"Halo 3" is a lot of things: an exciting science fiction action adventure, a rich online first-person shooter and the end of a popular trilogy.
But let's cut through the enormous hype: It's not the best video game ever.
"Halo 3" (Rated M, $59.99, $69.99 or $129.99) does refine many aspects of the first-person shooter genre on the Xbox 360 console. And new multiplayer features make it the most robust online experience on any console.
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Since receiving my early copy of "Halo 3," I've indulged my senses and blistered my fingers in nonstop game playing. I've completed the single-player campaign and experimented with the game's voluminous multiplayer features.
It turns out there are two very different sides to "Halo 3." I suspect only one aspect will keep gamers going for more than a few days.
It's been three years since the infuriatingly obscure end of "Halo 2" left us all wondering what happened.
Will Master Chief, the game's mysterious, armor-clad superhero, survive? What about all those angry aliens: the Prophet of Truth, the Covenant, the Flood? And what of Cortana, the female artificial intelligence who shares an oddly intimate relationship with Master Chief?
"Halo 3" answers all these questions and more in a narrative that sometimes stumbles but at least provides a sense of closure.
Without any prologue, "Halo 3" picks up with Master Chief crash-landing on Earth in the year 2552. The gunplay-driven action is relentless from there as you blast droves of aliens back from the front lines of our future home world.
Master Chief's motivation is nothing less than survival of the galaxy.
Earth's population has been decimated by the Covenant, a diverse collection of religious aliens who believe the key to activating a network of "halos" — massive ring worlds floating in space — is buried somewhere under the sands of Northern Africa.
These halos, crafted by a mysterious ancient race known as the Forerunners, are seen by the Covenant as a path to salvation.
There's one catch: Turning on the halos would destroy all sentient life in the galaxy.
This doomsday premise drives the action forward through levels that occasionally falter with unclear goals or too much repetitious backtracking.
The game slowly builds in intensity but suffers from some uneven difficulty. A showdown in a Flood-infested spacecraft was by far the most difficult section for me to complete. However, I was far from finished and the real final battle felt like a letdown by comparison.
Like its predecessors, "Halo 3" liberally uses cinematic interludes between the action to advance the story. And again, it sometimes cheapens the gaming experience.
Instead of watching a movie where Master Chief performs some daring move, shouldn't I be the one controlling him?
If anything, life as Master Chief is predictable: aim, shoot and reload. The weaponry this time around has been upgraded and includes some devastating armaments like hefty turret weapons, which Master Chief can rip from the ground and use to mow down foes.
Another favorite is the Gravity Hammer, a slow weapon that when swung turns enemies into a bloody pile of their former selves.
New to the game are a slew of equipment upgrades such as a personal bubble shield and a special grenade that temporarily blinds with a flash of white light.
"Halo 3" is the first game in the series for the Xbox 360, and the colorful graphics shine for the most part.
Close-ups on many of the character's faces were far from high-definition, however, and the overall visual quality drops markedly once you jump to the online modes.
"Halo 3" rolls out some interesting new vehicles that can make or break a mission, including the Mongoose, a speedy ATV with room for two people. The Scorpion tank, meanwhile, returns as my favorite vehicle of destruction.
Most of the game's innovations lie in the multiplayer modes. For the first time you can play with three others online in cooperative mode, offering a fresh and fun new way to finish the fight.
Then there's the Forge system, which allows gamers in multiplayer matches to manipulate certain aspects of the environment in real time. You can't rebuild the landscape, but you can move around turrets and make other changes to the battlefield.
While Forge doesn't seem particularly robust compared to mapmaking tools on many PC games, it adds a strategic twist to online "Halo 3" games and should keep people interested for years.
Theater mode is another innovation that lets players record their favorite "Halo 3" action moments, then share them online with others. So remember: your next loss could be someone else's "Halo 3" highlight reel.
"Halo 3" wraps up an interesting, if somewhat scatterbrained, story line with some really compelling online features.
The result isn't going to change how we play or perceive video games. But it's an overall package that's definitely worthwhile for any fan of action games.
Three stars out of four.