September and October are what many would consider a “perfect storm” of video gaming. Not only are there too many triple-A titles coming out to count, but there simply isn’t enough hours in the day to play them all. On a personal level, I had to be picky in my game selections. I don’t have the income to simply purchase all of my gaming desires, at least not all at once. I decided to go with Halo 3, an obvious choice, and Skate, which was receiving quite warm reviews. I could have certainly picked up PGR4, Eternal Sonata or Half-Life: Orange Box (which drops tomorrow), but I figured PGR would eventually be a “greatest hit” and I could pick it up for $20 and Half-Life was probably more suited to the PC.
So… does Halo 3 live up to it’s expectations, and just how much fun is Skate?… you’ll find out, right after the jump.
You’d better sit down for this one. Halo 3, by all accounts, looks gorgeous, plays wonderfully, has a great multiplayer system and has more little Bungie extras than you can shake a warthog at. However, as many 10/10 and 100% ratings it might receive elsewhere, I’m going to break convention and be a little more harsh. The second coming of God, this game simply isn’t.
Let’s start with the graphics, which truly are a vast improvement over the original Xbox’s Halo 1 and 2. The environments are varied and lush, the particle effects are top knotch, all those things you would expect from a next-gen game. Where I feel Halo 3 really shines, or at least where the technical aspects of the game engine are really solid, is the lighting. Moving from indoors to outdoors, the quality of light, the high dynamic range, all these thing are done very well and very believably. So, the game is pretty. What it unfortunately is not is very original. I understand the need to “keep things in the same universe”, I get that. But do the interiors of nearly every building need to look the same as every single level from the first two games. That was actually one of my biggest complaints with the previous games, that the environments, while varying in their length and depth, are really just the same place with the same textures. Halo 3 does try and combat this problem, with levels ranging from the jungle to the snow to alien, umm ships? But, while I can pick out 4 or 5 memorable and original landscapes, I can also pick out at least a dozen buildings that seem similar and repetitive. That’s not to say that it wasn’t planned considering that the story takes you back to familiar places, but this is alien technology we’re talking about, surely they had some variety on whatever planet they came from.
I suppose we should move on to game play and the story. Let me save you some time. They changed the reload button. There. Done. If you’ve played Halo before, you’ve played this. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. You certainly don’t want to mess with something that works. There are a few little tweaks here and there. The ability to rip turrets from their tripods and carry them around is certainly a fun addition, but in the end, you’ve played this game before. Again, that’s not necessarily a criticism. As for the story… well, let’s just say that I was less than impressed. At times I was confused, at times I was wondering where the hell to go next and in the end (at the end) I just had a big giant WTF expression plastered all over my face. I won’t spoil it for you if you plan on playing it anytime soon, but you’ll see what I mean when you get there. All in all, I think it had about 8 hours of game play. And that’s exploring every nook and cranny. I started playing it on Friday and I was done by the Monday afternoon, playing it only in the spare time… and working on Saturday.
But, according to the vast horde of 12 year olds on the internet, the single player campaign isn’t where it’s at. It’s all about the multiplayer. Technically they’re right, but they’re also so very wrong. Halo 3 is the perfect game to play co-op. Co-op multiplayer is a perfect gem of bright, shiny goodness. I got in a few hours of co-op with Chris A. the other night and it was easily the most fun I’ve had in a while. Strait up multiplayer however, is riddled with spastic, drooling morons with microphones. It’s nearly unplayable to play Halo 3 outside of your buddylist. I have no desire to do so ever again.
What I would consider the biggest plus to the game and the multiplayer specifically is the addition of the Forge and the Game Editor. From these two options you can not only customize maps, but you can customize game play as well. There are a few dozen game play modes that come standard (Slayer, Domination, CTF, etc) but anyone can go in and tweak everything from spawn times, weapon load outs and points to things like health, physics, vehicles and custom power-ups. Users can then upload these game/map variants to Bungie’s online system for the whole Halo 3 community to share. Already there are things like “ninja pit” where everyone has a sword and active camo (invisibility). Or how about “rocket race” with dune buggies and rocket launchers? Personally I’ve made a very Quake/UT version of CTF where the flag carrier loses all their weapons but gains extra shields and health.
I actually enjoy making game variations more than I enjoy playing them. How crazy is that.
The last addition Bungie made to the game is the Theater. This is simply a replay system/battle recorder, like we’ve seen with various other games, only with the ability again to upload it to Bungie’s system for all to see. You can also take screenshots in rather high resolution, which is a nice touch for those of us (like me) who like to have their gaming triumphs as their desktop wallpaper. I think the Theater is a great idea and well implemented but should never be used by the average gamer. It now take so little effort for people to make Red vs Blue type scenes that it kind of takes away the mystique. I have little doubt that any moment now the flood of “I is l33t” Halo videos are going to start flooding youtube. It’s not that I don’t want to see you and your 12 year old friends playing Blood Gulch… no wait… that’s exactly what it is.
So, in conclusion, Halo 3 is a very strong game. It’s fun to play, has a ton of advancements over it’s predecessors, and more new features than the average player will know what to do with. It’s also repetitive, aggravating to play online and not the best thing since sliced bread. I have little doubt that my disappointment is caused, at least in some degree, by the level of hype that a game like Halo generates. Everyone had such high expectations that it’s very hard for the game to live up to them. It’s a seriously good game that should be purchased and enjoyed. It’s not game of the year material. It’s not the best game on the 360. It’s a game that I’m going to play, with people in my friends list, for the simple reason that everyone is going to have it. However, after games like CoD4 and Assassins Creed come out, I can safely say that Halo will be going back in the drawer and will probably only come out to play at LAN parties.
Having not played a skateboarding game for any system since the earlier Tony Hawk games, I didn’t have high expectations for SKATE. However, after reading reviews and playing the demo, I was pleasantly surprised. EA, while having butchered some of my favorite PC games, does do one thing right: sports games. Skateboarding is no exception. SKATE, at least in my opinion, was designed as a direct threat to the Tony Hawk crown. Since their inception, Tony Hawk games have relied on less than realistic physics, tricks and environments. SKATE takes the sport in the complete opposite direction. The world is huge and continuous and the name of the game is realism.
You can (and often have to) take the subway from one end of the map to the other. Of course, you don’t need to. Half the fun of SKATE is simply skating around. Every building, ledge, railing, ramp and obstacle is “naturally occurring” in the environment, with the exception of the skate parks, where believe it or not, you don’t spend the majority of your time.
Instead of insane TH style challenges, the goals and challenges are realistic (grind a rail 20+ feet) or technical (do a kickflip INTO a grind). There’s also an interesting undertone of “coverage” in local skate magazines and videos. You can, at will, pick a spot and continuously hammer at it to do the best trick and catch it all on video. The better the video, the more sponsors will pay attention to you.
This would also be a good time to bring up the video replay system in the game. Somehow, EA has managed to pull off a fairly full featured video editor INSIDE the game. You scrub back and forth through footage, you set markers, make cuts, change camera angles and speeds, the whole deal. You can then save you’re newly edited footage to your XBox or upload it to the SKATE website to share. There’s even a whole community website devoted to just user created footage (goonskate.com).
Visually, the game is unrivaled as far as skating games are concerned. It’s incredibly real looking and an incredible departure from the cartoonish world of Tony Hawk. The physics are down right scary as well, which only enhances the realism. Combine a fun to play single player aspect, with the ability to go online and skate around with your friends and the added bonus of a complete video editing package, you’ve got yourself one heck of a skateboarding game. I haven’t had this much fun with a skating game since freshman year of college.