Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: 09/14/2010
Microsoft has a lot riding on Halo: Reach. Halo Wars was a solid – if incomplete – RTS, but Halo 3 and Halo: ODST really haven’t done anything new since the second game in the series. ODST in particular had some serious issues when it came to pricing and matchmaking, and ended up alienating a lot of fans when it was proved to be a full-price expansion pack. Halo: Reach is here at long last, and it may ultimately decide the fate of the franchise. Is that a bit overdramatic? Maybe, maybe not, but the first-person shooter has moved quite a bit further than Halo. It’s time to see if combat can still evolve.
I trust everyone is at least somewhat familiar with the Halo story? Good, moving on. Halo: Reach takes place about a month and a half before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. The planet Reach is a military stronghold of the United Nations Space Command, and the alien armada known as the Covenant has just arrived. What follows is the last several days of the planet before it is turned to glass by orbital plasma bombardment. You will create a character and enlist with five other members of Noble Squad and attempt to turn the tide of the invasion. I’m not giving anything away by stating that you will fail. In 2001 when Halo: Combat Evolved arrived, it was made clear that Master Chief was the last of the Spartans. This only serves to make the story more gripping in my opinion. You know as a player that this is a suicide run; you know you won’t make it off of Reach, but you still must do your duty. At this point in the meta-story, the war has been going on for a while, and the other Spartans in Noble Squad are starting to show fatigue. They keep going, so you must too. The campaign is not overly long, topping out at about eight hours, but the pace is near-perfect. You will not get bored, you will not see the same corridors, and you won’t backtrack. The ending is a beautifully subtle inversion of the typical Halo ending, the race to escape. Adding to the fun is the ability to play co-op in the campaign. Since you are part of a squad from day one, there’s not a lot of incongruity from playing a single player game with two players suddenly.
The other mode for Halo: Reach is, of course, the online multiplayer. Bungie has really cleaned up the online interface, and since they’ve been refining their product and interface with Xbox Live for years now, you end up with a very polished product. Shooters have moved on a bit from the Halo paradigm, but this is still one of the smoothest, most intuitive games you can play online. Sadly, Xbox Live remains the domain of racist twelve-year olds, but there are lots of ways to deal with that, like partying with known friends or mute them all, but if you are looking for a deep, diverse multiplayer title, you don’t need to look much further.
Players looking for the quantum leap from Halo 2 to Halo 3 were kind of disappointed. Halo: ODST added a few layers, but they weren’t spectacular and not much more than a fresh coat of paint. Well, if you were waiting for Bungie to unleash the horsepower on the 360, this is the game. Halo: Reach is a beautiful game, and it goes beyond just adding a few updates to prior games. Each of the Noble Squad members have an individual looks instead of just carbon-copy armored clones. The Covenant all feature new versions of their alien races, and some of them are striking. Certain members of the Elite groups now feature faceplates that cover their squid-like faces completely, obscuring them behind a cold, white faÃƒÂ§ade. Grunts have a lot more variety than just color. Everything is sharper as well, like playing a computer game after installing a new video card and jacking up the settings to max. Not everything is perfect, as there are some issues with clipping and a few slowdown problems, but these are easily overlooked. Reach is a bright, vibrant world for about two weeks after the Covenant arrives, and then it falls to pieces. Smoke hangs in the air, dirty rain only serves to muddy things up, and long views over the plains show a scorched planet on its way to extinction.
The Halo series has had one of the most successful soundtracks in videogames, and the music in Reach still has the feel of prior games in the series, but it lacks some of the punch. Familiar but still different, it reminds me of certain bands that go off on a tangent on their new album. The music is not bad at all, and certainly fits the mood of the major set-piece battles, but it lacks something. I realized what the difference was when I got near the end of the game. The music in previous titles was about triumph, this score is about tragedy. It also seems like there is a lot more attention focused on ambient battle sounds in this game, stuff like near-misses and ricochets from incoming rounds. I’m fine with that, as it really intensifies the combat, but there is one huge issue, though, and that is that at certain points the sound nearly cuts out. There is a later-game level where you play in a zero-gravity near-vacuum and it is appropriate to not hear things unless they are right on top of you, but the sound cuts out in regular game areas occasionally. I don’t know if this is just a simple glitch or if the game is trying to emulate the later parts. Regardless, it is a jarring change, and can pull you right out of the game while you fiddle with speakers and sound settings.
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay
The action in Halo: Reach is the same mix of infantry combat and vehicular missions. The controls have been re-mapped slightly from prior events, but soon become second nature. Players who need more sensitivity should turn the settings up to max. No, the game pad is not as sensitive as a mouse and keyboard, but it is about as smooth as a console experience as you could ask for. Within an hour I was consistently pulling off headshots and dodging grenades like a pro. Reach also adds a space-based dogfight mission, and Bungie could go ahead and make that into a standalone product. It isn’t perfect, but for the first go-round of a space-sim I was left wondering what else they could do and started hoping for a Wing Commander resurgence. During the game, I had no control issues aside from feeling that the new helicopter feels kind of slow compared to some of the other aerial vehicles I’ve played in. I could talk for pages about the controls, but I don’t have to. They are rock solid, period.
Halo has been, since inception, all about the multiplayer, and that trend continues here. Once the guns have fallen silent in single player, take the fight to your friends. Multiplayer in Halo: Reach doesn’t do much new, but it is the quintessential FPS experience. If you ever do manage to get tired of the maps and modes included, Bungie has added Forge World to the game. The tools available to users to generate new content are massive, and should keep you from ever getting bored. The Forge World mode is a massive game map that lets you edit all of the structures from the game. It is an amazing undertaking and will allow talented modders to crank out maps from here until the next Xbox. Bungie also fixed one of my main complaints with Halo: ODST, by adding a matchmaking service to the Firefight mode, so you can now pick up and play if you don’t have any friends available. The matchmaking service itself has been streamlined and is now easily customizable. Every kill you make will earn you credits that can be used towards the customization of your armor. The only reason you’ll get tired of having this disc in the tray is if you get tired of FPS games on the 360.
The theme of “right tool for the job” has run through the Halo games from the beginning. They have limited the player to two weapons and grenades and forced you to pick from the bodies of your enemies to get the right mix of new gear for new foes. Bungie has tweaked game balance on single player and multiplayer and, as always, hit a good mix. While often challenging on harder difficulty levels, no part of the game feels impossible. The main campaign actually feels better on the Heroic difficulty level as that is where the enemy AI will truly challenge most players. The online adversarial matches tend to favor the host, but that is true of every shooter. Each weapon and tactic has a counter tactic that must be used to obtain victory. The only point I thought was imbalanced was the removal of dual-wielding except for a certain class of Elite, but after banging my head into the wall I changed weapons and everything worked fine.
After nine years, this setting is starting to get a bit long in the tooth. However, Reach uses some tricks from other games to mix things up. Most noticeable are the armor powers. You can carry one of these at a time, and they add different abilities to your suit. There isn’t any right or wrong armor to use, as they will change to fit your play style. This takes the place of the equipment from Halo 3, and includes a sprint burst, active camo, a jetpack, a shield, a hologram, and a brief burst of invulnerability. On the surface these are ripped straight out of Red Faction: Guerrilla, and they function the same. Still, being able to absorb incoming plasma fire or getting a high vantage point for your sniper is handy. Bungie has also added executions to the melee kills from behind. The Spartans all have knives about their armor, and a successful kill from behind switches to a third person view of you getting all stabby. This game also does a great job of showing the world slowly being devastated by the Covenant, something we have been waiting for since the first game. The “new” vehicles and weapons fit just fine into the existing canon. Nothing seems more modern than games in the future have shown, which is always a concern if you are doing a prequel.
Originality: Very Good
There are very few game franchises today that still inspire a midnight launch party. I decided to go to one for Reach, partially because I wanted to get the Legendary Edition for a photo-shoot, and partially because of the experience. I came home, unboxed the game and took some pictures, and popped the disc in for what was going to be “just a few minutes of the campaign.”Â Two and a half hours later, I pried the controller out of my hands and lurched to bed. The story might not be the most original, but it is very well paced and presented. Bungie also gives us a lot of what we were missing in earlier games in the series, namely the sense of the UNSC at the height of its power against the Covenant. That aspect of the story alone will keep you playing. Multiplayer has been given an upgrade too, so even if you can stop playing the campaign, you’re going to get stuck in the matchmaking world. Knowing the fate of the planet before you start playing nails you with a “What’s next?” vibe for the entire game.
This is Halo, and it is Bungie’s farewell to the franchise. If you are a fan of the series, then this is your game for the holiday season and foreseen future. Halo fans are about as die-hard as they come, and won’t find many faults. For people newer to the series, does it do enough fresh things to cause interest? I think so. There are some new aspects, and the scope of the battles is finally huge, but at its core, this is still Halo. If you hate console FPS games, and feel like anything other than a mouse and keyboard is sacrilege, this game isn’t going to win you over. There are a vast amount of people online who hate the idea of the Spartans jumping all over the place as opposed to acting like real soldiers and running for cover. No game exists in a vacuum, but this title offers something for about everyone that likes FPS games. The amount of tools and options that Bungie has lavished over this game make it one of the premiere FPS titles around.
Appeal Factor: Great
No discussion of Halo: Reach would be complete without mentioning the online presence Bungie has generated. The company doesn’t just release a game into the wild and stand back, doing nothing. They collect a staggering amount of data about every game played, where players die, where they enjoy games, what causes them to quit, and so on. They use that data to actively tweak the experience and communicate with the players. Let’s be honest: the online world of Halo: Reach is still populated by screaming, racist teenagers. It always will be. This time though, Bungie has gone out of their way to create ways to silence and avoid them. There is, of course, the mute button, but that is just the beginning. Bungie has allowed you to create a psychological profile to help with your choice of gametype, and added a lot of opportunities for you to simply play with friends rather than the teeming hordes. The matchmaking is faster this time around, it is more complete, and more coherent. While Reach only ships with eight multiplayer maps, the amount of gametypes more than makes up for that, not to mention all that you can do with the Forge mode. This is an amazingly refined product, even if not all of the users are mature.
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Originality: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Great
FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Halo: Reach is the last game that Bungie will develop in the Halo series, and it is an amazing achievement. This is the Halo title you have been waiting for since Microsoft announced the 360. The story is a classic tale of sacrifice against all odds that will keep you riveted. The graphics and sound are wonderful, the control is near-perfect, and there is enough fun to keep you online well into the night. Fans of first-person shooters should not be disappointed in the slightest, and Reach more than makes up for the shortfalls of ODST. The only real issues you might find with the game are some of the other players online, but Bungie has given you a host of tools to avoid them, and even an amazing level-editor tool to create your own world to play in. Halo: Reach is one of the best titles on the Xbox 360.