Halo: Reach review

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Halo: Reach

“A fitting goodbye for Bungie, one of th emost important developers working today.”
  • A great addition to the mythos of the Halo universe
  • Halo gameplay at its finest
  • The multiplayer is robust
  • The campaign is short, especially considering the weight it carries
  • The graphics are a bit underwhelming at times
  • Not much new

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.

The Story

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.

The Campaign

You are a member of Noble team, a group of Spartan soldiers stationed on Reach. The team consists of the leader, Carter-A259, his second-in-command, the bionic armed Kat-B320, heavy gunner Jorge-052, sharpshooter Jun-A266, and the deadly Emile-A239. You play Noble 6, the newest member of the team, a lieutenant with a long and distinguished service history.

Over the course of ten missions, Nobel team attempts to hold off the inevitable, in an increasingly desperate fight for survival, escape, revenge, and eventually for hope.

Spoiler- things do not go well for the inhabitants of Reach. The story is rich and compelling- not the just plot, but the overall story. The plot of the game is broken up into your traditional military objectives, including things like “defending the civilians”, and “destroying fiendish enemy things”. It might sound unimpressive, but it is exactly the right thing for this game for two reasons.

First, the game is a prequel, and if you know anything about the Halo story, you know that Reach will fall. It is unavoidable, so there is a sense of foreboding that overshadows the setting. The game is not about the growth of a character, it is about the tragedy on Reach and the last stand of the people that will not surrender. Tacking on an emotionally heavy story- a wife that needs to be evacuated or something similar- might work for other games, but Halo is about the Spartans, a lesson Halo 3:ODST proved by forgetting that. And Spartans kick ass.

The second reason that keeping the plot simple was a good move is that previous Halo games have overcomplicated the story in order to justify the gameplay. Was there really a good reason for the Flood other than to add another level of enemy? Those that remember Halo: CE‘s plot will probably remember the fate of Captain Keyes- or maybe not.  He became a brain thing for some vaguely explained reason that involved the Flood. The story of Reach keeps it simple and keeps the action moving. Plus, the missions begin with counterattack objectives, become about evacuations, and then become about survival. They illustrate the desperate nature of the events without weighing the game down with unnecessary narrative.

Although you play as part of a team, you will generally be alone, or paired with one other Spartan who will typically leave you on your own to complete another objective. The few times you are teamed with others, they will typically leave the bulk of the fighting to you. You will also run into soldiers along the way who will join you, but they are so expendable and jeopardy-friendly that they might as well be wearing red shirts.  They will frequently die without you even noticing.

There are a few instances when the AI acts like a true teammate, and does something like driving the Warthog to allow you to take the turret. In these instances, the AI behaves very much like a real person, just like when your buddy is playing co-op with you. That is not a compliment, by the way. In one stage, the AI will hop in the driver’s seat and force you into the turret. They will then drive just like your buddy, that is to say, somewhat spastically with no real idea of where they are going. They will probably ram a wall or two along the way. I spent a good two solid minutes driving in a dizzying circle as the driver was utterly determined to avoid taking any fire. Either that or his little AI-mind had snapped and he simply could not handle it. Perhaps his AI-wife was trapped in the city with their AI-baby. Regardless, he sucked and soon died a well deserved death as he continued to try to drive the Warthog through a solid wall until an enemy mercifully tossed a grenade his way. These moments are few and far between, and with the exception of bad driving, most of the decisions regarding the AI’s behavior (like when they hang back and do not engage) seem like a decision from Bungie- and a good one at that- to make sure the AI do not take away from your fun.

The mission objectives are varied and interesting. They aren’t complicated, but they keep the story moving along and show off some imaginative styles of play. One legitimate gripe about the previous Halo games is that the series frequently resorted to lackluster settings and dull, repetitive areas and then made you backtrack through them to complete objectives. The colors in past games have also raised criticism with drab grays in both cities and military settings, typically separated by a series of uninspired outdoor landscapes. This is a broad generalization, and each game had a few locales that made up for it (for the most part), but huge sections of every Halo game tend to blur together. Halo: Reach manages to avoid that trap with varied and diverse settings and missions, plus a world that is showing progression as the fires in the horizon grow brighter and the sky darkens.

In many ways, Reach is an homage to the former games in the series as it cherry picks the missions and settings that stood out. You will find an urban setting under attack, a battle on a spaceship in orbit, and an enemy-occupied military base in the lineup. Plus there are a handful of refreshing vehicle-based missions to keep things spicy, and those levels show off the scope of the game while giving a jaw-dropping glimpse at the toll on the planet of Reach.

The length of previous Halo campaigns has been a spot of contention for me in the past. While I liked the story for Halo 3, I was severely disappointed by the short length of the campaign that took 6 hours or so on normal settings. The multiplayer made up for the lack of value in the campaign, but for a series that has invested so much in creating a detailed universe for Halo, the weak campaign stood out.

When you have a game that has such a heavy aspect on the multiplayer, you can generally forgive a weak campaign. The Modern Warfare 2 campaign is ridiculously short- it is fun and varied, but you can beat it in 5-6 hours at most. With a game like Modern Warfare 2, you can excuse it because most people bought the game for the multiplayer anyway. Halo is different. Although the franchise has always been a leader in multiplayer gaming, the original game had a huge campaign, and the second game’s campaign was also satisfying. With a franchise that has spawned books, comics, an anime movie, and possible (one day maybe) a feature length-film, you expect an emphasis on the single player (or co-op) experience to further that universe. Reach does offer a solid campaign, but it is still on the short side. It is better than previous entries, but compared to games like Bioshock, which can take 12-15 hours, Halo: Reach is a short game.

Playing alone on normal, the game should takes around eight hours, less if you try to hurry. With each increasing level of difficulty, you can expect to add a few hours to the number. Throw in both online and split-screen co-op and you could be playing and replaying the campaign for awhile to come, but the game still could have been longer. Eight hours is a decent length for a campaign, but I wanted more from Bungie’s farewell.

Gameplay

Here is where you will either be sold on Halo or you will quickly forget the series. In the first-person shooter world, there are two primary camps. On one side you have the fans of Halo and games like it, where it can take a lot of effort to kill an opponent. On the other hand, you have fans of the more realistic games, like Call of Duty where a single, well placed shot will get the kill. There is a small cross section that truly enjoys both, and many will try both out and have fun, but in the hearts’ of gamers, they tend to align themselves with one camp or the other. It is like the Beatles and Elvis- you can like both, but most people have one clear favorite. If you hate the way Halo plays, there probably won’t be anything in Reach to convince you otherwise, which is a shame, but understandable.

Reach plays like you would expect it to play, and I mean that in a good way. The controls are smooth and the physics make sense in the Halo World. Reach definitely follows the “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” line of thought.

There are a few minor additions, including rechargeable armor abilities that can be changed out like weapons. Of the armor abilities, hologram and the jet pack stood out as the most inventive. The hologram creates a decoy that runs across the field to a point you dictate, drawing enemy fire. This is an especially cool ability to have when you are facing snipers. The jetpack helps deal death from above, and combined with a sniper rifle of your own, it can get you to places that give you a huge advantage. The armor lock makes you invincible, but immobile for a few seconds, which- when timed perfectly- can destroy a charging vehicle. The bubble shield returns from Halo 3, and creates a small protective dome around you, and the sprint helps you cover ground more quickly. The sixth is camouflage, which makes you semi invisible for a brief time. All are a fun addition, but none really make a huge difference.

Halo: Reach

All of the traditional weapons return from previous Halo games, but oddly, you cannot dual-wield weapons in this game. There are a handful of new weapons, but none that really stand out. Again, the “aint broke” mentality dominates.

In the campaign, there is definitely a sense that the developers want you to occasionally take a “Leroy Jenkins” approach to the game. Hiding behind cover is a great way to eat a grenade, and enemy AI is surprisingly eager to flank you at every opportunity. Sometimes the best option is to run in with guns screaming, and this is where Halo shines. If you time everything right, use all your weapons, armor abilities and melee attacks in conjunction with constant movement, jumps, and smartly timed reloads, you can wreck utter havoc on the enemy. The game does a great job of making you feel like a true bad ass.

Another big improvement over other Halo games is the linearity of the levels. Halo games have always been linear in nature, but they tended to hide that linearity in giant, bland looking areas. Although you might go the wrong direction now and again, you probably won’t spend five minutes walking over a hill that you may or may not have passed before, just to end up at the edge of a cliff (looking at YOU Halo: CE).

Whether you are into the story or not, Halo: Reach’s gameplay does exactly what it sets out to do. Some will love it, others will not, but Bungie’s kung fu is strong in the gameplay, so to speak.

The Specs

Halo: Reach looks great. It isn’t the best looking game on the market, or even the tenth best looking game out there, but the graphics are fine, albeit not spectacular. This is sort of splitting hairs, as the graphics are satisfying. There are a few moments of frame rate stuttering, but these are rare enough to ignore.

While the graphics may not be the best out there, there are some amazing moments, especially when showing the damage to the planet. There is a mission that takes you into space where you get to see the planet from orbit. It looks awesome. There is also a level in the city of New Alexandria that you might restart just to play it again and look around.

With the exception of a few stand outs, in general, the levels are a bit bland and will inevitably blur together in the memory of gamers. This has always been an issue with the Halo franchise. There is such an emphasis on the gameplay that the level design and look tend to be average. It is a fairly minor quibble, especially compared to the previous games, but it is worth noting.

One thing that may have helped but was sadly absent was the ability to destroy the surroundings, ala Battlefield Bad Company 2. Maybe it was because the game has a heavier emphasis on speed rather than cover as BFBC2 does, maybe it was a technical limitation, or maybe Bungie just didn’t want to, but it would have been cool to rip through a building, or bury a structure on top of an enemy.

The sound is also well polished. The iconic Halo music with the violins has been replaced by a brand new Reach theme that you will hear several times throughout. It is catchy and adds a bit to the production. As for the rest of the music, it is neither good, nor bad, as it is usually buried in the sounds of the action and never really stands out. There is also a slight shift in Reach from previous games, from an almost entirely orchestral score with the occasional electric guitar, to an orchestral theme with rock and techno mixed in.

Multiplayer

And finally, the multiplayer. The campaign could be little more than a DLC and still sell more than 3 million copies if there was a decent multiplayer offering (ODST anyone?). Thankfully you can tell that Bungie really wanted to leave Halo fans with something that would endure, as they did with Halo 2’s online which only recently went dark, and only because Microsoft turned off the servers. Basically, people are going to be playing Reach online for a long, long time, and that will be Bungie’s legacy with Halo.

If you are a diehard fan of games like Modern Warfare 2, then the Reach online games probably won’t win you over. Very little has changed in the way the online games play. There are a few new bells and whistles, but for the most part, the online version looks the same. It isn’t, but at first glance it looks just like the previous entries.

One major change to the online portion of the game is something you won’t see, and you probably won’t even know about- the matchmaking. Bungie spent a lot of time on fine-tuning the algorithms that go in to the searching of games for an individual player to keep the matches as even as possible. It might be a while before the results are noticeable, since every player is beginning from scratch, but the more the game ages, the more the technical brilliance should shine.

The Firefight mode also makes the welcome jump from ODST to Reach. Firefight is an online, cooperative game that puts up to four players together to withstand hordes of enemies that come in waves of increasing difficulty. If you played the Gears of War 2’s horde mode, you know what to expect. You are scored on the type of kill and the enemy, and while you can respawn a certain number of times, you must defeat each wave in the allotted time limit. It is a fun and addictive gametype that could open the online side up to players hesitant to jump online and be shot by, then subsequently tea bagged, by one of the 13-year old kids who dominate the Xbox Live airwaves. There are also several customizable options to keep the games fresh, and with the options available through the Forge (more on the Forge later), the addition of Firefight increases the online options exponentially.

Joining the Firefight in the cooperative side, will be a section dedicated to playing the campaign cooperatively online. Right now, you can only do so by inviting friends, but soon you can join campaign levels in progress. Bungie has said that it is currently withholding this simply to avoid spoiling the plot by listing the missions. It is coming soon though.

And then you have the competitive side of the online games. The traditional modes return with 13 maps, and six different modes. You have: Rumble Pit (a free-for-all game with 8 players), Team Slayer (4v4 team death matches), Team Objective (4v4 objective based games like capture the flag), Multi Team (6 teams of 2 compete in various challenges), Big Battle (8v8 mix of gametypes), and Invasion (6v6 where teams fight for territories). Each category has its own subcategories, and when you add in user content, the number of gametypes is staggering.

Defining the games is somewhat difficult because the variety of options that make each game unique. You might start out with an assault rifle, or a shotgun- it can vary. When you are in the lobby, you have the choice of three games to select from, as well as a “none of the above option”. Once the majority have voted, the game begins. It is a small, but very smart addition. When most games begin, you will be given a choice of the loadout you wish to begin with. Each choice will offer a primary weapon, a secondary, and an armor ability. If you end up playing as an elite, the weapons and armor abilities will vary. You can change the loadout in between respawns, and you can also choose your respawn location. The loadout choices will depend on the type of game you are playing, and there are many.

One of the more popular games was headhunter, a team slayer-type game that has defeated enemies drop skulls that people collect. When you collect a skull or skulls and die, you drop those skulls. The first team to have the preset number of skulls in their possession wins. Another type was a sniper-specific slayer game, while another still was SWAT, which gives players the semiautomatic DMR, and lowers every players’ defense.

The Forge is back, and comes with more editing tools than ever. If you are unfamiliar with Halo, the Forge is a tool that allows users to create their own levels and post them online. The user created levels have come to be an integral part of the Halo experience, and are definitely worth the time to check out. In essence, as long as there are people willing to put the time into creating an original, or modified level, Halo has the potential to never grow stale (in theory, at least). There are already several vehicle race types, wildly imaginative original maps, and even user-made recreations of maps from the previous Halo games available to download already, and more will come.

The theater returns as well. Following a game, or just a particularly memorable moment, you can then save the film, edit it, and post it for others to see. Given time, expect this section to take on a life of its own.

There is also an “Arena” mode, which features a doubles, and a four person team option. Once you enter, you play a variety of game modes, and are then given a rank in your division. Once each “season” ends after roughly a month, the scores are tallied and the players are listed in order of finish.

Halo has also done its best to make the online stat tracking something that even Major League Baseball would be impressed by. Reach will follow your stats, and award experience points in the form of credits. As you gain experience you increase in rank, and for each rank you unlock more armor customization options which you then purchase with credits you earn by playing online. The armor augmentations are cosmetic rather than functional, but it is a nice touch.

One criticism I have with the online section is the maps. There are 13 in total, four of which are “classic” maps that have been slightly reworked. Many of the other originals also feel familiar and borrow heavily from previous maps. They were all well designed, but they were a bit unimpressive, and none of them really stand out.  With the options now available in Forge, it is almost a meaningless complaint, but the map selection was underwhelming. There are sure to be at least one, probably two, and possibly many more map packs being developed right now, so this is a very fixable issue.

Overall the multiplayer delivers what Halo fans have been hoping for. You could even make the claim that Bungie listened to the hardcore fans at the expensive of the new, or uncommitted fan. Time will tell on that. One thing is for sure though, in terms of value, thanks to the multiplayer, Halo: Reach definitely delivers.

Conclusion

Halo: Reach is the result of Bungie growing up. If you have followed the company, you can almost see the developers growth in the industry. Each entry into the Halo franchise- even the lowly Halo Wars (yeah, I said it…)- has been a step towards Reach. All the things that worked in previous games are reworked and polished in the final installment from Bungie, and all the things that didn’thave been streamlined and simplified. The game’s lasting appeal will be determined by the multiplayer, but Bungie accomplished what they intended with Reach, and released the game that is the culmination of more than ten years spent developing Halo games.

It is sad to see Bungie leave Halo. Not just because a renowned developer would leave a beloved property, but because of what may come out in the future under the Halo banner. Bungie had a goal and they had a dream. Both were accomplished with Reach.

The game may not be perfect- the graphics could be a bit tighter, the campaign could be longer, and the game refines rather than creates- but Halo: Reach is without question one of the best games of the year, and one of the best Xbox 360 games on the market.

Score: 9 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Microsoft Studios)

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