Bigger. Badder. Better. There's your three-word review for "Halo 3."
No game could live up to the unprecedented hype heaped upon Microsoft's latest entry in its popular video-game series -- this one marking the debut of the first-person shooter on the Xbox 360 -- but "Halo 3" comes admirably close.
The legendary armored hero Spartan-117, aka the Master Chief, returns in the third installment of the 26th-century sci-fi epic. This time, the battleground is a ravaged Earth, with the Master Chief leading humanity in a final showdown against the Covenant with the help of a handful of defectors from that alien civilization. Even bigger menaces are the mutating creatures of the Flood, adversaries so wicked that a world-ending invasion can come in the form of a single spore from the parasitic race.
Powered by the high-definition graphics of the Xbox 360, "Halo 3" looks more dazzling than ever. The levels through which you fight as the Master Chief are huge. Eye candy includes sunlight glinting off of the battle-pitted metal of your armor, rippling reflections in a stream of running water and even the elegant load-up screen that starts each new episode.
Among the cool new weapons is the gravity hammer, a long-handled alien device that the Master Chief can pilfer from a downed foe and use to deliver a ground-shaking wallop to opponents, who are sent flying. In close quarters, it provides grin-inducing devastation.
"Halo 2" offered an enjoyable romp for single players, but it staked its reputation on its thriving multiplayer mode. "Halo 3" provides a deeper experience for those who want to play the game alone. Even on normal difficulty, the game will take more than a dozen hours to complete -- and you'll probably want to play again as soon as it ends.
"Halo 3" is not perfect, although its annoyances amount to quibbles. Some ground vehicles remain a chore to control, even when the computer takes over driving. Missions often involve repeatedly traversing the same ground. And I long for maps in the game, instead of the occasional directional arrows that guide the action.
The story can be disjointed. Nonetheless, it will hold surprises for longtime fans, with plot twists that include changing alliances among enemies and allies.
As with its predecessor, "Halo 3" lives and dies -- again and again -- by its multiplayer and online features. One innovation is the ability to record your battles and watch them again. It sounds iffy, but it was a blast to review fighting footage, especially since you can vary the camera angle to provide a third-person perspective. Considering that some battles can take more than an hour to complete, it's a real cinematic kick to sit back and admire your handiwork. The developers even added a wrinkle by allowing players to share their custom-made films and screen shots with other gamers via Xbox Live.
Another new feature is the Forge, a mode that allows up to eight players cooperatively to create multiplayer maps in which to skirmish against one another. The maps can be uploaded for sharing, too.
Those who pop for the Limited Edition, which costs $10 more than the $60 standard version, will get a second disc with DVD-like background features. One featurette shows the long hours that went into the game's development. As employees recount middle-of-the-night work amid a looming deadline, a security guard at Bungie's office says, "24/7, there's always someone here."
With its many new features, bigger setting and high replay value, "Halo 3" will be garnering that same round-the-clock devotion from gamers, too.