February 1, 2008 - On January 21, 2008 the unthinkable happened: Microsoft announced the Xbox Live activity for the previous week and Halo 3 was not on top. "I don't wish to be melodramatic," said Bungie's Frank O'Connor, "but upon hearing that news, I started listening to My Chemical Romance and scrawled all over my tear-streaked face with soft crimson lipstick, screaming, 'Don't look at me I'm a dirty girl!' at the top of my voice." After the dust cleared from the bombs that went off in our heads and Halo 3 regained the top spot the following week, we began to ask ourselves whether Call of Duty 4 being on top was really all that surprising of an event.
Both games are the newest entries into blockbuster franchises with massive marketing campaigns behind them. Xbox 360 owners proved that there's room for more than one first-person shooter when they propelled both games to mind boggling sales numbers; Call of Duty 4 has sold more than 7 million copies across all platforms while Halo 3 sold over 3 million copies in just 12 days before going on to lead all games in sales for 2007. These are the games that are going to compete for the number one ranking for months to come.
Where do Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 succeed? Where can they improve? What makes them so addictive? We explore the differences between the two titans. It's up to you to decide which game is worth your Xbox Live time.
While the standalone campaigns are fantastic in both Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3, each has a very different offering of online features accompanying the story mode. Call of Duty 4 brings a more limited stable of online campaign options when compared to Halo 3's robust package. For everything that Halo 3 brings to the table the most beloved is easily the four-player co-op. We hadn't seen an Xbox 360 game pull this off before and being able to experience the full story with your friends lends to the social element of the series, not to mention upping the fun factor considerably.
Moving past that you'll find the Meta-game and while the thought of scoring your performance might seem a little old school it's great to compete against your buddies to see who takes the crown as truly the best Halo player. Metaltopia said, "Games like Gears of War, Halo 3 and Crackdown have set a standard for online co-op that every developer should be looking at." He's right too. Developers who are wondering how online co-op should be done on the 360 needn't look any further than Halo 3.
Adding to the fun of playing through the final chapter of Master Chief's struggle against the Covenant with friends are skulls that can be collected throughout the levels and then activated. Doing this not only increases the difficulty by removing certain abilities but it acts as a score multiplier in your Meta-game. Not every skull debilitates the player, though. One skull modifies the game so confetti shoots out of grunts if you pop them in the head. Doing so also cues up a cheer pulled straight from Viva Piñata. The word "hilarious" seems like an understatement.
Call of Duty 4's online functionality within its campaign is much sparser. You can't hook up with your friends and storm through the story and there's a relatively limited competitive scoring system when compared to what Bungie put in Halo 3. What you'll find is leaderboards for each level that rank you according to a score that's tallied by getting headshots, upping the difficulty and completing levels quickly, but none of that is unlocked until you beat the game and get the Arcade Mode.
It's clear that Halo 3 was a bit more dedicated than Call of Duty 4 to bringing online elements to its campaign mode, but moving forward we expect to see plenty of clones – and possibly subsequent Call of Duty titles – adopt a more online-centric campaign mode. Again it looks like the Halo franchise is setting a standard for the industry to follow.
If the multiplayer component of a first-person shooter was a car, the matchmaking would be the engine. Halo 2 was the first game to pioneer the party system and many games have followed suit since, including Call of Duty 4. While the technology doesn't perform quite as well as it does in Halo 3, the function of being able to join up with friends and play continuously, hopping in and out of lobbies whenever you like, is a definite plus for any Xbox Live experience.
Parties can be developed in a few different ways in Halo 3. You can either hookup with friends or random blokes online or you can have your friends sign in as guests -- or use their own gamertags -- on the same Xbox, something that simply isn't possible in Call of Duty 4 when playing online (though you can play split screen locally against three friends).
Once you have that team of six friends formed and solidified for a marathon online fragfest the likes of which the Internet has never seen it's then time to pick your game mode. Surprisingly enough that simple feature is a hot point of contention for Halo 3 diehards. Best3444 writes in about Halo 3, "I love the matchmaking system for the most part. Meeting up with three friends and having the network set up a game for us is great. I don't like the fact that I can't meet up with three friends and search a specific game type and have the network find those games." Halo 3 employs a system in which you can select a game type (i.e. set of rules and win conditions) but not the actual weapons that you'll be using. Sometimes you'll get shotguns and sniper rifles (Shotty Snipers) other times you'll get battle rifles. It's a crapshoot.
Call of Duty 4 allows users to select exact game types like Team Deathmatch and you'll get what you ask for without having to worry about being confined to shotguns or sniper rifles. You'll have at least a couple of different firearms to choose from in each of the categories (sub-machine gun, assault rifle, etc…) But it's also important to note that Halo's propensity to switch weapon sets forces players to hone their skills using different armaments. Call of Duty 4 goes about this a different way by offering specific perks for different weapons, whereas Halo incentivizes players by putting their win/loss record -- thus their all-important ranking -- on the line.
Then there's the actual act of matching players of similar skill levels with one another; the real "matchmaking" of the process. Halo 3 is built on the same roots as Halo 2 thus players will find that they're always matched up with gamers of a similar level. If you're a level seven you won't be matched up with a level 32 player, it just doesn't happen. Call of Duty 4 doesn't follow the same rules and instead throws players into the highest quality server possible, relying more on the ability to find an acceptable spread of highly skilled players and wet-behind-the-ears newbies.
Jose-O-Maticon had the following thoughts on the matchmaking of Call of Duty 4: "I hate the fact that there is no real 'matchmaking' like in Halo 3. I want to be matched up with people with similar skill. I hate getting paired up with people who were level 40+ when I start at level 1. I didn't even have any perks to compete with people at that level. I've gotten better now but that seriously F'd my kill/death ratio."
One of the gripes about Halo 3's matchmaking that we hear all too often is the inability to play your created content (modes or maps from The Forge) against anyone but people on your friends list. Bungie has been looking into options that would allow players to show off their unique modes to others in a ranked match and participate in matchmaking but as of now you're relegated to a "cool kids only" kind of play experience.
The Sweet Sense of Accomplishment
Why do we play games? What do we get out of them to show people why we just spent 400 hours playing a bunch of twelve year olds on Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4? While there's nothing tangible given to players in either game, there are definite reward systems that have been built in to both properties. Halo 3 has its medals which can be accessed on Bungie.net to go along with a numerical and title-based ranking system. Call of Duty 4 has an extensive list of perks for each weapon, random tasks like jumping from a high place or shooting up the environments that will earn you experience points which are then put towards your overall ranking.
Feraljose writes, "COD4 really opened my eyes to how an online MP game should be set up with regards to providing goals and rewards for endlessly playing the game. In halo, you get a rank. In COD4, you get stuff, skills, and weapons to unlock and play with."
Being a military game, you'd expect Call of Duty 4 to do the standard ranking system of starting as a Private then working your way up to General and it does exactly that with an experience points system. You get ten points for a kill in Team Deathmatch, fifteen for capturing a flag; every game mode in Call of Duty 4 is centered on earning the precious points known as XP. Infinity Ward went a step further than simply offering experience points for winning rounds; they also included experience point rewards for each weapon to go along with the aforementioned odd ones like shooting through walls to kill fifteen enemies.
We would have been content if working through the three tiers and earning the level of "Mastery" with any of the weapons in Call of Duty 4 were just to up your personal rank, but the unlockable perks are where COD4 truly separates itself from the rest of the field. As you progress and level up your soldier you'll unlock things like "Last Stand" which allows you to fall to the ground and use your last gasp to pop off a few shots with your pistol. There are also simpler perks like increased health, radar jamming and increased bullet damage and you can typically choose three (sometimes two) perks for a given class. The perks give meaning to leveling up your character aside from the bragging rights and yearning to increase a simple number.
Halo 3 combats Call of Duty 4 in its own way with medals and stat tracking that it hands out on Bungie.net. Every time you own one of the many newbies Bungie.net tracks which weapon and if it's a part of a killing streak then you'll get the appropriate medal awarded. Much like Infinity Ward's shooter, the third chapter of Halo also has a ranking system though it's done a bit differently. Rather than offering up a steadily increasing number that coincides with your rank, Halo's numerical rankings fluctuate either up or down depending on your skill. Your rank, such as Gunnery Sergeant, is constantly increasing with every ranked match you play, but the true indicator of someone Halo prowess is your numerical ranking.
It's about time that first-person shooters offered up something more than porting your hero from the single-player campaign over to the multiplayer and COD4 and Halo 3 are excellent examples of how to expand a game's lasting appeal through multiplayer functionality. Other games, it's time to break out the notepad and get to work.
While you may prefer Call of Duty 4's ranking system to Halo 3's, or vice versa, there are some aspects of each game that the other has no answer. These features may not be unique in the entire realm of videogames, but we have the luxury of just comparing two games here. Even though both games are online first-person shooters, they're far from identical.
Call of Duty 4, like many other games, makes use of a class system. Prior to each battle you can choose which weapons, equipment and perks you want to outfit your character with. Even mid-battle, if you find the tides turning, you can switch the weapon load-out that you spawn with. There are a few preset character classes, but Call of Duty 4 also gives you the option to custom create your own from every tool available to you.
You can always pick up a weapon from a fallen enemy or ally, but coming out of the gate with the weapon you want allows you to move straight into the action with confidence. This design choice, along with the aforementioned ranking and unlock system, provide customization and strategic options that Halo 3 ignores. The idea of teamwork is woven into the game itself. We know, working together on Xbox Live is a crazy concept.
Halo 3 may not have anything in the game itself to establish it as truly unique, but when you look at the features surrounding the game you can't help but be impressed. The theater, which allows you to save, replay and share movies and screenshots from any recent games, is a particular high point. With this tool, stories never end with the phrase "you had to be there." Anything amazing that happens in the game can be shared and admired by the entire Halo 3 community. As IGN reader CMackDC put it, "You wish you had it in every other game or you're a liar."
The Forge can be used to completely reshape this map.
One other unique feature is also a point of contention amongst players. The Forge is a limited map editor that can also be played as a multiplayer game. Everything from soccer to mongoose races happens here with map editing taking place on the fly. IGN reader lifelessheap went so far as to call it, "Awesome,like Jesus coming to my door and bringing me a burrito awesome."
That's pretty high praise, but not everyone is so impressed. The problem for some is that you can't search for and join custom games that are being played with the Forge. In order to join one, the person must be on your Xbox Live friend list. An IGN user that goes by the handle CookTrain called it, "completely useless" and wondered, "Why make a map variant if you can't get anyone to play it? I love the concept, I hate the execution."
Infinity Ward and Bungie have been honing their respective play styles for years and it's hard to argue against either of them. It is, however, important to note that Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3, while both first-person shooters, play differently in fundamental ways. The class and weapon unlock system already talked about is one of them, but in no way the only difference. We'll keep this brief -- we're pretty sure many out there could write entire books on the subject.
Call of Duty 4 is based in reality. This brings with it substantially more than a visual change. Some features of Halo 3 simply can't exist in a game that keeps its inspiration grounded. The non-existent fall damage, grav-lifts, power-ups and equipment of Halo 3 are all spawned from the sci-fi backdrop. These, in turn, creates a game where the Y-axis is more important with a distinctly arcade feel to it. You won't see someone fall 50 feet and live in Call of Duty 4, but then you also won't see anyone wielding a massive hammer.
Halo 3 follows the design philosophy of keeping everyone on an equal playing field and letting the best man win. Each person begins with the same weapon in largely symmetrical maps. Better weapons, power-ups and tools can be found, but it's up to the player to get them. Call of Duty 4 follows a different rule book. There's an old school mode that starts everyone with the same weapon, but most modes of play let you pick your load out. New weapons are unlocked as you play, giving veterans what some might see as an advantage over new players. It goes further than starting weapons, though. The best players in Call of Duty 4 are given bonuses for stringing kills together which, in turn, make the strong even stronger. Kill five enemies in a row and you can call in an air strike to get even more kills.
Calling in a helicopter is great. Getting attacked by one is not.
One other sizable gameplay difference is the inclusion of vehicles in Halo 3 and the big maps that come with them. I don't think we need to go over how radically different a game plays when you throw offensive vehicles into the mix. The map size is a slightly more subtle difference between Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3. As IGN reader pmanyon put it:
I really think the [Call of Duty 4] multiplayer is lacking large maps. They tried to hard to emulate Halo. I would like to have had a map where I could snipe for more than four seconds without getting a knife in my back. It is nice to have a balance of fast-paced maps that are a little bit smaller and some larger maps to slow things down. I think Call of Duty 3 did a better job of creating large maps but didn't have many small maps. Somewhere in between these two games would be perfect. Hopefully they will address this with DLC.
It's important to remember that any aspect of Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 can be changed with an online patch. One is currently going through certification for Call of Duty 4 as we write this that will hopefully fix some of the matchmaking issues the game has right now. They're also free to change their playlists at any time, something Bungie has done numerous times throughout the years. An issue with balance or matchmaking can be changed at any time.
We asked Bungie what it intended to do to maintain its status as the top dog on Xbox Live. Frank O'Connor had this to say:
Oh, I think that laying around in my underwear, scratching my distended belly will take care of that in the short term. Mid and Long term, we fully intend to refresh, revamp and re-engage our multiplayer community. We never, ever want to rest on our laurels, and we have a number of irons in the fire already – some fixes to our core mechanics for a future update – and plenty of downloadable content that should keep our audience enthused and excited for years to come. The "Heroic Map Pack" is already being enjoyed by many in our community but will soon be available to everyone for free and shortly after we have a whole new wave of maps to unleash upon the world. Halo has always had the most vibrant online console activity and we intend to keep it that way – not to compete with other games, but with ourselves and to satisfy the needs of our loyal audience.
You can be sure both Bungie and Infinity Ward will continue to create new downloadable content for these games. Halo 3 will receive another map pack before the year is over and, if it builds on what we saw in the first, new Forge items will likely make their way into the mix as well. All it would take is a couple of classic Halo maps remade for Halo 3 to reinvigorate the community should it ever begin to drift away. Call of Duty 4 has yet to receive its first set of DLC. Fans are already anticipating an increase in the level cap, new perks, maps and weapons and an expanded set of challenges.
This fight for Xbox Live supremacy is far from over. Sound off to let us know which game style you prefer in the comment section below.