Web weaves magic in latest 'Halo'

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

4 stars
PUBLISHER: Microsoft
SYSTEM: Microsoft Xbox 360
$59.99 ($69.99 Limited Edition, $129.99 Legendary Edition)

When we left him three years ago, at the abrupt end of "Halo 2," Master Chief was stowed aboard a ship controlled by the fanatical alien hegemony called the Covenant, which was on its way to Earth in search of an artifact called the Ark.

Not content to wait for a safe landing, the Chief bails and plummets to ground like a meteorite, which has no worse effect than locking up his armor suit until some compatriots find him -- this is how "Halo 3," the eagerly anticipated game released this week for the Microsoft Xbox 360 console, begins.

The man is tough, we'll give him that. And it's not long before his joints are oiled and he's back in the fight against the Covenant, tromping through African jungles along with the Arbiter, leader of humanity's newfound allies, the Elites. This warrior race was betrayed by the leaders of the Covenant and has joined the humans to defend Earth from the Covenant onslaught.

But the stakes are even higher than the survival of Earth and humanity. The Covenant's goal is to activate the Halo stations from the Ark, which will wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy (a fact that the deluded Covenant leader either does not believe or does not care about).

The Forerunners -- the ancient people who built the Halo rings -- met their end this way, sacrificing themselves and all other life in the galaxy to prevent all from being consumed by the Flood, a parasitical, cancerous plague driven by a singular purpose and a terrible intelligence.

That's the story; veterans of the "Halo" series will know more or less what to expect from the game play. "Halo 3" is a refinement of established principles, not a revolution. But the "Halo" series is so successful largely because the core combat remains stellar, relying on a careful balance of enemy types, weaponry and a recharging energy shield that means the Chief is often on the brink of defeat but can usually return from it if he can find a wall to duck behind for a few seconds.

Every battle is tense. Every battle holds the possibility of defeat, by bad luck or poor planning. But every battle is winnable. And if things get tough solo, up to four people can cooperate to conquer the campaign, online or off. (The second player controls the Arbiter, and the third and fourth become a pair of new Elite characters.)

There are loads of new weapons this time around, too many to list more than a few highlights. The apelike Brutes, who supplanted the Elites, bring with them their powerful Gravity Hammers. The Spartan Laser sends a powerful beam at a target after a brief charge. There are also two new types of grenades: spike grenades that blast a cone of shrapnel outward, and firebombs that do what they sound like. New pieces of single-use equipment come in handy, ranging from protective barriers and cloaking devices to trip mines and blinding flares.

The Brutes also bring new vehicles, including the monstrous Brute Chopper, which crushes other vehicles with its bladed wheels, and the Prowler hover sled. The humans have new toys of their own, like the Mongoose ATV and the Hornet aircraft.

These new weapons and vehicles see use in the game's competitive multiplayer mode, which includes a set of new and remixed maps, numerous new game types, alternate armor appearances for players' characters, and a very cool ability to record, play back, manipulate and share videos of every match played.

But that's not the coolest part.

The coolest part is the Forge, a mode that lets players edit multiplayer maps. Weapons, vehicles, items, player spawn points, flags, crates -- pretty much anything that isn't a built-in part of the map can be moved, replaced, modified or taken away.

Tweaked maps can be saved and uploaded, or players can simply mess around, dropping tanks on each other or playing baseball with Gravity Hammers and rocket launchers. It'll be interesting to see what gamers come up with in the years to come.

The game doesn't look amazing in the way "Halo" did when it came out or the way "Gears of War" did last year. But they are a natural evolution of the series' look -- more detailed, yes; sharper, sure; but still very much in line with the character and environmental designs laid down in the previous installments. The voice acting, music and sound are all superb, with the score in particular building on themes from previous games in new ways.

That's what "Halo 3" does throughout -- it takes the best bits from the first two games, adds to them, polishes them and puts on a brighter coat of paint, then lets the solid game play speak for itself. And it speaks eloquently.





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