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Halo Reach Review

Halo Reach is the Xbox 360’s biggest release of the year, and it’s bound to set all sorts of Xbox Live records in its first few days on the market. It’s kind of funny when you stop to think about it, because this is the first Halo game, and thus the first review, that doesn’t run the risk of spoilers. Halo Reach is a prequel to the original Halo, so we already know what happens in the canon from this point on, and we clearly know where Bungie’s fictional universe stands when this game ends. So why the draw? Well, much like any good James Bond movie, we know we’re going to go from Point A to Point B; it’s how we get there that makes the ride fun. And what a ride Halo Reach is.

Halo Reach breaks from the standard Halo protocol by putting players not in the MJOLNIR armor of Master Chief, but behind the visor of Noble Six, a member of an all-Spartan squad sent on a mission to save the planet Reach from a massive Covenant invasion. All the Spartan abilities from previous games are included in Halo Reach (dual wielding, two types of grenades, overshields a motion-tracking sensor, etc.), so the familiar gameplay and lets players jump right into the action. It’s that “action” that’s the most anticipated change for Halo Reach, because it’s completely squad based and occurs in the middle of what are easily the most massive, intense firefights the Halo franchise has seen.

To be clear, Noble Six’s time may be spent battling Covenant with his (or her, if you setup a female character) squad, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be issuing orders. Noble Six is the newbie, so you’ll largely be taking mission orders from those who outrank you, and there are certainly no options to command the other Spartans in your group. For all intents and purposes, then, it’s a lot like playing in previous Halo games alongside Marines, only this time, you’re not always the hero. That’s an important thematic change for Halo Reach, because not always being the hero gives the entire nine-hour campaign (on Heroic difficulty) a much darker tone. It also brings a new sense of humanity and, to a certain degree, a new sense of vulnerability to Spartans that we haven’t previously seen. This is a surprising achievement, actually, because those impressions come through in spite of very limited character development and a script that delivers just about zero emotional attachment to the Noble team. Yes, we see their faces. Yes, we hear their internal conflict to take or ignore orders. And yes, we even get a taste of the intrasquad bickering that takes place on a team of supersoldiers. But it’s the team’s situation and how they handle it that are so sobering. The overall situation resonates not because of the quality of writing, but because the entire game has social-commentary undertones about the state of “the noble soldier” in today’s real-life wars. Taking orders because that’s what you do, not because they’re going to necessarily make a difference, is the most mature theme Bungie has tackled to date. And they absolutely drill it in spite of the lackluster script.

In addition to the thematic change, Bungie made two gameplay tweaks that keep Halo Reach fresh. The first is the addition of power-ups to the Drop Shield arsenal, including a Jet Pack, Sprint and Holographic Decoy. Rather than be a one-time tool, though, Noble Six has unlimited use of whichever power-up is selected, as long as you let the mana-like meter recharge after every five- to 10-second use. The second change is the introduction of flight (both space and terrestrial) in three levels, which provides a nice change of pace from the fire/cover/reload/fire mechanic throughout the rest of the nine-mission campaign. Taking control of a spaceship in one level and piloting a transport ship in two other urban Bespin-like sequences ran the serious risk of feeling tacked-on or unpolished, but it’s surprisingly fun. The airborne action’s not frantic enough to compete with a standalone flying game, but Bungie did an admirable job. In fact, between the gameplay variety and the darker tone, Halo Reach has succeeded in reinvigorating my interest in playing a Halo game, as I had previously sworn off the series and publicly referred to Halo 3 as “Halo 1.3” for its lack of innovation.

Now, “reinvigorating my interest in Halo” does not equate to “delivering a flawless game.” There are certainly things that I feel missed the mark. The lack of character development is one, as is a story that doesn’t even feel coherent until the fourth or fifth mission. Truly, the first one-third to one-half of Halo Reach feels almost like Bungie was swimming in ideas but didn’t know how it wanted to combine them into a single plot. Considering the backstory potential of the Spartan program, there are just so many more holes that could’ve been filled-in, even during the course of the gameplay, that are left completely empty. The presence of Dr. Elizabeth Halsey and her fascination with what’s happening on, below and above the planet’s surface could have been fleshed-out so much more. The level design, as varied as it is in Halo Reach, could have avoided borrowing so heavily from previous games (the nighttime sniper mission comes immediately to mind). But hey, at least Bungie didn’t include a repetitive Library-like level this time.

Where Halo Reach really takes off — and where we all knew it would — is in its multiplayer options. On the campaign front, the entire story can be played cooperatively online with up to three friends, and the difficulty even scales based on the number of people playing. Skulls can be activated for additional challenge (see our recap of all the Halo Reach skulls and their effects), and scoring via the metagame can be turned on or off depending on how much you want to compete for kills and efficiency. There’s also the fight-waves-of-enemies mode called Firefight, which has been revamped since Halo 3: ODST to include a metric ton of customization options and full matchmaking support.

The multiplayer action really heats up in the competitive realm and Forge, of course, but it’s somewhat duplicative to talk about those due to gamers’ familiarity with them from the Halo Reach multiplayer beta and Halo 3, respectively. Suffice it to say that the competitive multiplayer modes bring back some classic maps and mix-in some new, accommodate a stupid number of customization options and will probably be responsible for dozens of lost hours of sleep. Forge, meanwhile, is an incredibly powerful and intuitive map-editing tool that will give the PS3’s LittleBigPlanet a serious run for its user-generated-content money. With the toolset and ease of uploading that Forge has in Halo Reach, there should be no shortage of variety in the online realm for years come.

Considering it’s Bungie’s last official Halo project, Halo Reach is letting the developer go out with a bang. I’m a huge plot junkie, yet the lack of character development and some narrative wayfinding issues didn’t keep me from literally pulling an all-nighter to see how the battle for Reach went down. I’m not a do-or-die multiplayer gamer, but Firefight, Matchmaking and Forge got my competitive and creative juices flowing. Halo Reach spices-up the gameplay and tone just enough to reignite my interest in the franchise. If it can do that for me, the one who swore off all things Halo, then it’s safe to say it’s worth every penny.

A few versions of the game exist. Click the following link to hit-up Amazon for Halo Reach basic (game-only) edition. Click this link for Halo Reach – Limited Edition (the version we played for this review). Or, click here to get the ultimate pack, the Halo Reach – Legendary Edition.

Score: 9
In spite of some missed narrative cues and a few derivative levels, the overall experience is fun, and the multiplayer is hard to compete with. Bungie’s leaving the franchise in good shape.

— Jonas Allen

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