Out of all the developers associated with Microsoft Game Studios, no company has been more closely related to the brand than Bungie. They were there right at the start when Halo: Combat Evolved became part of a very short list of launch titles that were actually great, not quite like Super Mario 64, but certainly on the same level as Soul Calibur. The release of Halo: Reach marks a bittersweet milestone in being Bungie’s final game for Microsoft (at least for the next ten years) and a great opportunity for the studio to delve one last time into the Halo universe without the obligation of tailoring a tale around Master Chief.
The fundamental appeal of Master Chief has always been the ease of which players immerse themselves in the role of this faceless hero. The Chief-less world of Reach continues this tradition with a hero (or heroine) known as Noble 6. As the newest member of Noble Team, the narrative plays with the obligatory “new member” apprehensions from some of the other team members, while there is also this expectation that you will be able to keep up no matter what. The group dynamic pulls off the same Aliens marine camaraderie that Bungie attempted but never got fully right in the previous Halos. Much of the Noble Team successfully convey the right amount of tension and believability when major plot developments occur and become emotional lynch-pins for the story’s life-or-death moments. It is a stark contrast to what the recently released Metroid: Other M failed to do with their space platoon premise.
Despite the substantial budget afforded to the project, one of Halo: Reach’s greatest strengths in its Campaign Mode where there is notable degree of focus and conscious restraint in both the story and the level design. Considering what the studio has learned these past ten years, Bungie could have easily put Noble 6 in dramatic situations that could have overshadowed Master Chief’s accomplishments. It was as if the studio consciously designed scenes and playable situations that would wow the audience, but would not diminish memorable moments of Halo 2 or 3, such as the very first time you boarded a Scarab or when new technology was introduced. Less mature studios would have brought in too many new designs and ideas that would have opened a retcon can of worms. Not since Metal Gear Solid 3 has there been a prequel this good.
This level of refinement also extends to the environments which place a heavy emphasis on the Terran aspects of the planet Reach. The world becomes all the more familiar as there is only one chapter that is based off world, specifically in a Covenant ship. This chapter also presents the most notable gameplay addition to Halo: Reach in the form of the space combat that was unveiled at this year’s E3. It is not presented as a gimmick; it is an extension of the series’ vehicle modes down to the camera-driven maneuverability.
Beyond that, the rest of Reach’s gameplay will be very familiar to fans of the series, not to mention most first person shooter fans. The exclusion of dual-wield firearms is a minor loss that most folks will not miss and more than compensated by the inclusion of enhancements beyond the armor ability. While the player can only carry one ability at a time, there is a solid variety to choose from allowing each Spartan to tailor according to their combat style or situation. These include the much-loved jetpack, the ability to generate a dummy twin, a limited mobility super armor, active camo, and sprinting skills.
Any decent new release to a game franchise owes many of its improvements to community feedback and it has never been more true with Halo: Reach’s multiplayer and its improved Forge level editor. These modes come off as a robust greatest hits collection of familiar modes with a mix of both new and nostalgia-inducing maps, the latter of which have been upgraded from their original designs from past Halos. From King of the Hill to the Capture The Flag-inspired Stockpile, to the newly-added skull collecting mode called Headhunter,Â there is a hearty variety of adrenaline-pumping modes where clans can bond as they take on other teams. There are of course many every-man-for-himself opportunities like the lighthearted Mongoose races, the zombie-themed Infection, and the return of the often hilarious Juggernaut. While I did not make any scientific calculations, I had the feeling that one could spend more than a day attempting to go through every single mode and map combination.
The headlining co-op mode is Firefight which made its franchise debut on Halo: ODST and uses the familiar format of pitting players against wave upon waves of enemies.Â Its use Halo foes set in maps from the Campaign will make for some addicting sessions other video games with similar modes wish they could pull off.
Of course one cannot forget the co-op mode in the Campaign, which has been refined over Halo 3 in that the difficulty has been subtly ramped up depending on the size of the party whether is 2, 3 or 4 players. While I did not experiment with co-op on the Legendary difficulty setting, Heroic did prove to be a sufficient challenge even with the intrinsic respawning convenience that comes from having 4 players. Unfortunately this was also where I found two of the game’s only blemishes. One thing that was not made clear was if a party changes in size during the middle of a chapter–whether a team goes from 2 players to 4–the achievement will not be awarded to the host when the chapter was completed. There was also a minor issue where checkpoints were not saving as a result of a player dropping out in the middle of a mission. While these problems were disappointing, they were extremely minor when considering Reach’s accomplishments (and could be open to fixes in future updates).
It is extremely rare for any studio to end their partnership with a publisher with such a premeditated bang, but Bungie was lucky enough to do just that. They managed to pull it off without any visible signs of corner-cutting or rushed production values. While many of Halo: Reach’s fans will devote the majority of their time on the multiplayer, there is a great deal to savor in the Campaign which afforded Bungie a fitting opportunity to bring the Halo story full circle, while still opening the possibility for sequels as the property is passed to the hands of the seemingly capable 343 Industries. Do not be surprised to find yourself firing up the original Halo after concluding Reach’s story.
(This review was based of a complete playthough of the game’s Campaign mode on Heroic playing a combination of solo, 2-player, and 4-player chapters. 4 additional hours were spent on the multiplayer mode. 19 out of 49 achievements were unlocked for a total Gamerscore of 260; Gamertag: Circle Of Vice.)
Platform: Xbox 360
Released: September 14, 2010