Five by Five – Halo: Reach

Halo: Reach is the sixth and (allegedly) final Halo game to be designed by Bungie. The war between the UNSC and the Covenant is in full swing, and it’s not going too well for the humans. A planet called Reach is one of the strongest remaining UNSC outposts, and home to the spartan super-soldier project that will hopefully turn things around. You take on the role of the new sixth member of Noble Team shortly before a Covenant invasion on your home turf, and your job is to kick them off your planet.

Spartans Never Die…

Solid fundamentals – I’ve always found that the Halo series’ strength is primarily its lack of major weakness. There’s no particular crazy feature like time powers or parkour or a bionic arm that’s expected to carry the game on its own; rather, Bungie focuses on polishing the base game mechanics to keep everything running smoothly. The weapons are well-balanced, the maps are well-designed, and the new armor abilities and assassinations add to the strategy of combat without making it too complicated. In related news, I don’t care how tactically infeasible they are in open warfare, by golly I love jetpacks. If you happen to be a hunter of achievements, or ‘cheevos’ as the hip cats are calling them these days, there’s also a lot of fun stuff to do with all these snazzy game mechanics. Beyond said cheevos there’s a plethora of commendations for every game mode along with daily and weekly challenges, all of which net extra credits to spend on customizing your armor.

Looks like a winner – Only slightly less likely than me sitting down to buy and then review a Halo game is me subsequently praising the graphics of said game. Not the bloom or the bump mapping or the pretty brown-ness of all the dirt as you may hear from others, but rather the impressive attention to detail. The mission statement of the graphic design team appears to have been ‘make everything look more badass’. Noble Team (including yourself) are all geared up with custom armor with assorted little details of personalization. The various weapons all look a good deal more threatening. There’s even neat attention to detail in the animations, and I find animations are one of the best parts to beef up if you want more realism. One example that stands out for me is that when you’re tooling around in the Scorpion tank and you fire off a shell, a bit on the back of the cannon does a little cocking motion to show that it’s loading the next one. Little details like these do far more to enhance immersion for me than a million pixels.

Sounds like a winner – Two technical points in the same review? Indeed it is so, because I came to a realization that I almost didn’t notice the sound design, but in a good way. In an average Halo battle there’s a kind of ridiculous amount of stuff going on at any given time: vehicles driving and flying about, assorted angry space aliens after your head, a dozen or so types of guns being fired off, etc. Every one of those has a distinct sound, and with the aid of a decent stereo setup you can actually get quite a lot of information on the state of the battle just by listening. In combination with the ‘bebebebebebebebebebebebevooooooom’ sound that long-time Halo players have come to associate with shields depleting and then refilling, I’m quite grateful to be able to discern what’s going on around me without taking my eyes off the floppy-faced alien I’m trying to punch in the back of the head.

Creativity and customization – You can do some great deep customization of all game modes including Firefight, customizing class loadouts and wave types and everything, evoking memories of deeply customizable game modes in Perfect Dark. Forge and Theatre return and continue to be a source of great creativity. Theatre is largely unchanged from its earlier appearances, but now with the greatly appreciated rewind button to skip back to the last bookmark at five-minute intervals. Forge has seen greater upgrades, now boasting better physics and new toys. To make it easier to build your mad creations you can set the physics of any given item to normal (falls and tumbles in response to physics), fixed (hovers in space wherever you put it) and phased (can be put inside other things like walls and whatnot). This last is the handiest new addition because building a level in old Forge was a little like trying to build something out of legos when you had to lower the bricks in on a string. There’s also some snazzy bits that seem to be of my favorite category of snazzy bits: random stuff the developers put in to see what fun we could come up with. There’s a plethora of possibilities, like a king of the hill game where the warthog is the hill, or a tilty Escher-like level straight out of Inception, or an assortment of boulders in the shape of a giant cat head that spews great glowing killballs across the level. Seriously.

From the beginning you know the end – Halo storytelling definitely picked up after they decided to let the games tell a story more complex than ‘military shooty guy fights bad aliens and later teams up with some good aliens’. ODST still has the stronger story overall, but I still count this as fairly decent. The ending is a bit predictable (extremely predictable if you know the backstory), but is a blast to play through. I also dig the occasional voice quips spoken by troopers when you come to their aid, referring to the appearance of spartans in the same tone someone would use to point out the arrival of Superman. I also dig how they manage to show you hints of the scope of planetwide warfare without diminishing your role in it as a super-soldier. In addition to riding in on a metaphorical white horse to various places where marines are pinned down, the conflict is often illustrated with comm chatter about the war effort and background animation of ongoing combat. On the whole, story-wise it’s no Bioshock or Fallout but for a series frequently called out for being just a mindless shootyfest Reach manages to put on a decent show.

…They’re Just Missing In Action

Getting to know you – That said, I would have liked to have seen them do just a little more with the story. As I understand it I’m probably not in the majority when it comes to Halo fans, which is to say that in opposition to said majority I liked that ODST had a well-thought-out story and characterization and such. Reach’s storytelling escalates a bit as it goes on, but towards the end some very important things are happening and unless you’ve read the backstory you may not know why it’s such a big deal. The importance of Reach summarized at the top of this review isn’t even mentioned in the campaign, as I recall; the most it gets is a few lines on the back of the box. I also wish I had some more time to get to know Noble team. A good bit of personality is conveyed by their appearance and mannerisms, but you don’t really see as much of them as you did the Firefly crew in ODST. Also odd is that they point out that you’re a replacement for their missing sixth member, but they never say what happened to your predecessor. The spartans show remorse and regret over the deaths of various other soldiers, but beyond the brief mention in the opening cutscene they never bring it up again in the game.

Missing pieces – The controls are good, but could be better. First off, I don’t care that it was a bit unrealistic; I miss dual-wielding. I enjoyed finding good weapon combos, and Halo 3’s setup with the triggers and bumpers acting like your hands was effective and fun to use. My guess is this was cleared out for the new armor abilities and they ran out of buttons. Also, despite frequently having a handful of troopers following you about, the game still lacks any kind of squad command. The d-pad would be fine for this. I’m not asking much, just something simple like attack what I’m looking at/guard where I’m standing/follow me/go find stuff to kill. ‘Attack my target’ would be particularly useful in single-player when I’m trying to corrall some hunters and my minions can’t seem to figure out the basic strategy of ‘everybody stand in a circle and shoot him a lot’. Being able to recruit a fireteam makes the lack of commands stand out even more. I could make a very tiny nitpick that matchmaking for campaign mode won’t be coming for a month on the basis that they wanted people to play through the campaign once without spoilers, but realistically I suppose it’s not as bad as leaving out a singleplayer feature; if you couldn’t go online to get the patch to play the campaign via matchmaking, you couldn’t be online to play multiplayer in the first place.

Keeping it in the family – Although you can share your custom game modes and maps with others, I continue to be miffed that there continues to be no way to play the custom bits with strangers. You can invite friends and they can invite friends, but you can’t open your creations up to the world beyond knowing that somewhere someone is enjoying something you made. I understand the reason they left this out. They made a fine matchmaking system because with the ridiculous number of options in game types and map creation it would be impossible to waffle through a colossal menu to try to pick out the one setup you want to see. However, I think that could be fixed with a search function. All those game mode options? Make them search functions (and advise people to leave most of them on ‘any’, or just sort the results by relevance) so you can seek out games involving golf clubs or with low gravity. You could also use the built-in file reccomendation system to make this even more speedy, telling it to only show you games with highly reccomended modes and maps. It less than a minute to download the average map, not too much time to wait.

It’s lonely in space… for now – I’m rather disappointed that there’s no multiplayer space combat. Sure it was just a gimmick for one level and it wouldn’t blow anyone away, but it’d be another fun way to goof off. Maybe it’ll show up in DLC as happened with Red Dead Redemption’s card games, but by my watch things should already be in the game at launch when they’re… already in the game.

Can’t have it both ways – Although the first game barely had more story to it, there’s actually some pretty interesting stuff going on in the Halo setting if you count the books and such. Two story points in particular stand out for me. First, the death of the previous Noble Six, which is mentioned once in the game and then forgotten, occurs in the short film Deliver Hope (which you’ll also find at the end of this review), though I had to go hunt down the information on Halopedia to find out I might have put that into the game as an opening cinematic, making it a nice little prologue to show just before Noble Team comes home to Reach. Second unless you’ve read the books you wouldn’t necessarily know that the eventual appearance of the Covenant is supposed to have been a mystery; early on Noble Team thinks the mysterious attacks might be from the human secessionist rebels that the first two drafts of the spartan project were formed to fight. They mention rebels maybe once or twice, but never what they were rebelling against or why. For some reason though Bungie has always been a bit shy about using most of it. My guess is they wanted to straddle the fence between folks who want a bit of context to make the explosions more meaningful and folks who want the NPCs to shut up and go back to making things explode. It’s not as ambitious (for Halo) with the storytelling as ODST (possibly in response to the lower review scores), and the result is a decent story that could have been pretty good, maybe even great.

The Final Word

It seems to me that the two biggest factors about whether or not you should get Halo: Reach are a) whether or not you already have Halo 3 and/or ODST, and b) whether or not you’re into the multiplayer. As a solo experience I’d say it’s near the top of the Halo heap and a solid outing as shooters go, but as mentioned above far behind Bioshock or Fallout 3 or Mass Effect 2 (which despite involving dialogue wheels and character customization is at its heart not far removed from a shooter). I’m not gonna toss this a perfect score nor try to hold it up as some legend of gaming, but it is a darn good game to play with friends (or random strangers online who enjoy being in and around explosions). There’s also the similarities across the series to consider. If you like Halo and want more Halo, here’s more Halo. If you don’t like the way Halo does things this one probably won’t change your mind (unless maybe you really love jetpacks). For myself I actually hadn’t planned on getting it until I was talked into a future of zany co-op adventures. It’s not perfect, but Bungie’s Halo series has always succeeded at solid FPS action by putting gameplay first, and Halo: Reach is a fine ride off into the sunset.

Addenum: Since time of writing, the online features of Halo: Reach have expanded a good bit and are continuing to update.  At the time of this update there’s now nifty new additions like a community map section of multiplayer matchmaking and some other neat shinies like matchmaking for Grifball (think football but somebody gets smashed with a rocket-powered sledgehammer).

Halo: Reach is available only on the Xbox 360, and requires a hard drive for co-op play (the 360 slim 4gb model is insufficient to the task). Original and current retail price is $59.99. Halo: Reach has been M for Mature for Blood and Violence. Halo: Reach is developed by Bungie and published by Microsoft. All copyrights property their respective owners.

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