When it released in 2007, Halo 3 had enormous expectations to live up to. The previous two games in the series defined the first person shooter genre on consoles in terms of single-player and multiplayer components, and many gamers looked to this third entry to do the same. On release, Halo 3 received almost universal praise, especially for its then innovative community tools like theater and forge mode. Criticisms, however, were mostly directed at the game’s single-player campaign. After eleven years, it’s time to set the record straight. Not only does Halo 3 have the best single-player of the entire series, but it is also a masterclass of player-driven design and is truly a timeless campaign.
Big but Controlled
Halo’s excellence as a game doesn’t just stem from its tight controls and formidable enemy AI. These elements matter of course, but what most defines Halo’s gameplay is its sandbox nature. Which two weapons will you carry into battle? What vehicle is best for the job at hand? Should you be aggressive or patient? Fighting through corridors isn’t necessarily bad, and these sections can often be an effective break from large-scale encounters. But the best levels in any Halo game are the ones that take advantage of the game’s sandbox by dropping you in a wide-open space and tasking you with choosing how you want to progress. These decisions, made on the fly and often so subtly you don’t really notice, are what define the series.
The missions in Halo: Combat Evolved, while starting with an opening salvo of incredible levels, started to become repetitive after the halfway mark. Many locations were reused while moving away from the big open spaces towards interiors that restricted player choice. Halo 2 contains very few missions that take place in open environments with most levels feeling constricted and tight. Halo 3, far and away, makes the best use of this sandbox. Levels in this game are often vast and sprawling with different firearms and pathways to make use of. This is the rule, not the exception, and, unlike Halo: Combat Evolved, each level feels meaningfully distinct from the last. Even the interior locations of this game are usually so big that there are several ways to approach firefights. There’s never just one way to proceed through a battle in Halo 3 and this is not only more fun, it makes each level almost infinitely replayable.
A Well Constructed Path
The levels’ varying sandboxes are also helped by level design that ensures you’re always engaged in a specific mode of play for the right amount of time. For example, Halo 3’s sixth mission “The Ark” begins with players engaging enemies on foot with a sniper rifle, then leads into a vehicle section with numerous modes of transport, then puts players in control of a tank, and closes with clearing out an enemy-infested tower. The level covers a lot of ground, but each piece feels like they have their own arc, their own beginning, middle, and end. Halo: Reach features levels that funnel players from different styles of play as well. But that game does so at a breathless pace so that by the time you’ve gotten comfortable driving a Warthog it’s time to get out and shoot through an interior.
There are some wonderfully paced levels in Halo: Reach, but, again, the remarkable thing about Halo 3’s campaign is the consistency of its near-perfect pacing. Even in levels like “Sierra 117,” where you’re on foot the whole time, or “Tsavo Highway,” which is basically one long vehicle section, the level design is structured so that every engagement feels distinct. Referring back to my previous point, every new environmental sandbox you stumble onto is replete with flanking routes, varied enemy types, and offensive tools for the player.
Even though there are no vehicles or direct changes to gameplay, “Sierra 117” has one of my favorite climactic battles of any Halo level because the architecture in which it takes place is unique, interesting to fight through, and presents players with dozens of decisions they don’t even realize they’re making. Take out enemy snipers at long-range first or duck behind cover so you can focus on infantry? Move through an underground passage to strike at the enemy force’s exposed middle or advance slowly through their defensive fortifications? Did you find the weapons cache with the sniper rifle earlier? Do you equip dual-wielding weapons as you enter a more enclosed section?
These choices need to be made in the blink of an eye and go mostly unnoticed by players unless, like me, you’ve played through the level many times and already know the different options available to you. There are so many tactical variables to consider in this battle, and while the sections it’s connected to are similar in gameplay style, each one feels dynamic in a way that many of the corridors in Halo 1 and 2 don’t. There’s no padding in Halo 3, everything in the game exists for a purpose.
One of the things that truly sets Halo 3 apart from its predecessors is its momentum and focused story. Halo was about uncovering the mysteries of an ancient alien world. Naturally, the story unfolds at a somewhat slow pace with necessary exposition to keep players up to speed. Halo 2 is a sprawling galaxy-spanning battle with two playable characters, many shifting goals, and a considerable amount of plot to take in. Comparatively, Halo 3’s story is the least present and, while some fans might prefer the indulgence of lore in Halo 2, the narrative receives exactly the right amount of focus. More so than either previous entry, Halo 3 is a war story and one that the game wants players to experience through gameplay rather than cutscenes.
After crash landing back on Earth, Master Chief learns that the Covenant, led by the Prophet of Truth, are already on their way to firing the galactic WMD’s known as the Halo rings. From here your mission is clear: catch up to the Covenant and stop Truth, no matter what it takes. The entire plot occurs in a condensed time span with very little room for introducing new plot threads or characters that the game has to spend time explaining. There is only one primary objective at a given time with multiple story threads receiving their emphasis in due time rather than all at once. It’s still a little esoteric, but the story in Halo 3 is effective at giving new players a clear motivation. Seasoned veterans already know why they’re here: to finish the fight. Halo 3 wastes no time throwing you into that fight and never takes you out of it as you barrel towards the end like a freight train that’s about to go off the rails.
The Little Things
Halo 3’s campaign is really about the little things. Like saving a lone marine who’s being tortured by a brute, or stumbling onto a weapons cache in a corner of the level, or watching as an explosion throws your Warthog hurtling through the air only to crash through a crowd of enemies and land right side up as you continue to drive away. To be fair there are some stumbling blocks, one level that is a bit underwhelming, and another that, although necessary from a story perspective, is just outright bad. When taken all together, however, Halo 3’s campaign is a significant achievement. Even these lower-class levels manage to feel distinct, special, and somehow necessary in order for the overarching experience to be as good as it is.
At this point in time Halo 3 is perhaps best remembered for its multiplayer and community features. This is certainly a considerable and worthy legacy. I do think, however, that there are many lessons to be learned from the campaign’s excellent pacing, tight focus, and emphasis on sandbox chaos, especially for the developers of this saga’s next installment. Fans of Halo and shooters in general should revisit Halo 3’s campaign to remember just how great of a conclusion it was to one of gaming’s most important trilogies.