Ten years after Bungie created the franchise that defined the FPS experience on the modern console, they are now leaving it behind with Halo: Reach their swansong to the property its fans alike. It’s also doubtless one of the biggest games of the year, and in some respects, it meets those expectations. Just not all of them.
In a nod to player customization, Reach starts out by allowing you to choose both your gender and your Spartan armour components, a first for the series, and a necessity considering this created character will be persistently used in multi-player. An elite Spartan unit, Noble team, is one soldier short, and you fill in those shoes as the newly designated Noble Six. What follows is, for Halo fans, a long arc of tragedy as the fall of the human colony planet Reach is played out, an event mentioned only in passing at the beginning of Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s a decent story, with functional dialog, though it is let down somewhat by Bungie’s encumbrance to Halo lore, often not being able to properly get nuances of their story without knowledge of the franchise reaching into novels and graphic novels. Bungie has always created a solid world, they just occasionally fail to tightly focus their story within that world.
Graphically, this is the best that the Halo series has ever looked. The engine has gotten a serious overhaul, with more detail and sharper textures. This does, unfortunately, come at the cost of some occasional performance hits in the form of choppy frame-rates. It’s present but less visible in an installed to hard-drive, single-player campaign, but more noticeable in un-installed single-player games and particularly local, split-screen co-op. It’s a surprising and unwanted first for Bungie, but compared to other games in the franchise, Reach is the first with noticeable performance flaws. The audio is a general improvement all around. The voice actors all do a good job of portraying gruff, serious, if somewhat cliché space marines, the music still has that emotional resonance once echoes of the Halo theme appear, and happily, the aliens no longer speak English, giving them much more menace and… well, “alien-ness” than previous iterations.
Fans have absolutely nothing to worry about. This is Halo. A better looking, more feature rich Halo, but it’s still the same game you’ve been playing the last 10 years. The single-player still has vehicle combat, corridor combat, and large, open, “fight it your way” battle pieces. The game also takes a surprising—but in some ways—welcome step backwards. Health packs once again make an appearance, as does the Battle Rifle, and even dual-wielding weapons have been removed in just a few of many nods to the roots of Halo: Combat Evolved. There’s also a gradual build up to the bigger and better action, as the first four chapters can initially feel a bit slow, perhaps even dull until things take off and the Covenant invasion gets into full swing. On the artificial intelligence side, things have changed very little. Reach sports great enemy AI that rolls, dodges and flanks. At the same time, it puts you at the mercy of stupefyingly dumb ally AI that dies quickly in the case of normal soldiers. Fortunately your fellow Noble Team Spartans are indestructible and with good reason, as they can often simply stand in place not shooting at much of anything while you manically dodge, sprint and strafe to stay alive.
But this is offset by incredibly polished set-piece battles, and disappears completely when played co-operatively which, as usual, is the best way to experience the campaign. With the exception of the star-fighter sequence, most of these are sequences already experienced in previous Halo games, so while the quality and polish is there, over-familiarity does weigh things down. Another new addition is armour abilities that allow players to do everything from finally sprint, to taking to the air with jetpacks. These add a little variety to an otherwise overly familiar but consummately polished single player experience.
Then there’s the main course. The real reason to play a Halo game was, is, and always will be the multi-player. In that regard, Bungie doesn’t disappoint, though again, they don’t jump through many new hoops either. Firefight returns, along with a comprehensive match-making system and beautiful touches such as “mute profiler” that keeps track of verbally abusive players and auto-mutes them once they cross a certain threshold. This alone is a great, subtle feature implemented for online multi-player as it makes the typical Xbox Live experience far less irritating in the long run. It’s little touches like this and the finesse applied to the match-making options that make multi-player in Halo one of the untouchable experiences it is, anarchic gaming community aside.
As far as modes, Slayer, Team Slayer and all the other competitive modes are back, along with a slew of maps, some of which are “re-issues” of older maps, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on your thirst for new content. Theater mode also makes are return, as does a new and improved, super huge “Forge Mode” that is much more comprehensive and will likely see the debut of some surprisingly good user-created levels in the near future. In this regard, Reach begins to show it’s age a little as the persistent “levelling up” (at least cosmetically) of your multi-player character and the tweaking of Firefight mode show that Bungie couldn’t afford to ignore either the Call of Duty series, or the Gears of War horde mode that so popularized team-based co-op play. Again, we’re not seeing anything new here, merely tweaks and polish applied to existing mechanics borrowed from other games.
That really sums up the experience of Reach, in an odd way. It’s the best Halo game you’ll ever play mechanically, but it’s not quite a new Halo game. This really is an evolution of the series, taking all the lessons learned over the last ten years and adding them to a formula that is well known and loved. The result is a single-player and multi-player experience with few surprises, but a level of polish that comes from obsessively tweaking existing mechanics over and over again. It’s a fitting send off for fans, whereas general fans of FPS games may still find more compelling gaming in the Call of Duty franchise, or even Battlefield Bad Company series. In other words, people that aren’t huge fans of the Halo series still won’t have a reason to convert, but the die-hards will appreciate the respect that Bungie has shown for their community.