How do you make a Halo game without Master Chief? Somehow Halo 3: ODST, a converted expansion turned full retail release, was able to do it. But ODST wasn’t about the Spartans. It was about a group of ground level grunts just trying to survive impossible odds. Halo: Reach focuses on a group of Spartans called Noble Squad and the six members as they fight through the final days of the planet Reach. The game is a prequel to the original Halo: Combat Evolved and there are lots of little references and Easter Eggs to the events to come in Halo. But still, is it really Halo without Spartan John-117, Master Chief? After just a short time with the game you will agree it is.
Halo: Reach takes the tried and true Halo formula of being one of the best FPS console games and continues to run with it. Fast paced combat with occasional instances of vehicular sequences, one incredibly short stealth sequence and the E3 revealed space battle encompass all that is Halo: Reach. The most fulfilling part of Reach’s gameplay is how even though it does have the “I’ve done this before” feel to it, it still has the addictive nature that made the previous Halo titles so special. It will be likely that the XBox Live top five charts over the coming weeks consist solely of Halo 3, Halo: Reach and three Call of Duty titles because of this.
Gameplay has been switched up a little bit from previous titles however. Most notable is the inclusion of armor abilities. As first seen in the Halo: Reach Multiplayer Beta, the item system has been removed and replaced by these abilities that are “built-in” to the Spartan’s armor. These include Jet packs, Stealth and Sprinting. The jet pack is easily the most fun new power to use as it allows for mid-air sniping along with dropping into the heat of battle using the grav-hammer to level groups of unsuspecting grunts and brutes. Another interesting new ability is the hologram which creates a diversion as a holographic image of yourself runs forward drawing fire momentarily before the Covenant forces realize it’s not actually you.
A small change that comes to Halo: Reach is a different control scheme. At first, if you have played the other Halo titles, you are going to be using armor abilities when you want to switch grenades, switch grenades when you want to perform a melee attack and various other small mishaps. It doesn’t take long to adjust to the new layout but it will result in a few deaths just because of previous muscle memory. Vehicle control is still somewhat loose at times and not strong enough to hold together its own title but when tied into the overall Halo: Reach experience becomes acceptable.
The stealth mode of the game leaves a little to be desired. At the start of one level, you are tasked with assassinating an Elite, though there are no repercussions for being caught in the act. Through the rest of the game, there is little to no stealth aspect ever again. It seems like adding something like these assassination melees would have warranted more inclusion other than being a method to grief new players in multiplayer.
There is some weakness seen in the game’s AI however. Some points in the game really make you wish you could kill off the rest of Noble Team yourself in incredibly violent ways. Times will come where one member is driving on a mongoose and repeatedly misses a jump and sends you to your death. Opponent’s AI is no better as they crisscross back and forth in easily recognizable patterns between two points instead of advancing or flanking you as well.
Multiplayer is still a shining spot for Halo: Reach. The levels feel epically larger and the more varied game modes add distinction from the Halo 3 mutliplayer which consisted mostly of “classic” games like deathmatch, capture the flag and bombing runs. Now with Firefight, which has matchmaking finally, and various other Spartan vs. Elite multiplayer modes, Halo: Reach’s multiplayer has a much longer term appeal than both Halo 3 or Halo 3: ODST in terms of diversity in multiplayer.
One of the most interesting aspects of Reach’s story is that most of the hardcore Halo audience knows what is going to happen. Even the marketing campaign describes the events. Instead of saying “Halo: Reach, coming Fall 2010″ Bungie and Microsoft declared “Reach Falls 2010”. That’s a pretty ballsy statement to make. It’s almost like going to see Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. You know a lot of good people are going to die. But as many games have shown us, it’s not the end of the story that really matters as much it is the journey that gets you there.
For those who don’t know, in Halo lore, Reach is the planet where most of the remaining Spartans are killed before the events of Master Chief in Halo: Combat Evolved. Players take the role of Noble-6, the newest member of Noble team, an elite squad of Spartans, during the days of the invasion of Reach by Covenant forces. Never named, Noble-6 spends missions paired up with various members of his unit as they see the invading forces quickly overtake Reach.
Overall, the pacing of Reach is very strong with the exception of the final stages of the game. Up until the tenth and final stage, there is a constant build happening of tragedy and sacrifice that just quickly ends. Much like Halo 2, there is no big finish or ultimate boss battle. Instead the game just abruptly ends. Though there is an action sequence once the credits have rolled, it still feels like the game never hit the crescendo of excitement one would hope for progressing through it.
Halo: Reach is without a doubt the most visually impressive of the Halo series thus far. On top of that, it is a great example of the lush graphics the XBox 360 is capable of. With strong visuals like these, other mid-tier games are going to start looking less and less impressive by comparison. While Halo 3 was no slouch, Halo: Reach takes the time to put even further detail into the game’s visuals.
Animations haven’t really been improved and there are some instances of outright glitches taking place. As mentioned earlier with the mongoose troubles, a player will see their own corpse collapse on the bottle of the canyon below while their AI compatriot begins walking around despite the massive fall that killed them off. Little things like that detract from the overall immersion of the title.
While the actual gameplay sounds in Halo don’t stand out often, the soundtrack is awesome. Much like the iconic music of the first title, each level has its own feel brought out further by the ups and downs of the game’s music. There are even great hints to previous soundtracks that are instantly recognizable to even casual fans of the title.
Halo: Reach is a system selling title for the XBox 360. Though not the greatest in the Halo series, it is a phenomenal game. Even despite the lackluster finish to the game’s campaign, there is too much going for Halo: Reach to fault it too much. With a strong single player game followed by hundreds of hours of multiplayer content between matchmaking, Forge and the experience system, Halo: Reach gives players a huge bang for their buck exchange rate. Halo: Reach becomes a must-play for any console FPS fan as well as a must-own for any XBox 360 owner.
XBox 360 Exclusive
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studio