Review of Halo 3

I binged on Halo 3 to review it for the paper, so here’s what it’s going to look like come Saturday. For extra effect, I thought I’d toss in a trailer. The review follows.

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If youre going to ask me if Halo 3 lives up to the hype, Ill tell you no.

But take this into account: At the L.A. midnight release, a guy dressed as the Master Chief showed up. Amidst the cheers, a fan standing in line trembled and then kneeled, were-not-worthy style, in front of him. Youd have thought the Chief walked on water to get to Universal CityWalk. No game can live up to that kind of worship.

But while Halo 3 isnt a religious epiphany on disc, you can certainly count it as one of the better total first-person shooter experiences you can find on a console.

I started with campaign mode, which attempts to wrap up the story of the Master Chief and his battle with the alien race called the Covenant. Like the previous two installments, the game visually plunges you into a variety of rich, vast environments. If youre not shooting Covenant foes in a subterranean base, youre blasting apart creepy-crawlies in a slimy space cruiser.

The game does a pretty good job of flexing some of the 360s graphic muscle, especially in large-scale battles your first confrontation with the walking Scarab tank is one to remember.

I also liked some of the new weapons, my favorite being the gravity hammer, good for one-hit deathblows and the occasional sight of the enemy flying into the air. I also liked rolling around in the Brute Chopper, a motorcycle with a huge front wheel that can annihilate things it runs into at full speed.

The series storytelling and atmosphere have been a little underrated, but I was genuinely entertained by most of the Halo 3 dialogue and cutscenes. Theres some particularly solid voicework done by Keith David, reprising his role as the Arbiter.

What I didnt like in the campaign mode was the backtracking. For some missions, I kept having to return to areas I already visited, either to kill some more enemies or hit some kind of button that activated something important. That took a chunk of the rush away for me.

I also couldnt help but be constantly reminded of other first-person shooters that came out before this one.
For instance, there are times when a voice invades the Chiefs head, reminiscent of The Darkness.
When you step into the gooey hallways of the crashed ship of the Flood (a race of infected biological freaks), the appearance of organic, orifice-like doorways and pulsating stuff conjures up memories of Prey. I was halfway expecting some random hole in the shop to vomit on me.

While the campaign was just OK, the games online options are superb.

You can send photos and share movies of your exploits (like highlight reels) with the rest of the Xbox Live community with the theater feature. Theres also the forge option, which lets players customize (not build) the games maps, giving them control of everything from spawn points to the kinds of weapons that are available (and where). Players can then hop online and give the retooled map a spin. You could literally spend a day just messing around with this with your friends.

However, I ran into some issues when it came to just simple online fighting. Im not sure if it was the heavy traffic of opening week, but I was fighting lag every time I was out there.

I tried the much-anticipated online co-op feature. While it was mostly fun (theres really nothing like playing together), I fought some lag here as well. I also didnt like the fact that if one person in your party has to jump out of the game, the game ends for everyone you cant press on without him or her. That hurts it can turn any party member into a potentail buzzkill, and thats no fun.

As far as the total package goes, few games come as fully stocked as Halo 3. Die-hard fans will probably look past its flaws. I will keep playing it, and keep enjoying it but my knees are staying off the ground.

Boo scratched Halo discs!

By now, you may have heard about the problem Halo fans are having with their limited edition versions of “Halo 3.” Turns out the game and bonus discs aren’t exactly secure in that cool metal case the game comes in — so the discs tumble like laundry and get nicked up. The AP wrote a business story about it.

Because I’m an idiot, I didn’t think this would happen to me. Or, rather, I hoped.

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WRONG!!! (if you can’t see the scratches, I’m sorry. But trust me … they were there.)

I should note that my game actually worked, and I managed to finish the single player campaign. But I wanted to share the twinge of fear with all of you. I can only imagine what some people felt when they pried off the shrinkwrap and security tape, only to find their dream of finishing the fight destroyed by a bad disc. Death by packaging.

Microsoft is working on the problem, offering to replace the bad discs. Here’s the official statement:

We have identified that there are some instances of blemishes on discs as a result of the packaging of the Halo 3 Limited Edition. It is related only to the Halo 3 Limited Edition version of the game. This is a small fraction of the total number of Halo 3 games shipped and sold, and is a limited production version of the game. We are currently investigating the scope of this situation and notwithstanding the outcome of the investigation, we have implemented a plan to address it. We encourage anyone experiencing these issues to go to xbox.com/support and click on the Halo 3 Limited Edition disc replacement link. We will be replacing these discs and apologize for the inconvenience.

And you can find a story on the whole problem here.

Back from the Halo 3 launch

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Tonight I saw the Master Chief, screaming gamers and screaming little girls.

One of the great things about this job is that it lets you experience stuff you’d otherwise never do. I’ve never been part of a launch event where people camp out in lawn chairs. But, since the “Halo 3″ release is kind of a big deal, I took a camera and hung out with the diehards. I had to file the daily story a little early, but I stuck around until midnight. The following are my personal highlights. Join me on the journey!

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Perhaps not the most eloquent statement of support for a game character, but this lets you know what kind of fans the “Halo” series has in its stable. There were people dressed in green, and a LOT of people with some kind of Halo shirt on, but nothing said it quite like this. I also had a shot of the dudes holding the sign, but my stupid self is in the reflection of the window. I fail at photography.

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These guys showed up early for a “speed run” through the first “Halo” game for the Xbox. Good thing they had the big screens, so people waiting in line could see how they were doing. If you don’t know what a speed run is, it’s essentially blazing through a game in record time. Look on the Web, and you can see games beaten in under 20 minutes. Scary.

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This display of the Master Chief was in the store when I got there. The real Chief wasn’t showing up until later at night, so I figured staring at this would help.

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Some fans get their stuff signed, this dude got his paper graded. The “student” in this case was Hans Leon of San Bernardino, who actually wrote a paper on the “Halo” phenomenon for a school assignment. The grader was Allen Murray of Bungie, one of the producers of “Halo 3″ who showed up for the launch event. As you can see, Murray gave him him high marks. That’s good … it would have been totally awkward if he thought the paper sucked.

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The guy in the middle is Jonty Barnes of Bungie, the executive producer of “Halo 3″ and a guy who was literally dodging worshippers throughout a chunk of the day. I managed to steal a few minutes to talk with him, just shooting the breeze with him about all things “Halo.” One point he brought up about Halo’s popularity is how “anyone can be the Master Chief.” True, but I always found that odd — out of all the franchise characters in gaming, the Chief is the one with the least flashiest personality. I’ll elaborate more on our talk in another entry this week.

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One of the highlights of the day was the “Halo 3″ tournament, which featured 32 players, 2 screens and a 3 frag limit. The crowd chatter was funny, especially the “ohhhh” after someone got killed. The best reactions came when someone picked up the gravity hammer, a new melee weapon that sends the enemy flying through the air like a ball of Barry Bonds’ bat. Deeply satisfying. The winner of the tournament was Chris Brubaker of L.A., who was also the first guy in line. That’s a hell of a day. Props to him, since he was there since freakin’ SUNDAY morning.

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I wanted to play with this thing. I don’t think the GameStop people would have appreciated it, though. Come on, who doesn’t like articulated moving parts?

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That’s Kristin Holt of G4 in front of the crowd of fans. She was another person who a lot of people wanted to take pictures with (most of them guys), and I couldn’t remember a moment where she wasn’t smiling from ear to ear. I wonder what it’s like to be that happy. I’d expound more, but you’re not listening at this point. Go ahead, stare at the picture. I’ll wait.

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Chief, thank god you’re here! By far, the biggest reaction I’ve heard for a man in costume. The air was filled with the testosterone-laced howls of “CHIEEEEF!!” as he was walking along the line. Very cool costume, by the way, but I’m told that this was nothing compared to the one at Comicon, where he was apparently mobbed. What cracked me up was how some of the photogs there talked to the Chief like a real star celebrity: “Master Chief, over here! To the right, Master Chief!” You watch … he’ll be rocking the ice on the battlefield in no time.

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I just noticed that he was standing next to a Wii banner — just now. That wasn’t planned. But I see some humor in it — two different worlds of gaming right there.

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The fresh face in the middle there is Zac Efron, the “it” kid who starred in “High School Musical.” And yes, I just looked that up. Efron is apparently a very skilled Halo player, and he showed up to sell the first copy of “Halo 3″ to the first person in line. We (the media) got cleared out of the room for a chunk of time so Efron could get in some game time and mill around with the developers. They let us back in for a few minutes before the sale was about to happen.

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Check out the new “Halo 3″ Xbox 360. Looks pretty cool, and there were some people who wanted to pick this up along with the game. I wish I had that kind of money to drop. If only it game with the shield system like the Spartan armor. If this gets the red rings, is it a sign?

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Overshadowing the 360 was the controller, which I couldn’t stop looking at. Props to the artist. If I were a big “Halo” fan, I’d think about getting one of these.

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Wow. That’s a lot of cameras on one sale. Flanking young Zac is Kevin Frazier of “Entertainment Tonight” and the really cheerful GameStop employee who seemed to be taught by the same happiness sensei as Kristin Holt. Efron didn’t actually ring the dude up, but he did give him a signed poster.

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That’s Brubaker (tourney winner and first guy in line) on the left for the obligatory “exchange” shot. I even remember saying, “Fellas, over here” at one point. It felt wrong, all wrong. This is the shot that practically ended my night, and I walked out to a line that was at least a few hundred strong, all chanting “Halo 3! Halo 3!” Someone asked me how long I thought it would take for everyone to be processed. I guessed at least an hour and a half. At this point, what’s the rush? It’s not like he wasn’t going to play it all night.

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This guy was so pumped. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I got the game on Saturday : )

Finish the fight — in nine hours

You’d think that Universal CityWalk would be a WiFi hotzone. You would also be wrong.

I’m writing this from a Jillian’s, since they seem to be one of the few places around here that has WiFi access. It helps that it’s a grenade’s throw away from the GameStop store, where people are already outside waiting for Halo 3.

GameStop and MS are gearing up for the big “Midnignt Madness” event, and I’ve already run into someone that’s been in line since SUNDAY. Even the manager here at the restaurant said he saw people hanging out as early as Saturday. I have no idea how these people do it.

On the agenda is a Halo 3 tournament as well as an appearance by young Zac Efron, who’s apparently big into Halo and will play the winner of the tournament.

The district manager of GameStop said they’re trying to get prepped for a range of 200 -1000 people. That’s a hell of a range, but I can see up to 1,000 people rolling up here. I was also told that they have more than enough copies of the game to accommodate people in line. A lot of the pre-orders were for the Legendary or limited editions. The Legendary edition comes with the Master Chief’s helmet … yeah, I’m not getting that. Where would I put it?

Anyway, I’m going to be hanging out here until the midnight release. I missed the last Halo launch, so there’s a part of me that wants to see what it’s like. If anything, it’ll make for great people watching.

See you soon.

Heavenly Sword … wow.

I played this before Friday’s All Game Interactive and I just got done filing the review. I need to own a PS3. I know we’re days away from Halo, but I just had to share. Part of me is surprised — I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the game as much as I did.

For the sake of archive purposes, I’m going to start slapping my reviews up here. Our system has a way of wiping them out after a while.

So, here’s the review for Heavenly Sword, coming in hard copy over the weekend:

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Heres a great formula for success: When in doubt, get a smoking-hot redhead to kill lots of people with a sword.
Thats what I got when I unsheathed Heavenly Sword, a short, powerful experience that swarms the player with a combination of slashaway action, some gameplay innovation and cinematics fit for a Hollywood fantasy epic.
From the beginning, this Ninja Theory-designed project was being tagged as one of the must-have titles for the PlayStation 3. For the most part, this game lives up that billing.

You play the part of Nariko, a warrior maiden charged with protecting (and eventually wielding) the Heavenly Sword, a multifaceted blade that only a god is supposed to handle. If anyone else tries to use it, their life slips away. Naturally, armies of bad people want this thing, and it eventually falls to Nariko to destroy them all. And as players will find out, shes really REALLY good at it.

The only other character that whips more backside than Nariko is probably Kratos, the walking Spartan death-bringer from the God of War series. As many gamers have already pointed out, the furious combat and gameplay mechanics have led many to jokingly call this game Goddess of War or some other colorful names I probably cant put here.

Theres no getting around it if youve played God of War, then youll be well-prepared for some of the button-mashing chaos youll find here. You essentially have two attack buttons you can use to assemble some deadly, blood-spilling combos. Youll also run into plenty of timed-button sequences, either during boss fights or other times where Nariko has to pull off some eye-catching stuntwork (like running across a gigantic rope or hopping off a falling stone platform before it crashes).

However, despite those similarities, the game does a solid job of defining Nariko as a character through subtle wrinkles in gameplay and fighting style. Nariko is a more sophisticated fighter than Kratos the Heavenly Sword gives her command of several stances that have their own strengths and weaknesses during battle. She can split the sword in two for regular attacks, combine it for extra power, or break it up to attack multiple enemies.

Shes also adept at unleashing some wicked counter-attacks when she blocks. Time it right, and shell do everything from crack necks with her legs to launching an enemy across the room with a nasty kick to the groin.
Mastery of all these moves is essential to being effective in battle and also leads to some outstanding action sequences. One scene has Nariko fighting a bunch of her fellow clansmen, so she has the option of paralyzing them instead of killing them.

The Sixaxis function of the Sony controller gets plenty of work here as well. As the player, youll be asked to man catapults, shoot arrows or hurl bladed weapons. Using a feature the game calls aftertouch, the camera follows the projectile while you to steer it into the intended target. Its a cool feature in concept, but it was by far the most frustrating part of the game. It felt odd and not as responsive as it should have been, so I missed more than a share of targets at first. Plus, aftertouch seems to laugh at the laws of physics. It was just plain weird being able to make a cannonball actually curve upward after being fired, or make an arrow almost do a 180-degree turn.
You cant really avoid aftertouch either there are some missions and tasks that actually require it, so be prepared for some controller-hurling moments.

The most memorable parts of the game are the cinematic sequences. Simply put, they are on another level.
Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) helped develop and write the characters, and the end result is some of the best voice work, dialogue and directing Ive ever seen in a game.

Serkis portrayal of the twisted King Bohan is very memorable (especially when it comes to facial expressions). I wanted to both laugh at him in addition to kill him. The first meeting between him and Nariko is one for the ages, when Nariko first draws out the Heavenly Sword.

Speaking of the heroine, Anna Torv does an outstanding job of bringing the Nariko character to life, giving her an elegant, simmering strength as opposed to Kratos oozing rage.

Overall, my time with Heavenly Sword was time will spent, and it made the 360 owner in me feel a twinge of jealousy.

Good grades = games?

Check out this story about a GameStop manager in Texas who’s only going to sell games to kids with good grades.

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By Jeff Brady/ WFAA-TV

Imagine a video game shop that reinforces good grades instead of undermining them?

Well that’s just what we found at one retail store along I-20 where the manager, who happens to be married to a teacher, asks kids about school before making a sale.

He’s not exactly a video game MVP but he wants every school-age client to know about another set of letters.

“He needs to be reading a book. He knows how to play Madden before he knows how to do his ABCs and 123s – that’s backwards!” said GameStop manager Brandon Scott.

Scott manages a popular GameStop in south Dallas – and started a new policy this summer on his own.

No school-age customer can buy a video game unless an adult confirms that the child’s getting good grades in school.

GameStop doesn’t endorse or even know about the good-grade rule.

“I’m probably going to get in trouble for this, but to me it’s worth it, because the kids understand that somebody cares,” said Scott.

So far, parents and other adults like the concept.

“Well it makes sense. Why reward a kid with a game when he’s not doing good in school?” said customer Robert Coulter.

So far, Scott has refused about two dozen sales.

But he says most of the students come back later, with good grades, to make a purchase.

And Scott has other unwritten policies.

“They know when they come in here, they do not curse, they do not use the N-word, pull your clothes up,” Scott said.

He’s even pledged to buy any video for a student on one condition.

“If you give me straight As with your teachers signature, endorsing it and your parent up here, I’ll buy you a brand new game,” Scott said.

“I was like, man he’s going lose his job! But no I don’t think so because I think there’s got to be a point at which you put the kids and the value of education over the dollar,” said Ann Fields.

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This week … Stranglehold.

If you’ve heard AGI’s E3 coverage or know just a little bit about me as a gamer, you can probably guess that Stranglehold is very high on my list of must-play games. It’s John Woo in all of his over-the-top action glory, complete with the orgy of slow-motion shots and random doves that flutter at peak moments of cool. You’ve also got Chow Yun-Fat reprising the role of hardass Inspector Tequila, very gifted in the art of dealing death.

Skeptics (myself included) scoffed at the game when it was first announced, thinking that it would be another subpar title with some big names attached to it. Then came E3, where I first got to play the demo. I couldn’t peel myself away from it — I’ve never seen that much stuff shatter on one screen. I’ve always liked to break things as a kid (at one point, I wanted to blow stuff up for a living) and now here I was, blasting apart a Hong Kong marketplace. No fruit stand was safe.

Then the demo came out on Xbox Live, and I can’t think of any demo that’s been on Live that’s been so well received by people on my buddy list.

I get the game (hopefully) tomorrow, but the review will have to wait until next week. This week, me and the wife are tackling Carnival Games on the Wii. Sort of a departure from the goodness that was Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, but it’s the first time we’ve played together since Wii Sports.

If you want to see the trailer, remember … the game is rated M. There’s a lot of blood, and a lot of guns.

Master P and Seth Green are making a game. Really.

Good god almighty. You can thank the Hollywood Reporter for breaking the news on what is one of the weirdest creative unifications in gaming.

Master P, the new-album-per-month rapper and Seth Green, the creator of Robot Chicken, are slated to work on a hip-hop themed role-playing game called “Playing the Industry.” The goal of the game is to work your way up to elite status in a variety of roles, be it a hip-hop mogul or a star athlete. The creators are already seeing the experience as more like The Sims, rather than like … I don’t know, Mass Effect?

Apparently, the group making the game hopes to expand the brand into other avenues like movies, TV and clothing. Sure. Why not?