Let me start by just getting this out of the way right now. If you are a fan of the Halo franchise, if you own or have played the previous entries, if you know the history of the Halo universe, then Halo: Reach is a “must own” for you.
When Bungie first introduced us to the Halo franchise as an Xbox exclusive back in ’02, Microsoft knew it had a hit. There is a very real argument to be made for the fact that Halo: Combat Evolved actually saved the Xbox. Microsoft could have grudgingly afforded to take the hit and simply declared its console to be a lost cause, but Halo: CE gave the system enough life to justify the Xbox 360, which in turn put Microsoft on equal footing with Sony in the gaming world. In short, it was a big deal.
So when Bungie announced that it would be leaving the Halo franchise for good, and their final entry into the series would be a prequel, Microsoft decided to let them roll with it. Prequels are inherently tricky beasts that run the risk of alienating fans by altering their own imagination-drenched views of the events (the Star Wars prequels are an easy example). On paper, there is very little upside to going backwards and milking the recesses of a story rather than expanding and continuing it. It is tricky when they do it in movies or TV shows, and it is no less so than in video games.
In a game, you obviously play more for the gameplay than the story. Although a good plot is crucial to the expansion of a franchise, prequels by nature require you to be somewhat invested in the story to appreciate the setting. It is a risky venture to create a prequel, and only the biggest franchises- the Metal Gear Solids, the Metroids- can muster the faith from a publisher to get away with it. With Halo: Reach, that faith has been rewarded in spades.
Halo: Reach is an amazing game, and a fitting, even slightly bittersweet finale for Bungie, who are moving on to greener cross-platform pastures. The Halo franchise will live on at Microsoft, but for Bungie, Halo: Reach is a goodbye to a property that has occupied them for over a decade, and turned them from a game developer for Macs, into one of the most respected developers in the industry.
This will be a mostly spoiler-free review, but if you have seen the trailers – or even if you simply read the back of the game box, you have a fairly good idea of the plot. The planet Reach is under assault by the Covenant forces, and a small band of Spartans make their last stand on the doomed planet. In the Halo timeline, Reach takes place shortly before the events of the original game, Halo: CE.
In the 26th century, humanity has begun to colonize distant planets thanks to the discovery of “slipstream” travel. Soon tensions between the outer and the inner colonies escalated to the point of civil war, and in response, the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) created the Spartans, a group of humans taken as children and augmented to become elite supersoldiers designed to quell the dissension.
In the year 2525, an alien alliance of religious zealots called the Covenant attacks the human colony known as Harvest. The theocratic Covenant consists of several races under the control of the Triumvirate, who have declared humanity an affront to their gods, the Forerunners. Over the next 27 years, Earth continues to lose ground to the more technologically sophisticated aliens, but the vastness of space has kept Earth – and its location- safe. The Spartans prove to be an effective force, but the overwhelming superiority of the Covenant prove to much. Humanity is losing, and losing badly.
Of all the interstellar colonies, the planet Reach stands alone at the top. The primary interstellar hub of the UNSC, the fully colonized planet is inhabited by 700 million humans. Reach is the last line of defense for Earth, and if it falls, humanity is facing extinction. As the Covenant surround the planet and begin an orbital bombardment, the thriving cities are destroyed, the military bases are shattered, and the planet becomes a futuristic Alamo that will live on as a rallying cry to humankind. And that is where the game begins.