Platform: Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: M (for Mature)
Release Date: September 25
Bold proclamation time: There wouldn't even be an Xbox 360 without Halo. Microsoft lost billions on the original Xbox even with its mega-successful sci-fi games, so it's hard to imagine the red ink that would have spilled without them; even suggesting a second go at the console business would've had shareholders burning effigies of Bill Gates in the Microsoft parking lot.
Instead, Halo entered the pantheon of games even non-gamers know—right alongside Grand Theft Auto and Super Mario Bros.—and gave the Xbox legitimacy.
So it's no mystery that an early multiplayer test of Halo 3—months in advance of its street date—has gamers atwitter. And though the Xbox 360 is doing much better than the original, Halo is as important to Microsoft now as ever: It has two fierce competitors at its heels and would love to hand them their hats.
So will Halo 3 be the neutron bomb the gaming world is expecting?
Maybe. It depends on whether you're content with a refinement rather than a revolution. At this (admittedly early) stage, Halo 3 looks to be the most polished version yet—nothing more, nothing less. If you adore the series, you'll be very happy come September. If you can take it or leave it...well, Halo 3 isn't likely to sway you.
Its multiplayer version is essentially the same as it's always been: Get dropped in an arena with machine guns, grenades, vehicles, and other players. Sometimes there are objectives—capture the flag, plant a bomb—but really, it's all about smoking the other guy.
The topic that will dominate many a message board is Halo 3's graphics: not bad, but not the leap many expected from the move to next-gen hardware. There are lots of nice details (tall grass, great lighting, amazing water), but most are so subtle, you really have to stop to notice them—generally a bad idea when others are chasing you with shotguns. Obviously, game play is more important than graphics, but video games are a visual medium, and Gears of War and MotorStorm have raised the bar high. Sadly, Halo 3 looks more like a spitshined Halo 2 than either of those.
The game play got little more than a polish too, but that's a good thing—it's what charmed millions of fans. In fact, the tweaks and adjustments are so good, you'll find it hard to go back to Halo 1 or 2. The weapons are all effective, and the one you start with—a meaty assault rifle—is so well-rounded, you might not need anything else.
Maps are now littered with equipment such as the Bubble Shield, a device that erects a force field over an area. Alas, the bulletproof shield isn't person-proof, so enemies can waltz right in, drop a grenade, and dash out, creating some exciting moments and mishaps.
And for schadenfreude junkies: Halo 3 lets you save videos of your matches, allowing you to relive the moment you obliterated a jeepful of enemies with a perfectly placed land mine...then, for good measure, send the video to the jeep's occupants. Post-game gloating has reached a new level.
It will be interesting to see how Halo 3—especially its borderline visuals—progresses over its last few months of development. Yet even in its incomplete form, it's as fun as Halo's ever been.