Halo Reach Review: Bungie's Fun and Familiar FarewellSeptember 13, 2010
Halo: Reach is the end of the beginning but in no way the beginning of the end. It is the final Halo game delivered by Bungie Studios, the franchise's founding father who passes the torch after signing a deal with publisher Activision.
The Halo franchise will live on at Microsoft long after Bungie departs. It may wander in new directions Bungie never fathomed and blow our minds with a new take on an old friend. With Reach, Bungie proves they have taken the franchise as far as they can. This is their best foot forward in light of the studio's strengths and weaknesses, a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved that brings back more memories than create new ones.
Getting To "Noble" You
The Halo Reach campaign revolves around a group of Spartans dubbed "Noble Team" and their time on Reach during the Covenant's invasion of the topographically diverse planet. You and your optional friends (up to 4 including you) are new members of the heralded team hoping to prove your worth with the tight knit group of Spartan warriors against a flood of aggressive Covenant forces.
Implied history within Noble Team goes unaddressed aside from some light character building of the archetypical group during cut-scenes. You really don't get to know Noble as much as you'd like with sparse back-and-forth banter during gameplay and inconsistent appearances of the team from one mission to the next. There's a girl who has the biggest personality of the group and a guy with a painted skull on his Spartan face mask and matching gruff Boba Fett voice. The rest I've already forgotten. When members of Noble Team die, and they have to knowing Master Chief is the last living Spartan warrior in Halo, the impact is not quite as strong as Bungie's narrative team likely intended.
Reach's campaign is played as a team rather than a lone gun like Master Chief but never grasps the concept of squad-based combat. There are no orders to issue and seemingly no rhyme or reason why your Noble mates act as they do. Sometimes they are overly aggressive to where you can stand back and watch them mow down Covenant like weeds, while other times they might as well pull up a chair and grab a bag of popcorn while you do all the heavy lifting.
Halo Is As Halo Does
There is an unmistakable look, feel and aural resonance in Halo games that distinguishes them from other first-person shooters. Even Halo: ODST, the first Halo game not featuring a Spartan warrior, never felt not part of the Halo universe. Chalk up Reach and its pre-Halo world as the latest Bungie offering to fall into this line.
Reach's level design is both a blessing and a curse, taking you to places no Halo game has ever been before and then dropping you into a vat of déjà vu. A nighttime sniper mission against small Covenant outposts is the most glaring instance of revisiting the exploits of Master Chief. Parts look and feel similar enough to a Halo sniper mission that it may be a deliberate homage. We have all played essentially that level during the last console generation. Homage or not, there's really no need to bang that drum twice with infinite other possibilities to explore.
Jacking Ghosts in desolate environments, struggling to steer a variety of Warthogs down long windy paths and stumbling into a large area or bridge full of small shields are par for the norm in a Halo game. Pushing through the almost Utopian city of Alexandria under siege by Covenant is not. This city's bright and streamlined architecture is a stark contrast to the militaristic or alien structures Halo has become synonymous with. Holding off the Covenant assault of this city long enough for its patrons to evacuate The Empire Strikes Back style and using a jetpack to scale its large interior and exterior spaces offers some of the best campaign gameplay in the Halo franchise yet.
Reach For The Sky
Aerial combat is not new to the Halo franchise but taking control of a small space ship and attacking Covenant ships above a planet's atmosphere is. Controlling this ship is smooth and natural, more so than many of the third-person space aerial combat games you may have tackled in the past. Its weapons choice is limited to twin guns and missiles or just enough fire power to take on a Covenant Corvette at close range. Blasting Covenant ships with the blackness of space as a backdrop is the furthest departure from Halo's roots Bungie has attempted thus far. Sadly time spent patroling space is over before it has had a chance to stretch its legs and get comfortable.
A later mission requires you pilot a less agile twin-propeller dropship through a crumbling Reach metropolis. This mission's visuals are spectacular as skyscrapers burn and smoke plumes fill the air. After flying a sleeker and faster ship in space, the dropship's control scheme requiring an extra button push to hover and accelerators that don't do much accelerating are simply not as much fun. Your mates on the ship's mounted gatling guns will have a heck of a time not getting sick, much less hitting anything as the dropship flounders about.
Take It To The Limit
Scattered throughout Reach's campaign are some intriguing additions like a type of ostrich, civilians, drivable forklifts and ODST-like rain. Their presence is no more than just that: a presence. None of these additions impact gameplay or serve any relevance other than eye candy. Bungie missed a golden opportunity for the ostriches to be interactive and usable as shields against Covenant fire or trample people, the ability to command the civilians the best route to evacuate, make a forklift critical to clearing a level or having rain droplets obstruct a rifle's scope. The idea is there but the execution to push an idea to its limits is noticeably absent.
Reach's campaign narrative is a natural prequel to the first Halo game and belongs alongside other Halo experiences. In other words, Bungie has never been known for their exemplary storytelling but they get the job done. At first the campaign's directive is the vague idea that Covenant are attacking and Noble Team must repel their attacks. About half way through Reach a more distinct directive for Noble Team is introduced that sets in motion the series of events that will forever tie this game to Halo gaming lore. Bungie knows what its fans wants and delivers and bittersweet farewell, though some looking for something more revolutionary or jarring in the storytelling department might be letdown.
I teamed up with another website editor to tackle Reach's campaign and spent roughly 9 hours doing so cooperatively on Heroic difficulty. For the first time in a Halo game you can use matchmaking to team up with up to three friends for Reach's campaign, a useful addition for multiplayer gaming for those looking for something other than adversarial play. What Bungie did that really impacts the replay value is an automatic scaling of difficulty dependent upon the number of players in the campaign. There were moments myself and the other site editor struggled mightily to take out what seemed like nearly indestructible Elites. I can only imagine how hard those challenges would have been with difficulty cranked up to Legendary and two additional players in the fray.
If You Build It, They Will Come
If Halo: Reach was graded solely on its campaign then I would rate it somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 out of 10. That rating shoots up when taking Reach's multiplayer and community features under consideration. As with Halo: ODST, they are the crux of the game and top reason most players will feel compelled to keep coming back for more.
Bungie's contribution to the Halo franchise will long be remembered more for delivering addictive multiplayer mayhem more than any storyline. Newer franchise editions like Forge and Firefight have been upgraded with sim-like level building ability and increased AI/matchmaking, respectively. Forge has essentially evolved into LittleBigPlanet junior with its mapmaking tools and ability to share creations with friends.
A new objective-based mode called Invasion pits 8 Covenant Elites against 8 Spartans. It wasn't quite ready for use pre-launch but you can imagine the possibilities. Another new mode, Arena, is structured in a season where you go up against other players to earn rank. Think Gladiator in the Halo world.
Apart from Bungie's promise that matchmaking is now far more accurate and available across all multiplayer modes including Firefight and campaign, my favorite new addition has to be the daily and weekly challenges. As has become popular in online-enabled sports games, Bungie will issues a new challenge daily and a bigger one weekly that you can beat to earn Credits. Those Credits can then be spent on tons of armor and even a voice upgrade in the Armory.
Even without Credits as bait the idea of challenges that could tie into the campaign or multiplayer modes are enough to lure me back in. Here's an obvious hint: the first of 52 weekly challenges is attached to playing the campaign. And you'll earn an Achievement for "completing" it.
Six months from now there will still be thousands upon thousands of gamers logging hours in Halo: Reach's variety of multiplayer modes, taking on the daily and weekly challenges or just fragging friends for a good time. Bungie has always excelled at providing an environment and the tools to enjoy console multiplayer gaming through the Halo brand. Though Reach's campaign and Noble Team are nothing to write home about, its myriad of interconnected multiplayer options are the paramount achievement and a fitting farewell for the studio that singlehandedly help put Xbox on the map.
- Dan Bradley
Shop for Halo: Reach in standard, Limited or Legendary editions at a discounted price from Amazon.com.