Halo 3 [Buy Now]

Xbox 360

Bungie/Microsoft

Rated: Mature

From atop a mountainous pile of cash — over $170 million in copies of Halo 3 were sold on the first day alone — Master Chief bestrides the gaming and pop-cult world like an armored, faceless colossus. Right where he belongs. The final chapter in Microsoft’s cash-cow juggernaut doesn’t disappoint in the slightest, offering the same solid tactical gameplay fans have come to love. Some unexpected curveballs have been tossed into multiplayer as well.

The single-player campaign picks up where that annoying Halo 2 cliffhanger left off, with Master Chief surviving his fall from space and gearing up for a final stand against the Prophet of Truth and his ever-yapping Covenant hordes.

Everything’s comfortably familiar to anyone who’s ever dual-wielded a plasma pistol before — the easy weapon switching, the floating jumps, the artificial intelligence allies that function so well during ground missions but seem to leave their brains in the glove compartment when it’s time to drive a vehicle. Halo 3 serves up plenty of fun new toys, from the bubble shields that offer momentary protection from enemy projectiles (but not the enemies themselves) to the long-anticipated gravity hammer. Yes, you finally get to wield it. And knocking a Covenant Brute on his ass with a single swipe is as viscerally satisfying as you’d expect it to be. (Of course, being on the receiving end is still as frustrating — and as speedy a path to a checkpoint-reload — as ever.)

If there’s a downside to the single-player party, it’s the same one that dogged the original God of War — a lack of particularly memorable moments and boss battles. You hurtle through one entertaining firefight after another like a Warthog on a hill with its brakes blown out, but the wow moments are as rare as a glimpse of Master Chief sans helmet. Some of that can be offset by blazing through campaign mode with three pals in co-op, a nice and unexpected nod to players who’d rather not venture online for their multi fix.

While the Halo series galvanized the console world, PC gamers have always viewed it with a certain level of annoyance and disdain, in no small part because they were playing functional FPS games (Marathon, Quake) years before Master Chief first stomped on the scene. (Plus, Microsoft forced the PC crowd to wait for the privilege of playing watered-down ports of Halo and Halo 2. Thanks, guys.) How ironic, then, that Halo 3‘s multiplayer smorgasbord succeeds in part by implementing a clever variation on a concept that PC gamers have been toying around with for years.

This comes in the form of Forge, a new multiplayer level-editing system that lets players monkey with, not the terrain, but the objects and features within it on the fly. Spawning Warthogs every five seconds? An all gravity-hammer level? All yours, baby. It’s obviously not a full-fledged mod system, but it’s a nice way to forestall the complaints about a lack of multiplayer map variety that tripped up Halo 2 … and should lead to several months of absolutely bizarre user-created content on Xbox Live.