On November 15th, 2001, Microsoft Game Studios and Bungie released Halo: Combat Evolved. Not only did Halo change the face of first-person shooters on the console, it played a significant role in the successful launch of the Xbox. It was an unmitigated masterpiece. You could argue that Halo: Combat Evolved was both a blessing and a curse for Bungie. On the one hand, Halo has become one of the most recognized and best-selling video game franchises of all time. On the other hand, Bungie has been pigeonholed over the past nine years into developing sequel after Halo sequel. That is until now. Halo: Reach marks the fifth and final installment in the Halo franchise for Bungie. The development studio recently signed a ten-year deal with Activision that will give them a chance to spread their wings again, creating new, original intellectual properties across multiple platforms. But that hasn’t stopped Bungie from creating the most ambitious entry in the Halo series to date.
Plot wise, Halo: Reach is a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. It tells of the events on the planet Reach, one of humanity’s last bastions of safety from the Covenant, just prior to the introduction of Master Chief and the ring-shaped, galaxy-cleansing space habitats that give the series its name. You play the role of an unnamed Spartan assigned to Noble Team, a group consisting of five other Spartans. As the story begins, Noble Team is sent to check on a relay station suspected to have been taken down by insurgents, but instead discover the presence of the Covenant. It’s not long before the alliance of alien races launches an all-out invasion of the planet, leading to the well-documented fall of Reach.
The campaign as a whole is a mixed bag. The pacing is a little slow out of the gate with a series of reconnaissance missions even after the existence of the Covenant on Reach has been discovered. That pace picks up considerably in the second half of the campaign as Bungie masterfully captures the atmosphere of global conflict and skillfully builds a sense of inevitably in players that Reach will fall into the clutches of the Covenant. But while that mood is brilliantly on display, character development isn’t handled quite so well. Even though you’ll spend most of the campaign accompanied by one or more of the Noble Team members, not nearly enough time is spend fostering those characters and so as they get picked off one by one as the story progresses, the impact isn’t nearly as emotional as it should be.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Reach plays similarly to Halo 3, mixing firefights in wide open environments and claustrophobic corridors with the occasional vehicular segment. You’ve got most of the same weaponry and vehicles at your disposal, and you’ll stare down most of the same enemies in your sights. Bungie has thrown a few new wrinkles into the formula, however. For starters, before the campaign even begins you’ll have the opportunity to customize and personalize your Spartan, starting with whether you wish the character to be male or female. You can then spend credits to customize your armor and personalize its various pieces with an expansive color palette. The best part is none of the campaign’s cutscenes are pre-rendered so you’ll get to see your individual Spartan star in each of those scenes.
The most interesting addition to the campaign is a combat mission that takes place in outer space. You’ll get to pilot a Sabre fighter and defend a UNSC space station by getting into interstellar dogfights with Space Banshees, Seraphs and other Covenant spacecraft. Eventually you’ll disarm and board a Covenant super-carrier. Overall the mission is a nice segue from the first- to the second-half of the campaign, even if the return journey to Reach is a little far-fetched.
Rounding out the new campaign features are new armor abilities, which can be swapped out like weapons. Armor abilities include Active Camouflage, which allow the user to become virtually invisible on the battlefield; Drop Shield, which are similar to the Bubble Shield from previous Halo entries, only they also provide a restorative effect to those inside the protective shield; and Holographic Decoy; which creates a virtual holographic projection of the user, allowing them to be used to draw enemy fire; and Sprint, just to name a few. Each of the armor abilities has a timed counter both for use and regeneration so you can’t just sprint around the battlefield endlessly with the Sprint ability, for example.
You might be wondering, with the new armor abilities, whether players gain too much of an advantage in combat over the Covenant. The answer is a resounding no. First of all, some of the armor abilities have been acquired from Covenant technology, meaning the Covenant has access to various armor abilities themselves. Secondly, the AI, which was already the best in the business to begin with, has been updated to take into account some of the armor abilities. For instance, if you activate the Armor Lock ability, which renders the user invincible, and immobilized, for a few moments, Covenant troops know well enough to retreat into cover until the effect is over. In fact, the enemy AI as the whole is as challenging as it’s ever been. Friendly AI, on the other hand, still leaves a lot to be desired. Your fellow Noble Team members can’t be killed, which make them a little more useful than the average UNSC soldier, but you’re still never going to want an AI teammate to pilot a vehicle that you’re the gunner of. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been driven off the side of a cliff or directly into enemy fire.
The campaign clocks in at between 8-12 hours, depending on the skill level you choose (I recommend Heroic in order to get the full experience). You can play through the campaign solo or with up to three of your friends. If you can’t find three friends to play with, no need to worry. Halo: Reach supports co-operative matchmaking, a first for the series. Seriously, I’ll never understand why it took so long to implement matchmaking into co-operative multiplayer. For as brilliant as the Halo franchise has been over the years in terms of multiplayer, I’ve always scratched my head over that one.
The Firefight mode that first appeared in Halo: ODST makes a return appearance in Reach. Just like competitive multiplayer in Halo 3, Firefights in Reach are entirely customizable. You can tweak weapon loadouts, starting lives, respawn time, types of enemies, and active skulls, just to name a few. Ultimately you can make any given firefight as easy or difficult as you like. The Firefight mode also comes with a set of pre-made game types for both co-operative and competitive play. And just like the co-op Campaign mode, Firefight mode supports matchmaking for those days when your friends aren’t around.
Halo: Reach picks up where Halo 3 left off in terms of competitive multiplayer and expands upon it with additional customization options, the inclusion of the previously mentioned armor abilities, and new game modes including Invasion, an objective-based Spartans vs. Elites affair, and Race, based on the user-created mode from Halo 3 featuring players racing a Mongoose around a circuit. Speaking of creation tools, Forge returns in the form Forge World, a gigantic five-part map just waiting to be crafted - by the creatively inclined - into new levels and game types to be shared and rated by the Halo community. Theater also returns, allowing players to record clips and take stills of their finest and not so finest moments.
All of the Halo: Reach’s modes - campaign, co-op and competitive multiplayer – are tied together by the aforementioned progression system that allows players to customize and personalize their Spartan. You’ll earn credits that you can spend to purchase new armor sets, helmets, shoulder pads, chest plates, etc. It doesn’t quite stack up against the likes of Activision’s Call of Duty franchise, simply because all of the weapons and armor abilities are available from the get go, making it a completely cosmetic system, but it does allow your Spartan to look different than any other players’ on the battlefield and the fact you can you pick and choose how to spend your credits, rather than working your way through a pre-set tree of content, is certainly a welcome change.
The progression system does emphasize the updated visuals in Halo: Reach. The amount of detail has increased exponentially, both on the characters and in the environment. The only downside is an occasionally unstable frame rate, but thankfully it only rears its ugly head during some of the game’s cutscenes. Audio has always been one of Halo’s strong points and Reach is no different. The voice acting is superb, the weapon effects appear to be more impacting than ever, and the mostly all-new soundtrack is sweepingly epic.
The amount of content present in Halo: Reach goes unmatched in the world of console shooters. You have the Campaign mode, the now-customizable Firefight mode, the ever-robust competitive multiplayer suite, the large canvas that is Forge World, the always-entertaining Theatre, and all of this is wrapped around the new, albeit totally cosmetic progression system. It’s the culmination of 9 years of Halo games from Bungie. The end result is the best Halo title since Combat Evolved. Halo: Reach isn’t about to convert any of the Halo haters out there, but it will keep fans of the franchise busy for months if not years to come.