Halo: Reach Review
Every creative developer has that one project out of all his other projects that really stands out from the rest -- the one that is remembered long after the project’s inception. I call it the "lightning in bottle."
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For Bungie, Halo: Reach may very well be that lightning (on in Halo’s case, a couple of plasma grenades and fuel rod cannons). Everything about the project is well polished, from its tight gameplay to its variety of options and customization options for everything from multiplayer to character model. Halo: Reach is Bungie at its apex; it is the swan song before Bungie departs from the universe it has so lovingly created over the past 4 games.
Halo: Reach is the prequel to 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved and in many ways feels like the original as well. You play as Noble 6, a new replacement member for the elite super soldier unit known as Noble team. Who is Noble 6? That's entirely up to you. No two Noble 6's will look alike with the game's large variety of creative options in the character creation section. While this may not have huge impact in game play or story, that level of customization and personal touch allows you to connect with your Spartan of few words, and it continues Bungie’s method of immersing the player in the game. Your Spartan model also is the same for multiplayer matches as well, so what you unlock in multiplayer carries over to single player and vice versa.
Noble 6 is a small cog in the overall team, which includes everyone from hulking giants carrying huge machine guns to small and nimble tech experts. Your team is as varied as they are competent in combat fighting alongside you. Very often, your partners will flush out enemies, draw fire from your position or generally rush into a group of enemies, helping you soften them up. The AI is competent enough to that you can play through without other real human help, but the option exists for up to 3 other players to join in a single play campaign. However, the AI for the normal marine soldiers is lacking. If you’ve played any Halo title in the past, you know the marines are not the smartest bunch, and more often than not, they're there to populate the levels to give you a sense of fighting in a larger war. It works for aesthetics, but not for gameplay.
While the friendly AI has, for the most part, been given an intelligence boost, the enemy AI has been working in their off season as well. When played on the Heroic difficulty setting, the Covenant is quite possibly some of the most varied and difficult foes you’ll ever face in a console FPS. Elite warriors juke, roll, and dodge to avoid your weapon fire; vehicle drivers often maneuver and dodge incoming rockets; and even weaker enemies have the ability to jump large distances and carry larger, more damaging weapons, which they handle with deadly accuracy. For the first time ever in a Halo title, I was afraid to go up against Elites, Jackals, and even Grunts because I knew if I dropped my guard or went into a combat situation without fully thinking it through, I ended up very dead, very fast.
The storyline for Halo: Reach is a simple tale and one that any Halo fan probably is familiar with: the fall of the planet Reach, Earth’s largest military and industrial planet next to Earth itself. The Covenant has discovered Reach’s location and proceeds to lay waste to the planet surface. The odds are already against you from the beginning. There is no doubt Reach will fall, but it’s up to Noble 6 to rescue and protect as many people as possible and later on in the campaign, retrieve what becomes an essential item for the rest of the Halo trilogy. The game storyline is flawed by the baffling need to rush through the story as fast as possible. This keeps the game moving at a brisk pace, but at the same time, seems to skip over man crucial events and makes it confusing as to what you are doing and why. It feels unnecessary because character development is left mostly in the background, and you never actually get to know any of your fellow Spartans better than what their combat roles are. This is a shame because, through dialog, you catch glimpses of what could be a compelling back story behind each of them -- what could have been a compelling story of companionship and teamwork while a planet falls around you instead turns into just a bunch of cool looking characters who follow you around and back you up in combat. Whenever something happens to them during the game, whether in combat or in the story, it’s difficult to care about their fortune or misfortunes with such paper thin personalities.
However, the levels themselves are fantastic, easily some of the largest and grandiose ever seen in the Halo series. From sneaking into a futuristic metropolis and silently taking out grunts one by one to piloting a VTOL craft around a city literally burning and collapsing around you, the levels are awe-inspiring and combined with a fantastic score and a dark gritty color palette. The world is ending as you battle your way through it. The contrast from the beginning of the game’s bright serene valleys to the dramatic, explosion filled conclusion paint a stark picture of the death of a planet.
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On the other side...
Multiplayer has always been a strong component of the Halo series, and Reach continues that tradition with the largest selection of modes and customization in any Halo title to date. From simple death match to the more epic-in-scale invasion mode, there are dozens of variations, such as SWAT, Infection, and Spartans vs. Elites. All of the other traditional modes are available to play with old standbys like capture the flag and oddball. Of course, I’m not even mentioning the hundreds of possible variations which can be applied to each of these modes for even more variety and matches tweaked to your liking. If you like console FPS’s, and you like playing them with people, then Reach will definitely give you your money’s worth of game play modes.
If fragging other Spartans and Elites isn’t your style, then two more passive yet engaging modes exist for your multiplayer needs: Firefight returning from Halo 3: ODST and Forge from Halo 3. While both have appeared in previous titles, they have been refined and fine-tuned to make them more accessible and easier to use. Forge now has options to manipulate the objects to a detailed degree, making designing anything from old maps from previous titles to racing tracks. Firefight returns pretty much unchanged from its previous incarnation with one major improvement: online play with strangers instead of only relying on playing with friends. It's a small change, but for those who enjoyed Firefight yet couldn’t always find friends at 3 in the morning to play, then this change is for you.
As for balancing weapons and equipment, it’s a mixed bag. Some of the Covenant weapons feel woefully underpowered or nerfed from previous incarnations such as the needler or the plasma rifle. This may not pose much of a problem in some modes, but when playing the Elites versus Spartans mode, it always seem the Elites have to work much harder to get the upper hand against the Spartan’s superior weapons like the insanely accurate DMR rifle. I don’t know if it was an intentional design choice or not, but it doesn’t always translate into a good time.
The lack of a map selection is another problem with multiplayer. None of the maps particularly stand out, nor do many of them offer a variety of sizes; there are plenty of medium to large maps with only one relatively small one. I’m sure Bungie will remedy this situation in the future, but for now, it’s disappointing to have such a small selection to choose from. Armor abilities make a return from the beta with a few new ones: the ability to drop a bubble shield and create a hologram decoy. All of the abilities have their uses and are more satisfying to use than the equipment from Halo 3. All of the abilities can come into play in certain situations, and depending on how well you use them, can make the difference between a win or a loss. One complaint with the armor abilities is that some of them don't seem as completely effective as others. For instance, cloaking requires you to stand completely still, but that defeats the purpose of sneaking around the map. If previous games allowed full cloaking ability for a limited time, why can't this one as well?
Despite my complaints, I had an absolute blast playing Halo: Reach and still am having a great time playing multiplayer, co-oping with people in firefight, and helping to create crazy maps in Forge. It’s such a well-made game that small imperfections stand out that much more in comparison. Halo: Reach has nearly everything a Halo fan could want, including references to levels from past titles, characters who tie directly into Halo: Combat Evolved and another reason for playing in the Halo universe, perhaps for the final time. This is for the fans who bought X-Boxes just for Halo 1, who bought X-box Live for Halo 2, and skipped class/work for Halo 3. This is for the fans who spend hours poring over Halo lore and fiction, and who have watched the anime and read the comic series; the people who spent hours playing with friends in Sidewinder and Blood Gulch. This is that friend who’s been there with you for 9 years and is leaving to go forge a new destiny. Halo: Reach is that goodbye dinner; that last night at the bar leaving behind good memories that gamers will recall fondly years later.
Thanks for the lightning in a bottle.