hen Halo 2 was released a hair less than three years ago, many criticized its single player campaign – even Bungie's Jamie Griesemer admitted to Edge Magazine in a January 2007 interview: " Halo 2 is far less than it could and should be in many ways " For as much as its single player experience was called out for feeling incomplete or unbalanced, no one was criticizing Halo 2's multiplayer. Polished to a blinding sheen, everything from level design to the advanced new matchmaking system seemed flawless. Needless to say, Bungie had some really big shoes to fill this time around.
With Halo 3's multiplayer beta release this spring, it was clear to many that they'd be in for a real treat come September 25th. Featuring only three levels and about half the weapons which would be in the final product, that beta build can best be summed up with a single word: balance. Halo's and, to a lesser extent, Halo 2's multiplayer experiences were always fun, but given enough playtime, one would start to notice some substantial inequities between weapons. In contrast, after spending many tens of hours between that beta and Halo 3's final build, I have yet to see a single weapon which stands out as too powerful. Everything in the game has a counter, and power weapons all have weaknesses that can be exploited by the experienced player. Sure, shotguns and sniper rifles can still suck when placed in the hands of a Ritalin-fueled fourteen year old, but at least you know that you were bested because of a difference in skill and not because of poor weapon design.
Matchmaking and Voice Communication
One of the first things a player will notice when starting a lobby in Halo 3 is the simple elegance with which one can change game types. Whether you're looking for the cooperative campaign, Live multiplayer, the Forge or the replay theater, all can be switched to on the fly without requiring the formation of a new party. Speaking of party formation, this too has received quite the overhaul – Xbox Live and in-game matchmaking are now linked in a way that was impossible on the original Xbox, allowing players to see exactly what their friends are doing and who they're playing with at any given moment. This makes forming a party far easier than it was in Halo 2. The matchmaking process does hiccup on occasion (usually when a party contains disparate levels between players), but nine times out of ten your party should get matched up within fifteen seconds.
Once you've formed your party and have begun playing, you're certain to notice another big change. Probably as a result of all the racist and homophobic ten-year-olds who came out of the woodwork for Halo 2, Bungie has given the player far more control over in-game and in-lobby voice in Halo 3. At any time, you can access your settings and switch between three primary voice modes: the first mutes every player you encounter, which is perfect for when you're soloing in Lone Wolf or Rumble Pit matches; next up is a mode which only enables communication between you and those who are on your team or in your party; finally, there's the classic mode in which everyone can speak and be spoken to. Although these settings reset themselves every time you leave Halo 3 (a minor inconvenience), it's easy enough to select your given preference the next time you pop in the disc.
Parties of four or fewer people are able to enjoy voice communication at any time without needing to press a button – add a fifth player, though, and "push-to-talk" is in effect. I understand the necessity for this, but its implementation is a bit obnoxious since you have to remove your thumb from the left stick in order to reach that "talk button" (which is currently mapped to 'up' on the d-pad). The distance at which proximity voice functions has been drastically reduced in Halo 3, and this leads to far fewer cuss-out sessions at the hands of little Timmy from next door. Bungie's also added a quick mute feature which allows you to easily mute any player in your game with just a couple button taps. I don't know about you, but just thinking about these refinements has lowered my blood pressure by about ten points.
Game Types and Maps
As was the case with Halo 2, Bungie intends to frequently update the game types and maps which are used within any given matchmaking playlist. Currently, there are eleven maps open for match-made and custom games, and each brings something unique to multiplayer. Some, like 'Last Resort' and 'Guardian', are refinements of previous Halo maps. Others, like 'Sandtrap', offer something completely different.
Though a few permutations are missing at the moment (3v3 and 6v6 match-ups, for instance), there are matchmaking playlists available for parties ranging in size from two to eight people. Team Slayer still seems to be one of the more popular options, though players can get their fill of something different courtesy of the Team Objective and Team Hardcore playlists. Dual Team remains relatively untouched from its Halo 2 days – it still combines slayer and objective game types, and is just as stressful as ever.
Perhaps one of the best options Bungie has given players is the ability to veto a particular game type or map when it comes up in matchmaking – in an eight player match, a veto from a 5-player majority will reset the map and game type. Gone are the days when one was forced to hear the announcer in Halo 2 say "Oddball on Warlock" over and over and over.
Weapons, Vehicles and Items
All of Halo 2's weapons return for this go-around, though some have received face-lifts. The sniper, for instance, has had its rate of fire drastically reduced, whereas the rocket launcher has been stripped of its lock-on ability. As I mentioned earlier, despite the many changes, all thus far seem to be for the better. Dual wielding is still present, but the game's rebalancing means a return to Halo's mixture of weapon play, grenade tossing and melee. Though plenty of new vehicles have been added to Halo 3, none of these have yet to make an appearance on any maps in matchmaking – if you want to go on strafing runs with the Hornet, it will have to be in custom games.
Few things have altered Halo 3's play mechanic as much as items. Bubble Shields and Shield Rechargers fill obvious defensive roles, while items like the Portable Gravity Lift are so multi-purpose, even the designers at Bungie are sure to be surprised by the ways players will find to implement them. At the moment, my favorite item is the Energy Drain – an orb which when thrown emits a field that disables shields and vehicle engines within its range. Follow one of these up with a well-timed grenade toss, and you've got a triple kill in the making.
From custom armor to refined bungie.net / Xbox Live connectivity, there's a lot to discover in Halo 3. Whether your interests lie in playing through the campaign with friends or blasting strangers in matchmaking, Bungie's definitely provided enough entertainment to tide us over until their next opus. Till then, let's bask in the glory of the new maps that are certainly on the way, and continue blowing up friend and foe alike in 4-million daily matches. I'll see you on Live!