One of the strangest quirks of video-game reviewing is the emphasis on length. Size matters to video-game players, or at least to video-game reviewers. Games that take a fortnight of work weeks to complete—40, no 60, no 80 hours of gameplay!—get praised for their epic scale, while an overlong film or book might get panned for its self-indulgence. Likewise, a game that offers 12 hours of single-player gameplay is a disappointment to marathon gamers who could knock it out in a day or two. What to make of Halo 3, then, an incredibly short game that's been lavished with praise? Rather than guffawing at the NES-like notion that you can win the game in one sitting, critics have swooned.
All of the praise for Halo 3 is evidence that almost no one is buying the game to play it by themselves. Reviewing the game on the merits of its single-player campaign is like judging a deck of cards based on how fun your last game of solitaire was. The best games are exercises in collaboration and competition with human opponents. For supporting evidence, I would like to cite the wisdom of bulletin-board commenter "a brick": "[N]o one cares about the darn campaign unless 1) You are a n00b to halo and have no respect of your self 2) You cant play online cause you have no idea what BXR is or what the 'n00b Combo' is." Need I say more?
The main attraction for the latest Halo title, as was true for the games I grew up playing, is not length but "replayability." The recently released and justly raved game BioShock is a masterpiece of narrative gaming, with an absorbing story that transports the gamer into a compelling fictional universe. Halo 3, on the other hand, is a work of old-fashioned twitchy goodness, playable in 10-minute bursts. The artistry on display is expressed through the rule-making and level design, not from the development of characters or storyline. Talking about the plot and the mythology of Halo 3 as a way to explain its appeal is like illuminating the genius of Pac-Man by describing the motivation behind Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde.
Like ludologist "a brick," I've pretty much ignored the single-player mode in Halo 3. I've put in close to 10 hours with the game in the week since it's been released, and less than an hour of that has been with the single-player campaign. Instead, after a desultory spin through the first level, I eagerly leapt into the online matchmaking that made Halo 2 the most replayable game for the original Xbox.
If you don't have Xbox Live, you're not really playing Halo 3. Joining an online match is simple and fast. You start as a recruit and can play through a basic training mode for new players. Once you've mastered the basics, jump into the Lone Wolves playlist for single players. The most frequently played game is Slayer, which is exactly what it sounds like—the winner is the player who kills the other players the most times. On occasion you'll be thrown into a game of Oddball, which is a sort of hide-and-seek game in which players compete to see who can possess a skull the longest. Other times you'll play Crazy King, which is basically King of the Hill: Players fight to see who can stay inside a ring for the longest period of time. After you get the hang of things as a Lone Wolf, jump into the team games, which allow for a mix of cooperation and competition.
Online, Halo 3 isn't so much a wholly original game as it is Halo 2.5, a new-and-improved game that the makers have tweaked to improve the competitive balance. Halo 2 was marred by a culture of cheating and by its steep learning curve, which led to new players getting killed so often that the game wasn't fun. Microsoft's Bungie Studios, the game's developer, says it has new algorithms to try to fix these problems. More important, there are two new modes that will help the game retain an NFL-like parity six months or a year from now.
The first is the "theater," where gamers can watch their most recent online matches to see what they did wrong and, more important, to see what other gamers did right. That's right: Halo 3 now has game film. (It's only a matter of time before Bill Belichick becomes a Halo 3 master.) Don't understand why you got killed 75 times in the first five minutes of an online skirmish? Flip on the theater mode to watch the game from your opponents' perspective, to see how they beat you.
The second tweak to the game's competitive balance is a real-time map editor called Forge. Playing Forge is like playing in the Matrix. All of the players can manipulate the objects around them and pull weapons and vehicles from thin air. A not-very-dedicated Halo 2 player (like me) was quickly frustrated upon discovering that the other players knew, ahead of time, where all the best weapons, vehicles, and hiding places were on a particular map. Forge promises to help alleviate that problem by providing an unending stream of new maps and playing fields. (Bungie says it will take the best custom maps created in Forge and add them to the regular rotation.)
Another appeal of Halo 3's multiplayer game: There's now a system of "campaign scoring" that allows you to compete with teammates to rack up the most points. It's a sign of how far video games have veered from their roots that Bungie bills the addition of points to Halo as a revolutionary "meta-game" rather than a throwback to the days of Centipede. But with three friends and campaign scoring turned on, the game does feel reinvented. Rather than a strained and disappointing attempt at interactive storytelling—I assure you that the game's popularity does not rest on the charisma of its anonymous protagonist, Master Chief, and the drama of his battle with alien religious fanatics known as the Covenant—the campaign mode becomes an infectious shoot-'em-up in which the story can be wholly ignored.
Like Halo 2, Halo 3 is probably a disappointment for fans of console gaming as it's evolved over the past decade. It's not a game that wows players with new discoveries and twists over the course of a shaggy 40 hours of play. But it's a delight to an arcade button-masher like me. The online game boasts tightly coiled, elegantly paced action that's a blast even to a slow-thumbed player who frequently finds himself outmatched by the competition. So, don't think of Halo 3 as a work of narrative fiction. Think of it as Madden for the science-fiction crowd. It ain't art, but it sure is fun.