Not All Hype

Yes, “Halo 3” is an instant classic in an otherwise mediocre year. But leave it to me to nitpick: When you play against other gamers online, it takes forever to get a game started, and occasionally you can’t even get a game to start.

Granted, this is a minor complaint that mostly will be straightened out pretty soon, as these things do. But it is annoying that every online game for a console — even oh-mighty “Halo 3” — begins with sporadic kinks in its computer servers.

The delays keep me from playing even more of the awesomeness that is “Halo 3,” with its rocket launchers, rifles and “Needler” guns (which shoot killer icicle thingies into enemies’ bodies that then explode within them).

Winning is all about finding the best guns lying around randomly (battlefields are strewn with weapons). This “Halo” also comes with better energy-sword fights than before. You clash against a rival, and the swords stun you both. Good luck not dying.

If you’re not a gamer, here’s the deal. Thanks largely to the first “Halo,” the Xbox became a big seller in 2001 and 2002, when no one was sure if Microsoft’s first game machine could compete against Sony’s humongo PlayStation 2. “Halo” did for Microsoft what “Donkey Kong” and “Mario” games did for Nintendo.

Flash forward to now, and the Xbox 360 clearly is outselling the PS 2 and PS 3 in the serious gaming market, partly because “Halo 3” is available only on Xbox. This spells trouble for the otherwise excellent PS 3.

Once again, the sci-fi adventure is fantastic. “Halo 3” had the artistic advantage of time (three years in the making) and development money (plus a $10 million marketing campaign).

When you play the solo game against the computer, you travel across space stations and planets — deserts, snowdrifts and everything green in between — to kill evil soldiers who answer to the nasty Prophet of Truth.

I won’t go into all the dorky details in the end of this trilogy, but essentially you are Master Chief, the marine (wearing an iconic green spacesuit) who can save humankind. You kill thousands of space dudes who want to destroy humanity and, I suppose, the universe.

Regular gamers will be satisfied playing just the nine levels of solo missions, because they are extravagantly drawn. And shooting your way through baddies is fun. (It’s easy, moderately hard or very hard, depending on which setting you choose). This could take between 10 and 20 hours, based on your skills.

But many fans are going right to the online multiplayers, where you compete on 11 huge battle maps. You can join a team to capture a flag, protect bases against attack, or merely kill everything in sight. Or you can play a teamless free-for-all.

Two big new features live up to the hype. You can capture video of any moment you want — like taking down several enemies with a single blow — and share these images with anyone on Xbox Live, to prove how super duper dorky cool you are. And on another level, you can design parts of maps, not the locations but where weapons are placed and where you spawn back to life.

This is all pretty crazy and wondrous, which is why I feel slightly bad about slagging the game for its opening-week server slowdowns. But whatever. I want to jump in online now, now, now. I’m already sick of hearing gamers, through my headphones, say, “Why does it take so long?”

Hang in there, “Halo” heads. Everything will be perfect, any minute now, I hope.

(“Halo 3” retails for $60 for Xbox 360 — Plays fun. Looks great. Easy to very challenging, depending on settings. Rated “M” for blood, gore, mild language, violence. Four stars out of four.)

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