Halo 3 - Game on!

Posted October 23rd 2007

I wasn't much of a Halo 2 fan but it looks like I'll be giving Halo 3 quite a whirl, despite some grievances. Here are my views on the single-player campaign after a few weeks play. This is intended for folk who've played it; but if you haven't, there's not much spoiler content here.

Flashback

In relation to campaign play, anyone who knows me via my site or the HBO forum will probably be aware that while I remain mad crazy for the original Halo, I was horrified with the changes that came with Halo 2. The changes were many and in my opinion largely for the worse, resulting in the loss of the original character of the game and its near perfect combat dynamics. You can check the details in my old Halo 2 disappointment article, but here's a quick recap to remind you where I'm coming from.

All change

The original hilarious Grunts were gone, replaced by some far less amusing cousins with different voices and lines. The original Jackals, already superbly modelled and animated, were replaced by weird skippy versions that looked quite different and often made gameplay a pain by being so lethal with beam rifles. The menacing growly Elites were replaced by depressingly humanized counterparts that minced around feebly while delivering Shakespearean lines of distressingly cheesy dimension. In all three cases, the superbly crafted animation of the originals was lost, including the comical death animations that contributed so much to the enjoyment of covie extermination.

The gloriously satisfying needler was neutered into a pale shadow of its former self, and I likewise had no inclination to pick up the newly vandalized plasma pistol. Meanwhile the plasma rifle felt like a warbling toy blaster in comparison with the heavy-duty thrill of the original. Melee attacking was no longer the joy it once was, partly due to jerky animation and partly due to the fact that with certain weapons the swiping method varied at random, which meant I was never quite sure what my arms were going to do. Even the grenades were altered, and I got very little chain reaction satisfaction.

The new gameplay featured old-skool boss battle madness, and other unexpectedly dumb aspects including cutscenes that interrupted in annoying ways. And as if all that wasn't enough, you actually spent half your time playing as an Elite, something I had no interest in and which greatly weakened any sense of immersion I might have had in the campaign as MC. You never did get much combat on Earth, and the ending was only rousing in the sense that I wanted to throw my controller at the TV. Talk about an anticlimax!

Lost magic

It was all a huge shock to me. The brilliance of the original had given me the impression that Bungie was completely on the ball. Yet somehow, amazingly, they'd gone and reinvented everything but the kitchen sink, and in the process they'd utterly lost the gameplay magic, for me at least. It was as if they'd never actually understood the elements that made so many of us love and appreciate the original. It was bizarre and I couldn't take it - especially the altered Elites and Grunts and Jackals, which clashed so badly with the characters already established. Not having any interest in multiplayer at the time, I traded my disc back to the shop within a month and resumed battle with the real deal, 'Halo: Combat Evolved'.

I can truthfully say that almost the only thing I ever missed from Halo 2 was the visceral thrill of the battle rifle - though even that had a problem in that I was forever having to ditch it due to lack of ammo.

Overall verdict

After all that, you'll understand why I wasn't terribly interested in advance Halo 3 publicity and hype over the following years, and why I wasn't queueing at midnight come launch day, like I had been with Halo 2. I wasn't even sure I'd be getting the game at all, especially since it would entail having to get a 360 to play it on - a lot of money for trying out a game I might not like any better. But curiosity prevailed, and a few days after launch I was sitting down with the new campaign.

Game on!

So what's my verdict on the campaign after a couple of weeks of playing? While the gameplay remains much more like that of Halo 2 than the original, I find myself enjoying it far more than Halo 2 and consider it a big improvement. For me it provides some fine shooting in a variety of lush environments impressively well designed for combat. There's some great weaponry; notably the improved Brute shot which absolutely rocks, and the ever satisfying battle rifle. I find the Grunts very amusing even if they are somewhat different from the originals. Meanwhile the Brutes and Flood have had a complete makeover and are a lot more interesting than before. The nostalgic reworkings of the original Halo score are great and add a lot to the atmosphere, making me feel quite at home. I also appreciate some of the skulls for introducing novel gameplay effects, especially the truly inspired Grunt Birthday Party skull which I'm finding hard to turn off. Basically it's a case of "Game on!" and I think I'll be playing the campaign plenty over the coming years, though not as seriously as the original campaign which I find a more intelligent experience overall.

Negatives

But moving to the negative side, my enjoyment is often badly undermined by the way in which enemies and bodies and scenery elements such as vegetation can suddenly fade into view as you approach, or become visible when you switch to a scoped view - an occurrence that repeatedly breaks the realism and which in the case of enemies, is actually a combat concern. I find it an astonishing flaw for a game that's meant to be a flagship title on the second-generation Xbox, and it amazes me that Bungie released the game in this state. See Draw distance flaw for fuller discussion. Actually there's even a second fundamental flaw whereby bodies and weapons sometimes get removed from the game in front of your very eyes, though at least it doesn't seem to manifest itself as often. See Removal flaw for details. Flaws such as these make me feel that certain aspects of basic design intelligence found in the original game - and in particular a concern for retaining a fully immersive experience - have sadly been lost.

Those are hardly my only grievances. Being primarily interested in foot-based soldiering, the game features considerably more vehicle-oriented play than I'd like; and because of the excessively lethal nature of enemy vehicles, I don't think tackling vehicles on foot is going to be anything like as viable or enjoyable an option as it was in Halo, which is annoying. Besides which, even if you do try things on foot, you'll potentially have Marines alongside you in vehicles, being a continual nuisance until they finally get themselves killed.

But for me the worst aspect of the game's vehicular aspect is the crazily erratic way in which nippy ground vehicles are driven by Marines and enemies, zipping about all over the place as if the driver barely has a clue what he's doing. That really degenerates the gameplay for me, and greatly reduces any sense of serious intelligent battling. I'm looking into ways of minimizing some of these unwelcome aspects - for example there are places where you can nobble UNSC vehicles and leave Marines behind, and places where you can snipe enemies before they even mount up - but it remains to be seen how much I can do with that.

If I were to pick out one other but lesser negative to highlight, it would be the unimaginative, corny and repetitive voicing of your main enemies the Brutes, like something out of a second-rate game from a decade ago. They may look good in their hi-tech armour, but their speech drags things down and denies them any real sense of menace.

Storyline

I'm basically here for the combat, so the intricacies of the storyline aren't a big concern for me. I think I got the gist of what was going on, and continuity from mission to mission was fine. The cutscenes were well done and cinematically appealing, though as usual I dislike being interrupted by them in mid-mission. The story was wrapped up ok, even if the last few minutes did feel like a slight case of déja vu. Ok there were a few casualties along the way, but this is war soldier! The one serious complaint I do have is all the rambling interruptions from Cortana and Gravemind, which are going to be a pain to have to sit through time and time again as I replay the levels over the coming years. I think they were a poor design decision.

Read on for more

So much for the summary. In the rest of this article I'll go into details on a lot of that and more, giving my impressions good and bad. If it gets a bit negative in places - and trust me it will - just remember that my overall verdict was positive and I am actually playing the darned thing. I'll be making quite a few comparisons with the earlier games, and for brevity I'll refer to the three games as H1, H2 and H3.

Draw distance flaw

It didn't take long before I started noticing something alarming about the game's graphics. Things can fade in and out noticeably as you move toward or away from them, and things can pop into view when you raise your magnification! After the criticism H2 received for its painfully obvious texture pop-in glitches, this was really surprising. The basic problem seems to be that the draw distances for many things are way too low (the 'draw distance' for an object being the furthest distance at which the game still bothers to render it in your view - except that your magnification will also be taken into account, so that if for example you're using 2x, draw distances will effectively be multiplied by 2 when considering what objects to display to you). For me this is easily the most serious shortcoming of the game, repeatedly bringing it down and breaking the illusion of reality. Let me go into more detail here and give some examples.

Scenery

First let's talk scenery. The scenery is quite fantastic if you're standing still, but often when you're moving you'll see vegetation and other stuff visibly fade in ahead of you - and it's all the more obvious when you're speeding along in a vehicle. Just as one prominent example, consider the bit near the start of The Covenant where you're heading up a lush canyon after getting some vehicles. Vegetation seems to spring up ahead of you as you ascend. The early part of that level has some of the most gorgeous scenery in the game, but the realism gets repeatedly undermined by this eye-catching fade-in.

Bodies and enemies

But wait, it gets worse. Fade-in applies not only to elements of the scenery but also to objects within it, such as bodies and, most importantly, enemies! Let me illustrate this with a few examples.

In Tsavo Highway, get to the place where two Jackal snipers were standing, not far from the start. From their position, turn around and look at the overturned Warthog. There are two bodies there, and you're at approximately the draw distance for them. Move forward a bit and you can see them fade in; move back again and they'll fade back out. The fading is quite sudden too. It's not quite a case of 'pop-in', but the effect is almost as bad.

Deeper into that level, you cross a broken bridge and reach an area in which Marines are under siege by Brutes and Grunts, namely at rally point alpha. After killing most of these enemies, loads of Brutes come in via Phantom. When trying to tackle this on Legendary I decided to retreat towards the bridge for a bit of sniping - and that's when I got really horrified at just how bad things can be. Looking with the naked eye, the hill past the besieged building was clearly bare; yet when I zoomed in with a sniper rifle, a couple of jetpack Brutes sprang into view! I should've been able to see them unaided, but apparently they were beyond their draw distances, so the game didn't bother to draw them for me. When I advanced, now just using the naked eye again, I reached a point where the jetpackers suddenly faded into view over just a few steps. Ack!

Of course, such cases involving live enemies are especially bad because it's not just an aesthetic concern, it's a combat concern. You could be running along thinking the coast is clear, and then wham! - there's a stinkin' great Brute ahead of you apparently materialized from out of nowhere, using your head for target practice. Not good!

Later I encountered another bad example in The Ark. After reaching the early crash site and dealing with a few enemies, I ran up the hill with a sniper rifle. Sticking to the left, there were a few rocks near the top and I clambered up for a view of what lay beyond the ridge. Off in the distance were two parked Choppers. I zoomed in with the sniper rifle and hey presto! Pilots standing further back, and a Brute on the right walking along with some Grunts. So, there was some fine sniping to be had, but I wouldn't have known about it without looking through the scope. To the naked eye that distant dune was deserted; yet I certainly should've been able to see those enemies. Heck, if they'd been twice as far away I still should've been able to see them. Meanwhile my Marines drove into action. Watching with the naked eye, the enemies vanished again, yet their fire showed up, as did explosions in the area. Reverting for another few goes, I watched with my scope and saw one of the standing pilots deploy a stationary shield. With the naked eye the shield was actually visible unlike the pilot. Yet when the Brute with the Grunts deployed a bubble shield, that turned out to be invisible to the naked eye despite being closer to me than the stationary shield.

Also in The Ark, I noticed something about how the game treats bodies. Try this on Easy so you don't get bothered much by enemy fire. Head to the green weapon pod near the first circular area, snipe the crouching Brute from that general location, then watch his body with the naked eye. It's initially visible, but fades out after about 15 seconds! It's still there as you'll see with a scope, but the game has apparently decided to lower the draw distance for it, presumably considering it less important by now - or something like that. Quite apart from the horrendous fact that you're seeing stuff fade out before your very eyes, this leads to considerable distraction in battle. Try clambering up on rocks behind the pod and wreaking some general carnage. You'll have bodies all around to begin with, but many fade out and the area starts to look clearer. Yet when you switch to scoped fire on your battle rifle, stuff springs back into view in a really distracting way. If you fight the battle by standing back and picking enemies off in this sort of way, intermittently using a scope, you'll repeatedly be seeing bodies and stuff springing into and out of view, and it's just awful. And notice that this isn't some sort of extreme case only arising due to an unorthodox approach; this is routine battling being ruined!

Primitive stuff

As I suggested earlier, the basic problem would seem to be that the draw distances for many things are way too low. We're talking primitive stuff here. Shocking stuff, given that this is notionally the 360's flagship game. Did nobody notice? Surely Bungie was aware of it. But if so, why on earth would they leave such a major graphical shortcoming unfixed? The only viable explanation I can think of is that if they were to increase draw distances far enough to remove such fade-in glitches, the game would no longer be able to cope with such expansive feature-rich scenery. But if so, I'd consider that argument fundamentally flawed. There's no point implementing such lush scenery if it's only coming at the cost of repeated graphical glitches that wreck the illusion and which can sometimes even be a combat concern. It's counter-productive. Better to have simpler scenery and still be able to cope properly, surely. That's certainly the option I'd have preferred. It's looking to me like Bungie have just pushed the 360 too far. Or perhaps they thought the flaw wasn't something to be too concerned about? If so, they're sure on a different wavelength to me.

I might point out that H1 never had any such trouble. It featured some noticeable pop-in of enhanced models and textures as you approached stuff, but that's a different matter. You never had enemies fading in and out as you moved around or altered your magnification. Yet here's H3 several years on from H1, and on a far more powerful console to boot, and in some ways it's graphically inferior. Ouch!

Stop press: Fellow cyborg Red_Breast emailed on November 5th to report that if you use a 360 VGA (D-Sub) cable with your TV - something supported by certain models - you don't get the draw distance flaw! That's a big surprise to me as I always assumed that the only way my conventional TV would differ from any higher quality display would be in giving a slightly fuzzier image, something I'm not too fussed about. But what exactly is going on with this, and is it really justified of Bungie to be foisting such a qualitatively different image on me just because of my TV set-up? I raised the matter in the HBO forum but would still like answers.

Removal flaw

There's also a flaw whereby bodies and weapons (possibly other stuff too) are removed from the game before your very eyes. I'm not talking about fading out like with the draw distance thing, I'm talking actual object removal.

For example, when you get to the hangar in Crow's Nest, wreak a lot of carnage on the enemies that come in on Phantoms, creating bodies and dropped weapons all over the place. Watch after the conflict is over, and some of these items may blink out; sometimes even if you're standing right next to them! I had a dead Brute practically filling my screen, then PING! - he was gone. H1 had the good sense to only remove objects when you weren't looking.

In practice this flaw tends not to show up as pervasively as the draw distance flaw, which is why I've given it less prominence, but it's still pretty alarming. Both are fundamental flaws in the game's workings, and quite how Bungie could contemplate releasing Halo 3 with them is beyond me. It really lets the side down. I also have to say that anyone who scored the game with ten out of ten, such as Edge Magazine and others, ought to be ashamed of themselves. I know the game is bursting with features, but do we not care about the fundamentals of immersive gameplay any more? With graphics flaws as serious as this, surely nobody should have given this game more than a nine.

Level design

I think the level design is excellent. I've been really impressed at how rich they are with combat options, allowing multiple ways of approaching and tackling the enemy.

Gorgeous graphics

In terms of graphics, the outdoor scenery is often gorgeous (albeit sometimes undermined by the draw distance flaw), and frankly it was some screenshots of that which piqued my interest in getting the game as the release date approached. When I saw shots of the African plains in Tsavo Highway, I wanted to be there with battle rifle in hand. When I saw shots of The Storm, I wanted to be under that dramatic thundery sky for myself. Outdoor combat has always been my favourite and happily there's plenty on offer here, in a good variety of feature-rich settings.

The water effects are remarkable. I doubt I'm the only cyborg who's been wandering around admiring all the pools and streams and so on. Take a dip in the river in Sierra 117 and you'll even see waving fronds and the occasional fish! Not that I normally do my fighting underwater but I just thought I'd mention it. The skies are likewise gapeworthy (that's a new word I've made up especially) and sometimes alive with aerial conflict - fun to watch if you want to put that whole saving-the-galaxy thing on hold for five minutes. I could even enthuse at length about the rocks on the ground… but you might start looking at me funny.

Jungle delight

I have to give a special shout of appreciation for Sierra 117, which has quickly become my favourite. And that's not just because it has no darned vehicles zipping about crazily! The jungle areas are gorgeous and structurally very interesting to fight in, particularly at the large bowl-like area where you encounter your first dozing Grunts of the campaign (yep, they're still at it). It's teeming with enemies, and very thoughtfully there are even some carbines handy, ideal for getting in those headshots. Stand back and treat it as a shooting gallery, or pile in for some close-range aggro; the choice is yours.

Explosive treats and more

Another welcome aspect of the level design is the way certain explosive items are lying around, giving you opportunities for pyrotechnic mischief at the enemy's expense. There are other destructible items too, including wooden boxes and pallets. And shatterable glass of course. I've found glass a bit too resilient to gunfire and melee attacks in places, notably in a tower near the end of Sierra 117 where you can do some sniping if you bust some windows, but for the most part it's fine, and I eventually realized that you can potentially clear window panes by physically barging through.

There are also a lot of little details Bungie have obviously put time into. There are even some killable rats in a few levels. Ever tried melee attacking those toothy devils? Not easy! Actually, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned the rats. They're not exactly Bungie's finest bit of animation. There's barely any leg movement and they look a bit like they're trundling about on wheels; but never mind, it was a nice thought. Hey, still haven't seen any birds though!

Inescapable spots

On a negative point, there seem to be some nasty inescapable spots. On three occasions already, I've found myself wedged in a position I can't jump out of. I'm talking about things like being in a divot formed between rocks and a cliff. It's like my feet can't get purchase to jump, because there's nothing solid enough beneath them. Worse, a couple of these (both in Sierra 117) happened in the middle of a firefight; they weren't features off the beaten track. So it looks like we're going to have to build up a knowledge of where not to step! It's stuff like this that really makes me wonder what the heck game testers are for. If you want to check out one such place, head straight for the first Brute in Sierra 117. You can get trapped just below where he's standing, as you reach the rocks. Not ideal with that troupe of grunty critters heading your way!

Invisible walls

If you go off the beaten track outdoors, you'll often eventually hit invisible walls. Should that be criticized? There have certainly been places where I wish the walls were a bit further back when I'm clambering up hills, but I don't think it's fair to criticize the actual existence of such walls. They're the price we pay for having such open-looking environments. Aside from invisible walls out to sea, H1 largely did without invisible walls by either having cliffsides or huge drops. A neat solution but one which imposes those particular features on its maps. H3 frees itself up from that, allowing such things as the expansive African plain in Tsavo Highway. There are places in that level where you can clamber or drive up relatively gentle hillsides for a panoramic view. Go further and you might hit an invisible wall; but if you're the sort of person who likes exploring, you can potentially get to know the limits, and thereafter you can make a point of staying within those limits so you don't get mentally jarred by hitting a wall. It doesn't seem a high price to pay for the benefits you get, like those panoramic views. But in any case, priority must be given to the core gameplay experience in which you're not wandering too far off the main play area. In that experience, you're quite unlikely to meet invisible walls and yet you're getting the getting the benefits they allow, namely the structural freedom of the landscape.

If I have a gripe about visible walls at all, it would be about ones above me. 'Invisible ceilings' I guess you might call them. I've sometimes hit those and they've seemed unreasonably low and restrictive. Here's an example from The Storm. With the final AA gun in sight, I wanted to get on top of a large steel 'TRAXUS' container a short way back from the sandbagging, to maybe get a novel sniping position. But when I tried using a grav lift I hit an invisible ceiling and couldn't do it, which was somewhat reality-breaking.

Rally points and replaying

Bungie have thoughtfully allowed you to jump into a level at certain 'rally points', a welcome feature for letting you conveniently play particular sections. It's just a pity that this thoughtfulness wasn't extended to the checkpoint structure, which is so unhelpful in regard to replaying battles, as elaborated in Checkpoint complaints.

The Cortana level

Prior to buying H3, I noticed that lots of reviews were putting the boot into the penultimate level, Cortana. The first time I tried it, I could understand why. It was hard to identify the route and I got utterly stumped in some places. Also you're subjected to several nauseating and unskippable interruptions from the big ol' pot plant himself, Gravemind, ranting away in a manner which I think can be neatly summarized as "BWA-HA-HA-HA!". There are also a few Cortana interruptions for good measure. After that first run on Normal I felt like I never wanted to play it again.

But later I tackled it on Heroic and it felt a bit better. And the other day I surprised myself when I actually quite enjoyed it on Legendary, being more familiar with the route this time. So I think this level is actually going to be decently enjoyable now I'm getting used to the layout. The interruptions are always going to be an annoyance, but they're over soon enough. I find the actual environment pretty imaginative and impressive, and all those Flood transformations are interesting.

So aside from the interruptions, I'm standing up to voice a bit of support for this level. Then again I'm one of the freaks who actually likes The Library in H1, so you may want to discount everything I'm saying.

Battle dynamics

When it comes the actual fighting, overall things have scaled up a fair bit since H1. You encounter larger enemy groups and there's also the extreme spectacle of tackling and destroying those massive Scarabs. You can even damage or bring down Phantoms in places. There's also a lot of vehicle combat, though for me that's something of a negative aspect. Yet there are also places in the campaign where I've felt enemies to be disappointingly sparse, such as in the first third or so of Tsavo Highway where you have some wonderful open areas but only a handful of enemy troops in a few locations along the way, providing very little challenge - Jackal snipers aside. Surely the 360 could cope with more troops in those sparse areas. In which case, why not pile things on to give us more fun?

Limited enemy behaviour

In regard to encounters with foot soldiers, I also have to say that things remain quite like H1 in the sense that it's typically a case of advancing on enemies who'll obligingly stay within certain areas, pretty much allowing you to work on them at leisure if you care to hold back and exploit those limitations. That's great fun in its own right of course, but it does limit your range of combat experiences, quite apart from being somewhat unrealistic. In H3 the covies do sometimes show a degree of initiative in flanking you or sending a few troops forward and suchlike, but frankly it seems very limited and they seem to have little idea about pressing home an advantage when you're in trouble, or launching a full-scale counterattack. While this traditional dynamic is plenty of fun, it hardly piles on the pressure. I'd hoped for more.

Nothing to rival the H1 megabattles

That leads me onto a more specific point. For all its scale, there's nothing in this game that comes close to rivalling the combat experience of H1's big three megabattles, namely the rockslide megabattle, the spiral path megabattle, and the twin bridges megabattle. Just in case you don't know, those are battles that weren't explicitly designed into the gameplay, but which you can set up with varying degrees of effort by doing certain things the game wasn't really expecting. In those battles you face a large number of enemies out for your blood. They come after you and you can defend in all sorts of ways, with or without Marines. For me these battles provide easily the most intense and involving combat available in the game, on a plane well above standard combat. Aided by all the tactical defence options and by the variation of attack that high enemy numbers tend to produce, they're also hugely replayable.

In H3, are there any situations where masses of foot-based enemies are really coming after you? Aside from some Flood attacks, not really. The closest I can think of would be the rally point alpha battle in Tsavo Highway, where Marines are under attack in a building and lots of enemy reinforcements eventually come in by Phantom. But even there, the enemy basically stand back from the building; it's not like you have to fight tooth and nail to survive. Nor are the enemies very free-roaming; they mostly won't come after you if you run off to attack from a safe distance. Despite the enemy numbers, it's a pretty limited affair in some ways.

The lack of anything to rival the high-adrenaline rush of those megabattles is a real disappointment. Maybe Bungie still aren't very aware of quite how good they are, or maybe they just didn't want to alter the standard pattern of Halo play too much, I don't know. But hey, if any game developer out there is thinking of developing a shooter and you're interested in knocking spots off H3 combat and taking the FPS game to new levels of intensity and fun, your solution is simple. Hire me forthwith and together we can change the world! Heck I won't even charge much. Give me a desk and a steady supply of bananas, I don't care. Let's just do it.

Checkpoint complaints

Here I want to focus on a few complaints I have about checkpoints, starting with a point about how unhelpful they are if you're interested in replaying battles.

Checkpoints are too numerous and too sudden

Playing through H3, I'm quite struck by how frequently you get checkpoints. This is of no consequence if all you're interested in is having your progress registered every step of the way, but my grievance here relates to the business of replaying battles - surely something a lot of players will be interested in, and therefore something any game developer should be happy to encourage and facilitate. But here's the first crucial point. If the game gives you a checkpoint part way through a battle, you've then lost the ability to revert to the start of the battle to enjoy the fun all over again.

Even H1 was guilty of this in many places. For example there's a checkpoint part way across the first bridge in Assault on the Control Room, which will prevent you from being able to revert to the start of the bridge fight. And when you get down to help out the Marines in a big snowy area, there's a checkpoint part way up the battlefield, which will prevent you from being able to revert to the battle start for another go. Actually, in both cases the checkpoint would get delayed if you happen to be under enemy threat (e.g. if in an enemy's line of fire and in range), so you can sometimes revert ok, but that's incidental and down to either luck or taking deliberate care to remain under threat.

So, not even H1 was designed with convenient battle replaying in mind. H3 strikes me as being a fair bit worse than H1 in this regard, with so many checkpoints - sometimes even coming when enemies are shooting at you. If you're going to want to replay a battle that can get broken up by checkpoints, the best you can do is to save the game at the latest checkpoint before the battle, then when the battle is over, quit to the dashboard and reload to get back to that point. That's a laborious pain, especially if the battle is relatively short.

But even if a battle is not broken up by checkpoints, you can encounter another problem, namely getting a checkpoint the moment the final enemy is dead. This seems to happen with many battles and it gives you no time to revert to replay the battle. It's too late already! That was almost never the case in H1, which generally gave you at least a few seconds grace (the rapid checkpoint at the end of the beach landing in The Silent Cartographer being a notable and annoying exception). If you're going to want to replay the battle, either you've got to be ultra-ready to press the Start button as you kill the final enemy, or, more practical but at the expense of battle satisfaction, revert before fully finishing the battle.

A second drawback to such an instant battle-end checkpoint is that you're generally still in a state of battle alertness and may not immediately be sure you've cleared the area; but then you get this instant checkpoint and, very artificially, you now know you're done. If the checkpoint had at least been delayed a few seconds, you'd at least have a moment to calm down and listen for enemy sounds. That would feel a lot better. A third drawback is simply that it's a distraction, at a time when you're potentially still on your guard, guns at the ready and pulse racing. It comes so soon that it practically feels like an interruption to the battle.

In summary, I feel that checkpoints should be designed with strong consideration for convenient battle replaying and minimal distraction, rather than to comfort nervous folk who want their progress registered every little step of the way - which to some extent seems to be the case here. Checkpoints should not occur part way through a battle, nor too quickly after it's over. Of course, there would remain the matter of deciding quite what constitutes a battle, in regard to implementing such a policy. In some cases it might involve just one group of enemy in a confined area, in other cases it might cover a succession of groups over closely linked areas. That would be a matter of judgement for the developer.

Checkpoints sometimes happen when you're in trouble

H1 was very careful not to give you a checkpoint when you were under immediate enemy threat - e.g. if you were in an enemy's line of fire and in range. That way, if you ever needed to revert, you could be sure that you'd be reverting to a reasonably safe point, rather than straight into the frying pan. Unfortunately, H3 has lost that intelligence.

An example? At rally point alpha in Tsavo Highway, I was skirting around the back of the Brutes besieging the Marines. In doing so I got a checkpoint, and at that moment I had carbine shots pinging off my armour from three or more Brutes, a fully manned Wraith just ahead with me in its sights, and a shield that was almost gone. And this was on Heroic. To say that I was in a bit of a bind would be an understatement. Death followed within about two seconds, and you know what's coming next, right? Yep, I was returned to that checkpoint and got killed again. And again…

Surprisingly enough, this didn't go on indefinitely. After a few repeats, the game actually bounced me back to an earlier checkpoint - the one before the bad one I think. So apparently there's some intelligence built in there after all. I guess the game had noticed my repeated quick deaths and decided I was probably in a nasty death-loop. Well ok that's better than nothing; but why the loss of primary intelligence? It's not as if there's any difficulty in keeping track of whether you're under enemy threat, and delaying checkpoints if you are.

In another example I got a checkpoint in Sierra 117 at a time when I had a Jackal pointing a carbine my way at short range and a whole firefight going on in close proximity. Handy!

As it happens, this particular flaw isn't too much of a concern to me personally, because I usually play a level on a "die and it's over" basis, treating things like they're real. But that doesn't stop it being a bad flaw that's going to be darned annoying for anyone that gets caught out by it.

As an incidental thought, might that new anti-death-loop measure (if that's what it was) have a drawback? Suppose you've just had a checkpoint and there are a load of enemies just around the corner, and you fancy seeing if you can charge in and blitz your way through - just for the challenge. If you repeatedly get quickly killed, is the game eventually going to bounce you back to an earlier checkpoint, thus spoiling your fun?

Interruptions

Here are some points relating to the interruption of normal gameplay, and hence to your immersion within the game.

Loading points sometimes freeze action

Annoyingly, you sometimes get loading points when there's action going on, causing it to freeze. For example, if at the start of The Covenant you skirt along the shore to get behind the enemy, there's a loading point along the way which clumsily interrupts any firefight you might be engaged in as you move. Or, if you drive straight for the first group of enemies you come across in Tsavo Highway (just inside the cave exit), a loading point often stalls things as you pile into the enemy.

There are also cases where you get a loading point immediately after killing the last enemies in a battle, which can freeze your final bit of action. I experienced that in one of the rooms in The Covenant. An explosion killed the final Brute, and as he sailed through the air there was a loading point and things froze for a moment, then resumed. Not good!

H1 was careful to only have loading points in places where you were very unlikely to be doing any fighting - which meant that the brief game-freeze at least didn't interrupt anything important. That makes it all the more surprising to find this new carelessness with loading points. Did no game tester notice the action-freezing and bring it urgently to Bungie's attention? Did Bungie simply not understand how detrimental such freezes are to the combat experience?

Action can stutter badly

Loading points aren't the only times the action may freeze. There's something quite bad that can happen early in Sierra 117. When the first Phantom comes in, I find that if you're peppering its troops with fire from a plasma pistol or assault rifle before the ship has come fully to rest, it often seems to cause a severe stutter. The action freezes for a moment then resumes for a moment, then maybe that cycle happens again a few more times before things get back to normal. There's no loading point advertised onscreen, so the trouble is presumably something else. I suspect it's something to do with tipping the game just a little beyond what it can cope with, in some way. Whatever the reason, it's really nasty and utterly ruins the action of course. But at least I can say that this is the only place so far where I've experienced freezing that wasn't at a loading point (as far as I recall).

Cutscene concerns

Although I do often watch the cutscenes when playing a level, I'm glad to see that they all seem to be skippable, unlike in H1 where you annoyingly had to sit through certain ones. Not all levels start with a cutscene though. Some use an unskippable in-game sequence instead, in which you don't have full control. It grates in the first few seconds of Sierra 117 when for no good reason you can't move, and also in The Storm when you're obliged to stay aboard for an agonizingly slow Warthog drive to the first door. Hit that pedal, Marine!

Quite a few levels have cutscenes part way through, which is no great surprise based on past form. Personally I dislike that as I never like to be interrupted from my in-character control. I find the one near the end of Sierra 117 particularly unwelcome as it really snatches away your control in an inappropriate place, with the enemy in sight. It's also somewhat unbelievable how the Arbiter and MC casually stand in plain view of the enemy, complete with multiple Jackal snipers! There's also sometimes a potential discontinuity with scenes involving the Arbiter, in cases where you were way ahead of him. Suddenly he's right with you in the cutscene! That's a discrepancy that could've been eliminated by not having such cutscenes at all of course. You've probably noticed similar discontinuities in the gameplay itself. For example, in Crow's Nest it's easy to race ahead and ride up in a lift without him; yet somehow he either materializes in the lift or is actually waiting for you at the top!

Actually, even an end cutscene can feel like an interruption. In The Storm it starts as soon as you've delivered the final blow to the AA gun. You've only just pulled the trigger or whatever, your pulse is probably racing and you still feel like you're in the action, but then your control is rudely yanked away. Heck, there might even still be enemies shooting at you (such as if you used invincibility to run in and blast the gun before bothering to kill the guards). Things could surely have been scripted better to avoid this. For example someone could holler "Get clear, it's gonna blow", and you could have a few seconds to get well clear (else be killed by the blast), and only then would the cutscene start. That's surely much better than being interrupted practically in mid-shot, and possibly still under fire.

Interruptions from Cortana and Gravemind

Annoyingly, you get rather a lot of interruptions from Cortana and Gravemind, during which you experience visual interference and a general loss of control. Gravemind's are the worst as your vision goes all wibbly-wobbly (that's the technical term I believe), which I initially found so nauseating I had to look away, though I've got used to it now. These interruptions might I suppose be valid from a story point of view, but they're a tedious pain when you're replaying for the umpteenth time and want to get on with the combat. You'll have to sit through all this scripted yakking again and again, which is a major downer. I really wish Bungie had thought about that. And besides, Cortana seems to be off her rocker while Gravemind is way too fond of ranting, so I can't see that there's any significant content to the interruptions anyway. Still, we're stuck with 'em now. With me a defence mechanism seems to've kicked in and I like to do a bit of back-talk. Here's how a typical day at the office might go:

Cortana: There will be a great deal of hardship on the road ahead.

Me: Aw nuts!

Or as a further example of banter with the good lady…

Cortana: I have defied gods and demons.

Me: Aw, that's nice love. How's the ironing coming on?

As you might gather, I'm not taking the storyline too seriously these days. But heck, the way Bungie end the campaign with that mickey-taking version of the original mad escape drive, I'm not sure they are either!

Removal of live enemies

Another somewhat negative section I'm afraid. In some cases the game may remove enemies you're still dealing with, which is not exactly a welcome help! I've experienced two forms of this occurrence.

Removals when you advance past enemies

At rally point alpha in Tsavo Highway where Brutes and Grunts besiege Marines, I had a situation where the Phantoms had dropped off their reinforcements. The Marines were dead and there were loads of enemies left. As a novelty I skirted past them and into the next area. But when I stopped running and looked around, those enemies were gone! I think it probably happened as I got a checkpoint that triggered the Pelican. The thing is, skirting past the enemies like that was a perfectly reasonable tactic for continuing the fight. I could've done some sniping from that second area or something. But no such luck. The battle was over in the rudest of ways and my illusion of reality was wrecked. I don't know how much this sort of enemy removal can happen in the rest of the game, but it suggests that in places we might have to be careful what we do, to avoid losing out.

Removals when you take too long

Playing The Ark on Legendary, I was having big trouble with the two Hunters near the start and was spending quite a while trying to wear them down, intermittently nipping back to the previous area for more weaponry. Eventually, the game just killed them for me! One moment they were eyeing me from behind a rock, the next they fell lifeless to the floor. Gah! Talk about aggravating. I've been aided in an equally unwelcome manner elsewhere too. The design intent of this enemy cleansing is presumably to help out players who may be hopelessly stuck. But I wasn't stuck, I was patiently working on it.

Now, one of the things I do quite a lot of in H1 is to impose weapon restrictions on myself to create tough challenges that can require a lot of care and patience - for example tackling level 2 on Legendary with only an AR. I may eventually be interested in doing likewise with H3. But this timeout autokill feature could be a real killjoy when it comes to challenges where progress can be painstakingly slow. Heck, even if I'm not limiting myself, I may still be taking a while, enjoying picking enemies off one by one or something. I don't want to feel rushed along.

In any case, should such a feature even be there on the higher difficulties? On the lower ones maybe; but if someone's playing on Heroic or Legendary, the game really ought not to be holding the player's hand should it? If they've got themselves into a pickle, that's their lookout. I've yet to see just how pervasive an annoyance this is going to be, but it's certainly a concern.

Just for the record, H1 actually had a similar timeout behaviour in at least some places - I don't know if it was a general principle. But in practice it was extremely unlikely to arise, and never became a concern for me.

Alien animation

Just before I start giving my opinions of the various participants in the struggle, I'd like to raise a few points on alien animation - something quite important as you're focused on these guys rather a lot!

Naturalism

I still consider the animation of H1's aliens superior in regard to general movement, because it was so smooth and believable. So naturalistic. It's one of the major factors in my appreciation of that game, and really helps me believe those guys are real. In H3 I feel enemies have comparatively rapid or jerky movements that often convey unrealistic dynamics for beings of such mass, and there's an overall speeded-up feel. I suppose this might not affect you much if you've played so many videogames that you automatically accept that look, but it's something I tend to be fussy about. Whether the difference relates to the relative artistry of the animators for H1 and H3, or whether the designers just weren't too fussed about dynamic realism, I don't know.

In a few of my sections on specific aliens, I'll comment on certain animations I find particularly unnatural - and whose speed potentially even has a negative effect on gameplay. But for an extreme example just compare the utterly believable manner in which a Jackal attempts to dive clear of something in H1, with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it animation for the same thing in H3.

Death animation

I still miss the comedy of the original hand-crafted death animations that really added to the satisfaction of the kill in H1, but ok I won't go on about that all over again. In H3 there looks to be at least some stylization of death animations, in the sense that the victim may momentarily exhibit a dramatic action, for example a Brute throwing up his hands when brained with a headshot. I assume this is by deliberate design and I welcome that, even if it doesn't provide such outright comedy as before. But at some point ragdoll physics takes over and that's where things are let down for me.

Bodies tend to bounce around gently as they interact with the floor or whatever, as if made of light sponge or something. In addition, limbs sometimes flail in ways that don't look right, as if the body is just a doll. Also, the final death posture is often unconvincing. Rather than being slumped flat, the body often ends up in a stiff pose as if a plastic figurine had been toppled over. All three shortcomings jar with me, repeatedly undermining the illusion of reality - something I'm keen to maintain. The ragdoll stuff needs refining.

The Arbiter

I'm very glad we're only playing as MC this time. In fact if there had been Arbiter play like in H2, I very much doubt that I would've bought the game. He's still in it of course, but this time as an ally fighting alongside you in parts of the campaign. I guess that was a good compromise for Bungie, who while I think acknowledging the overall unpopularity of making you play as the squid-faced wonder, were still pretty much obliged to keep him in the storyline. Rather neatly though, folk who did like playing the Arbiter can at least do so in co-op.

Wish he was absent

Personally though, I wish he wasn't there alongside me at all. I'd rather be going solo or with Marines. I find that he gets in my way sometimes, and when he takes damage his verbal reactions - such as a casual "Oooh" with no particular intonation of pain - are often a bit pathetic, detracting from the atmosphere. Of course, I always hated the humanization of Elites in H2 anyway, so I don't care for his actor-like speech in general, but I guess I've got to live with it now. Oh, and he says "Unworthy of my blades" rather too often. I'm going to have to have a word with him about that.

But a bigger reason I don't want him around is because then I can take all the time I want to deal with the enemy bit by bit - and there's great delight to be had in that. When the Arbiter is there, initially he may hold back and let you do a bit of good work - he's like the Marines in that regard and I give Bungie due credit for trying to give you primary lead that way - but there generally comes a time when he'll pile into the action. And he's pretty effective, which means all the less killing for you. Of course, when he's got a carbine he's often liable to be taking out quite a few enemies even when he's staying back - again meaning less killing for you. Ok so I'm selfish, I admit it.

Indestructible

He's also indestructible, having been scripted to remain in the game. He sometimes keels over from accumulated damage, but he'll eventually pick himself up and dust himself off for another round. Not terribly believable, but if a combat character must stay alive, it's a good way of limiting his abilities.

Realism breaker

Unfortunately the Arbiter's presence can sometimes break the realism in places where he's scripted to be with you, such as in a cutscene. Even if you've left him far behind, he'll magically catch up or even transport ahead of you. If you like to maintain an illusion of reality, you have to be careful to limit your pace in such cases.

Marines

It's good to find that most of the H1 Marine voices are still in the game; that makes me feel right at home. Pretty sure I've heard Captain Keyes in there too! Didn't he get turned into Flood goo at one point? Oh well, maybe he got better.

The Woss factor

I'm rather less enamoured when well-known jokey loudmouth UK TV presenter Johnathan Ross pipes up. What bright spark thought that would be a good idea? Every time I hear one of his lines, complete with trademark exaggerated lisp in which r's become w's, it's going to completely break my immersion in the game because I know him too well from other contexts. It's happened once already, and the only satisfaction to be had from it was in seeing the Marine get subsequently cut down by Brutes. Good riddance too. Heck I'm liable to do the job myself next time! Swift blow to the head? Don't mind if I do. In future - if there is one - how about instead having a 'Celebrity' skull that would switch on celebrity contributions? Go to town a bit, make it a real feature, heavy on humour. That would be a significant novelty for folk to play with, without having the mood-breaking celebrity factor forced on us during our adventures.

Driving AI (or the lack thereof)

But my real complaint about the Marines is with their driving AI. As you've doubtless noticed, Marines career around like maniacs when in open space. This completely ruins any semblance of intelligence on their part, and the game feels like it's degenerated into something for amusing five-year-olds. It's also life-threatening if you're on foot - something I have a preference for. In addition it shatters any realism. Not just because of the sheer craziness of the driving, but also because of the unrealistically zippy dynamics of the vehicles themselves, something I expand on in the Vehicles section. As a corollary to all this, it remains a fairly bad idea to let yourself be driven into battle by Marines if you want to live to see tomorrow! That experience will really bring home how bad things are; not just in regard to negotiating a smooth route from A to B, but also in regard to combat considerations such as keeping an intelligently safe distance from the enemy.

General intelligence

As for the intelligence of Marines in general, they're looking like much better fighters than they were in H1. They certainly seem more satisfyingly aggressive, and they actually seem to understand the concept of cover this time. But they still charge foolishly into battle in places where I could eliminate much of the threat if only they'd give me a couple of minutes. Heck, sometimes they'll rush into battle and get themselves killed even before I'm there - such as when I'm spending a moment searching for weapons. Oh well, easy come easy go. They also continue to have little clue about not wandering in front of my gun sight. Arrgh! Do not stand in front of the cyborg, bozo! Very bad place to be.

Annoying smartass lines

When you're looking in the direction of a Marine, they tend to challenge or question your motives. That was amusing at first but I soon realized that they do it way too promptly, which can get annoying, such as when you're merely trying to swap a weapon with them. There are plenty of times when I'll be behind a Marine and checking out enemies, perhaps scoping them out for potential headshots. But when my vision wanders too close to a Marine, I get "Is there something you wanna tell me Chief?" or suchlike. Er no buddy, I'm plainly looking at those aliens just ahead waiting to kill us - just shut up and let the cyborg work eh?

Weapon swapping quirk

Just as in H2, a Marine won't swap his weapon with you if your own is empty. Not really logical if they're meant to defer to you - especially when you bear in mind that they'll happily swap if your weapon has even the tiniest bit of ammo left. Besides, how do they know how much ammo's in there anyway? Are they telepathic?

Vehicle boarding glitch

One little glitch I've encountered is that Marines sometimes don't get into your Warthog or are extremely hesitant about it, even though they may call out lines such as "Shotgun!". In places in Tsavo Highway I've had to just give up on them and drive off.

Brutes

The Brutes have had quite a makeover since H2, and I'm all for that because they looked terribly dull in that game. There's plenty of variety in appearance, and the armour looks excellent. It's fun the way you can shoot it off, and the jetpack Brutes add another interesting element. They don't have the fearsome presence of the H1 Elites I'm used to as arch-enemies, and that weakens the atmosphere of the game quite a bit I think, but I do get some good shooting with them.

Awful voicing

Unfortunately I think the voicing really lets things down. Stylistically it's woeful. It sounds like the sort of voice almost anyone would do when asked to sound gruff and burly. It lacks any real charisma, has little alien about it, and consequently makes the Brutes seem all too human. In addition the lines are very corny and quite repetitive, in a way that wouldn't be out of keeping with a second-rate game from a few console generations ago. The number of times I've heard "Hold here" and "Yes, pack leader" and a few other such imaginative phrases is depressing, and it gets particularly tiresome when you're taking a long time to clear a room. The blandness and repetition also gives the Brutes an air of idiocy, which I doubt was Bungie's original intention. It robs them of any sense of menace and makes them seem like primitive goons who somehow got hold of some hi-tech armour and toys to play with.

Idiot central

That air of idiocy is reinforced when you see Brutes careering around wildly on their Choppers or whatever. In common with the other AI driving in the game, it's so erratic as to give the impression that the driver would be more at home on a tricycle, because they sure aren't in command of this hulking great chunk of machinery! Their driving AI just isn't up to it.

Also in connection with vehicles and AI, you quite often get a Brute sitting dumbly in the gun seat of a Prowler that's lost its driver. Even if that makes him a sitting duck, he'll just sit there. Really he should recognize that he's in trouble and dismount. I'm surprised that Bungie didn't add something to the AI to cope for this scenario.

One other remark on Brute AI. Often you'll see them deploy a bubble shield then wander outside it almost immediately. Yeah, that makes sense eh? Heck, sometimes they'll deploy a bubble and not even get in! Did they just want something nice to look at? I'm surprised at this weakness. Bungie seems to've put quite a bit of emphasis on these new gizmos, and you'd have thought they'd make sure the Brutes use them intelligently if at all.

Jerky rage animation

In the Alien animation section I voiced a general criticism about unrealistic movement. I think one of the worst cases is the rage animation for Brutes. They alter direction too quickly as they weave about or go in circles, and it sometimes puts me in mind of sprite graphics, in which the sprite character is first facing one way, then the next instant he's done a quarter turn or suchlike. The animation isn't that discrete, but parts of it give me the same feeling.

Grunts

The H1 Grunts were a brilliant creation. Consistently hilarious and wonderfully animated, they were my choice highlight of the game. Then along came H2 and they'd been usurped by far less amusing fellows with different voicing and lines, different movement patterns, and without such variety of appearance (no cute curving backpacks and only one type of face mask, if I recall correctly). That was a huge blow to me and I found it staggering how Bungie had apparently failed to understand and value the inspired design and craft of the originals.

Well, the H3 Grunts seem to be a continuation of the H2 variety as you'd expect, but I'll give them this: they're far more amusing this time. I think Bungie must have made quite an effort to refine their character. Begrudgingly I find them pretty darned funny and quite likeable. With their boisterous voices and plentiful taunting they come off as belligerent little hooligans compared to H1's cutely voiced softies. Maybe this batch is from another part of the planet, or perhaps there's something in their methane. Some of the Grunt panic cries I find particularly chucklesome, such as a gabbled "Whoheheywhowah!". Did I spell that right? But the most striking and amusing new feature is when they go mental and run at you with plasma grenades fizzing in both paws. That's a superb bit of comedy.

One minor misfire with the voicing I think: Grunts sometimes do a bit of blubbing and it just doesn't sound right. It's too low-pitched, and in any case I think some other sort of anguish would've been more in keeping with their character.

Weaving in panic

As in H2, they have some different movement patterns compared to the H1 Grunts. One such pattern affects the gameplay rather negatively I feel, namely the rapid weaving they do when running in panic. On the visual front I find this poor because the weaving is simply too jerky. The Grunt is surely too heavy to change direction so rapidly, and in any case it's not as if the animation of his legs is convincing enough to help me believe it. It looks unrealistic. But more importantly, the weaving makes it really hard to either tag him on the feet with a plasma grenade to launch him skywards, or to bop him on the head - both of which I loved to do in H1. As such, a source of joyous fun has been pretty much removed.

No stun from an overcharge shot

A further shortcoming is that when you hit a Grunt with an overcharge shot from a plasma pistol (something that's nowhere near as easy as it was, due to the criminal removal of almost all the homing), there's no animation of being stunned, and nor does he cry out. He fizzles a bit but there's otherwise no reaction. That's just awful. In H1 it's huge fun to do a stun-and-tag move, with the stun keeping him nicely stationary for a moment; but that's not going to be the case with H3. Again, a source of fun has been lost. It really surprises me that there's no reaction to that plasma ball. That seems like such a huge oversight (and I notice that Brutes do react). The excellent enemy reactions in H1 were a big factor in my enjoyment. They made things so believable and they added so much to the satisfaction of delivering hurt. To lose such a reaction is extremely disappointing.

Further lost joys

An equally distressing loss is the fact that when you bury needles into a Grunt, or indeed a Jackal, he doesn't do an amusing animation of agony prior to the chain reaction blast going off. The blast happens the instant enough needles have arrived. Likewise there's no comical animation to enjoy when you've tagged a Grunt with a plasma grenade. All a sad loss of fun for me, but I'm trying not to dwell on it.

New animations

On the plus side, the Grunts have some new animations of interest, notably the cute way they can jump up onto things to take a pop at you. Or to get a three-round burst though the noggin, whichever comes first. And if you scope distant Grunts in Tsavo Highway (I like a bit of Grunt safari), you may see one apparently trying to swat a fly that's bothering him - which is pretty amusing and a nice touch.

Good B-team

Overall I find the Grunts to be excellent characters here. Ok they'll never rival the H1 brigade for me, but I can certainly see some real craft in them, and if I've got to put up with a B-team they do a darned good job. I consider them one of the best aspects of the game, and quite a draw now I've got used to them.

Jackals

I still greatly miss the original H1 Jackals which I consider far more engaging for various reasons, both aesthetically and in terms of combat, but ok I'll try not to harp on about that old grievance. Gotta live with these hoppy interlopers now I suppose. On the positive side it's nice to see the old H1 shield back, and unlike the H2 shield you can't take it down with a battle rifle - a sensible decision for the combat dynamic I think.

Snipers

It's no surprise to see sniper Jackals in the game as in H2, but at least their severity has been reduced. They're slower to target you I think, and they often have carbines rather than those nasty beam rifles. They're also easier to spot, thanks to a piece of sighting equipment over one eye that betrays them with a bright glow. I take that to be a thoughtful bit of design from Bungie, intended to give us more of a fighting chance.

However, there are places where Marines and the Arbiter will charge into battle, and if you follow them you're liable to be cut down by snipers all around. Yet if you sensibly stay back and gradually pick off enemies from cover, your Marines will surely all perish; which is a frustration if you've worked hard to keep them alive so far. So while Jackal snipers are not as severe as in H2, they still have a rather negative effect on gameplay in my opinion, given the regrettable eagerness of Marines to rush into battle and be pointlessly killed.

Oh, and I just plain wish the beam rifle guys weren't in the game at all! They remain a real pain, obliging you to be extremely tentative as you try to spot them. Ok there's obviously skill in taking them down, and you get to know where to expect them, but it's a fiddly process and overall they reduce my enjoyment of the gameplay. If only there was a 'No Jackal Snipers' skull!

Diving animation

On a specific point of animation, I think these Jackals dive clear too way fast when you lob a grenade or whatever. One moment they're there, the next they're well clear if in open ground. It looks unrealistic and you often waste a grenade (though at least it makes them temporarily more vulnerable). I'm not enjoying grenading these guys anything like as much as I do in H1.

Hunters

Compared to the Hunters of H1 these new guys are far more dangerous, and frankly I'm still getting used to them. You can certainly wave goodbye to the days of dispatching a Hunter with a single pistol shot to the orange flesh! The new Hunters have utterly lethal ground-shaking fire, and initially I spent a good deal of time cowering from it and wondering what the heck I could do. A fuel rod gun is jolly handy though, I can tell you that much.

You don't meet these guys very often, and at the moment I feel grateful for that small mercy even if it does reduce them to bit-part players in the campaign - something which seems a shame as they had a strong presence in the original game. But I can't help wondering if Bungie has simply made them too powerful. That's how they seem to me at present, and it suggests that your options against them will be comparatively limited, compared to the many ways you could take them out in H1. But we'll see.

Drones

You know, it wasn't until I was almost done with this article that I remembered about these bugs at all! I think my mind conceptualizes them more as winged hazards of the environment, rather than part of the covie force. It's a bit like bumping into a swarm of angry bees or something. Bees with plasma pistols. I'm glad we don't get them very often because they can be a bit of a pain, somewhat awkward to shoot as they flit around. That said, I'm happy enough with what we get. They add variety and their mass attacks provide an enjoyable challenge, especially the huge buzz-fest in part of Crow's Nest. That one's definitely a case for the exterminator. Which is me, as it happens.

Flood

Bungie have really gone to work on enhancing the Flood, and to good effect I think. When your standard gurgling maniac comes running at you, you can now dice him into chunks with a plasma rifle or blast him to pieces with a Brute shot or whatever - and it's gooey rather than gory, so I'm okay with that. There's a lot more variety in the range of monstrosities you encounter, and you even see some Flood impressively altering form. In particular, some transform into a really nasty horror that likes shooting quills at you. Ingenious! Carrier forms are a lot more resilient than in H1 and release more spores. You also see bodies being infected by spores and undergoing a rapid transformation into Flood. All in all, it's going to be hard for anyone to dismiss the Flood as being dull this time around.

Weapons

Here are my initial opinions of the weapons you get to use in the campaign. I'll list UNSC weapons first, in alphabetical order, then do likewise with non-Brute Covenant weapons, then Brute weapons, then any others. Support weapons are treated together at the end. For me the highlights are the battle rifle, Brute shot, carbine, fuel rod gun, and dual-wielded SMGs.

Assault rifle

Yay! The assault rifle is back, in visual form at least. This is quite an upgrade on the old one, which was woefully underpowered and, to be honest, didn't have the greatest of sound effects when firing. The new model has a satisfyingly meaty sound and feel, but as with the original, you'll probably want to be using it at fairly close range. I've not used it a great deal so far, but that's mostly because I'm addicted to the battle rifle. In due course I'll probably start seeing what this thing can really do.

Battle rifle

This was pretty much the only thing I really missed from H2. The H3 version feels just the same to me, though it's been a long while since I was using it and there may be small differences H2 fans might be aware of. Anyway, I loved it then and I love it now. It's a staple of my campaign work and I'm glad to see that they're not in short supply. I'd still like to be carrying a few more clips - you get through your ammo pretty fast - but never mind. That three-bullet burst sounds and feels great! Being a bit of a one for keeping a relatively safe distance unless I'm taking a more gung-ho attitude for fun, I tend to use it scoped - a very welcome feature.

Magnum

Visually similar to the H1 pistol but otherwise utterly unlike that joyous high-powered master of the battlefield. You've got one of these after falling from the sky at the start of the game. Quick, someone give me something more effective! Like, a bag of rocks I can throw or something! Actually it's not that bad in terms of effect. It's fine for headshots on Grunts, and you can even bring down Brutes with it from a fair distance away. Crucially however, there's not much of a kick to it as you fire, and that makes it feel rather unsatisfying to me. It's not visceral enough. The slow rate of fire is also a frustration, but that's probably just because I'm used to the good old M6D. Then again I haven't tried dual-wielding it yet. Must give that a whirl…

Rocket launcher

Haven't used it much yet, nor have I seen many around. But among other places, I notice that there are a few in The Storm shortly before you head out to tackle the Scarab. No guided rockets any more; we're back to H1 rocketing now, which is ok by me.

Shotgun

Quite early on I was tackling monsters with this thing on Floodgate and I became uncomfortably aware of how much slower it reloads compared to the H1 shotty. It was very nearly the death of me. Much shorter range too I think. In fact I get the impression you have to be practically face to face! Thus far then, I'm not terribly impressed. I may get friendlier with it later, but for now I'm tending to leave it alone and unloved.

SMG

Glorious, and I love that sound! This was a weapon I enjoyed in H2, so I'm glad to see it back and I expect to be enjoying a whole lot of dual-wielding with it, like I did in Crow's Nest the other day - a great level for close-range aggro.

Sniper rifle

Yes please! I was looking out for these things from day one, and by now I think I've probably found all of them. Particularly useful at rally point alpha in Tsavo Highway, where Marines are under attack in a building and masses of Brutes drop in by Phantom. You can grab the sniper rifle from that building then run back to where you first entered the area and go up onto the water pump house where there's another rifle. If you also had the forethought to bring along a beam rifle from earlier, you can have a great sniping party from up there, if you can avoid the attention of that darned Wraith. Those Marines will surely perish, but if they're not bright enough to follow me to safety, is that my fault?

Spartan laser

Bit of a speciality weapon this of course; you don't get to use this monster very often. I don't fancy the long delay while it charges up, but I guess part of the art is going to be in using it from good cover. There's a big recoil after firing, which is sort of annoying because I want to see the damage being inflicted. It takes a moment to settle your view again. You may say that the recoil is realistic, but actually, is it? Would you get such recoil from a laser? I mean, it's emitting light, and that doesn't weigh much does it? Scandalously, my physics knowledge isn't good enough to answer this. I hang my head in shame. Still, at least I'm educated enough to appreciate how much I don't know. That's something isn't it? Discuss…

Beam rifle

This thing feels and sounds just the same as what I distantly recall from H2, though maybe it has a touch more kick. Not a sound I care for, but that may just reflect psychological damage from getting zapped through the head by it umpteen times in H2, courtesy of the beak brigade. I much prefer the sniper rifle to this covie equivalent, but I don't often pass up the chance to take one of these for a bit of long-distance skull ventilating.

Carbine

Long before the launch of H2, I saw a picture of this thing and instantly wanted to get my hands on it. Sadly it turned out to be rather insipid, with very little feedback or satisfaction. It felt like a lifeless pellet-shooter. But the new version feels a lot better and I'm often carrying it as a covie equivalent to the battle rifle, for sharpshooting. Whether one or the other is more effective I've yet to decide, but I'd usually go with the battle rifle if only for its more visceral sound and feel. Often I'm carrying both, and those covies had better watch out! Especially the Grunts, who for some reason keep getting showered with confetti.

Energy sword

I was never interested in this during my brief spell with H2. Part of the reason for that was that I prefer gunplay, but another part was the way you were inexplicably jerked forwards when you used it, something I hated. In H3 the jerk effect seems to be gone, but the actual swing is so quick as to be almost instantaneous, which I don't like. With a more graceful and flowing swing I might have been a lot happier. However, I also just plain don't feel right swinging a sword by pulling a trigger; I guess my brain just associates the trigger too much with firing. In fact it took a while to realize I should be using the trigger at all; initially I was hitting B to take a swing! In summary, while I recognize its power (particularly in taking down Flood at close quarters), I get no thrill in using it, so I probably won't be picking it up much.

Fuel rod gun

A major goodie - I'm having a blast with this thing, both figuratively and literally. Looks gorgeous and delivers well against covies, Flood and vehicles. I recently realized that it's especially handy against those nasty Hunters. The Covenant is a great level for using this oversized yellow beast on; there are quite a few of them around. I found one hidden away the other day. You know where you're bombarding Wraiths after getting your first Hornet? You can find a fuel rod gun in the grassy area behind the rightmost Wraith, in one of those purple weapon-holder units. Don't you love finding goodies like that?

Needler

In H1 this was a work of art, allowing glorious satisfaction as needles piled into covie hide. Elites, Grunts, and Jackals all went through a comical agonized animation before the reaction went off, and their bodies then shook as a beautiful bone-shattering chain reaction went off, the sound effect for which was my favourite in the entire game. Heck, pile in enough needles and you'd get multiple bangs. It was addictive, hilarious, and deeply satisfying. It was craft such as this that made me love H1. Inexplicably, all this was discarded in H2, even the sound effect; and that's if you could get a bang at all! I'd heard that the H3 needler would go some way to restoring the original glory. But while it does feel like an improvement on the H2 version, I'm afraid it doesn't come close to the original and I don't expect to be picking it up much.

The needles move faster than in H1, but enemies tend to dodge or dive clear quickly as if you've just thrown a grenade. That makes it quite hard to bury a critical mass of needles into an enemy - even Grunts. If you do get enough needles in for a bang, it seems to happen instantly; there's sadly no agony animation beforehand. The bang often has the effect of shooting a Grunt away. That at least is amusing, but then so was the body-jerking you got in H1. As for the sound effect of the bang, it's reminiscent of the H1 sound but it's not the same. It's weaker and I find it less satisfying.

When you kill an enemy without a chain reaction, it happens the instant the needle hits, whereas in H1 it only occurred after a second or so when the last needle broke up. It feels too sudden to me. When you put this together with the instant chain reactions and the faster needles, it feels overall as if everything happens too fast. Maybe this was done with the intent of making it sufficiently powerful in multiplayer, I don't know.

I recognize that this thing can be effective, for example taking out a Brute with one good bang, but the altered character and loss of aesthetics makes it a just bit too painful for me to use as a connoisseur of the original. I'm not sure if I'll ever get past that.

There's another big difference with this needler. Unlike in H1 you don't stand much chance of dodging a burst of needles, because this time they don't head your way as a neat stream. The burst has some scatter in it, and if you start to dodge one way to miss the first few needles, you tend to be moving into the path of a few later needles. In my view that removes the previously enjoyable skill of needle dodging.

For some odd reason this needler seems to have a clip of 19 needles rather than the 20 of H1. Five clips make for 95 needles rather than the 100 of H1. Weird. What made Bungie switch to a clip of 19?

Plasma pistol

The plasma pistol was a real favourite of mine in H1 but I'm not sure I'll be using this new version much, except as a way of temporarily immobilizing vehicles with an overcharge shot - a nice ability that I think will enable some interesting and skillful anti-vehicle gameplay. So what's my beef about it?

The biggest difference is the almost total lack of homing with an overcharge shot, even when you've got a red reticle. I got a red reticle on a Grunt and tried hitting it with overcharge shots four times, and missed every one even though he was barely moving. In H1 I would've hit probably every time from that range, or even further away. Why on earth would Bungie want to all but remove the homing anyway? It was a key feature of the original. I actually had to use Theatre mode to watch from a different angle to convince myself there was any homing at all! Consider me baffled.

But that's not the only key feature that's been scuppered. When I moved to almost point-blank range to actually get a hit with an overcharge shot on a Grunt, a second shortcoming became distressingly obvious. The shot didn't stun him at all! He fizzled slightly but there was no bodily recoil or cry. Admittedly that's more a shortcoming of the H3 Grunt rather than the weapon, but it's still part of the overall experience. And without any reaction, this part of the experience falls artlessly flat. There's likewise no stun effect on a Jackal once he's lost his shield. At least Brutes seem to react - but not in rage mode. In H1 the weapon's ability to stun was a key tactical feature, great fun to use. The new model implements that dynamic patchily at best, and I find that woeful.

I also notice that when you release an overcharge shot, both hands rise up as if to cool off. But unfortunately the left hand tends to obscure the target, impeding your ability to see whether you actually scored a hit. I've found that rather annoying, and it also makes me conscious of the fact that I have no control over my own left hand. When it happens, I feel external to the character I'm supposed to be. Not good for immersion.

As for normal fire, ok I've been able to take down enemies with rapid fire pretty much like I used to, but for some reason it's felt harder to hit the target. So much so that I've sometimes switched to firing small spreads, hoping that at least a few pips get through. So perhaps there's a slightly lower degree of automatic aim-correction with this version or something? I can't really be sure, so for now it just remains a feeling.

I've also been missing the right hook you used to deliver. This time you hit with your left in one of two ways. It's a change I'm finding hard to get used to because that firm right hook is so deeply ingrained with me as my favourite melee attack in H1. Since I also dislike not knowing which of the two left strikes I'm going to do, maybe I'll just avoid punching with this altogether.

Much less important, but I'll mention it while I'm here, the new version doesn't have such long-range potential as the original, whose normal mode of fire actually carried further than a shot from the M6D pistol. Long-range plasma pistol fire was probably not used by many folk - in fact I suspect a lot of players never even knew about it - but I grew to use it quite a bit; for example in taking down Shade gunners from huge distance. Another difference: in H1 the plasma pips fell gradually with distance, but in H3 they go in an absolutely straight line, which seems unrealistic and which takes away the skill of allowing for fall.

Plasma rifle

I have mixed feelings about this. With the H1 rifle I felt like I was searing a well-focused white-hot lance of plasma into the enemy's spleen. But the H3 version has a sort of loose feel in the way it scatters its individual pulses of plasma, and I find the comparatively toy-like warbling sound less appealing and less suggestive of raw power. Judged in its own right however, it's an enjoyable item, especially when dual-wielded at close range where it's a real blast. It has a satisfyingly good dicing effect on Flood and I've dual-wielded it plenty against those gurgling killjoys already.

Brute shot

Damn but I love this thing! In H1 the needler was the standout work of art, delivering supreme explosive satisfaction. This time around it's the Brute shot that's making my heart beat faster. THOOOMMMM… BLAM! That is one great feeling and sound, and I can't get enough of it. In H2 it left me fairly unimpressed. It felt hard to score a hit and the explosion seemed weak. But this thing makes the ground shake and feels great, quite apart from having an impressive rate of fire. Just thinking about it, I want to stop writing and go do some blasting with it. Hold on, I'll be right back…

Gravity hammer

I've not used this much yet and nor do I expect to in the future as I'm more interested in gunplay. Obviously it's brutal when you take a swing at close range, but all that shaking makes it hard to really see quite what I'm doing, and it all feels pretty clumsy to me.

Mauler

Not even listed in the manual (why are manuals like that?), I wasn't sure what the heck I'd got my hands on when I first picked this up. "Ooh, this looks good" I thought. I then proceeded to fire it at cloaked Brutes at fairly close range, and nothing much seemed to be happening. Which was sort of disappointing because I usually like my weapons to do stuff. What's in those shells? Cake mix? Looks like you need to be practically point-blank to cause much damage with this thing. I've shunted it way down on my list of priorities to explore.

Spiker

This feels agreeably visceral and I think I'll be getting along with it fine and enjoying quite a bit of dual-wielding. It seems to be scattered around very liberally and is often found in the purple weapon-holders. I wish a few more of those holders had Brute shots in them instead, but never mind.

Sentinel beam

I've tried these a few times but haven't been very impressed, and the charge seems to get used up awfully quickly. Probably not going to pick them up much.

Support weapons

I don't anticipate being much of a user of the 'support weapons' you can lug around in third-person. For one thing I'm not keen on the switch to third-person, and for another I don't like the way they slow you down. I like to be nimble on my feet, and get nervy when I feel like a sitting duck. It's almost been the death of me a couple of times, and I've had to drop the weapon in a hurry. I also find it anomalous how support weapons give you infinite ammo as long as you leave them mounted, but the Halo series has always had ammo anomalies. Best not think about it too hard. Anyway, here are some brief comments on the individual weapons.

Flamethrower: Nice effect but it seems dangerously slow to work, and I've got singed quite a bit when burning Flood have continued my way. Still, that's just my poor technique. Note to self: back off as you fire, bozo!

Machine gun turret: Quite a beast, and I notice there's one in Sierra 117 when you reach the river. Tried to bring down the nearby Phantom with it, but could only do partial damage. Drat!

Missile pod: I was using these things trying to take down the Scarab in The Storm, before I realised you could board it by jumping on top from a crane. I later lugged one indoors hoping to have fun with it, but I couldn't hit a darned thing.

Plasma cannon: Used against you quite a bit, not least from Phantoms, and it hurts! I've picked up a couple; not bad.

Grenades

Annoyingly you don't seem to throw as strongly as you used to in H1, but by now I'm getting used to compensating with a slightly higher throwing angle and grenade work is starting to feel fluent again.

Enemy evasion

However, in H3 enemies seem far better at getting clear of grenades. My current feeling is that they're rather too good at it, which is significantly lowering the amount of fun I could be having. Jackals and Grunts in particular will spring away with frankly unreal suddenness, which is frustrating. So I'm not sure grenades are going to provide me with quite as much satisfaction as they used to.

Hello newcomers!

On the positive side we've got two completely new types of grenade. Tagging enemies with the spike grenade is good fun (though some of the Brutes seem to have fiendish non-stick armour, which just isn't playing fair), and the flame effects with the somewhat rare firebomb grenade are impressive. However, these newbies have presumably been instrumental in forcing the new 'two of each' policy, which means we can't carry as many frags and plasmas as before. Boo! Hiss!

Loss of evil fun with plasmas

As for the old twosome, I'm pretty happy with the frag grenades, but the plasma grenades aren't quite as much fun for me as in H1. There, a tagged enemy would suffer for a good few seconds, and in the case of Grunts and Jackals they'd do a hilarious animation of anguish. The H3 version has a far shorter fuse so there's not much time for anything more than crying out. For me that's a big loss of artful comedy and evil satisfaction. They're still fun though, and the rising noise they give off before going bang is good for building up the moment.

Equipment

This time around you can pick up all sorts of gizmos to have fun with. I'm still learning how to use these effectively, but at least I've managed to get out of the instinctive H1 habit of hitting X to reload, thereby deploying stuff by accident. Doh! Here are some comments on individual items.

Cloaking: Only about ten seconds of invisibility! That's way too little, especially for an arch mischief-maker like myself. You'll maybe have time to dash in, tag one enemy and dash back to cover again. Big deal! This miserly allowance is a terrible decision that's going to deny me lots of fun I could've enjoyed with a proper length of time. What gives?

Deployable cover: This should come in pretty handy in routine play, and I'm wondering if it might even be useful in tackling certain vehicles on foot.

Bubble shield: Oooh… pretty bubble. Haven't used this funky fellow much, but it looks great.

Grav lift: Now here's something you can really play with. I've barely started exploring what I can do with it, but I'm hoping it'll let me reach some novel sniping spots or something.

Flare: I haven't been able to do a darned thing with this yet. Isn't it meant to blind the enemy or something? Then why do they keep on shooting me?

Invincibility: Handy! This one's really going to please the gung-ho merchants. But you'd better make sure it doesn't wear off when you're still in the thick of the enemy mass you just waded into. Been there, done that.

Regenerator: Whoever knew green gas could be so beneficial? Haven't really got to grips with it yet though. Along with invincibility and the bubble shield, it's something that I think will need careful use, lest it lull you into a false sense of security.

Power drain: Haven't made any use of this yet, but a few Brutes have used it on me! Hey, where did my flippin' shield go?

Trip mine: I finally made some use of this when I lobbed one ahead then let Flood come my way! Seems a bit of a gimmicky item, but I like a bit of mischief. I'll have to think harder about using this.

Auto-turret: Not getting much joy out of this thing so far. Sounds a nice idea but it seems awfully hesitant about opening fire and I feel like I want to give it a stern talking to.

Moose: Hey, there isn't one! Where's that deployable moose Bungie?

Melee and jumping

In H2 the melee attacking felt very jerky and I didn't like that. Here it feels a lot better and I'm actually using it this time. But I'm missing quite a lot because it seems like you have to get quite a bit closer to score a hit, compared to the H1 whacking I'm used to. You should see me in action. "A swing and a miss for the cyborg in the green corner!". I've got some practicing to do.

Variety is not always better

Sadly, my enjoyment remains heavily limited by the decision to have multiple hitting animations for many weapons, as in H2. When I go to whack someone, I like to know how I'm going to do it. I can take what feels like the appropriate bodily approach and mentally put some effort and venom into that specific whack, and it really feels satisfying and immersive. But when I don't know how I'm going to hit, that depth of experience is lost and it becomes more a case of pressing a button and seeing what my arm does. There's a fundamental point of videogame design I'm making here; that when you hit a button or whatever, the effect should be predictable, otherwise it weakens your feeling of control and consequently your immersion in the game.

Heavy hitting

I find it a bit unrealistic and distracting how far enemies are launched with certain melee attacks. A Grunt skids back many metres when you give it a pile-driving left punch, when armed with the plasma pistol.

Jumping

As for jumping, I'm pleased to find that I can jump quite a bit higher than in H1. Feels right.

Vehicles

As mentioned earlier, I'm a lot more interested in foot-soldiering than vehicle use, so I would've preferred to see less of them. Their prevalence is pretty much what I'd have expected though, based on what H2 was like. In this section I'll start off with some general points then list my early impressions of the various items. This doesn't include the Scarab or Phantom; see Other hardware for those.

Unrealistic dynamics

A general complaint I have against H3 vehicles, but especially the ground vehicles other than the Wraith, is that their movements are too sudden. Proper dynamics are not being respected. To varying extents, vehicles move around in a way reminiscent of remote-controlled toys, able to change direction almost instantly and accelerate fast due to low mass - rather than heavy vehicles that need a decent amount of time to do such things (and in the case of non-hovering ground vehicles, to get sufficient purchase on certain surfaces, like grass). It's old-skool videogame movement and weakens the realism. Everything has been speeded up from the days of H1, when a Warthog (to take a prime example) really felt like a heavy vehicle, being considerably slower to accelerate. Are things speeded up like this to appease impatient eight-year-olds or something? For me, this lack of realism is both visually jarring and a factor that reduces my inclination to step aboard.

No vibration feedback when you bump stuff

I also notice that vehicles give no vibration feedback when you bump into stuff, which seems poor. I knew there was something bugging me with that new Warthog! The H1 hog had feedback when you hit stuff; what made Bungie remove it? Heck, by now you'd think they'd have given us a bit of feedback even from the surfaces and bumps you go over; that would add a lot to the feel, as any fan of driving games will know. At least vehicles give feedback when taking fire though.

Enemy vehicles are way too lethal

I feel that enemy vehicles are way too lethal, and also too robust against small-arms fire. I think that's going to greatly limit the ways you can viably and enjoyably tackle them, and that's a shame. Ghosts and Brute vehicles can scythe you down or destroy your own vehicle in just a couple of seconds - or practically in the space of a breath on Legendary. It's so unforgiving, and has been regularly aggravating me. In regard to taking down vehicles on foot, yes you can potentially be clever and score a hit with a plasma ball to temporarily immobilize them, and then grenade them or something, but it can be a tough job to get that immobilizing shot off without getting killed (and it hardly helps that the plasma pistol has pretty much lost its homing ability).

Overall, my impression so far is that I'd like to see enemy vehicles be at least 50% less lethal, and at least 50% less robust against small-arms fire. Some people might argue that their current qualities make things more realistic, but in this case I think gameplay concerns ought to come first.

Damage effects

One thing that does please me about vehicles is the very satisfying way they explode or take damage. Bungie does explosions particularly well I think. It's a pity enemy vehicles are so robust against small-arms fire, but if you've got anything more explosive you can have a fine time messing up somebody's pride and joy. The one exception to all this is the Banshee, which annoyingly doesn't seem to smoke up as it takes damage. I say more about that below.

Warthog

Give me the H1 version any day. This thing has a weak whiny engine sound that makes it seem like it's constantly straining to keep going. Horrible. And as I've already mentioned, there's no feedback when you have a nasty prang.

Mongoose

Aha, nice to see the long-promised ATV at last! It seems pretty nippy and I quite like it. I've overturned quite a bit yet often remained seated as if practically glued in! I suspect Bungie deliberately made the seat a bit sticky like that so you don't keep getting thrown off when you drive a bit wildly or suffer nearby explosions. Probably a good decision for fun gameplay.

Scorpion

I'm still a bit shaky driving this thing as it works quite differently to the H1 version. Being able to aim independently of where you're going is an important feature of course, so I'm all for that upgrade, which I recall was also in H2. But I'm finding the driving very twitchy. Hopefully it'll get better with time.

Hornet

An interesting newcomer! I'm getting the hang of the controls now, but I still tend to dismount from great height occasionally when I hit the wrong button. Ouch! As a flying experience I have to say that I don't enjoy it anything like as much as zipping about in a Banshee in H1, and it feels a bit sluggish. But I love the distinctive hollow drumming machine-gun sound. And from the havoc I'm wreaking, those rounds must be seriously lethal. As for the guided rockets, they're a load of fun too of course. I'm starting to get decent at taking down Scarabs with this thing now, after a fumbling start that would've seen me thrown out of cyborg pilot camp pronto!

Ghost

Manoeuvrable and lethal. By now I'm getting used to shooting Grunt pilots out of their seats, whether with a battle rifle or a Ghost of my own. Pesky critters.

Banshee

Can you even get to use one? The game doesn't seem to provide any and I've not been able to hijack one; I'm not sure it lets you do that anywhere. As for enemy use, you get the chance to blast some with a Hornet, but it's disappointing not to get much chance of bringing down Banshees from the ground. You get attacked by a pair near the start of The Covenant, but that's pretty much it!

Then again, bringing them down with small-arms fire isn't anything like as much fun as it was in H1 anyway, as Banshees seem hugely more resilient and no longer smoke up as they take damage. I'm particularly vexed and annoyed at that lack of smoking up. That was a great feature in H1. It looked realistic, was something you'd expect, and crucially it gave you a fair idea of what progress you were making. But the H3 Banshees? Fire at them with a battle rifle or suchlike and you've got no idea what damage you're doing. There's consequently no build-up of tension at all, and when the thing finally goes boom it's a flat experience. Bungie, hang your head in shame.

Wraith

A real pain in the neck when used against you. Being more used to the H1 variety, these things came as a bit of a shock. The plasma shot comes in a lot faster and with devilish accuracy; and the operator seems unreasonably good at spotting you. I'm still learning how best to tackle them but at least you can potentially board them and turn the tables, giving some covies a plasma-whuppin' they won't soon forget.

Chopper

I hate the way this clumsy beast manoeuvres so I'm loathe to get into one. However, its cannon is devastating and also has incredible range as I found out in The Ark. You know the bit where you get to a rise, and off in the distance are a few Wraiths and stuff, including an AA Wraith? You can take out all of that hardware with cannon fire from way back near your entrance. The sniping platforms too. As I hate the driving though, I'll be looking into other ways of tackling stuff.

Prowler

This two-ape job seems to skim along fairly smoothly, but that's pretty irrelevant as I don't expect to be clambering into one any time soon - just dealing with ones manned by Brutes. Killing the pilot leaves the gunner stranded and looking like a right idiot.

Other hardware

Shade turret

Wow, Shades have come on a bit since the old H1 armour-tickler! This is a completely different beast and really packs a punch. It seems to give the gunner a lot of protection and be extremely robust against small arms fire - which is frustrating. I'm still getting used to tackling them, but one thing I've noticed is that if you pepper the Shade from quite far away, the gunner temporarily dismounts which gives you chance to shoot him. But why is he dismounting, and why does this seemingly only happen when you're relatively far off?

Scarab

Yes, the giant steel bugs are back, and I have to say that they provide a heck of a spectacle. The visuals and soundwork are superb and the plasma fire looks fantastic. And when those things blow… wow, that's quite an effect. Great work from Bungie on these things. It took me a while to get to grips with tackling them, and to begin with I thought you always had to board them to get to the sensitive bit. It was only later that I realized you can blast off the back to then blast the sensitive bit - ideally with a Hornet.

Phantom

Unpleasantly lethal with its cannons! But it's a delight to be able to blow them to smithereens in a beautifully animated explosion - or at least to destroy the swivelling cannon on its underside. Oh, and I'm starting to get sneaky by throwing a plasma grenade to take out the troops as they hit the ground - for example at the end of Sierra 117 if you get there quick enough.

Skulls

The optional gameplay effects you can enable via the skulls are a valuable addition - and thankfully you can get skull directions on the web, a big relief for those of us with no great desire to drive ourselves crazy searching!

On the jokey side, the Grunt Birthday Party skull is a wonderful bit of fun. When Grunts get killed with a headshot (whether by yourself or allies), there's a pop and a little explosion of confetti, and the sound of small children cheering "Yaaaaayy!". It's truly inspired and I'm seriously worried that I'm going to find it hard to play the game without it! Another goodie is the Cowbell skull, which makes explosions bigger. Meanwhile the Catch skull turns things into grenade city! Enemies and Marines throw loads of grenades and drop more when killed. Even Jackals drop grenades!

On the more serious side you've got various skulls for enhancing the enemy, to give you more of a challenge. I've barely started to explore these yet but I'm sure they're going to be really useful in making for some tough challenges. That's something I was very into with H1 because standard play can eventually become too routine, even on Legendary. With H1 it was a case of imposing restrictions such as limiting myself to only certain weapons, or forbidding myself the use of vehicles. With H3 I'll additionally be able to use these skull effects, and it's great news. There are also some skulls that are more to do with detracting from your own abilities, but I'm not sure I'll be as interested in those.

The Iron skull seems like a wasted slot. If you want to play on a 'die and it's over' basis, as I invariably did with H1, you don't need a skull to enforce it; you can just restart the level manually if you die. Think what we could've had instead. How about an 'Infinite Ammo' skull so we could use our favourite weapons all the way through a level? Non-stop carefree Brute shot rampage, here I come! Or what about a 'Weapon Randomizer' skull that would randomize what weapons you encounter, even throwing in items you wouldn't normally get on that level? Lots of novelty there, and you'll have the fun of never knowing quite what you'll find. E.g. imagine getting hold of a fuel rod gun in Sierra 117. Yes please!

Theatre mode

The Theatre mode is hopefully going to provide a fair bit of fun to play with. I look forward to watching battles unfold, watching how individual enemies behave, and so on. It's a great frustration that its functionality is so limited though. There's no way to jump to a particular time to watch a bit you're interested in, and apparently the ability to create a film clip (which could have been used as a convenient way of watching a particular section repeatedly) failed to make it into the game - as did rewinding. These missing features are probably going to mean I won't use the mode anything like as much as I otherwise would, but still, I'm grateful for what we got.

Campaign scoring

I've only had this switched on once so far, just to see what happens. Can't see any info in the manual about how the scoring works, but I suppose I'm meant to go and hunt around Bungie's website for the details. Scoring might be a relevant feature for me if it can be used as a way of providing interesting challenges, but that remains to be seen. It'll depend on whether the scoring is based on anything I'm actually interested in measuring myself by. The timer will definitely be useful though, if and when I start doing kill 'em all speed runs like I do in H1.

Miscellaneous minor gripes

Here are some relatively minor gripes I'll list while I'm here. I could've included more but I didn't want you to think I'm too mean.

Repetitive scripting

At certain places in the gameplay, certain characters will say certain things. For example, in Sierra 117 there's a place where the Arbiter will say "Grenades! Blow them to bits!". Quite why he wants to blow grenades to bits I don't know, because they could actually come in jolly handy - but that's another matter. My point is that these scripted lines get really repetitive. In a game intended for extensive replaying, such lines should be minimized or varied, to help keep things from feeling so predictable.

Inappropriate enemy behaviour

Just as in H1, you can get situations where you snipe a distant enemy yet his colleagues continue ambling around casually or whatever, which is completely unbelievable. They should go to a state of alertness! Another example of inappropriate behaviour is when an enemy snaps out of battle alertness just because he's lost sight of you for a few seconds or something. Frankly it surprises me that these two issues should still be around; I wouldn't have thought it would be too hard to upgrade the AI to resolve them. The only reason I've classed this as a minor gripe is that I'm long used to it with H1. If I was coming to H3 as a newcomer, I think I'd feel shocked at how primitive the AI is in these respects.

No ammo packs

Strangely, there seem to be no ammo packs around for battle rifles and whatnot. If you want more ammo it's a case of finding a weapon rather than ammo on its own. That may not make a lot of difference combat-wise but I find it unrealistic not to see ammo packs. I find it especially unrealistic that there aren't any with those big green weapon pods dropped by Pelicans. You've got this huge pod and it'll maybe contain a half-full battle rifle, and that's it!

Weapon removal

The game potentially removes weapons when you move on, even if you deliberately picked one up temporarily, hoping to keep it in the game (as you could do in H1). That's annoyed me a few times when I've backtracked for weaponry. Actually I'm sort of surprised that things get removed at all, given the 360's capabilities. Couldn't the state of things in old areas be fully recorded, then reloaded if you move back to them? I want persistency.

Weapons vanishing into scenery

As in H1, when you throw a weapon down it can sometimes disappear into the scenery - usually through the ground I think. Quite annoying if it was an item you were only putting down temporarily!

Exact aim preservation

As in H1, your aim is exactly preserved when you switch weapons, something unrealistic that I'd sooner be without. Aim preservation allows you to exploit a scoped weapon to artificially improve the aim for another weapon. In particular, aiming with a sniper rifle then switching to a rocket launcher. Some players will like that of course, but with me it jars reality too much and if I exploited it I'd feel like I'm cheating. For that reason I often jiggle my aim a bit after switching, in cases where I'd otherwise be getting the benefit. Thing is, I seem to recall that H2 sensibly applied a bit of aim-jiggle when you switched. But if that's the case, why the change of heart? Did too many gamers complain, or did the programmers just forget this subtlety?

Distorted motion tracker

I wish the motion tracker wasn't so distorted; that makes it harder to gauge directions so well. Ok it doesn't make a huge amount of difference, but if these HUD element are meant to be things projected into MC's view somehow, the display would surely be arranged so he actually sees the tracker as a disc, not a wonky glob.

Malfunctioning flashlight

In Tsavo Highway my flashlight was turning itself off after a few seconds, when I was looking about for supplies in some of the darker low buildings. We had flashlights with a life of their own in H2 as well. Grrr…

Suspended grenades and stuff

You sometimes see grenades lying a few inches up off a surface. Sometimes other things too, such as bodies, and it's distracting and unrealistic of course. I'd be interested in hearing the technical explanation for why this can happen.

No option to quit without saving

There's no option for quitting a level without saving; something I'm often interested in doing, either because I don't want to have to wait around while a save is done, or more importantly, because I don't want to overwrite my current save (maybe I want to replay it later). If you want to avoid overwriting you can quit to the dashboard then reload, but that's an annoyingly clumsy thing to have to do. I want a fast 'QUIT' option. Actually that could replace 'SAVE AND QUIT', taking you to an option screen in which you'd select whether to save or not.

Vibrating control pad when out of gameplay

When waiting to revert or restart or quit, your control pad potentially keeps vibrating if you're doing so at a time when you're being attacked. H1 did that too; it's always been annoying. Once you're out of the game, you shouldn't be getting vibration feedback from it.

Bogus mission

Just on a point of neatness and sense, what is the Arrival cutscene doing masquerading as a mission on its own? Why isn't it simply included as the opening cutscene of the real first mission, Sierra 117? Because that's basically what it is. Maybe by separating it out, Bungie was able to shave a second or two off the loading time for Sierra 117? But even if so, its still messy. And in any case, other levels often start with cutscenes, and you can just skip them if you're not interested. Somewhat laughably there's even a medal displayed for Arrival. "Hey dude, I've just cracked Arrival on Legendary!". Awesome!

Too many blank screens

You get way too many blank screens with this game, sometimes lasting up to around 12 seconds. In particular you get them just before gameplay starts up after loading, and on quitting. I don't know what's going on in those delays - nor would that make any difference - but it seem bizarrely unpolished to have whopping great chunks of blankness in your presentation. It's analogous to 'dead air' on the radio. Ok it doesn't affect gameplay, but it's part of the overall experience and worth a comment because it stands out like a sore thumb.

Non-uniform loading progress bars

The progress bar for loading a level is very non-uniform, being painfully slow to start with, then suddenly speeding up - usually when it gets to around 20% or so. As such, it's awful as an indication of how long you're going to have to wait - which is the basic point of a progress bar.

Text is often too small

On my conventional widescreen TV - not a hi-def model but still a good size - a lot of the text is uncomfortably small and ill-defined, especially the lowercase lettering. And if you're going to tell me the game is designed for hi-def TVs and the text is perfectly clear on those, I'm going to scream. Games should not pander exclusively to hi-def until that's the overwhelming norm. They should have the flexibility to cope decently with older TVs too. And in this particular case, it's not as if there wasn't enough screen space for using slightly larger and more substantial fonts.

So why this and not Halo 2?

So how come I'm enjoying H3 so much - horrendous draw distance flaw aside - when I completely rejected Halo 2? I think these are the biggest reasons:

  1. No playing as the Arbiter!
  2. This time, the way so many things are different from H1 - particularly the nuances of weapons and aliens - isn't coming as a nasty shock.
  3. The Grunts have been much improved from H2, to the extent that although they remain quite different from the H1 originals, they're a very amusing bunch in their own right. Plus there's the Grunt Birthday Party skull!
  4. I'm not fighting the Elites, whose altered character and animation grated on me so badly.
  5. Sniper Jackals have been toned down and made easier to spot by giving them glowing eyepieces.
  6. No dumbass boss battles. Did I just say 'dumbass'? Yes, apparently I did. That just slipped out sorry.
  7. The revised Brute shot is a major new draw.

Actually, now that I've got used to some H2-like features via H3, maybe I'll even go back and give H2 another look if I see a really cheap copy - if only to compare things with H3 out of interest. Hey, maybe I'll even enjoy it! Yeah right, and there goes a flying pig…