The launch of Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001 vaulted Bungie to the top of the game development industry and helped provide a stable foundation for the success of the original Xbox. Nine years later, having completed a trilogy and a standalone expansion for the Halo universe, Bungie has returned to the IP one last time for a prequel called Halo: Reach. They clearly wanted to do right by the fans and the franchise with their final sendoff, and the effort they put into the game reflects that. Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
- Title: Halo: Reach
- Developer: Bungie
- Publisher: Microsoft
- System: Xbox 360
- Reviewer: Soulskill
- Score: 8/10
The game gets its title from a planet named Reach, which is under siege by the Covenant a few weeks prior to the events in the first Halo game. Your character takes the role of new member to a team of soldiers who are trying, without much hope, to keep the planet from falling into enemy hands. If you play many shooters, it will be a familiar scenario, and Bungie doesn't spend much time crafting a detailed backstory or exploring character motivation. In that way the narrative shares the perspective of the characters — they're here to fight, and so are you.
This demeanor is maintained throughout the campaign, and it provides an odd contrast to other games in the genre. Most recent games try to set you or another character up as a tragic hero, using side-plots, sub-stories, and untimely deaths to provoke an emotional reaction. Halo: Reach handles this in a more detached, military way. When a character dies, the others acknowledge it with a moment of grief, but then move on, because they have a job to do. While I found it to be an interesting mind-set, I also never particularly cared about any of the characters, and never really got engaged in the story.
But, this is Halo; gameplay is paramount. The game engine was retooled and updated for Halo: Reach, and it shows. The feel of movement and combat is the best I've experienced on the Xbox 360. It's smooth and responsive, and it handles jumping, turning and aiming very well. As someone who typically prefers to play shooters on the PC, I was pleasantly surprised. The maps are consistently excellent as well. They maintain the Halo feel of being set on enormous backdrops, filling as much of the sky as they can manage with distant mountains, towering ships and structures, planets and moons. The layout of the fighting areas manages to avoid being constrictive while keeping you moving along the path necessary for the plot. Areas in which you fight typically have several different available routes, so that the direction you feel comfortable traveling while attacking or defending will take you where you need to go without having to double back. It's one of those subtle things about level design that's very often ignored, but does wonders for immersion when it isn't.
The AI isn't particularly good or particularly bad (unless your teammate is driving you around), and you'll quickly come to recognize enemy behavior patterns. The campaign combat gets a bit repetitive because of this, but Bungie planned ahead and created ways to spice it up. In addition to four standard difficulty levels, you can turn on "Skulls," a set of minor gameplay modifications that add challenge to the campaign. For example, one makes enemies toss more grenades, and faster. Another requires you to melee enemies to recharge your shields, and one makes enemies more lucky with events based on a random roll. You can also play the campaign cooperatively with other people, which is great if you have a couple of friends also playing the game. If you're the type to play a shooter's campaign once before retiring it to the shelf, this game probably isn't for you. But Bungie built in a lot of replayability. If you enjoy going through it multiple times, challenging yourself to do it the hard way, and playing through with buddies, there's a lot of potential entertainment to be had.
The available weaponry is a mixed bag. Modern shooters tend to have "superweapons" become available only infrequently, and with restrictions; limited ammo, slow movement speed, etc. In Halo: Reach they are perhaps too restricted, often with long wind-up times and a slow recharge. I found myself switching away or simply dropping those guns because they weren't much fun to use. By contrast, I found the pistol-type weapons to be the most satisfying to use, perhaps because they didn't inconveniently need a reload just as I brought down an enemy's shield. One thing Bungie definitely did right was the visual depiction of the projectiles shot out of the guns (bullets, plasma bolts, grenades, etc.). The bolts coming at you all have distinct colors and graphical effects that go along with distinct velocities and trajectories. Dodging enemy fire adds a lot of depth to the gameplay, and it's very easy to see what's being shot at you without having to focus on it.
Throughout the game you can ride in a variety of vehicles, and even perform multiple roles within the vehicles themselves. This suits co-op play very well, and solo play somewhat less. The guns on a tank or Warthog are big and satisfying to use. Driving takes some getting used to, using one analog stick for the throttle and the other for steering. If you're used to a game that uses one stick for both, it will feel awkward. There are a set of helicopter missions that fare better — once you're at an altitude you like, you can press a button to hold there, leaving you only 2-D movement to worry about while you aim, which isn't so different from ground fighting.
There are also a set of space missions, where you grab a fighter and fly around, trying to out-Star-Wars Covenant spacecraft. I was skeptical of their ability to pull this off, but the missions are a lot of fun. It's not tremendously complex; you've got lasers, which can knock down shields, and rockets to finish things off. The targeting system is generous, and you can evade enemy fire with rolls and flips. But the engine is just as smooth and responsive as it is for other forms of combat. It reminded me of playing old arcade space shooters. These missions are followed by the boarding of a ship that's had its atmosphere vented to space. As you trudge through hangars and corridors, shooting wildly at the waves of Covenant trying to block your progress, the familiar sound of gunfire is conspicuously absent, while your controller shakes softly in your hands. Its a nice touch.
If you played Halo 3 or ODST, you're probably familiar with Forge. It's the built-in map editor (or at least, map customizer) that lets you tweak items, vehicles, and objects while leaving the geography unchanged. You can't remove a cliff or make a hole in the ground, but you can move, add, and delete weapons, spawn points, buildings, ramps, giant rocks, Warthogs, and more. It's very simple to use; it'll be nice for groups who play on a regular basis to be able to easily change things about their typical maps, and there will certainly be a dedicated few (in fact, there already are) who create some really impressive levels in spite of the limitations. Spacious, mostly empty "Forge World" maps provide a relatively blank canvas for building something new or remaking something old. At the time of writing, one of the most popular maps has you jump your four-wheeler pointlessly but entertainingly through the air, and another is a pseudo-platformer.
The multiplayer experience is integral to the Halo games, and this one is no exception. There are about 40 different ways you can play this game with other people. We've come a long way from the days of "Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and CTF" being the multiplayer standard. You get about a dozen game archetypes to choose from, and each of those may have several different variations. For example, there are four kinds of CTF, a couple different racing modes, three "bomb your opponent's base" modes, and even two different ways to play King of the Hill. It would be really tough not to find a few gameplay modes you enjoy from this huge list, and the name on the box guarantees there will be enough players to keep finding matches. Halo: Reach also brings back Firefight, Bungie's version of the industry standard "get-swarmed-until-you-die" game. Even here there are seven different versions, including one in which you attack or defend particular objects, and another that gives you a rocket launcher and unlimited ammo.
Of course, with all these options, the matchmaking system needs to be up to the task of putting players in games they want to play. Like Halo 3, the system uses "playlists." You select from several groups of game types, and once enough players are found for a match, they vote on which particular map and mode they want to play. While this has the benefit of finding games very quickly, the downside is that if you really want to play a particular map or mode, you may get voted down and stuck with something else. A simple browser would have been great, if not particularly elegant. In addition to the skill-based matching, you can also tweak a few options that narrow down whom you want to play against: chatty vs. quiet, competitive vs. casual, prioritizing skill, or a good connection, and so on. It remains to be seen how many players will use this as intended, but it's a step in the right direction toward filtering out some of the players who rub you the wrong way.
Bungie has built a huge fan base over the past nine years. For many, Halo: Reach will be the last true Halo game, now that Microsoft is taking over development of the series. Knowing this, Bungie really went all out to make this a game that gave players everything they could ask for. It stumbled a bit in the storytelling and the weapon design, but the heart of the game is in the multiplayer, and there they provided such a wealth of game modes, preferences, customizations and settings that even the most hardcore players will have difficulty running out of new ways to play. It'll certainly be a tough act to follow for whoever Microsoft puts in charge of the next Halo game, and Bungie knows it.