Video Game Review: Halo: Reach
The all-out assault on Reach makes for some awesome set pieces.
I still remember my first exposure to the Halo series. It was late in 2001 and my then-roommate came home and excitedly told me I had to go with him to a neighbour’s house to check out this new game called Halo. We watched for about 15 minutes, walked home and started calling around to find a store that had an Xbox in stock. We were hooked.
Now after a pair of full blown sequels and an offshoot (Halo 3: ODST), developer Bungie is bidding farewell to the series with Halo: Reach, a prequel that follows the events leading up the original Halo: Combat Evolved. You know Bungie is going to deliver a good game, but is it the definitive Halo experience fans were hoping for? Read on.
Some subtle changes were made to the default Halo controls to accommodate the addition of armour abilities, which have taken over the left bumper. Most notable is that melee attacks have been moved from the “B” button to the right bumper — it doesn’t take long to adjust, and those that can’t (or prefer not to) adapt can always use the alternate “Recon” control setup.
Ground vehicles seem a bit touchier this time around, particularly the Warthog. Maybe it was just me, but I felt like I was losing control easier and more frequently than in past Halo games. The new aerial vehicles handle well and the classic Covenant vehicles are as smooth and responsive as ever.
Bungie built an entirely new graphics engine to support Halo: Reach, and the results are consistently stunning. Spartans, marines, elites, grunts…they’ve never looked better. The amount of detail in the explosions and laser fire is exceptional, and Reach’s vistas are awe inspiring. Over the game’s ten missions you’ll travel to numerous distinct and varied locations from rural, mist-covered mountains to sprawling cityscapes. This helps Halo: Reach stand out amid previous Halo titles by not having huge sections of the game take place in the largely purple and gray Covenant-inspired structures.
There are times where the game seems to push the graphics engine past the breaking point, leading to some occasional stuttering when moving through the vast levels. It’s worth noting that this was less of an issue once I downloaded the game to the hard drive, but it still popped up.
The audio work is once again everything you’ve come to expect from a Bungie game, highlighted by another epic soundtrack that ebbs and flows in all the right places, helping to heighten the game’s emotional moments. Optimism, excitement, frustration, hopelessness and more are beautifully conveyed throughout the lengthy campaign.
Sound effects boom through your speakers as the no-longer-translated chatter of the Covenant fills the air. Even the dialogue and voice acting have been improved. You won’t be confusing it for Mass Effect any time soon, but it’s more organic than past efforts in the series and coveys added emotion.
Taking a page out of George Lucas’s book, Bungie decided its fourth full-fledged Halo title would be a prequel, filling in the events that led up to the start of the original game. Set on the human-controlled world of Reach, the game takes you out of the Master Chief’s armour and casts you as Noble 6, a faceless member of the Noble Spartan squad. Whether you’re male or female is up to you, as is what type (and colour) of armour you’ll be wearing throughout as Noble 6 dons the same equipment you select for your character to wear in the multiplayer.
The game opens with Noble 6 joining the rest of the squad just in time to investigate a disturbance in a rural area of Reach. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) suspects dissidents, but the truth turns out to be far more disturbing as the Covenant has found Reach. What follows is a thrilling and at times emotionally draining campaign that chronicles the planet’s downfall under the full-scale assault of the invading army.
You and your team will be sent all over Reach to engage Covenant forces, primarily in a series of covert operations, though that shouldn’t be misconstrued as meaning there’s lots of sneaking around. It’s quite the opposite. Free to construct a story without the presence of the Flood, Halo: Reach unleashes the full fury of the Covenant’s forces on Noble squad. The combination of enemy strength and diverse locations makes this my favourite single-player experience in the series — due in no small part that it never gets bogged down in endless hallways and tight corridors.
Enemy AI is lethal on the Heroic and Legendary settings. Your foes will deftly sidestep incoming fire, duck behind cover and generally make life miserable for you with their accuracy. The days of charging headlong into a pack of Covenant forces and emerging alive are gone. In its place is a combat system that demands foresight and patience; and even then you’ll endure plenty of deaths. In fact, in many ways playing as Noble 6 felt more similar to my experience as an ODST than the Master Chief.
Unfortunately, teammate AI isn’t as impressive. Even with cookie cutter UNSC marines replaced by Spartan super soldiers, the game still requires you to do all of the heavy lifting. Now clearly, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge if you could hide and let the other members of Noble squad do the work, but it would’ve been nice to see them act like the UNSC’s deadliest killers. Instead they’ll frequently employ one of two strategies: (a) Hang back and fire ineffectually from great distance; or (b) Stand out in the open and get pelted by Covenant fire.
These tactics pretty much apply to all the friendly AI you encounter during the game with the only real difference being that your Spartan teammates cannot be killed. There are several instances where you’ll recruit a group of marines to fight by your side, but they invariably leave themselves exposed and are quickly annihilated. The most disappointing instance of this was when one level began with you leading a group of ODSTs on a covert op, only to watch them stand out in the open and be gunned down two minutes into the mission.
Even with some frustrating AI, Halo: Reach’s campaign is excellent. The story carries some legitimate weight, and the desperation in the latter stages is palpable. It took around nine hours for me to clear it alone on Heroic. I also played through the game co-operatively and found I enjoyed the trip even more that way. It’s one of those rare games where as soon as I finished I wanted to start all over again.
Of course, the game’s true longevity lies in its multiplayer, an area where Bungie takes a backseat to nobody. If you’ve played any of its earlier efforts, you have a pretty good idea what to expect, though a few tweaks have been made. Easily the most notable is armour effects, which allow you to select an ability (and corresponding loadout, which cannot be customized) at the start of each match. Things like jetpacks and sprinting are selectable and will dramatically alter how you play a map. Bungie isn’t reinventing the wheel with this addition, but it changes things up enough that it feels fresh.
The other significant newcomer is the armoury. Now gamers will earn credits after each session to purchase new pieces of armour to customize their appearance. Many items are unavailable at the start, meaning you’ll need to meet certain prerequisites before they’re even for sale. There’s little doubt hardcore Halo players will be racing to earn as many credits as possible to scoop up the most exclusive pieces of armour. It’s a good addition that keeps players striving for something other than rank.
Also available is a fleshed out Firefight mode — first seen in Halo 3: ODST. It’s pretty clear Bungie collected some valuable feedback, as the updated version is much improved, highlighted by the addition of public games. These sessions are nice and short, allowing people to play the mode without making a lengthy time commitment both assembling a team and then playing the match. The overall number of maps for both co-operative and adversarial multiplayer feels a bit lean by Halo standards, but there’s so much going on here it’s tough to complain much.
As if all that weren’t enough, Halo: Reach includes a completely revamped Forge mode, which includes the massive blank slate known as Forge World. The interface has really been streamlined, and with the tools at gamers’ disposal, I’m sure we’ll be seeing some great user-created content. Given Bungie’s immaculate track record of supporting its games after release it’d be shocking if the best creations don’t filter down to all players.
Absolutely overflowing with content, Halo: Reach takes the choicest elements of past games and brings them together to form the best Halo game to date, ending the developer’s relationship with the series on a high note. Put simply, it’s one of the best titles available on any system.