All other elements of the production are equally excellent, from sound to interface. (Halo 3 is one of the first games that really "feels" next-gen in its menu interface.) In thumbing through the game's menus and taking the occasional moment away from the action to peer across desert vistas gouged by war and yet, in other ways, strangely untouched by the hand of man, it becomes a little more clear where the three years of development time went: the little details.
Whereas Halo 2, in many ways, felt like a bastardization, a mutated genetic experiment performed upon the near perfect console shooter that was Halo 1, Halo 3 feels more like a true evolution in design. The new weapons, vehicles and enemies all work. There are a few tedious moments here and there (taking out that first scarab had me pulling my hair, wishing for a hint book and marveling at the realization I'd never experienced that feeling in Halo before), but on the whole, the game is as tight as a game can possibly be. Gameplay-wise, that is.
Story-wise, it's pulp. Pure, uninspired, contrived, hokey sci-fi pulp, which, if you're fresh off the "BioShock blew my mind, games really are art" boat, will make you want to curl up and die. But let's not kid ourselves: Halo is the story of a cyborg with a curvaceous hologram inside his head, a race of Predator look-a-likes (and their subjugated alien minorities) and an interstellar zombie horde. Yes, there could, perhaps, be a finely-crafted, leather-bound story hidden within those shallow waters, but anyone truly expecting that entity to emerge fully formed from the head of Halo is probably high.
But let us praise Halo 3, not bury it. The fact is Halo 3 will undoubtedly be called the best multiplayer shooter ever made, and I have no doubt it will soon replace Halo 2 on the all-time "most played" list on Xbox Live. The vehicles are insanely fun to drive, the weapons all feel very weapon-y, and running, gunning and hurling grenades at groups of enemies who die while screaming ridiculous invectives is just as much fun as it was almost a decade ago when the series debuted, and the experience has definitely benefited from Bungie's growth as a developer.
Sadly, the gameplay refinements come at the cost of excellence in the single-player game. Playing Halo 3's solo campaign often feels, in fact, a lot like playing multiplayer. This can be laid at the feet of the AI, which is so incredibly good, it will often make you feel like you're online getting owned by 12-year-olds and not playing against computer-controlled opponents. The amount of work required to evolve computer AI to this level cannot be underestimated, or underappreciated.
The "helper" AI is also excellent, often clearing entire rooms of enemies before you've even fired a shot. This can be good or bad, depending. I found myself allowing (or "allowing") the friendly soldiers to get wiped out so I could charge in and actually play the game, which again reminds me of multiplayer. If this is the result of all that talk about improving AI in games, then perhaps it may be time to scale that back a little. If I want to get owned by and have my thunder stolen by adolescents with no fire control, I'll hop online, but I prefer to be the star of the show in my own living room, thank you.