From its beginnings as the title that made snobby PC gamers run out to buy an Xbox, to being home to a cliffhanger enraging millions, to impossibly long midnight-launch queues, the Halo series has taken the gaming world by one hell of a decade-long storm. The mere thought of the word “Xbox” brings to mind countless hours spent shooting cartoony aliens in colorful environments while an immensely epic musical score plays. So with Halo: Reach being the final Halo game developed by Bungie, expectations have been extremely high.
You can bet your shiny green cyborg ass that Microsoft will milk the HaloCow until PETA arrives, but as far as most fans are considered, this is the final true Halo game. So having completed it and played a healthy dose of multiplayer, I can say that expectations have almost been met. Let me explain myself:
Halo Reach is a prequel story, taking place during the Battle of Reach, which people familiar with Halo canon will know does not end favorably for the good guys. This is where the problems with Reach start; it is almost impossible to tell a prequel story after that story´s end has been depicted, and still have it matter as much to the audience as the conclusion. And with the almost unfair amount of hype Reach has been getting, the lack of attachment will surely leave some fans disappointed. It would be far more fitting to place the “defining” Halo, which is what Bungie have been touting this as, at the climax of the trilogy. Unfortunately, as they are not in possession of a time-machine, that was impossible from the start of Reach´s development.
Still, Bungie could have side-stepped this issue by making it a character-driven story in the vein of Mass Effect 2. Could have, in fact, it seems like they tried to, seeing as you spend the majority of the game with your squad of Spartan super-soldiers. But throughout the eight-hour playtime these characters were rarely more than clichés. I knew them mostly by the colors of their armor, as the few attempts to personify them were shallow and half-hearted. One example is the depiction some seemingly close relationship between one squadmate and your female superior. This is only brought up about two times, and never elaborated on, and is thus insufficient as a means to make us care for that character. In the end, their personas boil down to: Cool-headed commander, chick with unidentified accent and robo-arm, sniper dude with russian accent, big dude with british accent, and badass with skull carved on helmet.
Even towards the end when (spoiler alert) they were getting killed off left and right, I felt little for them.
Now, those two paragraphs of negativity might fool you into thinking Halo: Reach is something less than brilliant, is not the case. Because the Halo series have never been about telling an intricate story, but rather to give you a feeling of absolute epic-ness, and this Reach achieves with success. Even with it seldom having the kind of high-concept set-pieces of Halo 3 (i.e., the dual scarab fight), it does not hurt the game, as the core combat gameplay far surpasses that of any other Halo game, and is some of the best ever seen in a shooter. Weapons are now balanced to near perfection, and much like in Combat Evolved, they all have their distinct uses. Ultimately, none of the guns feel cheap, they all require time to master.
Also, almost all annoying or boring gameplay elements have either been made less so or dropped entirely. For example, beige zombie onions are nowhere to be found here. And the few times you run into the frustrating drones, you get to shoot them in the face to make them explode. Brilliant!
So despite the slightly disappointing story, Reach´s campaign is an engaging experience that seldom, if ever, drops in quality. Or intensity for that matter. In fact, one could argue it is a little one-note. ODST shifted elegantly between quiet, atmospheric moments and all-out action, whereas Reach focuses entirely on the latter. Still, the sheer quality and dynamic possibilities of the combat, as well as the relatively short running time, ensures this never becomes a real problem.
But for all the fun of playing through Reach on your own, the Co-op is where the campaign really comes alive. Go on live with three buddies and you realize that large sections of planet Reach seem to have been designed for cooperative play. Positioning of flanking-routes, enemies, weapons and vehicles all lend themselves to playing with other people. Bungie also made it so that your rank up even when playing campaign, as well as featuring your customized armor. These two things add a lot of incentive to keep playing the campaign after completion, something missing from pretty much all FPS games.
Of course, despite all the greats of Reach´s campaign, multiplayer is what people really will pump hours into. And I´m happy to say that the multiplayer here betters that of any other Halo. Having said that, there are very few drastic changes to the “Strafe-Jump-Shoot-Throw grenades” formula. The biggest change is the option to select loadouts, which pack in so-called armor abilities. With this change, Halo Reach becomes a sort of class-based-shooter-lite. The abilities range from Jetpack, to bubble shield, to invisibility, and so on.
These additions to the gameplay were hardly needed, but still add exciting unpredictability, especially in some of the new multiplayer modes featured. When you are unsure if the guy coming towards you could suddenly drop a shield around himself or fly off in a jetpack things can get pretty tense.
Also, Firefight makes a return from ODST, albeit in a slightly refined form. Now both customizable and playable in matchmaking, Firefight is still good fun, and stands up well in the sea of similar modes featured in other shooters.
Lastly, there is what might be my personal favorite aspect of the game, namely Forge. The mode first featured in Halo 3 has now been taken to an impressive extent, offering near-unimaginable possibilities for detailed map creation. Restrictions and freedoms have been adjusted exactly right, meaning getting your idea out there is – a few control niggles aside – never frustrating. It might not give you as many possibilities as a “proper” PC map editor, but blows all competition out of the insta-drown-videogame-water in terms of accessibility and ultimately, fun. You´ll know what I mean once you see my infinite-fall-with-landmines-map.
The Umbrella-style evil corporation of Activision might have a ten-year contract with Bungie, and Microsoft will probably be releasing Halo-Kart next year, but Reach, for all it´s flaws on the campaign side of things, will surely be remembered as a great game bringing a generation of great games full circle. This is where you finish the fight.
5 out of 5.