This Is Spartaaaaaaaans
A huge range of game modes are provided by the almost infinitely configurable match settings, and old favourites like Capture the Flag and Oddball can be refined to your exact specifications easily. Want the ball carrier in Oddball to move faster than the other players? No problem. Want everyone armed with Spartan Lasers (a new weapon that kills in one shot but takes a few seconds to fire)? Go for it. Low gravity deathmatch with melee weapons only? Be my guest.
Being able to configure Halo multiplayer games is nothing new, of course, but Halo 3 takes this to new levels. The ultimate example is the Forge, an unusual sandbox mode which allows players to collaboratively edit the configuration of the level in real-time - even while games are being played. Items can be added, removed or moved around, and the resulting configurations saved and uploaded to the personal space provided for each player on Bungie's servers - space which can also be used to upload clips of your favourite moments from the game, complete with your own camera angles and editing, if you so desire. We're looking forward to YouTube being inundated with videos of ludicrous Halo physics experiments; just another feather in the cap of the Halo phenomenon.
The real triumph of Halo 3's online modes, though, lies not in the huge range of modes and options - wonderful though they are. Rather, it's in the painstaking work which has gone into perfecting the online game, integrating new ideas like Equipment - which is especially interesting in team games like Capture the Flag - into the much-loved gameplay without breaking the delicate balance that makes Halo multiplayer fun.
For what it is, it's hard to find fault with Halo's online play. It doesn't set out to be all things to all men, but what it does set out to do - namely, to provide an extremely fast-paced online FPS with a huge range of different match options - it does flawlessly. What more can you ask from a game? Players who enjoyed Halo 2 online will flock to the sequel, and rightly so. It's more of the same, but bigger, better and bolder.
Stepping back and looking at the game as a whole, it's clear that Halo 3 is exactly what Bungie would want it to be - the best game in the Halo series to date. We have criticisms, certainly - the slightly rough edges on some of the later levels being the outstanding complaint - but none major enough to detract from what is the finest game in one of the world's best-loved franchises.
If we are to nitpick, though, we do hit upon a useful caveat for some players. Simply put, Halo 3 is a completely pure first person shooter, with no pretensions to any other gameplay style. There are no puzzles to be solved, no character or weapon upgrades to be considered, and aside from a few notable sections, remarkably few vehicles to be driven around.
You shoot bad guys, and that's it. If that's all you want to do, Halo 3 is perfect, or as near to damned perfect as this kind of game is going to get. For those who preferred the more cerebral moments of the likes of Half-Life 2 or Bioshock, though... Well, caveat emptor.
There is a moment late in the game, when the Master Chief wryly states that his escape plan from a tough spot is to "shoot my way out - just for a change", when the irony may cut a little close to the bone for some players. But just as you wouldn't criticise football for being too focused on kicking a ball, it's not valid to complain that Halo is too focused on shooting aliens. Nonetheless, we're aware that this game might not be everyone's cup of tea, despite the immense hype machine surrounding it.
And yet, hype machine aside, cutting through the crap about console wars and the like, what we find in Halo 3 is quite simply this - the best game yet in one of the best FPS franchises of the era. Better than either of its predecessors, Halo 3 still can't quite escape the category of flawed masterpiece - but this time around, the flaws are so minor that even the most churlish of reviewers would be hard pressed to mark the game down.