Not only is Microsoft Game Studios' "Halo 3" the most eagerly anticipated video game of the year -- it achieved a milestone of a million preorders two months ago -- but this action sci-fi series has become a cultural phenomenon, spawning novels, comics, action figures and a top-secret project with Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings. The Return of the King").
"Halo 3" resumes the saga of hero Master Chief, a masked human soldier of the future.
So the big question is: Does "Halo 3" live up to the hype? Absolutely.
The third and final game in this billion-dollar franchise went on sale Tuesday at midnight.
The game doesn't detract much from what made its predecessors so sought after, but fans can expect a few new features to justify the purchase.
This Microsoft Xbox 360 exclusive begins as your character -- super soldier Master Chief -- crash lands on Earth and is recovered by teammates. Your first goal is to make your way through a densely populated forest with fellow space marines to uncover an alien base. While ducking behind trees, rocks and waterfalls, you'll battle alien creatures who are loyal to the militaristic Covenant, an alien species that has long been fighting humanity. Watch the world buzz for the game's launch »
The plot in this third game is deeper than a trite "save the world" campaign, but it would be a shame to reveal too much of the story in this review. Suffice it to say, fans of the series will be satisfied with the conclusion of the story arc. See excited "Halo" fans get their new games »
Played primarily from a first-person perspective, much of the action takes place on foot, but a number of levels require you to drive vehicles, switching to a third-person camera angle. Memorable missions include "The Ark," "Floodgate," "The Covenant" and a personal favorite, "Halo," which features a climactic conclusion as you race to reach your frigate amid attacks and a collapsing platform.
Top-selling games in the United States (in millions of units):
Sources: NPD Group, The Associated Press
The extraordinary high-definition graphics, which include many noninteractive cinematic story sequences, push the limits of the Xbox 360. Thousands of lines of dialogue and a Hollywood-quality epic musical score also help you become immersed in this slickly produced sci-fi thriller.
But it's the new features that truly make this game stand out from the first two Halo games (2001's "Halo: Combat Evolved" and 2004's "Halo 2," both for the original Xbox). For one, "Halo 3" lets up to four gamers play through the entire campaign together in a cooperative mode -- either in front of the same television (via split-screen mode) or over the Xbox Live online gaming service ($50 a year). There's only one Master Chief, however, so additional gamers will take on roles of other characters, such as an Arbiter alien, each with unique skills.
Also new is the ability to record a portion of your game, such as a homemade highlights reel, to play back at any time, and from multiple camera angles. About 100 of these "Saved Films" can be archived on an Xbox 360's hard drive. If you're particularly proud of your team's performance in an online game, you can also share these clips over the Xbox Live service so others can admire (or challenge) your handiwork.
Multiplayer gaming remains one of the strong points of the series in "Halo 3." You can choose from a number of head-to-head modes, including a new one called "Infection," where one player starts off as an infected Flood creature and everyone he kills becomes infected.
A new tool called Forge gives you the option to tweak existing multiplayer maps before playing on them with friends. While you can't alter the environment, you can place objects such as weapons and vehicles in different areas and change re-spawn points (where you reappear on the map after biting the bullet).
Whether you're an old fan or new to this franchise, "Halo 3" is a must-own game for action or sci-fi lovers. Its gratifying solo campaign and many multiplayer modes, new features (including co-op play) and high production values, all ensure "Halo 3" will live up to its lofty expectations. E-mail to a friend