Developer: Bungie Software
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-4 (2-16 online)
Console: Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Hours Played: 25
Progress: Completed the campaign
One wonders if Bungie, the developers of the Halo series, ever expected their first incarnation of Halo to become the phenomenon it is today. Regardless, the series has become one of the most important FPS games in the industry and having explored the adventures of the Spartan known as Master Chief, Bungie is ending the series by going back to the origins of the conflict between mankind and the Covenant by taking us to Reach, the birthplace of the Spartan project. A monumental title as Bungie has made it clear they’ll explore new franchises while handing over the reigns to the Halo series to Microsoft. While the last two titles in the series, Halo 3 and Halo ODST respectively, disappointed somewhat, Halo 3 with its multiplayer and ODST in the single player campaign, there is significant pressure on Bungie to go out with a bang and give players everything they liked about the franchise in one last game, read on to see if they succeeded….
One of the most notable aspects of the story of Halo: Reach is that it takes us back to the origins of mankind’s UNSC Spartan project and the escalation between humanity’s military and the forces of the Covenant. This time around the gamer won’t be playing as Master Chief but rather “Noble 6″, a Spartan Lieutenant who becomes the latest member of Spartan combat unit “Noble Team”. This means that you’ll no longer be a lone super soldier up against the world but that you’re actually part of a 6-person team of super soldiers up against the world!
Anyone familiar with the Halo saga knows that Reach is doomed and will eventually fall to the Covenant, it’s this fact that makes being part of this particular event so interesting. Knowing the ending does not diminish the experience of how it went down and creates a lot of tension with regards to the fates of you and your team mates. The player will experience combat on an epic scale with dramatic instances of sacrifice, surprise and revelation. Having said that, the quality of the story is a bit of a mixed bag. There is a big focus on the interaction between the members of Noble Team and it won’t take long for the player to become familiar with the different characteristics of its members. The dynamic of the team and how they each cope with being faced by insurmountable odds is by far the best element of Reach’s story. You can’t help but be emotionally moved by the eventual sacrifices of Noble Team’s Spartan warriors as each gamer will have their favorite, from the gloomy Emille to the headstrong Kat. Where the story fails is in painting a clear picture about the details of the Spartan project, it doesn’t go into some of the questions many Halo fans may have asked along the years such as when was Master Chief created? How many Spartans are there and how are they different? Also, we’re told the planet Reach is very important to humanity but are kept in the dark about many of its secrets, you’d expect Bungie to blow the lid off any unanswered questions in the franchise during their last Halo game but alas, in many regards it’s not to be.
When Halo 3: ODST was first released in September 2009 it became clear that the Halo engine was beginning to show its age. Character- and environmental models lacked detail, textures were a bit plain and seams between textures were just a tad too noticeable. Unfortunately Bungie didn’t provide Halo: Reach with a complete graphical overhaul, it did however make some significant upgrades not seen since the switch from Halo 2 to Halo 3 (and that was a cross-console leap!). For one thing the scale of the game increased in a big way, many battles have significantly more character models than in past games and the sweeping vistas in many of the levels add a new level of grandeur. A great example found during one of the early missions is when you take a narrow, rocky road to a small communications outpost and to your left find a large body of water bordered by massive mountains of ice of all different shapes. Whether its one of the missions found in the campaign or one of the many multiplayer maps, the environments have an epic feel to them that allude to the fact that everything is just a bit bigger and better in Halo: Reach. The game keeps up great with the larger environments and increased number of combatants, rockets may whoosh overhead and plasma bolts can slam into walls but the game engine never stutters and the frame rate stays consistent. Character models have received a bit more detail as well, this is easily seen when up close to one of your Spartan companions or one of the lethal Covenant Elites with their many new armour varieties. The range of animation on most characters still isn’t quite up to snuff and at the end of the day, Halo: Reach‘s graphics don’t entirely match the visually best games on the market at the moment, but its a welcome upgrade from the last game in the series and pleasing on the eyes nevertheless.
There are certain movie anthems that are timeless, the ones for the original Star Wars trilogy and the Lord of the Rings movies come to mind. The Halo series certainly invokes the same sense of nostalgia with its amazing and instantly recognizable soundtrack. It is therefore such a pleasant surprise that the sound design received a lot of new, original content, the theme and in-game music to Halo: Reach are simply great. The music is a bit darker and more melancholy than in previous games, which brilliantly mirrors the gloomy disposition the planet and its combatants are in. The game’s theme is an instant classic and will make your thumbs itch with anticipation every time you hear it.
Although there’s nothing wrong with the voice acting in Reach, I wasn’t a fan of the different accents and dialects used for the members of Noble Team. The developers wanted to remind the player that these Spartans were all born in different parts of the galaxy and are each unique, the net effect however is that they become less believable as being the super soldiers that Master Chief made us believe they are and more human. That may have been what Bungie wanted, but for me it took something away from the almost mythical aura that surrounds these heroes of humanity.
The controls in Halo have always been responsive enough to accommodate the fast pace of its gameplay and of course this is has not changed in Reach, the biggest difference is the use of the left bumper button, it enables the new “armour abilities” and will get pressed a lot, especially with those gamers who favour the sprint ability. It feels intuitive to have these new armour abilities assigned to the left bumper as it provides quick access in case a bubble shield or armour lock-up has to be used in a split-second. What’s a head-scratcher is why we’re still unable to map our own button configuration, especially for someone like me who plays so many different games for review purposes, with a considerable amount those being FPS’, each having their own button set up, it would be a lot easier to transition into a new title being able to keep the button lay out I’m most comfortable with.
How you play Halo: Reach during the campaign really depends on the difficulty level you choose, “Normal” is just a bit too easy for experienced gamers but Reach’s “Heroic” setting (the next difficulty up) is harder than what we found in previous iterations and can offer quite the challenge. As for “Legendary” (the game’s toughest setting), I have never considered myself quite masochistic enough to indulge in it fully. Should you go for the latter setting you’ll be doing just as much avoiding of combat as you will killing. The levels are set up so that the player usually has the option to take routes that avoid unnecessary conflict, making it considerably more easy to make it through the missions. “Heroic” requires you to take the slow-and-steady approach, using cover to your full advantage while engaging the enemy one at a time whenever possible, even so it’ll take you many retries to make it through some of the later missions. “Normal” easily allows you to throw your Spartan headlong into the fray with little risk of an immediate fatality, beware that playing on this difficulty will make the campaign go by in a brisk 8 hours or so, therefore to make the experience last try “Heroic” or “Legendary” first.
Although you play as a member of a squad, their impact is mainly felt as a vehicle to drive the story, and less so as a factor during combat. AI isn’t stellar and although you are now fighting the good fight along side other Spartans and often groups of UNSC Marines as well, a favourable outcome to any combat situation, as usual, rests on you. Being able to tackle the campaign with 3 other players during online coop is a total blast and naturally a lot more effective than relying on the AI. A disappointing omission from the campaign is that there are no longer hidden skulls in the levels, instead the player can enable “skulls” to grant abilities and other modifiers to the enemy to spice up the game. This time around Bungie packed absolutely everything they could into the game, a stellar campaign, online coop, fire fight mode (with matchmaking this time!), competitive multiplayer, forge world (a ridiculously comprehensive level editor) and the ability to customize the heck out of it all with a plethora of matchmaking filters, leaving us wanting for nothing. Of course there are new weapons to try out as well, these include such additions as the Pulse Repeater, Needle Rifle, Grenade Launchers, Plasma Launcher, the “DMR” replaces the three-burst Battle Rifle in favour of single fire mode with increased zoom. There are also new vehicles like the Covenant Revenant, similar to the Ghost in mobility but with the fire power of the Wraith, the UNSC Falcon, a small airborne transport with mounted machine guns and the Sabre, an orbital fighter that ushers in a first for the Halo franchise… space combat! To find out more about the multiplayer, please read the next section for details.
Halo without the multiplayer is like EA without a licensed sports game, so considering that Bungie went all out with its last game in the franchise, it’s no surprise that this is the most robust multiplayer offering yet. Bungie took tremendous effort in ensuring that Reach’s multiplayer is well-balanced while incorporating the new maps, weapons and armour abilities, as was evident from the lengthy multiplayer beta it ran and how seriously it took feedback from the Halo community.
In “match making” we find many new maps and remakes from previous games, like Halo 2. Most maps are a bit tighter than what we’ve seen in the past and allow for more action-packed encounters. Architecturally they are more interesting too, instead of symmetrical arenas the maps look more natural and life-like, often with the same sweeping backdrops found in the campaign levels. For both participants and game hosts the amount of customization options have greatly increased. Players can customize the preferences with regards to the behaviour of their opponents, these include everything from their chattiness to their approach to teamwork. Gamers have often lamented that Halo’s online community is riddled with trash-talking adolescents, regardless of your opinion on this, it is now a lot easier to encounter players of a similar skill level and approach to playing, seriously enhancing the enjoyment of Reach’s competitive multiplayer. Game hosts have far more control over the details of the match, they can now set the damage filters and even the speed of the characters, but of course the biggest catalyst of customization in Reach is “forge world“.
In Forge World the player is granted a wide open world, complete with oceans, islands, cliffs and natural beauty that will beg you to fill in this vast canvas with your own vision. For you multiplayer buffs this is also where you’ll get the bulk of your value as there are countless player-created maps for you to download and use in your own games, these include many great remakes of classic Halo maps like Blood Gulch and Lock down. So whether you want more maps, or you just love to create, forge world is a big “win” and a considerable improvement over Halo 3′s forge.
Speaking of improvements, wasn’t ODST’s “fire fight” mode fun, but ultimately flawed as you could only play it with friends? Well that got fixed too, fire fight is now available through matchmaking allowing you to play it with anyone from Reach’s online community, not only that but the customization fun applies here as well. You’re now able to build waves from the ground up, everything from number of enemies to the weapons they carry can be customized and more modes, like score attack, have been added.
Halo: Reach’s multiplayer is all about choice, there is so much more to do, customize and create this time around, it’s a huge factor in the total amount of content on this disc and a great reason to put Modern Warfare 2 on the shelf for a bit.
Although I would’ve liked the the campaign to be longer, at the end of the day it’s not any shorter than in previous titles, even though a bit more challenging that what we’ve seen in the past, it’s really recommended to play it on one of the harder difficulty settings. 4-player co-op is a blast and being able to replay some of your favorite missions with three other friends really adds to the replay value. Of course the incredibly robust multiplayer mode is where Reach proves just how much content is provided to gamers.
It’s interesting to see where Halo: Reach differs from the current trend in FPS games, titles like Modern Warfare 2 try to pull in gamers through the addictive process of leveling up and customizing the appearance, weapons and skill set of characters, the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops looks to take this to even higher levels. Reach however, puts the customization not into the player’s avatar but rather in the online experience, search filters, game settings and entire levels can be customized to the player’s liking, no doubt appealing more to hardcore online FPS gamers. That’s not to say that your online Spartan or Elite avatar can’t be dolled up, credits are earned by completing online matches and campaign objectives and can be spent to purchase new armour components, allowing far more customization options than in previous Halo titles. It sounds nice but it really isn’t all that interesting as it purely provides cosmetic changes that have no impact on gameplay.
Even though the graphics still aren’t quite up to the standard this venerable franchise deserves and the campaign is shorter than we’d like, the level of polish and content provided has undeniable appeal to any fan of FPS games, especially those who enjoy taking the fight online. At the end of the day Halo: Reach does not provide stellar levels of innovation but rather extreme refinement of an already highly polished franchise, it’s a must-buy for any fan of the Halo series as well as anyone who enjoys a quality FPS title.
+ Being a prequel it provides an interesting view on the origins of your favorite Halo protagonists
- The proceedings in Halo: Reach don’t quite mesh with some of the franchise’s lore found in the Halo books.
+ Sharper textures and impressive level backdrops
+ More characters onscreen at the same time
- Some textures are still bland
- Models (mostly structural) lack some detail
+ Fantastic soundtrack
- Accents of the members of team Noble sound a bit odd
+ More content than ever, especially in the multiplayer department
- There’s not a lot of innovation here
+ New search filters for matchmaking are very welcome
+ Adding “fire fight” to matchmaking makes it much more enjoyable
+ Forge world will blow your mind… providing you have a creative spark
- Although you can customize armour, there isn’t anything to customize your avatar beyond that
+ Fantastic value, considering all the content that is provided
- The campaign is very good, if only it was a bit longer