Everyone might know how many of the battles in WW2 ended, but that didn’t matter to gamers seeing it through the lens of countless RTS titles re-enacting famous confrontations to the glut of first-person shooters taking them to the beaches of Europe and the Pacific. The same can also be said for the story behind the prequel of Halo: Reach – at least to the fans that read the books.
It’s not an adaptation of any of them, however it takes place within the final doomed battle written of by author Eric Nylund in the Halo novel, Fall of Reach. In that sense, you know what’s going to happen: Reach is doomed regardless of what you do.
But the beauty of the story, in the same way that EA and Infinity Ward had done with their own slices of WW2 history, is that it focuses more on smaller pieces of whole filled with enough detail to make the game exciting enough to experience these events from another perspective. After nearly ten years in building their universe, Bungie’s fond farewell to it is also reflected within what they had done to make Reach the best Halo yet by making it personal.
Reach takes place in the 26th century, prior to the first Halo, with mankind on the ropes. Relentless attacks by the alien Covenant whose forces outnumber humanity’s are slowly extinguishing the species from the galaxy, planet by planet. Now they’ve arrived at Reach, a world considered to be the literal doorstep to the core worlds…and Earth. Reach also happens to be the home of the SPARTAN project, the same project that created the Halo series’ uber hero, Master Chief.
SPARTANs are super-soldiers armored in the latest gear and are considered the last hope that humanity has in stopping the Covenant, and the player joins up with a group of them as Noble Six. Sent out with the others to investigate a mysterious disturbance out in the countryside, Six and the rest of the team are soon thrown into the firestorm as Covenant forces unexpectedly arrive in force, heralding the end.
Running into the Covenant on Reach felt as if I were getting a taste of the ‘real’ Covenant and one reason why is that even though it’s a prequel, it’s using all of the tricks that Bungie had learned over the course of the series. Just look at what Obi Wan Kenobi and friends had to deal with in the Star Wars prequels compared to what Luke and the others fought against in the original series and try to figure that out if you don’t want to keep up with the books and articles explaining why.
In this case, it’s been almost ten years since the first Halo. As a result, longtime fans might notice how much tougher and more varied the actual Covenant forces are compared to what they had to deal with with ODST or even Halo 3, not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s a huge improvement especially when the Covenant begin yelling at the player in their own language or when puny grunts start blasting you with fuel rod cannons and newfangled concussion guns, something normally reserved for bigger troops but are apparently standard issue here.
Though the main campaign is relatively short, the story behind it answers a few questions that fans may have been asking as well as add in plenty of background to where it all began. Gameplay-wise, it’s still one of the best console FPS titles available on any system. Old standbys such as regenerating shields, the crushing melee attack, and vehicles are back while a new health system adopted from ODST lends a slightly more tactical feel to the action. As your second and last line of defense against the Reaper, it doesn’t always heal up forcing you to keep an eye out for health packs in the wild for those close brushes with death.
There’s also an arcade-like starfighter mini-game which doesn’t require you to have the kind of reflexes honed with more serious sims (though it does help). These were a lot of fun and later on, you get to pilot a gunship patrolling the burning city of New Alexandria from the skies. Unfortunately, that particular piece of piloting slammed the inertial dampeners on the quick pace that the rest of the action slid across the hours with. Flying from one spot to the next to shoot down enemy ships or troops at the top of buildings felt as if I were an armed sky cab to-go, waiting for things to happen instead of moving quickly on to the next objective.
Jet packs are also a new addition to the game and add a new vertical dimension to the action making the few fans of Tribes on the PC still out there on consoles nostalgic for the old days. Enemies aren’t shy about jumping about and making themselves hard to hit, either, and the usual difficulty levels are back to make online co-op a near necessity for those that don’t want to break their controllers in trying to tackle Reach on Legendary alone.
Aside from the improved look of everything else in the game thanks to a polished engine, it’s mostly familiar territory packed with welcome enhancements. The checkpoint system it uses to mark your progress is still a little iffy and the main campaign can be finished in a few short hours depending on how hard you make it, though the story is one of Bungie’s best making it worth every shot.
All of this, however, is only a several hours long warm up to the multiplayer that the series is known for. And that is probably the only reason most anyone will be buying Reach.
Starting the game allowed you to custom make your own Noble Six starting with gender, the kind of helmet and attachments worn, symbol stamped on the armor, and even the colors which were all seen from within the in-game cutscenes with impressive detail. All of this also tied into a ‘credit’ point system that was tallied over the course of the single-player campaign, replaying specific missions, or more importantly, joining in online to bash a few heads, allowing you to purchase more pieces to customize your own SPARTAN online.
A ranking system based on these points is also back in play reminding more than a few FPS veterans of the kind of changes that Modern Warfare had evolved its own online space with. It’s an added incentive for players eager to unlock more stuff to buff up the look of their own SPARTAN soldier with voice packs and armor additions, though none of the vanity features actually do anything to make one player better than the others. That still comes down to skill.
Other improvements outside of the cosmetic touches include the ability to specify who you want to game with via the kind of chat options you set up. Do you want to game with people that only say things when they are important or someone who loves to broadcast a toilet flushing? Now you can help skew the kind of groupings you might find yourself in with the number of options that this has been expanded with. I’m not exactly sure how well this actually works, though the groups I was online with were pretty civil for the most part which was almost eerie.
Firefight is also back pitting you and a group of friends or strangers in a co-op battle against waves of Covenant soldiers for points. Other game types such as Headhunter, Team Slayer, CTF, and others such as Invasion or another variant of Firefight pitting player teams of SPARTANs against Covenant Zealots round out the number of gametypes.
There are also armor modifications that can be equipped, just as they were introduced in the single-player, giving the player new abilities such as being able to send out a hologram of themselves running in a certain direction to distract others or even locking their armor down making them temporarily indestructible (and immobile) which comes in handy when you want to be an instant wall to that oncoming Warthog buggy. You can only equip one of these at a time, but they add a lot of creativity to the toolbox of players that can make the best use of them whether it’s in using a jetpack to get to the perfect sniping point or in dropping a shield down in Firefight to buy some time for shields and health to regenerate.
Finding people to play with was never a problem and the Matchmaking feature does its job in linking you up with other players eager to play across Reach’s generous number of maps. There are eight included maps for the Firefight mode alone and slightly more than that for everything else with large, spacious areas and tricky interiors. The Boneyard map, in particular, could be both a sniper’s paradise or an infiltrator’s field day as they make use of the stairways, rooms, and catwalks for cover to slip behind enemy lines. Toss in the Forge editor to custom build or tweak any map you want, and the possibilities literally don’t have to end for multiplayer nuts.
Even for newcomers like myself who don’t often play online with Halo, the experience can still be a lot of fun despite a generation of players that are already out there having sharpened their skills since the first game. The system still doesn’t do a particularly good job in matching players based on ambiguous skill levels leading to the usual such as overwhelming the opposition with titanic margins or suffering defeat in the same measure for several stretches at a time, especially if you run across a pro who wants to stretch their legs out in public for a few rounds.
But even if this is your first taste of online multiplayer, Reach will get anyone’s trigger finger itching. With the addition of extras such as weekly challenges to earn extra credits with and enhanced social tools that continue to allow players to brag to each other via videos and screecaps done within the game itself, there’s plenty here for anyone to play with outside of the usual matchmaking.
Halo: Reach caps off Bungie’s participation to the series they had created as a testament to what they have done for both Xbox Live and the console FPS in general. Microsoft will undoubtedly keep the sci-fi series going with someone else even with the bar set as high as it is, but as Bungie leaves behind Microsoft and the Halo series, many are still going to be wondering what might be next.
In the meantime, this is still the Halo that a new generation of gamers have grown up knowing, distilled and polished over nearly a decade of frags. Even though the formula can feel slightly aged in some respects since its debut on the first Xbox, it still manages to pack in plenty of action with choices to help give players more out of what they can make for themselves. For those that don’t hold Halo up as an icon but can appreciate the action it brings to a firefight, it’s still one of the best shooters for the Xbox 360.
For the countless fans, it’s Bungie’s final love letter to them rendered in HD — with heaping loads of burning plasma.
Microsoft Game Studios / Bungie
Rated: M for Mature