Version tested: Xbox 360
If you'd said six months ago that Halo 3 would not be the most popular game on Xbox Live in mid-2008, we actually wouldn't have scoffed at you - largely because "scoffing", as far as we're aware, is something only done by characters in Enid Blyton novels - but we'd certainly have expressed utter disbelief. Probably in the form of ridicule. Okay, we'd have scoffed. We'd also have been wrong, because Halo 3's been eclipsed in the online stakes by Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4.
That said, there are still hundreds of thousands playing Halo 3 online every day, so we can't imagine Bungie crying into its diamond-encrusted coffee mugs. Not least because it's busy pumping out new maps, starting with the Heroic Map Pack a few months ago and continuing with today's subject, the Legendary Map Pack.
First things first, the Legendary Map Pack costs 800 Microsoft Points, which means GBP 6.80 or EUR 9.60. For that price, you get three new maps, one of which is totally new, with the other two being updates of maps from earlier Halos.
Before you zoom down to the comments thread to complain about rip-offs, though, it's worth noting that while one of those updated maps - Blackout, an upgrade of Halo 2 map Lockout - really is just a case of shiny new textures and a few map design tweaks, the other map is a far more serious overhaul. Avalanche is more of a homage to classic Halo multiplayer map Sidewinder than an actual remake - a similar environment and layout, but radically different to play.
Still, at over two pounds each, these maps had better be good, and after throwing the Legendary maps onto the rotation for several hours, our first impression was that Bungie has done it again - here you have three maps which span a huge range of Halo gameplay possibilities, but each of which is intelligently executed, beautifully crafted and polished to a stunning shine.
We like large, vehicle-heavy maps, so Avalanche is our favourite. The snowy environment looks good, but the real success is in the balance between size and pace; the way that it's expansive without sacrificing fast-paced, immediate gameplay. A lot of thought has clearly gone into how players traverse the map, with two-way teleporters opening up possibilities, while a liberal dotting of man-cannons means that crucial choke points are never too far away.
Best of all, the map is sprinkled with vehicles, Covenant on one side, UNSC on the other - with the UNSC Hornet from the single-player game making its first appearance on a multiplayer map. These are the cool little hover vehicles that pop up about halfway through the single-player, and although their multiplayer incarnation has been stripped of super-powerful homing rockets, they're a good counterpoint to the Covenant's Banshee flyers. It's nice to see the airspace getting busier.
Busy is the operative word for Avalanche, despite its size. The large number of vehicles and options for fast movement mean that action crosses the map readily, and you don't spend ages running to find the fight, which is a reasonable criticism of some of Bungie's other large outdoor maps. That said, with the exception of the Hornet, there's not much that's actually new here. It's great to get another large map into the rotation, but nothing here really stands above the quality of the game's existing maps.
Rather more exciting is Ghost Town - the only entirely new map in this pack, and thematically a totally new addition to the game's multiplayer. It's an abandoned town, shockingly, and it's nestled in the lush jungle you saw in the early levels of Halo 3's single-player. The resulting feel isn't a million miles off some of CoD4's environments, actually - lots of smashed masonry and twisted, rusting steel supports, with the jungle's growth gradually reclaiming the town.
It looks stunning from end to end, and it plays well too. A medium-sized map, it's a nice balance between tight sub-arenas - the interiors of crumbling buildings and clear areas of street serve to focus the fighting - and long sight-lines, which is no mean feat for a level designer and something players warmed to very fast.
The reason players like it is that it means both melee and ranged players get a fighting chance. It comes into its own in game modes like Territories, where the size is just right, but any game mode will benefit from map design that lets you pick up kills close-up and from distance, without letting snipers get too comfortable with their spots. For other team objective games the asymmetrical layout of Ghost Town may be unpopular - lots of players seem to have decided they don't like maps that are too asymmetrical - but within a limited range, this map shines, and it looks gorgeous.
The runt of the litter, to some extent, is Blackout. As we mentioned, it's adapted from a popular Halo 2 map, Lockout, and it's not really changed much on the way. Some areas seem a little wider, and of course there are Halo 3 items stashed around the place - plus, the textures and geometry are all a lot nicer. However, the basic play style is still the same - fast-paced, aggressive and extremely melee-focused.
This map, in fact, reminds us a little of the QuakeWorld maps of yore. It's a very tight layout, with a courtyard, a couple of towers and a warren of smaller rooms, all linked up with ramps and an elevator, and you'll constantly be in close quarters with your foes. Although to our minds it's the weakest of the three maps, we can see it becoming a solid favourite among Slayer devotees - and it wouldn't be a bad map for duelling, either.
Although the three maps are the main meat of the Legendary Map Pack, it also expands Halo's much-celebrated Forge mode. Just like the Heroic pack before it, Legendary takes Forge to a new level, allowing you to add visual effects to your Forge-edited maps, ranging from turning everything sepia-toned through to an over-saturation effect that makes Halo look like an advert for additive-laden children's food.
Less gimmicky and more interesting are a few background tweaks to Forge. You can now place items in fixed positions in the world so they don't react to physics, which means you can plonk stuff down without worrying that it'll fall over as soon as gravity catches it; and the new maps come with special items built into them, so your creations are flexible without breaking the visual themes. We're especially enamoured with the range of items on Avalanche, where you can effectively build your own bases if you see fit.
In the final analysis, though, it's actually a little hard to see the value in this map pack. The maps themselves are fantastic, as you'd expect, and if you're a huge Halo 3 player then you'll buy them in a flash - but for the more casual types, it seems very steep to pay two quid each for maps which, despite being really good, aren't exactly mould-breaking for Halo's gameplay.
On the plus side, of course, our understanding is that the Legendary Map Pack will be free in a couple of months' time, just like the Heroic pack is now. If you're a nightly Halo 3 devotee, then by all means, pay for this right now, but if not, just wait until the maps are free. For 800 Points, they're too pricey; for zero points, we're all laughing. Bungie still has its knack for making some of the finest multiplayer maps in the FPS business, but for the next pack we're definitely looking out for innovation rather than more of the same.
7 / 10