Reach: The Fall of Bungie?

April 29, 2010, Author: Ray Willmott

Bungie have a lot to prove this year. It seems strange to make a statement like that when they have made one of the most recognised series of games in history, making millions in revenue for Microsoft. Yet, it’s not Bungie’s baby everyone is talking about these days, it’s COD. COD this. COD that. COD the other. No, gamers haven’t gone mad and decided they would rather talk about fresh fish over a first person shooter, it’s the acronym for Call of Duty and everybody and their mother on this planet is playing it!

However, in just under a week, all eyes will be on Bungie, the spotlight burning bright on the backs of their necks. The question is, will Bungie Reach for the stars and win back their fans or will this be Halo’s final burial, sparingly attended, bastardised unmercifully.

Before you coin me crazy, let me explain why this is a pressurised situation for Bungie. Certainly, the Halo series has sold incredibly well since its début on the original Xbox, shifting 27 million units Worldwide as of August 2009. Because of this, Halo is considered Microsoft’s first party ‘killer app’ and is generally compared to any or all FPS that arrive on Xbox 360. However, since Modern Warfare came on the scene, the entire COD series has risen in value and has now surpassed this figure, selling 55 million units as of November 27 2009. Of course, one could argue that the COD series has the benefit of being available on all formats whereas Halo is restricted to one, but it still doesn’t change the facts. The Call of Duty series is outselling Halo.

It’s very apparent that Modern Warfare mania has taken over the internet, dominating the multiplayer charts for the past six months with people clearly having not got enough of run and gun action through golden sands, sweating under a scorching sun. Some of you may remember that a small game called Halo 3 had the same run of dominance for quite some time prior to Modern Warfare’s arrival, often going head to head with the likes of World at War, Gears of War 2, GTA IV and Call of Duty 4 and still regularly assuming the #1 slot. However, unlike numerous times before where Halo 3 would continue to bounce back and claim the top spot, this time it has been properly demoted and is confined to second place. For now at least, the COD franchise has solidified its place as the people’s choice. Many people attribute this to the failure of ODST, saying that Bungie has taken a step too far and deviated from what made the original titles such a success. Some say that Modern Warfare 2 just offers more interesting gameplay mechanics and does everything Halo 3 set out to do, but better. Yet, Halo is still an important franchise for Microsoft and that is evidenced by how much hype is being put behind a simple Beta testing this May. Bungie know that this game needs to be good, if they want Halo Reach to guarantee its place at the top of the multiplayer charts, they need to produce a definitive, unforgettable experience that will cast names like Ghost and Soap McTavish out of players minds, forever.

Let’s face it, for the good things it tried to implement into the series, the majority of ODST didn’t really feel like a Halo game. Bungie obviously felt the pressure in trying to create something different; they knew that they couldn’t just churn out another release and expect it to attract the same love and affection previous instalments in the series obtained, so they tried to recreate the wheel. Firefight is an excellent addition to the series, in fact it may be one of the best additions Bungie have added to Halo in six years, but it did not garner the affection Bungie hoped it would, so much so that to this point, there has still been no talk of reintroducing it in Reach. As for the campaign, while the whole aspect of it was done in a way that made sense in the story, placing you in the shoes of an ODST and thus eradicating shields replacing them with health bars and arming them with sniper pistols, eliminating the battle rifle altogether (Note to Bungie; removing the most popular gun in Halo history was not a clever move…), this wasn’t really a Halo 3 expansion, this was Bungie trying to put together a new game, but coming up with a mish-mash of ideas with no real solid foundation to support them.

Now, because it failed to deliver, the credibility of the Halo series has taken quite a blow. Of course, there is still great anticipation for Reach, but there is also a lot of apprehension. It seems that the balanced, realised gameplay people came to love in Halo 3 is being completely changed in place of something totally different. It’s no longer about aspiring to reach Skill Level 50 and getting the golden symbol of General slapped against your name, now we’re going to be involved in leagues, three-tiered levels filled with vehicles that gradually unlock as the match progresses, a whole new scoring system that rewards players even if they’re on the losing side, new weapons, loadouts and jetpacks.

It’s also going to affect the way we play FPS online. For example, with Reach, it seems the days of boosting your teammates through XP excursions could be numbered as the game will track a player’s individual progress throughout the match and will only take their own statistics into consideration. As I previously alluded to, just because you’re on a losing team, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have the scorecard go against you. Sure, you can still help each other, after all that’s the point of playing as part of a team, but it seems the entire XP system and league has been gutted and restarted from scratch, keeping all factors that people love and hate about these games in mind. This is going to be a whole new way to play and because of that most strategies will be completely different in Halo Reach from Halo 3 because players will need to adapt and adjust to the changes.

Oooo its bluuuuue

Oooo it's bluuuuue

While all of this sounds new and exciting, I do wonder whether Bungie’s desire to innovate is causing them to miss the point that Halo 1,2 and 3 seemed to make so clearly and has made them as beloved as they are in video game history. Are Bungie desperately reaching for something, anything to keep the series fresh and are overlooking the glaringly obvious things staring them back in the face? Strange as it is to say (and I for one would never encourage a game developer to do this) but a lot of people would probably be just as happy with a new Halo with updated graphics, perhaps a new XP system with loadouts, more unlockables, a few new maps, skins, vehicles and further customisation tools. In fact, if Halo Reach were to simply come out and just compete with Modern Warfare 2, recreating everything in its vintage sci-fi way that would probably be enough for some.

However, I feel Bungie are doing the right thing. They’re not looking to compete in the now, they’re looking to set a precedent, create a benchmark and show gamers and developers just what kind of brilliance is not being explored in this genre just as they have always done with the Halo series. To date, nothing on a console has had the same level of customisation, the same kind of community or variety as is seen in Halo 3 and that is what has helped it stand apart from so many other games. I’m highly anticipating Reach. In fact, I think that it has potential to be as revolutionary as previous instalments in the series and could well shape the future for online entertainment. I love the ideas Bungie are putting into this and I believe they are going in the right direction with the series. It’s clear they’re out to produce the definitive Halo title and are producing some real longevity and stability that will still see people playing Reach four to six years from now, much as they have done with Halo 2 and assumedly, Halo 3. Halo Reach clearly has a good, solid heritage; you can’t get a much more rounded and complete experience than Halo 3 online these days. It’s well balanced, the lag is quite infrequent, and most glitches have been resolved, although some are still exploited. The maps are well designed, memorable and offer great variety and the matchmaking is generally fair. I believe it will always be a superior online experience to Modern Warfare 2 because of all of the aforementioned.

Yet, you cannot take anything away from Modern Warfare 2 as it didn’t just walk into its success. It offers a new way to play your favourite modes in a much more familiar setting and has a thriving, energised community that spans three separate systems, whereas the majority of today’s Halo community is restricted to one. MW2 is also a game still in its infancy and any glitches and exploits are still being worked through and abolished, whereas Halo 3 has had the time to shape into its very complete form.

What Infinity Ward have managed to do is create a true rival to Bungie’s masterpiece and managed to split the market right down the middle. That’s why recreating Halo at this stage is one of the biggest, riskiest gambles that any leading games developer has probably ever taken and there is no real guarantee of it paying off. Both games will be entirely separate entities with barely any similarities between them but both are looking for a similar mass market appeal.

Upon initial observations, one could argue that Halo Reach will be the first, true Xbox 360 game in the Halo franchise. A real next-gen First Person Shooter that showcases the power and the capabilities of modern processors and demonstrates just what brilliance our home entertainment systems are capable of. While Halo 3 was just Halo 2 with a fresh coat of paint and few cool bells and whistles, Halo Reach is the next step in the series and seems ready to explore the full potential of Xbox 360.

The Halo Reach Beta begins on Bank Holiday Monday May 3rd 2010. Anyone with an ODST disc can jump in and get a first taste of what Bungie has in store for us this Autumn. For the first time in half a year, people are going to switch over from Infinity Ward’s cash cow and try to help defend Reach, fighting for the survival of the final human colony. The question is, will people want to come back later this year for the full experience, or will this brief taster further solidify gamers lust for modern warfare? Bungie reckon three million of you will be there to find out, one way or another.


Will you be there on May 3rd? Can Halo bounce back from the jaws of defeat? Have your say….

Credit to Alex Brown for help researching this piece through his many hours of play!