Halo 3

Quake 3 Arena raised eyebrows in 1999 when it ditched first-person story altogether in favor of multiplayer deathmatches. To this day, many gamemakers are still reluctant to pick a side. But Halo 3 stubbornly sticks to its narrative guns, even though it's clear that the series' strengths lie in creating the ultimate online paintball battleground. This latest (and possibly last) chapter of the story sees super soldier Master Chief doing much of the same stuff he did in prior games. He fights aliens, drives lethal vehicles, and triggers massive bombs nearly every place he sets foot. As flimsy as his tale tends to be, the game's action setpieces remain rousing.

Still, judging a game like Halo 3 on the single-player campaign is like taking a movie to task for its opening credits. Halo 3's multiplayer is its reason for existence. Nobody does this kind of online gaming better. The sheer variety of play offered out of the box is staggering: There are dozens of games, ranging from straight team battles like capture the flag to more imaginative brawls that simulate zombie infection, or re-create swashbuckling pirate boarding parties. Halo 3's designers have almost done themselves a disservice in throwing their helmet into the narrative gaming ring. They simply aren't working in the same league as Half-Life or BioShock. But why should they care? The Halo series has created a world infinitely more intriguing—an online playground where players write the rules and tell the story themselves.

Beyond the game: Word is that Bungie and Microsoft have been rubbing elbows with Peter Jackson and screenwriter Alex Garland. It's nearly inexcusable that the game doesn't have a better story—or at the very least, a more nuanced one.

Frustration sets in when: Online play still abounds with racist, homophobic jerks. It's easy to mute them, but anybody with a conscience ought to feel compelled to set them straight. Who knew that's what we were signing up for when we chose to "finish the fight"?

Worth playing for: The game automatically records matches, letting players replay and record clips or snap screenshots from any angle they choose. One kind of game, called "The Forge," grants godlike in-game abilities, letting gamers create their own levels as they play. These sandbox-style features transform the game from fleeting firefights to shared experiences with lives of their own.

Final judgment: A game for anybody who stayed out past sunset playing tag.

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