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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 August 2007, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
State of Play: Halo 3 hands on
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

Halo 3
Halo 3 will be released on Xbox 360

Is video gaming on the threshold of a new era with the arrival of consoles such as PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii? How far can PC gaming push the envelope of graphics and connectivity? Over the next few weeks we will be taking a more considered look at the industry and its future.

Halo 3, due for release on 25 September, is one of the most anticipated videogames of the year. It is Microsoft's heavy assault weapon in the console wars with Sony and Nintendo; and its success or failure could go a long way in determining which firm emerges victorious.

A science-fiction adventure, the first two titles have sold more than 15m copies and tens of thousands of people play the online element to the second game every day.

It has spawned comic books, action figures, spin-off games and a highly-secretive project with The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

Fans of Halo have been teased with videos and screenshots of the new title for months, and even had the chance to play an element of the multiplayer aspect of the game in a limited trial, but the all-important single player game remains a mystery - until now.

Dark aesthetic

One level was on show at a recent press event in Amsterdam and journalists were finally able to pick up the controller and play Halo 3, after three years in development.

The level, called Tsavo Highway, opens in a bleak, grimy hanger. The aesthetic is dark and moody, and a handful of disorientated marines need your help.

A near-by Warthog jeep offers a way out and as you slide behind the steering wheel, your comrades join you as you head out into some dingy tunnels.

The setting is grandiose, a desert filled with battered highways, damaged structures, cities put to the torch

For a moment it appears as though Halo 3 has crash landed in Gears of War territory - the gothic and crepuscular Xbox 360 title. But after a few bends and turns you emerge onto the familiar candy-coloured landscape so familiar to Halo players.

And this is where the first disappointment sets in - graphically Halo 3 is more of an evolutionary leap than brave new world. It is Halo 2 on steroids with familiar looking colours, textures and flavours.

Everything has a high definition sheen but there are noticeable jagged edges to objects and buildings, and close up some textures look distinctly rough.

It should be made very clear that the game we were playing was beta code and not finished game, but I will admit to feeling underwhelmed.

Swoop overhead

Happily, the graphics engine of Halo 3 is able to throw much more action onto the screen than previous titles. Battles are definitely bigger, huge ships swoop overhead, marines and aliens engage in fierce action, and there is a tangible feeling of epic scope.

Bungie has clearly listened to fans who felt that Halo 2 was too narrow, with much of the action having a scripted feeling.

Battles are fought above and below, with enemies encircling your position and making good use of the landscape. Your marines curse and shout and are much more a part of the game than the previous Halo titles.

Master Chief
Master Chief is the game's hero

The setting is grandiose, a desert filled with battered highways, damaged structures, cities put to the torch.

Most of the action takes place in vehicles and because of the increased scope there is a feeling sometimes of being sidelined in the action somewhat, or of being unsure of what the primary target or focus of any given situation should be.

The version of the game I tested also had a few glitches, most noticeably with AI; on one occasion about seven marines stood rooted to the ground all staring off into the distance at nothing in particular, while the enemies often seemed a little clueless, either running away for no good reason or oblivious of being shot at point-blank range.

It was a little disorientating being thrown into a level with no context and so I could not gauge how the story of Halo 3 is emerging.

From the small amount I saw, it is clear that Bungie has decided to play safe and re-work the rougher edges of previous title Halo 2, rather than re-invent the wheel.

For such a prestigious franchise, it is a sensible business decision and hopefully a sensible gaming decision.

Halo, after all, garnered high praise for helping re-define first person shooters, rather than re-inventing them.

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