Developer: Bungie Software
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-4 (2-16 online)
Console: Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Hours Played: 20 (around 8-9 in single-player)
Progress: Completed the campaign on Heroic in Co-op, Reached Warrant Officer in Multiplayer
nwitbraad recently posted a glowing review for Halo Reach. I had a fairly different experience with the new Halo game and would like to share it with you. To give context, I am a proponent of Halo in general. I bought the Legendary editions of both Halo 3 and Halo Reach as well as the controller bundle of Halo 3: ODST. I have played through all of the Halo games (with the exception of Halo Wars) and enjoyed them all to varying degrees. I played 199 Halo 3 online matches since the game came out and am therefore well acquainted with the series. How much less do I think the latest Halo game deserves than the 9.4 it was awarded recently? Read more to find out…
As the final kick at the Halo cat from Bungie, there was a lot expected of the so-called origin story for the Halo series presented in Halo Reach. There were many questions regarding the origin of the curiosities found in the main Halo trilogy that people were hoping to be answered, especially by those people who have yet to read/watch all of the canonical licensed books, comics, and videos that are part of the Halo universe. Who really were the Spartans? How are they trained/made? Who is Master Chief and what did he do before Halo 1? What is the Covenant home-world like? Were there socioeconomic reasons that started them off on their destructive path in addition to religious fanaticism? Well Bungie, for whatever reason, decided to leave almost every question unanswered in this game and instead focused on the humanity and vulnerability of the Spartan team Noble 6. While perhaps more of an art-piece this way, the game’s story does little to enrich the Halo universe except for perhaps explicitly showing the origins of Cortana. Instead of a sweeping epic opening to the series tying up loose ends to polish off Bungie’s quintet of Halo games, we are presented with a very microcosmic presentation of isolated incidents involving characters less compelling and developed than the ones in Halo 3: ODST. ODST, previously hailed as the worst Halo game before Reach‘s launch (primarily for the length of its single-player campaign) presented us with far more interesting characters with better voice acting and deeper presence to the point where you cared a whole lot more about their fate than the rather flat and stereotypical Noble 6 team. Story-wise there really isn’t much to Reach. While knowing how it will end is not a primary detractor from the experience as most people would expect, the “journey” to the end of the game holds virtually no twists or turns and plods gradually to its inevitable end like any other of the 30+ mediocre shooters that come out every year.
The graphics in Halo Reach are good enough, they certainly more than fill their role in creating the world Noble 6 tries in vain to save. Most areas in both single- and multiplayer have a far greater sense of scale than in previous games, featuring much more space in both the traversable and extraneous areas of the maps. Reach has a much wider colour palette than previous entries in the series which gives both characters and environments the extra little pop that any sequel really needs. The presentation of the Spartans is more gritty with worn and scarred armour, as it probably should have been the whole time. Overall, the graphics jump from Halo 3 to Reach is more effective than that from Halo 2 to Halo 3 as stylistic changes accompany brute force polygonal and textural upgrades whereas only the latter two were applied in large amounts to Halo 3 which ended up not looking too different from its predecessor.
Aside from the original stirring Halo music that has been lauded for over a decade even though it was only written hastily to fill empty space for Halo’s first demonstration on old Mac computers, there is not a whole lot of new exciting music in the game that will be making its way to your iPods. The music is definitely still above average and does much to shape and enhance the moods in the varied scenes throughout the game, but this can be attributed more to its likeness to the music of past iterations of the game than to any original orchestral breakthroughs.
The voice acting, while not really sounding forced or fake, was not the greatest for the Noble 6 team. Each team member is assigned a different accent that essentially becomes the entire summation of their flat personalities. Not only are the voices occasionally difficult to understand, but they also generally don’t fit well with the Halo universe as a whole, especially not with the lofty mythos surrounding Spartans. The large burly Slavic dude ends up behaving as one would expect a large Slavic dude to behave and the hot-headed American leader acts similarly. While not entirely attributable to their voices, the stereotypes perpetuated in the game could have been lessened with more genuine and carefully chosen voice actors.
The controls are standard for the Halo series with the usual selection of pre-made button configurations to choose from. While I understand the limitation of button layout customization in multiplayer matches to level the playing field, I still think that single player would have benefited from more controller customization. One slight annoyance that came from the controls that I noticed in the BETA as well was that they moved the default location of the Melee button to RB from it’s classic B location. B was changed to “change grenade type” which is a rather mundane function to map to one of the most accessible buttons on the controller and X was changed to “reload”. Luckily, there is a selectable button mapping that makes the controls more palatable called “Recon”. This moves Melee back to B, puts reload on RB and moves switch grenades to X, which is manageable. Had it not been for the inclusion of the Recon button configuration, there may have been major issues with growing accustomed to the new control scheme, but it isn’t a huge jump with all of the options available for the player.
In spite of the inclusion of a sizable squad with varying preferred weapons and tactics, gameplay in Halo Reach is virtually identical to the rest of the Halo series in pretty much every way with one key exception. The space combat mission, while not incredibly long, presents one of the very best and largest departures from tedium that the Halo series has ever seen. Flying around and dog-fighting with a few different enemy spaceship types hearkens back to the very best of the space combat genre like the various Star Wars Tie Fighter and Star Fox games. While playable in co-op, there is very little expansion on this very welcome addition to the series, and it feels like a mournfully lost opportunity that this game type was not included in multiplayer matchmaking.
Aside from the excellent space combat there is almost nothing new or fresh to be found in the Halo Reach campaign. Most missions have you trod along from point A to point B shooting largely the same enemies that you have been shooting at for the past 9 years. Any additions to the gameplay simply play on FPS standards: protecting a location from waves of enemies assisted (slightly) by turrets, protecting a flying vehicle that you are riding in by using a Gatling gun on its side, defending a position while waiting for a door to open/elevator to arrive, using a large mounted gun to take out incoming aircraft and calling in air-strikes/artillery to take out larger enemies. The classic touch of innovation, excitement, and majesty that normally permeate the gameplay in Halo games is simply not evident in Halo Reach.
Squad mechanics in Halo Reach to not extend beyond the classic “you guys should stand here” waypoint suggestion for your AI companions. For a game promising squad combat and “no more of that lone wolf stuff” your ability to work with your so-called partners is severely limited. There are many games that have tackled squad-based combat in the FPS genre, some quite successfully, like Star Wars Republic Commando. Had Bungie just gone and “adapted” the mechanics from that 2005 game there would have been a lot more to work with than simple waypoints, and they probably would have even been lauded by mainstream media outlets for their “innovation”. As it stands, even when you are breaking enemy lines surrounded by the entire Noble Team, you very rarely even notice them. In spite of their fancy weapons and appearances, they are basically no more helpful than any of the cannon fodder ODSTs or Marines in any of the other Halo games, except for Halo 3: ODST where you were not an invincible tank and thus needed to rely on your comrades to survive. Enemy AI throughout the game is no more or less formidable than it has ever been. In the first playable level I even witnessed an Elite throw a plasma grenade at a stump which then ricocheted back onto him and exploded. You can give a grunt larger weapons, but you can’t tell him where to shoot, apparently.
The Noble 6 team houses characters about as flat as Snap, Crackle, and Pop from the Kellogg’s commercials. They each have a fairly distinctive accent, showing how multicultural/multiplanetary the Spartan program was, but that is about the extent of their originality, or even their humanity. While they display much more “emotion” than Master Chief, this is not necessarily a good thing. Due to the very short length of the campaign, the characters are each introduced, “developed” with a single cut-scene in which they talk slightly more than usual about nothing in particular, and then they promptly die. This series of actions becomes rather formulaic and really leaves you wondering why you should care that a member of your team who doesn’t help at all, that you just met, died in an often strikingly simple and implausible way (their armour and shields seem to be no more effective than tissue paper once its their turn to die). This makes me nostalgic for the deeper characterization of Cortana in the main Halo series and the ODSTs in Halo 3: ODST. Even though Halo 3: ODST was short, the lion’s share of the game is spent subtly building the characters and making you care much more about what happens to them and their relationships than any number of Noble Team characters.
Multiplayer is the largest and most long-lasting part of pretty much every FPS, and this is especially true when it comes to games in the Halo series. Once you’re done the ~ 10 hours (or less in the case of Reach and ODST) of the single-player campaign, there has to be something left to make the $60 – $150 you paid for the game to feel more worthwhile. Halo Reach’s multiplayer features a plethora of changes, as has come to be expected from Halo games. Most of these changes are very welcome: firefight matchmaking, choosing what kind and how skilled of players to play with, being able to vote on a selection of 3 game-types and maps before each game, being able to visually (not practically) trick out your armour, being able to play as Elites that are fundamentally different from Spartans, and having pre-made load-outs selectable in most modes with a good number of very different and fairly well-balanced armour abilities. Features and options are not things that are lacking in Halo Reach’s multiplayer. Unfortunately, the game does end up lacking in many more key features of standard FPS multiplayer that most people take for granted in games like Modern Warfare 2.
Map selection is the first and most painful area of inadequacy in Halo Reach‘s multiplayer. Halo Reach, as of right now, has 8 original maps for non-firefight multiplayer (there are a separate 8 maps, taken mostly from the campaign, available for firefight modes), supplemented by 5 made by the developers in Forge World (Halo Reach‘s large map-making area with pre-defined, uneditable terrain) to mimic maps from past games. The original maps are largely symmetrical, probably for ease of use in Capture the Flag matches, but this means that only half of each map really had to be designed and then mirrored to fill the rest of the space. The Forge World maps are all made of the same bland metallic parts with the same generic alpine scenery and, while technically shaped differently, feel very much the same and are largely skipped in multiplayer matchmaking. Bungie doesn’t seem to realize that a lot of the charm of the original maps from past games came not only from their basic structure, but also their ambiance. The maps in Halo Reach also suffer from size issues. Many of the original ones are far too large for your standard 8 v 8 Slayer matches, while many of the Forge World maps are too small. For comparison’s sake, Modern Warfare 2 (MW2) shipped with 16 entirely unique maps (later expanded to a total of 26 with DLC) and Halo 3 shipped with 11 maps (later expanded to a total of 24 with DLC) plus fairly different alternate versions of 4 of the maps. With only 8 maps of true original merit, multiplayer gets old fast. After my third day of playing multiplayer on Halo Reach, I got fed up with the lack of selection and went back to playing MW2 even though, since it hasn’t been patched since Infinity Ward’s essential dissolution, it is full of people being very, very cheap and exploitative.
Weapon selection is the next downfall of Halo Reach. MW2, for instance, features 42 different and very, very carefully balanced weapons. Halo Reach has 19 weapons, and few maps feature all of the weapons. Only about 6 of these weapons are available as starting weapons for selectable classes in most multiplayer modes. This means, for the vast majority of the time, unless players know where all of the weapons are hidden throughout the levels, you’re usually fighting with Battle Rifles, DMRs, Plasma Repeators or Pistols (of either regular or Plasma variety). This lack of selection again makes for rather bland matches as not only are the default weapon selections limited, but there are way less guns scattered around the maps than in previous Halo games, so it’s hard to reliably ditch the starter weapons. Since the available weaponry all make distinct noises and look quite different, it’s easy to know what gun beats what and whether or not you should take an enemy head-on or book it. This makes multiplayer battles more like a very simple game of rock-paper-scissors than the complex art of games with larger (or just more frequent) gun selection.
The Usagi Factor of this game is above average in spite of its many flaws. Even if you get put off by the lack of weapons and maps in multiplayer, or the lack-lustre single-player campaign, creative types will get good mileage out of Forge World (even though you cannot edit terrain) and the rest of us can get at least some mileage out of the few maps that are there and earning credits to upgrade your appearance. If your multiplayer time even just matches the single-player time that you put into a game, then you’re getting double the worth for your money than you otherwise would.
Had Halo Reach come out without using the Halo moniker with different skins for the characters and weapons, it would not have been so generally well-received. At its core, Halo Reach is mostly the same as the other generic shooters that are released in droves on current generation consoles. Even though you are given a great many options for customizing how you play, there are industry standards for weapon/map selection and story depth that are largely ignored throughout the game making countless small shortcomings that add up to form a decidedly mediocre game. I had certainly come to expect far more from Bungie over the years, but am now glad that they’re handing over the reigns of the series to Microsoft to seek greener pastures. Microsoft simply couldn’t do worse with the franchise than Bungie has done here if they tried. Here’s hoping the “yearly” Halo games that Microsoft is planning to release are better than this final Bungie entry in the esteemed Halo series.
+ There is a narrative that strings the events in the game together to some degree
+ Get to learn more about the origins of some elements of the Halo universe…
– …just not the Spartans, the Covenant, the Flood, or Master Chief.
+ A marked improvement over those in Halo 3
– What Halo 3 should have looked like
– Character animations largely unchanged since forever
+ Apt, sets the mood well for the events in the game
– Nothing at all new or exciting to buy on iTunes. Standard Halo fare.
+ Mostly the same as usual, robust FPS controls
– “Recon” should be default setting
– No per-button customization for any mode
+ Classic Halo gameplay
– Much lauded squad-mates don’t even serve properly as meat shields
– Campaign is short, formulaic, and uninteresting
+ A lot of options, modes, customization, bells, and whistles
+ Firefight matchmaking
– Very few maps and guns
– What maps and guns there are need better balancing
– Forge World multiplayer maps are repetitive and lack ambiance of originals
+ If you can handle the tedium, many modes and possibilities, especially in Forge World
– No highly compelling reason to replay single-player