Halo: Reach Review

Adam El Araby reviews Bungie’s latest and last instalment in the Halo series.

Ten years ago Bungie redefined the console first-person shooter with Halo: Combat Evolved.  Its recharging health and two-weapon system have gone on to become standards in the genre. Halo 2 boasted a range of online features and community integration that showed how to do Xbox Live right, albeit at the expense of the campaign.  Their “30 seconds of fun”, a concept which dictates that a good game boils down to a core 30-second experience, has become law for a generation of game designers. So as Bungie prepares to say goodbye to the franchise and move on to new things with Activision there’s a strong sense that great care has been taken to make Reach the definitive Halo experience. Whereas last year’s ODST felt like a half-hearted expansion Reach feels like it could easily be called Halo 4.

Reach begins before the original Halo, with the player assuming the role of a new member in the Noble Spartan team, an elite squad of super-soldiers, on the titular planet Reach. For the uninitiated, Reach marked the first encounter with the Covenant on a human planet and as the novel, “Fall of Reach” recounted, it didn’t go very well for us. It’s these events that unfold in the game’s 10-hour campaign.  The main character, referred to only as Noble Six, is little more than an empty cipher, rarely uttering more than a brief affirmation, but more effort has gone into developing the other members of your squad. Like last years ODST, Reach shows signs that Bungie are still trying to develop as storytellers by incorporating more complex characters in their games. And indeed, the Noble Six are much more likeable than ODST’s crew, thanks partially to improved character models that make them look, well, human. Bungie still has some way to go however as I never felt a strong connection to any of the team members. They never really evolve beyond the typical military unit archetypes. Of the five only Kat feels fleshed out, which causes some theoretically powerful moments to fall flat. The story here is much simpler than previous affairs and thankfully free of the religious overtones that threatened to make Halo 3 feel a little too self-important.

The biggest change to the gameplay comes in the form of Armour Abilities. These are swappable pickups that offer certain new abilities to your Spartan. The ability you have equipped often plays a big part in the strategy you’ll adopt for any fight. Armour Lock Grants temporary invulnerability at the expense of not being able to move. Excellent when you catch a plasma grenade landing at your feet. Another, the Jet Pack, lets you reach new heights. Sprint adds some welcome speed to your movement and Hologram lets you send out a replica of yourself to draw fire. They each have their uses and finding out how best to deploy them adds an extra layer of strategy to battles.

The missions themselves are generally excellent, drawing from the best bits of the series and adding some great new moments of its own. Given the sentimental tone of the game, it’s no surprise to see scenarios from previous games reprised such as stealthy midnight sniper infiltrations, augmented by the option to pick up an active camouflage armour ability, or Scorpion Tank demolition runs. Reach feels like a greatest hits compilation for the entire series but it has some new tricks too. One of the most memorable missions sees you take control of a spacecraft to battle the Covenant outside the Earth’s atmosphere accompanied by a beautifully stellar skybox.  A zero gravity battle in near total silence stands out as a fantastic set piece and just about every mission has been carefully put together to reward multiple playthroughs. One mission even includes randomly selected objectives.  Since this game takes place before the discovery of the series’ other main villain, The Flood, it’s deprived of the three-way battles that were a major part of earlier titles. That said, The Flood have also provided some of the worst levels in Halo history, such as the infamous Library, so it’s not all bad to see them left out.  Bungie have also paid attention to the fans that felt that Elites were more fun to fight than Brutes and as such we see more of the former, especially in early sections of the game. Thanks to impressive AI and their energy shields every battle with an Elite is a fraught encounter where death can occur swiftly at any moment.  And die you will, the Heroic difficulty, described by Bungie as the way Halo is meant to be played, seems particularly gruelling here with unavoidable instant deaths occurring around every corner. It can get frustrating at times but dynamic AI that makes each try different helps to mitigate the annoyance of the unrelenting difficulty. Central to the design of every mission seems to be a return to the wide-open battlefields of the original Halo, perfect for the games 4-player co-op, which can be played offline or over Xbox Live. And these expansive battlefields allow the enemy AI the chance to show off how devious and dangerous it can be. Your human AI doesn’t seem so smart though and it’s generally best not to let them drive unless you want to spend twenty minutes watching them reverse into a rock until you inevitably get blown up by an incredibly accurate plasma burst.

Visually, Reach marks a significant improvement over Bungie’s previous efforts. What it may lack in fine detail it makes up in scale, which has increased massively allowing for stunning views of Reach’s terrain. Unfortunately, this can sometimes cause the framerate to suffer but this rarely affects gameplay. Overall, it’s a beautiful game and its vibrant colour scheme marks a welcome reprieve from the dulls greys and browns of most modern shooters.

Once the campaign’s done it’s on to the game’s suite of multiplayer modes. For most this is where the real longevity lies and Reach offers one of the largest selections of multiplayer game types ever seen on a console. The core set of modes is basically the same as in Halo 3, with the usual selection of competitive types from the free-for-all of the Rumble Pit to team-based pursuits like Team Slayer and Big Team Battle and objective game types like Odd Ball and Capture the Flag. There are also several new variants. Headhunter sees players compete to grab skulls from around the map before bringing them to the goal to score. The trade-off between amassing as many skulls as possible before scoring or immediately heading for the goal whenever you have one makes for some dynamic matches and rankings can change completely in an instant. Invasion is the biggest departure from the norm pitting a team of Spartans against a team of Elites, each with multiple objectives to carry out. As the battle progresses players get to choose from increasingly powerful loadouts to take into battle.

Firefight, a mode pitting a group of players against waves of oncoming enemies, also returns here and it has been beefed up considerably since its debut in ODST. It’s now available in matchmaking so you can go online and find people to play it with. Bungie has added several fun variants to its playlist., like the self-explanatory Gruntpocalypse and Rocket Fight.

Perhaps inspired by Modern Warfare’s addictive ranking system, Reach offers extensive customisation options. Rather than risk the precious balance of the game by including unlockable weapons, the rewards for ranking up are entirely cosmetic. There’s a huge range of different armour components available to customise your Spartan including voices and pieces of equipment drawn from the series’ history. The best items are extremely expensive and not even visible until high ranks have been attained so I fear that many players will give up long before they even earn the permission to equip the better items let alone generate enough credits to buy them.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Reach’s multiplayer offerings is the sparse number of maps on offer. In terms of raw numbers the thirteen available here exceeds Halo 3’s count by two but the fact that there are four remakes and some maps are only available in certain gametypes exacerbates the issue.  And, as rumours abound of at least two map packs ready to be sold on Xbox Live, it’s easy to feel a little slighted.

If you do find the lack of maps troubling you could always set about fixing it yourself thanks to the improved and expanded Forge Mode, Bungie’s built-in level editor.  Forge can now automatically snap objects together, massively simplifying the process of building complex architectures. Already some pretty impressive results are coming from the community thanks to Forge including remakes of fan-favourite maps like Hang ‘Em High.

Reach is the culmination of a decade of iteration and refinement. It embodies the best of all that Halo has ever been, with an intense campaign brimming with memorable battles, an online mode bursting with a near-infinite combination of battles and a suite of creation tools powerful enough to empower gamers to continue creating their own Halo experiences for years to come.

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