Version tested: Xbox 360
This, we're led to believe, is the end: the final set of downloadable maps for Halo 3. Despite the game's continuing success on Xbox Live, Bungie reckons there's enough meat on those multiplayer bones to keep us all going. So, with the possible exception of some new stuff (unconfirmed, as yet) in Halo 3: ODST later this year, the Mythic Map Pack is the swansong for Halo 3 multiplayer.
Of course, that doesn't mean that the end is nigh for Halo 3 itself, whose player population remains robust (even at off-peak times, I was able to fill up games on the Mythic maps almost instantly). And it's not even the end of "new" content, in a sense, because player-created Forge maps will continue to appear for many months if not years. In fact, one third of the Mythic Map Pack is aimed at encouraging Forge. Sandbox is a smaller version of the gigantic desert map Sandtrap, and it boasts pretty much the most customisable Forge layout we've seen so far.
Every ramp, surface and structure in the map is a Forge object, which means that creators can wipe the slate completely clean and build a new level as they see fit. Although the default layout is played out entirely at ground level (albeit with plenty of fortifications, ramps and so on, creating a two-base layout that's ideal for CTF-type games), there's also a basement and a sky level for creators to mess about with if they need a bit more verticality.
It's the most flexible map yet for Forge and while I'm not exactly an expert map creator myself, it's fascinating to see some of the ingenious designs that others are coming up with. PC gamers might roll their eyes at console folks getting excited about the ability to move the furniture - after all, some of us have been downloading new maps since Doom - but this feature, in a console FPS, is still exciting even now, and one would hope other developers have taken note of its potential for extending the longevity and popularity of the multiplayer game.
In terms of straightforward, out-of-the-box play, Sandbox isn't a bad level to add to the rotation. Like its big brother Sandtrap, it's got a selection of vehicles to mess around with, but it's an incredibly open level on which you can see directly from one base to the other, allowing effective sniping from side to side with the carbines. It shouldn't work, but it does - there's just enough cover to keep things from getting too frustrating.
The other two maps in the Mythic pack are altogether more conventional, but each represents a slightly different type of gameplay. Assembly is set in a gargantuan Covenant factory (there's a suspended belt far overhead carrying Scarab body parts around), but despite the setting, it's one of Halo 3's tightest levels yet. It's almost claustrophobic. Organised on a small, complex platform around a central core, it's got two levels connected by ramps at various points, and a somewhat open central area housing the Gravity Hammer.
This is Halo 3 going back to the genre's Quakeworld roots - a fast, tight, intense level which manages to simultaneously grant decent visibility across the level while keeping you in tightly controlled spaces where you'll regularly turn corners and find yourself staring right into the barrel of a gun. It sounds ideal for Slayer, and it is - but it really comes into its own in team matches, where the perfectly symmetrical layout delivers balance and enough chokepoints to keep games with even a small number of players interesting.
On the downside, it's not a very good-looking map. The Covenant architecture still suffers somewhat from being, essentially, smooth and purple and not a lot else. Where it looks good, it's always been because of breathtaking scale rather than aesthetics. Here, the scale is huge, but you'll barely notice it because the level itself is so tight. If you have time to look up and go "oh, wow, a Scarab", then you're probably doing something wrong (or reviewing it). It's not that I don't like the visual frippery, it's just that it seems at odds with the way the level itself works.
In contrast, the final map in the pack, Orbital, is one of the best-looking in the game - despite a relative absence of epic scale. Set at the top of a space elevator, it's an industrial setting filled with vaguely symmetrical tunnels. Sloping floors and regular corners mean that sight lines are generally restricted, while the easily learned but somewhat complex layout gives players plenty of opportunity to try to evade their foes in objective games.
Once battles start in Orbital, though, they tend to be fast and vicious. The enclosed tunnels are an obvious playground for explosive splash damage, and the inclusion of a couple of quad-bike vehicles is inspired, guaranteeing a level of utter mayhem in their vicinity. Again, objective-based gametypes are probably best here, especially two-objective types such as two-flag CTF - with the multiple distinct paths between bases guaranteeing plenty of action whenever a standoff develops.
Visually there's lots of variety spread across a fairly small space and some really impressive attention to detail in things like the wall frescoes and the jaw-dropping vista of Earth's surface outside one of the windows. It's not an immediately attention-grabbing map like some of the outdoors ones, but Bungie has put a lot of work into making what could be a boring industrial visual style look great, and it comes through very nicely.
Looking at all three maps, what's most impressive about the Mythic pack is the variety on offer. Almost all of the play-types which Halo 3 has cultivated are catered for here in some way, with the exception of the expansive outdoors maps. It's almost taken for granted now that Bungie will provide stunningly balanced maps that have been tested to near-perfection, but it's worth bearing in mind that this kind of content is still head-and-shoulders above the multiplayer efforts of most of the studio's rivals in terms of quality.
On the other hand, there is still the question of that 800 Microsoft Points price-tag, which brings the content in at around seven quid. That's over two quid per map. That makes sense to me, since if you're still playing Halo 3 then you're almost certainly going to get a lot of entertainment for your money, but with that said, less devoted players could easily skip paying for any of the DLC anyway, since it will all be on the ODST disk this autumn.
Overall, this is another great package of content from Bungie, reminding us just how talented the studio is at turning out perfectly pitched slices of multiplayer entertainment. As its final piece of work for Halo 3, though, it does feel a little anti-climactic - each map is beautifully implemented, but a real headline addition to the game would have been welcome. Still it would be harsh to grumble - almost 18 months later, the Mythic Map Pack makes Halo 3 feel fresh again, at least for a few weeks, and that's money well spent.
8 / 10