HALO REACH (2010) – BUNGIE
Games rarely receive anywhere near the hype that has been attached to the Halo franchise. For all intensive purposes, Halo is the Xbox, and Microsoft are damned lucky that they have it. Combat Evolved and Halo 2 were the major selling points for the original Xbox, and the release of Halo 3 was for some time the biggest game launch of all time, before Activision and Call Of Duty broke up the party. Its not surprising then that a lot was resting on the success of Reach; it was known to be Bungie’s last Halo project, and it would be the game that spearheaded Microsoft’s Christmas campaign alongside the Kinect. So does it live up to the lofty expectations attached to it?
Unless you have been living with your head in the sand for the last year or so, you will be aware that Reach is a prequel to the events of Combat Evolved, chronicling the efforts of a small band of Spartans under the tag of Noble Team as they attempt to repel the Covenant invasion of Reach. As such, it made it more difficult that normal for Bungie to make the storyline work: how could they engage gamers who essentially knew what was going to happen to Noble Team? In the end, they did a pretty good job. There is more of an emotional attachment to Noble Team in Reach than there ever was to the Master Chief in previous games, you get to know the soldiers under the helmets, and actively want to help them in the quest to save the planet from the invaders. You play throughout the campaign as Noble Six, and will be aiding your fellow squad in various different tasks, such as defending communication bases, evacuating cities, and even engaging head on with the Covenant forces. The story takes about 10 hours to get through on normal difficulty, which is adequate enough to answer all the questions posed by the storyline. I think it stands as one of the stronger entries into the Halo series; it is not as good as the original’s story but probably comes in around second.
Being a first person shooter however (and even at that, not just any FPS: it’s Halo), gamers were much more concerned about the way the game would play. They had several changes to contend with: dynamics from ODST such as a two stage health system had been introduced, new weapons had been added and more importantly players now have access to more moves than ever, including the introduction of armour abilities. This was a simple mechanism, allowing players to choose one perk that their Spartan can then use in combat, such as sprinting, active camouflage, or locking up armour to avoid damage for a small period of time. These quite simply were long overdue in Halo, and are very much welcome here. It adds a new dynamic to the way you go about missions: instead of doing what Master Chief would (i.e. run into room, clear out everything in a hail of bullets), you can choose to be as stealthy or aggressive as you like. The process is also aided by the aforementioned introduction of new weapons. The DMR Rifle is a perfect replacement for the battle rifle of old, whereas Elites and Jackals can call upon Needle Rifles to supercombine enemies with pinpoint accuracy. Throw in some of the old favourites (the mighty Magnum returns in glorious style, as well as rocket launchers and sniper rifles), and it makes for some tantalizing gunplay. Also, the all new assassination animation is one of the most satisfying things I have encountered in a game for a long while. To sum up the gameplay, its Halo 3…but better. And that can only be a good thing considering the calibre of Halo 3.
And now we move onto the most important aspect of Halo Reach: the multiplayer. Quite frankly this was what the game would be judged upon: if it was crap, then fans would have lambasted it and never left Halo 3. But Bungie are far, far too good to let the standards of their multiplayer slip, and Halo Reach delivers quite frankly a jawdropping multiplayer experience. They basically took the core of Halo 3, applied it to the new maps and abilities, and let the world run free with it. As a result, the amount of stuff that you can do is stunning. There is all the classic modes such as Slayer, Oddball, King Of The Hill and Infection, all neatly given their own individual playlists, alongside plenty of new stuff, such as the Invasion game mode (where Elites fight Spartans to take control of an asset on a map: think Capture The Flag but more subtle) and a refined Arena mode. Bungie have not dropped the ball however; since its release in October there have been consistent updates of the playlists utilising both DLC content and community creations, and so now there are also permanent playlists for stuff like Grifball, Co-Op Campaign, Firefight and many more. And aside from this, Bungie have worked to make the multiplayer experience even more personal via an in game credits system. Complete matches and daily challenges, rank up and you can unlock new bits of armour to customise your Spartan as you see fit. And of course, all of this is available either against millions of other players on Xbox Live, or in games against your mates in the living room via the Custom Games option. Basically, the multiplayer exceeded everyone’s potential views, and credit to Bungie to proving all the naysayers wrong.
Bungie do not like to leave gamers feeling short handed however, and filled Reach with all the extras that came in Halo 3, such as the ability to save replays of games and view them in Theatre Mode, before uploading them for anyone else to view. It leads to the sharing of some truly wonderful gameplay moments (leading to a ton of ‘Top Kills/Fails Of The Week’ being regularly posted on the internet), and its no wonder that Treyarch introduced a similar system for Call Of Duty: Black Ops. The absolute standout feature in Reach however has to be Forge World. In Halo 3, you had the ability to add and remove stuff from the set maps via the Forge options, allowing for potentially limitless possibilities, especially in maps where everything could be deleted, such as Sandbox. In Reach, Bungie have given everyone a single plain on which to work, which takes the form of a huge set of islands, including a faithful remake of the Blood Gulch map from the original Halo. Quite simply, the scope for what you could do in this mode is mind-boggling. You could create your perfect map on several different locations within the map, or just mess around and make a gigantic ramp for Mongooses to jump off. Or build Optimus Prime. It truly is something that needs to be seen and experimented with to fully appreciate. And the fact that anything that is created can be uploaded for use by anyone else just seals the deal. That noise you can hear is the Call Of Duty franchise whimpering.
Another aspect where Bungie exceeded people’s expectations was on the visual front. Halo has never been a particularly ugly franchise (being set in space allows a lot of artistic license), but there have always been things that could have been improved, such as the faces of your human allies (the Covenant on the other hand have always looked pretty solid). Reach looks spectacular for a large amount of the time, whether it’s the background of the game menus displaying the planet laid to siege, or more importantly the game in action. There are several different environments on show in Reach, from the sci-fi interiors and the architecture of the city in the skies of New Alexandria to the rocky outlands of the planet where the fight in engaged with the Covenant. Both the game and the cut scenes are rendered in the same game engine, and so you get the sense of the experience being one long continuing action film, which I really enjoyed. The HUD is less obtrusive here than it was in ODST, the effects from the weapons look gorgeous; you get the sense that Bungie were making full use of the 360’s capabilities when designing the game. No real complaints to be had here.
Similarly, your speakers will enjoy a pleasant experience while you play Reach. I love the compositions of Michael O’Donnel; Halo has featured some of my favourite videogame music, including the now iconic main theme. Reach is stuffed full of excellent music, which remains constantly playing in the background rather than in Halo 3 where it would cut in and out if you got stuck on a certain section. It certainly adds to the epic sense of the storyline as Noble Team go up against the odds. The voice acting is also solid; there’s no-one quite as badass as the Chief on show (and the AI is awful compared to Cortana), but it does the job of making the Spartans feel a bit more human this time around, especially as you can now see their faces when they talk. It’s also good to see that the man who voices the multiplayer mode returns, with even more bad ass delivery. Again, not much to complain about here.
Halo Reach then is a terrific game. It is everything that Halo 3 was and then a bit more, and in my opinion it deserves the success that it has received in sales. It has not dominated Xbox Live like its predecessor did, and we have to accept that the FPS genre is a now a very split demographic. I think I’ll stick with Reach and with Bungie however; I do prefer the feel of the Halo games, and although this is not the best FPS shooter ever made, its more than good enough to be my favourite from this generation. A fitting end to Bungie’s involvement with Halo.