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'Halo 3' Day 1: Get to the choppa! Err Pelican!

Note: This series intends to follow my day-to-day events as they occur in the Microsoft-exclusive title "Halo 3." Each entry will divulge important plot details for the game regarding each of its nine missions, as well as tips and tricks to help gamers "Finish the Fight." With that, it is safe to assume spoilers will lie ahead in the succeeding text.

Since the release of "Space Invaders" on the Atari 2600 in 1980, it seems each subsequent console has possessed its own flagship character. ColecoVision had Donkey Kong, Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic and Sony's Playstation had Crash Bandicoot. However, none of these mascots have had the lasting power of Mario, and with each of Nintendo's next-generation consoles, it launches a Mario title to carry the flag ("Super Mario Galaxy" is set to launch for the Wii on Nov. 12).

It seemed no character would ever be appealing enough to the mass populous to dethrone or share the crown with Mario. That is until Microsoft launched "Halo: Combat Evolved" and Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 on Nov. 15, 2001. Much more mature and, frankly, hardcore than his Nintendo predecessor, Master Chief single-handedly introduced a new generation of gamers to console gaming. PC gamers soon found themselves drawn to console gaming as "Halo" enabled players to utilize the Xbox's system-link capabilities to launch multi-player battles in unique, sci-fi environments.

While it remains that Mario is still recognized more often than Master Chief - have you seen Bob Hoskins or 'Captain' Lou Albano portray a live-action Chief? - the hype leading up to the third "Halo" release seems to say otherwise. In fact, the Master Chief-emblazed Mountain Dew I sipped while launching my first "Halo" mission signaled the realization that I had bought into this marketing giant.

Show me what you've got, Chief

A difficult decision awaited me as I initially popped "Halo 3" into my Xbox 360. First there was the fear that the newly pressed game may crash my year-old system, revealing the dreaded Red Ring of Death. Secondly I faced the epiphany that at 25 years old I had become comfortable in my role as a Mario gamer - after all, we had grown up together and knew each other's little quirks. But it was time to look the enemy in his eyes and find out why this Master Chief guy was trying to triumph over my beloved Mario.

Of course, that's not what really mattered once the Microsoft and Bungie logos graced my television screen with what sounds like a background of Benedictine monk-styled Gregorian chants. With a Microsoft order to "Finish the Fight," I was forced to decide how I might commence with the beating I would soon encounter: "Easy," "Normal," "Heroic" or "Legendary." As simple of a choice as that may seem, the dilemma rested solely on my ego. Having been a sort-of-seasoned gamer, I knew Easy was out of the question. However, this being my first "Halo" experience, the thought of playing through the campaign on the often-heralded-as-impossible Legendary difficulty was far from appealing. This left me with the decision of whether I thought of myself as Normal or Heroic - well duh, I'm certainly Heroic.

Man, was I wrong.

"Halo 3" dumps the gamer right into its first mission in the Sierra 117. As someone who knew nothing about the game, my initial reaction was, "What in the 'Halo' universe is going on?" Apparently Master Chief is some sort of elite soldier - known in the game as a Spartan - and his mission throughout this series has been to save the galaxy from the Covenant and the Flood. As foreign as this may sound, believe me, I'm right there with you.

The Covenant is an alien civilization that has been at war with humanity because the horde sees us (humanity) as a form of heresy against its religion. This religion, according to game-developer Bungie, is "based in the single-minded belief that a Great Journey awaits its faithful and that this Journey can be embarked upon by firing an array of vast ring-like weapons (Halos) scattered throughout the galaxy."

It is clear from the start, the biggest difference between Mario and the "Halo" series is "Halo" by definition - and much like a cinematic trilogy - is a true series with a complicated, orchestrated plotline. Also, the developers put more care into the development of a realistic world rather than a cartoony Mushroom Kingdom.

At first the controls and gameplay were difficult to get the hang of because they differed so much from other first-person shooters (FPS) I had ever encountered. Almost any desired motion can be achieved by some combination of buttons, and unlike many FPS that allow gamers to charge ahead, destroying everything in one's path, "Halo 3" requires the player to plan the Chief's attacks and remain hidden from enemy fire. The only action I could ask for is the ability to hide and duck behind objects while firing my weapon - a feature that was touted and very effective in "Gears of War." Perhaps if this was an option I would not have died more than a dozen times in the first mission alone.

A world not unlike our own

After the Chief hurtles towards Earth, and your team discovers Chief's body lying in the jungle, you are introduced to an enemy turned ally in the form of the Arbiter. The Arbiter thankfully becomes your guide to the location of Sergeant Major Johnson and your launch site; it is immediately obvious his direction is much needed through this immersive jungle of trees, streams, hillsides and foliage as it is easy to become disoriented and lost.

What is striking as you navigate through Sierra 117 is the complicated use of light and shadows in the environment. This becomes key as you face the hordes of Brutes and Grunts - both are alien enemies, the Grunts serving as mere target practice. While the shadows do not sufficiently act as cover from enemy fire, it is helpful to navigate through them to avoid being spotted by these aggressors. If you can remain silent and hidden, you can sneak up on enemies with their backs turned and attack them with melees (hand-to-hand combat) so others can't hear you.

Remember also to listen to your surroundings. Nothing in "Halo" is incidental, it all happens for a reason. This is when stereo or 5.1 surround sound comes in handy as the noises in the game are highly sensitive and directional - if you hear something behind and to the left you, something behind and to the left of you is probably happening. Everything that you should expect is reflected in the game's audio, even plotting by the enemy and warnings from your troops.

Another feature that is apparent in this jungle setting is the water physics, which are comparable to those in "Bioshock." Although this may appear to be a minute detail, it actually serves to further create a realistic environment.

It's time to rescue the sergeant

Sure the sites are pretty and all, but don't birdwatch too long because the action seems to never cease in "Halo 3." To avoid the same mistake I made, don't rush into any encounter. Always try to remain in the shadows and preferably behind some solid object that is impenetrable to enemy fire. If you rush into a scene, you will die, especially if you're playing the game on Heroic or Legendary. Just keep in mind that your armor's strength is relative to the difficulty level you select; also, the enemies' artificial intelligence (AI) is dependent on which difficulty you select. By remaining out of sight, the Brutes will rarely charge your location and remain easy to pick off from a distance - especially if you are lucky enough to find a Sniper or Beam Rifle. The only characters that seem to be a hindrance when trying to lay low are the Grunts because they carelessly wander wherever they please. But as I already noted, they are easy targets and can even be knocked off with simple and silent melees.

As you emerge from the jungle at a river, a Phantom (an enemy aircraft) swoops down and attacks Sgt. Johnson's Pelican (an ally aircraft) - your means of escape. This sets forth the next stage in your mission: Locate the site of Sgt. Johnson's crash, save him and escape to safety.

This is easier said than done. While the other sequences pit you and your team against Grunts, Brutes and Jackals (these are often enemies with sniper-like weapons), the next-to-final battle introduces the toughest and most ruthless enemy thus far: the Brute Chieftain wielding a Gravity Hammer. While the other enemies were fairly simple to pick off, the Brute Chieftain seems invincible to typical weapons. So far, I have been unable to kill any of these Chieftain's with only my arsenal. However, the easiest way to take out these almost impenetrable creatures is to fire an entire clip from your Battle Rifle and then attack them with a series of melees. Watch out for the Gravity Hammer though, one hit from this thing will send your body flying to the other end of the "Halo" universe and your energy level down the drain. It seems absurd that a hand-to-hand attack would be more damaging than gunfire, but it's a video game, and it doesn't really matter how it gets done, as long as it's done.

Other than the satisfaction of defeating one of the monsters with your bare hands, the victory yields the Gravity Hammer for your disposal. The Hammer is obviously not a close-range weapon, and when tactically using it, it is unwise to attack a dozen Brutes at one time. To successfully utilize the Gravity Hammer, make sure you remain in the shadows and behind cover because although you have a nasty weapon, you're still not invincible - and believe me, you don't want to have to restart this segment of the mission. Also, don't waste your time using the Hammer on Grunts, save it for Brutes and Jackals. Take out the Grunts with the firearm of your choice and then quickly attack the larger enemies with a swing of the Hammer. Another trick with the Hammer is to use it to knock boxes at the opposition and deflect oncoming missiles. If you wield the weapon like a baseball bat, you may have the opportunity to reach a few enemies who are outside the Hammer's limits.

Once you've cleared the way and rescued Sgt. Johnson from his cell, a new swarm will fly in on two Phantoms. But these are simple enough to take care of by just standing back, avoiding enemy fire and letting your troops make fast work of the incoming forces. Hold down the fort long enough and your Pelican will eventually arrives to take you to the second mission: Crow's Nest.

Mission rating: Due to the game's steep learning curve and lack of back story explanation, 4.5 out of 5

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