Though I’ve always enjoyed the games in the Halo series, I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan. Each game in the franchise has always provided me with hours of entertainment, but I’ve never been particularly devoted to one game. When Halo: Reach was announced, I was mildly excited. Once I heard that Reach was going to be Bungie’s last entry into the franchise, that excitement grew. Of course the original developers were going to want to go out on a high note, right? Right. Halo: Reach is Bungie’s definitive statement on Halo. With a solid, if unmemorable, campaign, and the most robust multiplayer there has ever been in a Halo game, Reach proves that when it comes to shooters, Bungie is in a class of their own. Even if the game is just more of the same Halo action we’ve all come to love over the last decade.
Halo: Reach is a prequel to the very first game in the franchise, Halo: Combat Evolved. Set during the Covenant invasion of the UNSC military outpost on Reach, the game follows a group of Spartans known as Noble Team. You join up with the elite squad just as Noble Team is sent off to investigate the sudden stop of communication from a relay in Visegrad. Once there, you find that it isn’t local insurrectionists, but a small Covenant force, behind the situation. It’s only then that the realization of an invasion becomes apparent, and the rest of the game is spent trying to stop the Covenant from taking over Reach. Fans familiar with the expanded universe and history already know how Reach will play out. It’s in finding out what happens before the conclusion of the game that makes the story interesting. Well, it would be if there was a shred of emotional connectivity to the characters involved.
As it stands, the story of Reach is chock full of battles that escalate in intensity the further you progress, but there really isn’t a reason to care about what happens. Each of the game’s plot points is nothing more than an excuse to get you from one fight to the next, and though there are supposed to be strong emotional moments tied to members of Noble Team, none of the soldiers are fleshed out enough for you to care. It’s particularly tough to care about your character, as he’s yet again another faceless, nameless Spartan charged with saving the world. Bungie tries to humanize the members of Noble Team by allowing the player to see them with their helmets off for many of the cutscenes, but since all of the soldiers are so hardened by war, the only character trait any of the Spartans have is that they’re tough. I did feel a tiny bit of a connection to Kat, but that was due more to her being the central star of the live action commercial than it was due to how compelling she was in the story. Ultimately, Reach’s narrative falls prey to its genre. Shooters are about shooting things, not the people pulling the trigger. I guess it’s a good thing then that the shooting is so good.
Halo’s tried and true gunplay doesn’t change that much in Reach. Dual-wielding is gone, leaving players with just two single use armament options at any given time. The franchise’s familiar run-and-gun style still works well, and though there are a few missions and multiplayer game modes where sniper rifles are the preferred weapon of choice, you’ll spend far more time on the move than you will patiently waiting for the perfect shot. The biggest, and perhaps only, real change to the core mechanics of the game lies in the new armor types. In the campaign, armor types are located throughout a mission as items you can pick up and drop. When playing multiplayer, you can choose which armor type you want to use before you spawn. Aside from the idea that Sprint should be an armor ability, each of the other types all come in handy. Not only is it pretty useless, but it’s also silly to think that running slightly faster for a short duration would ever come in handy. The Jet Pack (short range flight) is a blast to use, as is the Hologram (limited duration standing duplicate), but my personal favorite has to be Armor Lockdown, which prevents you from taking damage for a brief moment, while also emitting an EMP pulse to drain surrounding enemy’s shields. Active Camo makes a return as an ability this time around, and comes in handy when trying to pull of the stealthy assassination maneuver. If you happen to catch an unsuspecting enemy from behind, instead of just hitting them with your rifle butt, you can actually perform a killing blow takedown. They’re cool, and it’s fun to try and pull them off, but they’ll often leave you exposed once completed.
Even in the campaign, being left out in the open is generally a bad idea. Especially when you consider how useless the rest of your team is. Now, while the whole of Noble Team won’t always be by your side during a mission, one or two members will occasionally join you. Sometimes, you’ll even be able to “recruit” other enlisted soldiers to tag along on a mission as added support. I say recruit in quotations because it’s really not up to you whether or not the other people join your party. They’ll join you no matter what because that’s the way it was scripted. Not having an actual recruitment mode isn’t really that big a deal, but it would have been a nice additional touch. The reason why it’s not a big deal is all of the AI teammates have horrible intelligence. I can’t tell you how many times I was stuck in a firefight watching the other members of Noble Team standing idly by, staring down their scopes. Sure, from time to time, they helped out, and you’ll often be able to get yourself out of trouble quite easily, but if you’re going to have computer teammates, they should act like a team. Reach is not the only game guilty of this problem, but I really held out hope that Bungie would come up with something better. Perhaps they spent too much time trying to figure out how space combat should work for one level. It works okay. It’s nothing spectacular or terrible. It simply exists.
The real meat and potatoes of any Halo game is the multiplayer, and there’s certainly been no change with Halo: Reach. Reach’s multiplayer is the most complete Bungie’s ever created, and offers not only a wealth of pre-programmed matches, but the ability to create virtually any scenario you so desire. While a large percentage of players will no doubt be spending their time in the standard matchmaking process, those of you with more creative desires will get a kick out of slightly tweaked Forge. With improved physics, there’s now really no limit to what you can do. Other than the object and budget limit anyway. You still can’t create Firefight maps, which is a shame, but there’s enough to do elsewhere that it isn’t that big a detractor. The true standout of the multiplayer has to be the ability to fine-tune your matchmaking preferences. Skill and experience, as well as how a person plays according to Bungie’s metrics, are all filterable, making it much easier to find a game with a group of people that suits your particular play style. It’s particularly nice when trying out the new match types like Invasion (objective-based team play), Stockpile (CTF plus), and Headhunter (collect skulls left behind by fallen enemies). Invasion is a lot of fun to play, as long as you have a solid team. Like any multiplayer team match, working together is essential, and being able to weed out those who tend to play by their own rules is huge.
Firefight returns with a few improvements from its ODST days. The most impressive is full customization. You can set up each and every aspect of a playthrough from how much damage weapons do, to how the AI acts, to whether or not anyone or everyone is invisible or invincible. The variations you can place on Firefight extend well beyond the default settings, and you could seemingly never play the same match type twice if you so wanted. Along with matchmaking making the jump to Firefight, there’s now a two-on-two mode where Spartans take on Elites in a point scoring battle. The caveat is that the Elites have the rest of the Covenant army at their disposal, while the Spartans are left to their own devices.
No matter what mode you’re playing, you’ll be able to use the new leveling/credit system. The better you perform in multiplayer, the more credits you earn, and the quicker you’ll rank up. Credits can be used to purchase new components to your armor, truly giving every player the tools to customize their on-screen avatar however they please without having to be super-talented. Sure, it’ll take you much longer to earn enough credits for the additional parts, but if you don’t mind grinding your way up the ranks, anything is attainable. Leveling also helps make the game that much more addictive. For some reason, I always feel the need to play just one more round to make my personal quota of credits for the night. Completing daily and weekly challenges help move things along at a brisker pace, as does ramping up the difficulty in the non-competitive game modes.
Earlier when I said that Reach was the definitive Halo experience, the statement wasn’t just limited to the gameplay. Graphically, Reach is the pinnacle of the series, providing some of the most breathtaking visuals on the console to date. Armor is more detailed, faces are much more realistic and expressive, and gunfire and explosions are bigger, brighter, and more impressive. You do get a sense of how fantastic everything looks when playing the campaign, but don’t really get a chance to appreciate the intricacies until you hit up the multiplayer theater for replays. When you’re able to slow down a shootout, and zoom in on an individual gunshot or grenade blast, you see just how impressive the lighting and effects really are. This engine in use here blows away anything and everything Bungie’s done before, and even though they probably didn’t have to change the look of the game one bit, it’s nice to see the extra effort put in to the visuals. The game’s sound design is top notch, with both a great soundtrack and solid voice acting. Despite not having much to emote, the actors all do a fine job conveying soldiers in the field.
Even though the story left me a bit underwhelmed, Halo: Reach is still my favorite Halo title. Nearly everything about this game has been improved over its predecessors, and though the campaign won’t take you too long to complete, the hours you’ll spend with the multiplayer more than make up for it. Bungie may be finished with their portion of the fight, but there will be more Halo titles from Microsoft eventually. They’ll have a lot to live up, as Reach is a wonderful endnote to a great run, and shouldn’t be missed by anyone.