you'd ever realised. Most games, and this is not a value judgement, have a lot of smoke and mirrors going on. Halo 3 does too, but its construction gives the appearance of absolute solidity and integrity.

The nine enormous worlds of Halo 3's campaign saw the Master Chief save Earth before blasting into space, discovering a secret control world for the Halo structures, and saving the galaxy in spectacular fashion. Where Halo 2's campaign was hugely enjoyable but ultimately a hodgepodge, this has a classic hero's arc and revisits great moments in order to render them definitively — not least the many wonderful Warthog sections.

It's easy enough to call this a fantastic FPS campaign, but Bungie pushes further than it ever had to and sows the seeds that would become Destiny. These were levels designed to be replayed, and the game incentivises this through a meta-game of skulls and challenges, which allows players to go through in co-op with certain comparative statistics being tracked.

The structure as a whole is far from the holistic online focus of Bungie's later work (though the online was also light years ahead of the contemporary competition), but here you already see the studio transitioning from corridor-based and linear shooter design into online co-op sandboxes.

That's far from Halo 3's only forward-thinking innovation. Bungie didn't just make a beautiful game, but a beautiful user experience. As well as the theatre mode for replays and editing clips, campaign co-op, and a party system that smoothly moved groups of players between activities, it also introduced Forge mode — allowing players to 'build' new things out of Halo 3's elements. Not only this, but Forge was 'live' — players could build on-the-fly with other players in the same world.

Custom gametypes had always been a big part of Halo, and the game had a machinima tradition exemplified in Rooster Teeth's Red Vs Blue, so this early incorporation of user-generated content was a logical enough progression.

But here's the theme with Halo 3: again, Bungie pushed it further. Forge wasn't just for building stuff, but enabled easy downloads of what other players had built. Soon enough various custom modes spread like wildfire, from competitive rulesets to the knockabout Halo Karts and deliriously hammer-happy Grifball.

Halo 3 kept on going. Sharing game modes is one thing, but thanks to integration with Bungie.net players could upload their videos, screenshots and modes, as well as customise their 'social' presence.

This is pre-Twitter, pre-Twitch, and Youtube had only been around for a year or two. Halo 3 was enabling a community to grow around it, and focusing on the kind of social features we now take for granted but — in 2007 — were almost unheard-of. Not to mention the experience of starting up a console game with your mates, downloading what were basically mods, and jumping straight in.

It says everything about Halo 3 that, having gotten this far, I haven't even mentioned the beautiful multiplayer. Halo 3 made extensive changes to Halo 2's multiplayer, mainly to get rid of the overwhelming focus on dual-wielding and BRs.

It wasn't entirely successful in this, and the speedy melee meant plenty of 'noob combo' weapons remained (like the ridiculous handheld shotgun), but Bungie's gorgeous aim assist and exemplary multiplayer map design made it the ultimate Halo experience.

For myself, it would be impossible for any Halo game to recapture the feelings I have about Halo 2 — simply because of the era I played it in. But with hindsight Halo 3 was as good as Halo multiplayer ever got.

Its major addition, single-use pieces of equipment like shield drainers and the bubble shield, was a judicious one and the individual items were overpowered in the right kind of way.

I'd even argue for the Destiny lineage here; these single-shot deals, which either make a big difference or are easily wasted, do seem like prototypes for some of the Guardian abilities.

This multiplayer package was so good that Bungie's next Halo game, Halo 3: ODST, simply included the whole thing with the DLC, while Reach — for all its qualities as a singleplayer campaign — introduced rocket packs.

By the time of Destiny Bungie had mastered the floaty double jump, but Reach's attempt only had me yearning for Halo 3's more grounded action.

When I think of Halo, I still think only of Bungie's Halo games. Perhaps that itself is nostalgia. But it's impossible to deny that the Xbox division, ever since Halo entered its stewardship, has failed to live up to the original developer's legacy of ambition and quality.

That is much easier said than done, of course, and I'm not here to bash 343, but in ways both big and small the series is long-dead to me. As this article suggests, I moved with Bungie onto Destiny, and now look back on those early Halo games more as the journey's starting point than the destination.

One of the reasons I feel like that, perhaps, is that Halo 3 really did live up to the tagline. Bungie threw everything but the kitchen sink at this campaign, and ended it perfectly — with Earth saved, the baddies in bits, and Master Chief sent floating into the void in cryosleep.

ODST was a side story, and Reach was a prequel. Marty O'Donnell's score is elegiac and, in places, almost haunting — but builds to a thunderous climax that left no doubt of an ending.

Halo 3 is where me and the Master Chief finished our fight. I'll tell you one thing I miss about that guy: the humour. Bungie may be all glory and grandeur these days, but the studio retains a self-effacing and often very funny strain about its own work. This is a marked feature of their Halo games, and means Master Chief was once I character I held genuine affection for.

It's not because he's a super-soldier who blows away thousands of aliens, or the avatar through which you experience all this wonderful FPS design. It's because Bungie's Master Chief shows self-knowledge in the quiet moments, when the bullets stop, and his sense of humour always has a shared foundation; we all know what we're here for.

All I can do is give an example, one of my favourite lines in video game history. Down in some room with a self-destruct sequence triggered, surrounded by an army, Cortana asks simply "got an escape plan?"

Even ten years on, I remember what the Chief says like it was yesterday.

"Thought I'd try shooting my way out. Mix things up a little."


This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.


Comments

    I really miss Bungie making Halo, the enemies always seemed so real, never just spawned in. The world building really worked for me.

    I just want Bungie to make another offline campaign based FPS.

    I don't have the time to devote to online games like Destiny, so I still play Halo and Halo2 with the kids, often in split screen on the couch via the projector.

    I really miss single player/split screen campaigns, they fit my lifestyle since having kids way more than online things like Destiny.

    What games are out there now that have a really solid offline campaign?

      What games are out there now that have a really solid offline campaign?

      What games out there offer offline co-op is the real question :'( That's still the biggest tragedy of modern gaming

      You'd be surprised how offline Destiny 2 can feel. Still, its not split screen, so playing with the kids isn't an option...

      Try www.co-optimus.com for a few options though. It kindly breaks things up into online co-op and couch co-op, so fairly easy to find options.

    I miss the MP. No stat boosting, No skins, No XP, just spawn the teams in and then it's all your skill and map knowledge.

    In short, no BS just gameplay.

      So exactly what Halo 5 is!? Halo 5 (Arena - the main, traditional mode) is about as pure an FPS as you can get these days. There is no stat boosting or XP that affects this mode AT ALL, IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM.

      I swear the people that say they want a pure FPS without that stuff haven't actually given Halo 5 a shot - like literally haven't tried Arena. The Warzone mode, which is an entirely separate thing with loadouts and stuff that they really marketed pre-launch is probably to blame for that. They pushed it so hard but in reality most of the multiplayer content and focus is in Arena. It's pretty sad because in many ways it's even more a pure skill-based shooter than even Halo 3 was.

        Absolutely this, so many people that complain about halo 5 clearly haven't played it. It's almost exactly the same as halo 3 except you don't move like a snail

      Halo 4 became too easy once you could start with Stealth and the shotgun pistol. Lack of power weapons made map positioning much less important.

    The Bungie Halo's were all great. I remember being so hyped for Halo 3 and it damn well lived up to it. Reach with Firefight and improved forge was awesome too, but the single player wasn't quite as good. Halo 4 however? Piece of shit. Boring enemies, quick time events, no marines. Halo 5? Not even worth talking about since they removed split screen.

      Destiny on the other hand was more disappointing than Halo 4. The shooting and graphics were great but the progression (ugh, light grind) and complete lack of narrative purpose "I don't even have time to tell you why I don't have time to tell you" really irked me. Only played the beta and a few boss fights my brother made me beat for him. Even 3 friends playing couldn't convince me to jump on to Destiny or it's sequel

        Only played the beta and a few boss fights my brother made me beat for him. Even 3 friends playing couldn't convince me to jump on to Destiny or it's sequel

        More of a comment on you than the game here, pal.

          Nah. I watched my brother play a heap, but couldn't be bothered to do so myself. The game looks great and plays well but lacked the pull to get me to play for any length of time.
          Halo 3's story was amazing, Borderlands gun's were super fun and I was expecting the best parts of those two games. Instead all the guns worked the same way and there was no plot to speak of. With average enemies, dull as fuck Dinklebot, no split screen, an utter lack of story, and grind for days it doesn't seem worth my time.

          The boss fights that I played were all bullet sponges and not that interesting. Beta bosses the spider tank just had me scrounging for ammo for an hour after I poured clip after clip into it's legs. Giant eye thing just sat in the middle and ate a bunch of bullets too. Game was completely missing all the interesting flavour and dynamics of the enemies in Halo. The way the grunts would freak and break formation, the way the elites would dive out of the way of grenades and chuck a tantrum when their shields broke. All that was missing from Destiny and replaced with 2 or 3 factions that looks different but otherwise worked the same way. Played Warframe again last week and it's enemies are far more mechanically interesting in every way

    Great retrospective. I think you've articulated what a lot of old Halo fans have felt for years.

    Damn, I remember playing Halo (1) MP on a 30cm tv... imagine that with 4 players.

    TOTALLY worth it!

    The clueless-ness is unsurprisingly shocking since it happens so often.

    Halo Reach is the best gameplay wise. But with crappy story telling. And music not as notable.
    But since gameplay is most important in the campaign it’s the best campaign by far.
    Reach is the only game with the best enemies - the elites included, and the worst enemies -the flood - removed, at the same time. Case closed. Oh, Then it’s the most polished and balanced with the best weapons up until that time as well.
    How is it possible for this time has passed to not mention those essential characteristics of Halo. It really is shocking.
    AI is still really good in Reach and each encounter is tuned to nearly perfection.

    Cons: Didn’t want team mates a lot of the time, the Control of the warthog never as good as halo 1 and the space combat was a pointless distraction.....

      Yea Reach was such a brilliant game, playing wise. If only they re-made all the previous Halos in the same graphics, tech, guns etc and have this amazing long game experience and fantastic game play.

    Halo 3 Was The Last Great Halo Game

    That's not how you spell Reach. Or ODST.

      Came here to say Reach as well. Why that never made the "Master Chief Collection" is beyond me.

        Because 343 thought they were siding with the 'real fans' when they started treating Reach poorly as well.

    I feel that halo 3 was by far the worst of the series, that said I havnt played 5 so I cant judge.

      But you have played Halo 4??? Surely not if you think Halo 3 was the worst, right?

        Yeah I enjoyed 4, 2 was the best however. 3 just felt so same same to what had come before and in a lesser way.

    Wrong, it was Reach. Reach was a blast. Not to say Halo 3 wasn't fantastic - it was the reason I bought a 360, but Reach was a solid finale for Bungie. ODST was sweet too.

    Halo 4 killed my interest faster than you can say "boring enemies and weapons".

      I think Reach was good in its own way. There were good levels / ideas spread all across Halo 3, ODST and Reach. I think Halo 3 had the highest ratio of good ideas vs. bad or mediocre ones, but I loved things like multiplayer in Reach, and the tone was really cool. ODST had some awesome tone ideas as well. Reach definitely stepped up the "feel" though, jumping back to Halo 3 immediately after Reach was the only way you really noticed, but it was there.

      Nothing has ever felt as "Next Gen" as booting up Halo 3 for the first time though. It really felt like a franchise was spearheading the future of video games. Happened with Gears of War 1 as well, but that was a new IP, so it felt different.

      Halo 4 literally killed the franchise, definitely. Really solidified how good of a developer Bungie was when it came to Halo. I'm hoping they've yet to hit their stride with Destiny though. The sequel brings as many new problems as it fixes.

    I definitely miss the humour. Killing off Sgt Johnston for some emotional payoff was a huge mistake. Don't see why they couldn't have brought him back just like they did in Halo 2. No explanation cause "it's classified"!

    Also they are messing around with Cortana too much for the same reason's, some supposed emotional payoff. Halo is at it's best when MC and Cortana are working together and she is giving off her sassy smart ass remarks. She is the brains of the operation. The time she spent with gravemind and now as whatever the hell she is doesn't make any sense and just joins the current trend of making one of the good guys go bad just to "mix it up"!

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