Review: Halo Reach

October 11, 2010, Author: James Sheppard

Pretty much everyone who owns an Xbox 360 and uses it as more than a DVD player or door stop, has been eagerly awaiting the release of Halo: Reach. Well, it’s finally here. Promising a return to form after the slight departure in style of Halo 3: ODST (I liked it but a lot didn’t), Reach is the final Halo game from Bungie and so has a big responsibility on its hands: to give one of the biggest video gaming series of the last two generations a proper send-off. (Well, the series is still going to continue under 343 Studios, so who knows what’s going to happen there).

Reach for the stars
The storyline of the Halo series doesn’t need much introduction to a lot of people but for those who have been living their life in an Amish society for the past decade, it’s over five hundred years in the future and the human race is living in space (naturally) and they are under threat from a collective of alien races known as the Covenant. Reach itself is the birthplace of the Spartan supersoldier, and home to scientists and civilians alike, that are desperately struggling for survival against invasion and failing miserably.

Hey guys... how's it... going...?

To anyone who’s done their research, the general storyline is covered in the first Halo novel, The Fall of Reach. Oh whoops, did I inadvertently give a spoiler away there from the book’s title? I don’t think Bungie were particularly expecting to surprise many people with the events of the game thanks to this. Reach is first storyline-wise in the chronological order of the Halo games, which makes it an unusual but interesting place for Bungie to finish.

You take control of Six, a new member of Noble Team, focused on last ditch attempts to save Reach from the Covenant and help as many civilians evacuate as possible. The former in particular is met with futility but the last glimmer of hope remaining is to escape the colony with an AI program given to you by a greying, slightly deranged female scientist. Supposedly this will save the human race, an obscene-sounding proposition but it’s like being thrown into the Coliseum with a paintbrush and a bin lid: you might as well use what’s at your disposal, however far-fetched your success may be. Surprisingly, as these events lead on to Halo 1 and the human race does indeed survive (the AI was Cortana if you didn’t guess), the crazy old wench did know what she was talking about after all.

In my opinion, the Halo storyline has rarely been that interesting since the first instalment and not much has changed here. There are some epic cutscenes occasionally but the characters aren’t particularly likeable and the narrative is a bit of a generic sci-fi affair. I enjoyed the more original approach to ODST, of hunting down the side-story via audio logs (albeit with a location guide mind you; I’m lazy) and recalling the story through flashbacks. Reach however switches back to the standard story-telling method and puts out a passable but not particularly exceptional effort.

Well, ain't that embarrassing.

Those who can, Reach
Oh well, story-shmory. The real meat of Halo has always been the gameplay (since the first one, anyway) and many years on, the general essence of the game has hardly changed at all. It’s strange really, because to start with, Halo was such a massive revolution in gaming. It popularised regenerating shields, a great FPS control scheme that is still largely mimicked to this day, limited players to a strategy involving only two weapons and really kick-started Xbox Live, amongst other important achievements. Since part two however, it’s really been about refining a winning formula and evolution rather than revolution.

Halo: Reach plays it safe and sticks diligently to this recipe for success. Oh well; “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and all that malarkey. Sometimes I wished they’d been a little more adventurous but at least this instalment is arguably the most well-polished of them all, with the controls and gameplay really having been gotten down to a fine art. One of the biggest new enhancements is a special function that is interchangeable throughout levels in the campaign, ranging from a sprint ability, to a jetpack, or a portable shield. These recharge fairly quickly and really help bring extra tactics to the gameplay. They are a huge improvement over the single-use items of Halo 3 (shield, shield drain, health regenerator), as I personally used to hoard them for just the right situation and never even get round to using them before I’d die. D’oh.

Jetpacks: bringing a whole new meaning to being shat on from a great height

I do have a personal gripe however, which is that the sprint ability isn’t a permanent fixture… okay, maybe I’ve been spoilt by Call of Duty, Battlefield, Gears of War and er, I dunno: every single shooting game made in the last few years but it’s just so painstakingly slow now to plod along at walking pace. Seriously, it feels like your character has all the time in the world and is just popping round to the local convenience store for a pint of milk, not that they’re doing anything mildly important, like saving the human race or anything.

Talking of pace, the campaign let me down when it came to this. Yes, it progressively becomes more intensive as the game develops but in my opinion it just takes too long to get started. The last few missions are mostly great but I can recall nothing memorable at all from anything before mission six out of ten. Yes that’s right, there’s only ten missions too but that’s to be expected from most Halo games; I’ve seen longer television adverts.

The main issue in Halo: Reach is that you really have to take the good with the bad. One case of many: mission seven. Exciting, close-quarters combat in beautiful futuristic buildings within a city. Downside? Lacklustre flying sections between each building, involving wrestling with the awkward controls to shoot at repetitive swarms of Banshees, using a puny ‘rat-a-tat’ gun mounted to the front of your aircraft.

It’s like eating a huge bowl of cold porridge with several chunks of chocolate secreted throughout. You have to begrudgingly munch through the tepid, boring parts of wandering around, getting lost or traipsing through the odd uninspired section to get to the really fun, climactic chocolatey goodness and no, you can’t just pick the chocolate chunks out; that’s cheating and ruins my analogy. Perhaps I am exaggerating slightly, as on the whole, I did find the campaign more enjoyable than both Halo 2 and Halo 3. Maybe I’m quite fond of cold porridge after all.

Curries in the future can have dangerous gastrointestinal implications

The chocolatey chunks weren’t always quite as exciting as the occasional one from Halo 3 however, like facing off against two Scarab tanks at once. In Reach, the only ones of these I recall seeing were either blown up for you by the AI in a cutscene, or ones that the game purposely tells you to drive straight past. Tragic! Even Halo: ODST let you kill one of the blighters. I can understand Bungie not wanting to let it become old-hat but there aren’t particularly any replacements for this enjoyable David vs. the Goliath style of gameplay. Instead, the focus is definitely on taking out foot soldiers, or regular-sized vehicles.

Overall, after all the hype I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed with the campaign. It’s good but not that good. It lacks innovation for a series that originally brought so much and doesn’t leave many noteworthy impressions on the player for what should be such a landmark title in Halo’s catalogue. Sometimes it just felt a little bit too old-fashioned, like maybe the series is getting slightly past its best now. I know I have been very negative throughout but I think a title of this calibre needs to live up to high standards. A summary of the game would be ‘solid.’ Not ‘lame,’ or ‘tedious’ but not ‘sensational,’ either.

I can see your Halo, Halo, Halo
Sorry to those hoping for a non-stop praising, akin to rainbows and butterflies showering from the rear end of the game’s MJOLNIR armour but the lukewarm response must continue into a criticism of Halo Reach’s graphics. Here we go again: “but Halo games have never been known for great graphics, not since the original.” How many times have I had to use that phrase to excuse the game already? (About the story and lack of gameplay innovation, if you weren’t paying attention).

The visuals aren’t bad and they certainly have their moments (the explosions in particular are eye-pleasingly lavish) but in general, they are not much more than functional. To give Reach its due though, they’ve certainly upgraded the graphics engine since Halo 3 and things in general consist of a lot more polygons and nice shiny effects. There are still some bland textures and sometimes drab lighting to put a dampener on proceedings however.

Who's idea was it to go sniping at night? I can't see a bloody thing...

The cutscenes definitely have a lot of polish and are akin to Mass Effect, with all the bells and whistles like depth of field effects, just perhaps falling slightly short of looking as beautiful. Thankfully, there’s not a huge jump from the graphical fidelity of normal gameplay to that of the cutscenes, so they don’t stick out like a sore thumb, unlike the high-definition FMV sequences that were particularly noticeable in days of yore, like finding a Gucci dress in Oxfam.

So, the graphics range from breathtaking to just ho-hum; a bit like the gameplay of the campaign really. At least they’ve not just rested on their laurels and done an exact port of the Halo 3 engine and assets but the slightly frustrating thing is that with these less-than-top-notch visuals, I was at least hoping for a rock-solid framerate. Disappointingly however, there are frequent dips when action gets a bit heavy and sometimes for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Blaster Chief
The sound of the Halo series has rarely been short of impressive (hooray, positivity), with an epic musical score and hefty sound effects. Reach carries the torch here and makes it worth whipping out the good quality headphones for some aural delights. No, I said aural. Grandiose compositions accompany the proceedings and provide a welcome shot of heroism, whilst abundant explosions and gunfire are to be heard all around. The audio really beefs up the feeling that you are saving the human race and instils a sense of determination, like playing the Rocky theme tune as you crank out your Pilates.

Ooh err, pardon me. (Did I really make two fart jokes in one article?)

The voice acting is an acquired taste but so is the case in every Halo game. Friendly soldiers spew out cheesy one-liners and Grunts and Brutes talk all sorts of drivel in daft voices that you’ll either find hilarious or ear drum-gratingly awful. The announcer on the other hand, as ever, is great to have giving the lowdown in multiplayer skirmishes. Generally, the music and sound effects of Halo: Reach is very well accomplished and help give the game soul.

Let’s get ready to r-r-r-rumble… pit
Well, what’s this cheeky section hiding down here all about? The multiplayer? Oh yes, better not forget about that had we… considering that the Sound section has been about the only resounding success so far. Any chance that a bit of online Slayer could redeem any other shortcomings the game may have?

Oh hell yes, is the answer. Multiplayer has possibly been the jewel in the crown of each main Halo release since the second one, thanks to Xbox Live. Reach continues this tradition to the extent that the first thing the game asks you when you switch it on is about customising your character. Okay, so technically this personalised avatar is also used during the campaign but this is a first-person game…  you’re not going to see it and neither is anyone else unless you’re playing co-op.

Talking of co-op, it’s all present and correct as you may expect but it’s been made massively harder. In fact, the game in general is probably one of, if not, the hardest title of the whole series. The difficulty scales more this time with each added player and so your playing style actually has to live up to the name of the game mode. What’s that? Oh yes, CO-OP-ER-A-TION. Gone are the days of idly splitting up and going for a wander on your own, as the toughest foes on harder difficulties will most certainly need a co-ordinated attack to even have a chance at being downed.

As I said earlier, your character can now be customised with items bought using experience earned from online play and some from offline too (although this is generally less). This, along with increasing your rank, adds another addictive element to whittling away hours of your life playing the multiplayer. Unlike Call of Duty, Battlefield and games of that ilk, these enhancements (mostly armour modifications but also including voice changers and even fiery effects, for the real l33t dwds) are all superficial and provide no benefit whatsoever to gameplay.

Armour customisation: ensuring your scorched, bullet ridden corpse looks its best.

This may be a relief to some, as generally unlockables provide an unfair advantage to players who have played the game more and therefore already have more experience and skill than the newbies or casual gamers, who don’t have the time for playing for hours each day. It’s also a little disappointing however, that there isn’t more purpose to it, in the form of new skills or items that you could unlock.

That said, along with the previous roster, the new weapons and abilities of Reach mean that the tactical options from the outset are innumerable. Skills like armour lock (shield) and jetpacks are fantastic enhancements to the game but are surprisingly well balanced. When I first heard about their inclusion, I dreaded invincible tyrants and lightning fast rocketeers cruising around the map, leaving destruction in their wake and generally unbalancing play more than the fat kid at school hopping on the other end of the seesaw.

In fact, they’ve all been carefully integrated to not disrupt the gameplay too much: the armour lock renders you stuck to the spot with no health regeneration for a limited time, leaving you vulnerable to a craftily-timed grenade explosion when you leave your invincible state. Jetpack-wielders aren’t particularly fast and can be quite easily picked out of the sky and a hologram-clone spawner, albeit useful, has your cloned companion blindly running in a straight line and getting stuck on scenery; easy to spot if you’re observant.

It's OK, I can wait here all day until you pop out of your poncy little shield.

My personal fave is active camo, a cloaking device that renders you basically invisible when standing still but resembling a blur when moving and comes equipped with a radar jammer: a double-edged sword, as you can’t detect enemies around you either. This is perhaps the only ability that is slightly overpowered in my opinion, or maybe it’s just because it suits my playing style and may be less useful for another player.

I do think some of the weapons need a little bit more balancing, however. The plasma repeater just seems slow and short-ranged and not particularly effective at its usual job of taking down shields. On the other hand, maybe it’s just me but  the new plasma launcher, which basically locks on and fires up to four sticky plasma grenades AT ONCE, seems gloriously enjoyable/overpowered. I do understand that this could always be down to personal opinion though and different weapons may suit different people.

Other new weapons to the arsenal include new snipers like the focus rifle, firing a continuous laser beam and the needle rifle, a semi-auto long ranged weapon where the rounds explode after a couple of seconds. There is also a grenade launcher that has the option of delayed explosion and a DMR rifle which replaces the battle rifle but only fires one round at once. I preferred the old one personally but once again, it’s all based on opinion.

The maps on offer are all consistent, with very few stinkers thrown in the mix that would make you groan if they turned up in matchmaking. On that topic, a robust voting system lets you choose between three different maps/modes at once or even has the option of a new list if that still isn’t good enough. So far, there aren’t many maps that totally stand out to me and seem like classics but there’s still time yet. At least they are all very solid and well built.

No matter which way I look at it, I just can't see this ending well.

Once again, there’s even the option of Forge mode if you want to show ’em how it’s done and make your own creations. This has been dubbed “Forge World” this time thanks to the option of using a huge specially designed level for creations along with customising all of the normal maps. The mode is fantastic, with refinements like being able to place objects through others and easier placing tools to promote even more creative ability. I have fond memories of map-making on Timesplitters but I think that on the consoles at least, Halo: Reach probably contains the best map-maker ever designed in a game.

Finally, there’s those all-important modes to use those maps in – the modes of Halo 3 are mostly still present, already offering an enormous range of gametypes for any taste and mood but if this wasn’t enough, they’ve added even more. Invasion is an excellent example, comprising of Spartans vs. Elites on specially designed maps, requiring attack-or-defend, objective based gameplay like Battlefield: Bad Company 2, or Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. This is a brilliant breath of fresh air from the usual gametypes in Halo.

Other great additions include an arena, for those highly competitive players, placing you in divisions depending on your performance. Headhunter is a great laugh, requiring collecting flaming skulls dropped by dead opponents, always resulting in a scramble. Finally, Stockpile is a variation on the classic Capture-The-Flag mode, requiring a whole minute before the score of captured flags is counted. These new modes are arguably all great additions and keep the game fresh.

A flag thief?! *fanfare* SpartanMan, to the rescue!

The multiplayer in general has been refined beyond belief. Dual wielding has disappeared thankfully, which was always awkward because melee (an important ability on Halo) would always make you drop one gun, making it an irritating thing to use. Firefight has been revamped, with all sorts of new scenarios, making it more varied. Overall, the sheen on the multiplayer aspect of the game is more blinding than juggling activated flash grenades.

A Master Relief?
I won’t deny that Halo: Reach has disappointed me slightly. The campaign isn’t quite the amazing climax to Bungie’s reign that it could have been and the graphics and story are typically lacking that extra pizzazz. I will state right now that if you are strictly a solo gamer, try-before-you-buy or wait until it drops in price.

On the other hand, the depth of multiplayer content is extreme, to the point of being just silly. Large arsenals of varying weapons, abilities and vehicles, a great roster of maps and modes, a persistent customisable and ranked persona, Co-op gameplay on Campaign and Firefight and the Forge World for hours of happy tinkering make this (when seen on the whole) an extremely attractive package. To be honest, there are so many features in the multiplayer, that I’ve forgotten to mention some of it. Most notably, a new, clever policing system that silences frequently abusive players or suspends frequent quitters, helping to make the online mode a more enjoyable place to be.

Halo: Reach isn’t perfect by any means. It has its weak spots but the strong points are so overwhelmingly good that they make up for it. I can honestly claim that I would buy this game and pay full price without the campaign component even included. Just be thankful that the Halo franchise hasn’t transferred over to Activision with Bungie though, otherwise Bobby Kotick would probably make that the case with the next one.


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