Halo: Reach Review

Dan Webb

Chances are you’ve already made your mind up about whether or not you’re going to pick up Halo: Reach on launch, but if you’re one of the seven people who is still sat on the fence, then consider this a friendly little nudge in the right direction. Yes, this is Bungie’s last Halo game. Yes, this is the Seattle based developer going out on a high. Yes, this is the best Halo game they’ve ever created.

"Guns, I've got guns here. Get them while they're fresh."

To judge Halo: Reach on just one aspect would be totally unfair and it is Bungie’s best Halo game because of the sum of its parts. With ODST’s Firefight incorporated and upgraded, the all new campaign, the fan-favourite multiplayer is back with a new twist – the armour abilities - and Reach’s impressive map editor, Forge World, all the aspects work so well in tandem that they all depend on each other to create a Halo package of undeniable value.

With the ending of Reach already known from the offset, creating a story around the fall of Reach was always going to be tricky. Following a crew of Spartans, Team Noble, you take control of the timid Noble Six – not something I’d call my child in all honesty – at ground zero as the Covenant invasion hits the almost defenceless planet. From then on Team Noble will be tasked with damage control for a vast proportion of the opening act, before culminating in the Spartan squad fighting back to attempt to secure the future of the human race. The first half of the game definitely makes you feel inconsequential as you go about on damage control duty and it’s not until the second half of the game until it really picks up.

In the same way that we all knew Titanic’s ending, it’s clear that Bungie were looking to deliver a strong character driven experience and with your backs to the wall, you’ll find yourself with 5 other heroic Spartans: Carter, the leader; Emile, the close-combat specialist; Jun, the team’s sniper; Jorge, the trigger-happy heavy weapon specialist; and Kat, the cyborg-arm carrying Russian-sounding ice queen. The problem is though, that Bungie rarely gives us any insight into the character’s backgrounds and it’s even rarer that your may-as-well-be-silent Spartan actually gets the chance to forge any sort of relationship. Instead of being a tightly knit band of brothers – and a sister – it often feels like you’re a bunch of lone-wolves, so actually caring for the Spartans is a difficult task, which in turn, makes the situation even harder to emotionally engage with.

The specific set-pieces though, are of typical Bungie ilk, with your usual elaborate and over-the-top scenarios that have made Halo’s campaign what it is today. That includes, but is not limited to, space combat, a terrific mission that sees you fly high above one of Reach’s affluent cities and the usual high-octane vehicle scenes. Reach, compared to other settings for previous Halo games, seems a lot more diverse as well and you’ll find Team Noble visit a huge amount of vastly different environments. You’ll actually see the world transform as you progress through the campaign as well, with things starting off all bright and cheerful, before fading to a darker and more morbid setting towards the end. Even being able to see the battles in the distance makes you feel like you are part of something bigger.

"I'm not sure that's how you're meant to park them."

Being the next iteration in the franchise, there are of course a handful of new weapons and vehicles to keep Reach feeling fresh. As far as weapons go, the UNSC now have the assistance of the M319 Grenade Launcher as well as the Target Locator, which allows you to paint an area for an impending missile barrage, while the Covenant most notably get the new Plasma Launcher. That’s not to say that’s all the new weapons, far from it, but most feel like variations of the more traditional weapons: DMR is essentially the new Battle Rifle and the Needle Rifle is an upgraded Covenant Carbine, and so on.

With regard to vehicles, the Revenant is an all new Covenant vehicle that acts like a hybrid of a Ghost and a Wraith... but not as powerful, obviously. The Sabre – that’s the spaceship – is the new UNSC vehicle, although that’s restricted to one fairly lengthy assault mission. Reach also marks the return of the Elites as well after a one game break, with Skirmishers – the more agile cousins of the Jackals – being the most notable new enemy type.

Obviously the biggest game-changer as far as Reach goes are the new armour abilities, which gives the Spartans – and the Covenant – access to certain temporary combat advantages. These advantages include the ability to “Sprint;” a “Holographic Decoy” which you can point and click and watch him run off; your “Active Camo;” a “Drop Shield” which replenishes health; “Armour Lock” which makes you an invincible rock for a short period of time; and of course, the “Jet Pack.”

They go somewhat to making the action feel fresh and definitely act as a more tactical tool. For instance, the decoy is a great way to distract your foes so you can flank them, and the armour lock allows you to destroy rushing vehicles if timed perfectly. After giving them a run out in the multiplayer arena, they definitely feel balanced as well, and what you choose is defined by preference and the situation, rather than which is the best. Remember though, whatever you can do, the Covenant can do – the Covenant can even use “Evade” while the Spartans can’t. Other than that, it feels very much Halo... which is nothing but a good thing.

When ODST released back in 2009, the only thing that kept that title from falling into obscurity was the perfectly crafted Firefight mode. With Reach, Bungie may claim it is Firefight 2.0, but we’re more inclined to call it 2.5. Sure, it’s the same horde style co-operative experience from ODST, but the options and their depth is simply incredible. You can customise absolutely everything and even create custom skulls. So you can change wave amounts, weapons, enemy types, skulls... you name it, you can change it. With 8 Firefight maps as well, that range from the particularly sunny shores of New Alexandria in Beachhead, to the red sands and smouldering ruins of Outpost, you can be sure to have plenty to do. Oh, and there’s matchmaking as well this time. Huzzah!

I was fairly critical of Bungie’s multiplayer beta, but it seems that everything that felt off or unbalanced about Halo’s main staple in May has thankfully been tweaked for the final version; essentially creating one of the robust - if not the most - multiplayer arenas of any game on the market. The balance seems to be spot on now, although the one-on-one battle times have been extended, which I’m not sure is a good thing yet.

Most of the old game modes return, but with the likes of Stockpile, a multi capture the flag gametype with a twist; Headhunter, where kills equals skulls that you must return to score; and Invasion, an objective based mode; they all go somewhat to keeping the action online as fresh as you like. So whether you wanted straight up slayer, FFAs, Infection, et al, they’re all included.

As far as maps go, Ivory Tower and Blood Gulch return in their newly upgraded forms to add to the already impressing showing, meaning there are a huge chunk of different maps for various different gametypes. With 13 base maps, 5 of those being variants in Forge World, you shouldn’t be too hard pressed to make Halo: Reach last you for months, even years. The design on the new maps are of standard ilk, with nothing extraordinarily that will blow you away. That being said, Ivory-frickin-Tower, sorry, I mean, Reflection, is back and the frantic multi-vehicular battles on Blood Gulch seem better than I remember, no doubt thanks to the new vehicles.

If you get sick of the old maps, then there’s always Forge World - a simple, but incredibly deep map editor. In case you were wondering, yes, you can “Forge” any map, but unless you’re in Forge World, the options will be really limited. Forging base maps is limited to adding/editing such things as obstacles, spawn points and the like, but throwing in bridges, sniper towers, etc. is limited to Forge World. Oh, and you can’t Forge Firefight maps either… which is a damn shame.

In Forge World, in the space of just 10 minutes, I had managed to create the most bizarre floating level that you could ever think up. With huge dishes in the middle and more struts than the Bee Gees, it’s simply astounding what you can do with the newly revamped map editor and it’s simple as well.

"Woah, I'm seeing double. Wait, and invisible. I need to lie down."

Everything you do in Halo: Reach and whichever mode you’re embroiled in, is rewarded with credits, which you can then spend on your Spartan’s aesthetical appearance. There are some serious long term goals for players to aim for, with the Pestilence armour effect and Inclement armour costing 2 million credits each - considering you get 25,000 for completing the campaign, that’s quite a lofty goal to aim for. For most players, purchasing visor colours, Firefight voices and various armour pieces are the most doable of the goals.

With Reach’s achievement list, I think it’s safe to say that Bungie know what they’re doing here. There is a careful balance of achievements across all the 3 main pillars of the game, and they also range in difficulty from achievable to hard slog required, which is how achievement lists should be balanced: something for everyone. While some may complain about encouraging players to compete the campaign on legendary on your own, I’m in the opposite camp... bring it on!

The only aspect where I feel that Halo: Reach wasn’t at the top of its game in its last hurrah was the game’s campaign. Sure, the set-pieces were of typical Bungie ilk, but with choosing to create a story of which the ending is public knowledge, Bungie placed the emphasis on a character driven story, and unfortunately, none of your squad are particularly likeable. That’s partly down to there being no push to get you to bond with them or even explore them as a character, meaning you’re fighting alongside a squad of mysterious enigmas, rather than super soldier brethren.

Despite that, the story was particularly engaging and intriguing, with it picking up on the home straight, culminating in a pretty enthralling ending. Throw in the extensive improvements to Firefight, the robust multiplayer arena and the nothing short of sensational Forge World, and it’s abundantly clear that the value of Halo: Reach is second to none. Bungie wanted to go out with a bang, but instead, they’ve gone out with a nuclear explosion that not even a Spartan could survive. It’s the end of an era, that’s for sure, but the beginning of a new one. Step up 343, you have some big boots to fill.

Marty O’Donnell and co. really know how to create a Halo score. With it fitting the mood Bungie are attempting to portray in every instance, there are very few teams around that understand how to create video game scores. The only slight hang-up I have is with the main character being more of the silent type and the squad member’s voices sounding rather forced and out of place at times.

It’s never going to be challenging Gears and co. for the best looking Xbox 360 title, but it’s closer to the top end of the market than it ever has been. The character models and particle effects are top draw though.

It’s Halo. What else do you need to know? It feels like Halo, controls like Halo and with the new armour abilities, it’s suddenly a tad more tactical Halo.

Halo: Reach is undeniable value. With its new and improved Firefight, the addictive multiplayer and the incredible Forge World, the only reason it’s not shooting for 100 is because of its not-quite stellar campaign.

It’s what most achievement lists should aspire to be. There are achievements that are challenging, there are those that will eat up a considerable amount of time and there are those for everyone. With some originality and being generally used as a tool to point you into every corner of the game, Reach’s list is a real winner.

With Halo: Reach, Bungie wanted to go out on a high and other than a few grumbles about the game’s campaign, it’s a relatively flawless experience. As far as value for money goes, Halo: Reach is undeniably one of the best investments out there on the market. With Firefight 2.0, the amazing Forge World and the multiplayer to sink your teeth into after the campaign is done and dusted, you can squeeze as many hours as you want out of this beast. Choice, value and high production values mean that you won’t regret the purchase. It’s Halo. It’s the best Halo yet. It’s Bungie going out with a deafening bang.

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