Review

Halo: Reach (Xbox360)

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Halo: Reach is a complete game. It is a fully-formed, well-rounded experience that delivers an epic adventure with a well told, very well paced story, wrapped up in refined, satisfying sandbox-style gameplay that’s expertly complemented with the most feature-rich multiplayer component you’re bound to find this side of 2010 – all of which you would expect of a franchise ten years in the making, and from a studio that is twenty years-old.

Halo: Reach is also the most complete Halo game Bungie has ever produced – an important distinction to make given the fact that this is the studio’s fifth first-person shooter set in this universe. Past Halo games have always been lopsided to favour either singleplayer or multiplayer, and even within those offerings, individual experiences have at times left much to be desired. Not so with Reach. It is complete, and it is most definitely Halo, for better or worse.

And while ‘complete’ is by no means equivalent to ‘perfect,’ Halo: Reach is also the most perfect Halo game Bungie has ever produced, and serves as an ideal exclamation point for the studio’s participation in this legendary franchise.

Halo: Reach Art

Campaign

Halo: Reach takes place in a time before Bungie’s previous games, and on the titular planet of ‘Reach.’ As a previous lone wolf, super-secret, super-skilled super-soldier Spartan, you’re sent to join a group of elite soldiers called Noble Team, and fill the role of their sixth member, Noble Six (or simply ‘Six’ as you’re referred to at times).

From the outset of the campaign, you can see Bungie’s years of story delivery experience shine through, and the overall quality of presentation found in Halo: Reach’s cinematics far outstrip the team’s previous efforts. Frames and held shots carry weight, spoken words are used sparingly and are filled with meaning, camera pans and scene cuts add drama and intensity to the unfolding tale.

Additionally, and miraculously, by the time the game is over, you’ll actually understand the story that’s just passed before your eyes and swept over your ears. I believe this may be a first for a Halo game. Bungie has definitely learned a thing or two over the years, and this knowledge has been applied liberally to the presentation of Halo: Reach.

Halo Reach Screenshot 5

But back to the beginning of the game! Upon joining Noble Team, you’ll go on a reconnaissance mission with the group to look into supposed rebel activity near a village on Reach. It’s during these first playable ten to fifteen minutes that you’ll get a good idea of the game’s visual fidelity, which remains consistently inconsistent throughout the campaign.

Looking out into the distance, Halo: Reach will always provide breath-taking vistas as layers of foreground and background scenery combine with detailed structures and objects to form a luscious view – the inclusion of atmospheric effects and subtle movement (such as billowing smoke or sci-fi ‘windmills’) in the distance bring the scenes to life.

Looking closer to your feet, however, the view becomes more bland, especially in outdoor areas. These environments are at times punctuated by incredibly detailed structures, though, like buildings that have been destroyed by battle, now lying in ruins with exposed metal supports, cracked tiles, craters in the floor and chunks of concrete strewn about the place. Certain indoor areas, too, seem to have had unique brushes of detail lavished upon them, with dramatic lighting effects and eerie shadows cast on walls in just the right way.

Halo Reach Screenshot 2

Halo has never been the best looking series of games, but the art direction has always been what’s allowed the franchise to stand apart from other titles, and in Halo: Reach it’s no different. For example, characters and weapons are detailed enough, but it’s the designs that are more intriguing than the detail. So while you shouldn’t go into Reach expecting a visual tour de force, you can expect a game that will consistently impress you, only in different ways.

I’ll take a break from the graphics talk for a moment to note that Bungie’s music team (ably headed up by Martin O’Donnell) has once again delivered an audio track of exemplary quality. From sombre tribal beats to electric guitar-lead rock music, the music of Halo: Reach effortlessly elevates and enhances any given mission, event or situation to a level well beyond its base class. It’s true what Jason Jones says: Marty’s music makes Halo better!

Halo Reach Screenshot 1

But! Back to the beginning of the game! Again!

Shortly after landing and investigating the situation, Noble Team discovers that rebels are in no part responsible for the reported trouble that they’re investigating, but instead they come across a contingent of hostile lifeforms known as the Covenant, an alliance of alien beings dead-set on the annihilation of the human race. At this point in Halo’s story, relatively little is known about the Covenant, other than the fact that the faction exists, and sparse data on the group’s different members (your future enemies), munitions, vehicles and tactics has been collected.

So when you’re first tasked with suppressing a full group of enemy Covenant, the occasion is treated with at least a little reverence as you and the rest of Noble Team run in guns blazing to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible. This also serves as an ideal time for you to wade knees deep into the action yourself.

As mentioned, Halo: Reach is most definitely a Halo game, so the usual rules apply. This is a sandbox-style first-person shooter which gives you a number of tools (sniper rifles, machine guns, explosive weapons, normal grenades, sticky grenades, melee attacks, stealth attacks, and the ability to jump and crouch), sets you down in an obstacle course (expertly designed, flowing levels and play areas that generally allow you freedom of movement and multiple paths to any one destination) and tasks you with ‘solving’ ‘problems’ (enemies that come in all shapes and sizes, with physical shields, regenerating shields, very expansive shields and the ability to shoot back with a similar array of explosive weaponry, all with their own movement tactics and attack patterns).

Halo Reach Screenshot 6

As in previous Halo games, you’re able to ‘solve’ these ‘problems’ in any combination of ways, only this time you’re given an additional set of tools – Armour Abilities. At any given time during the game, you’ll have access to a single special ability that you’re able to swap out for another ability when given the opportunity. Abilities range from sprinting, to cloaking (going invisible), to shielding yourself, to forcefully becoming invincible for a time, to dropping a hologram facsimile of yourself to confuse enemies, to making use of a jetpack to temporarily fly around in the air.

So instead of simply throwing a grenade into a group of enemies, firing a few rounds at outlying stragglers, scanning for survivors of the grenade and putting them down with a quick melee attack, all before retreating to cover, with armour abilities, you may be able to sprint or fly at those enemies instead. Maybe you can drop a moving hologram and tricking the aliens into thinking you’re in front of them, and then flank from the side and clean them up? Or what about casually wading into battle with a few grenade throws to chip health off of the stronger enemies, before getting in close and performing an Armour Lock to bide your time, followed by a few shotgun blast into the ugly faces of that Covenant scum?

If you use them well, Armour Abilities can come in really handy, and are a welcome, complementary addition to Halo as they support the franchise’s long-held belief in sandbox-style gameplay, and encourage players to try different abilities in different situations.

Thanks to the inclusion of these new gameplay abilities – mixed in with that classic Halo gameplay, the enemies, weapons, an overall satisfying feel (contributed to with visual feedback and almost pitch-perfect sound effects) – the gameplay of Halo: Reach truly does feel fleshed out in a way other titles in the franchise don’t. Combine this with the excellent presentation and the epic story, and you’ve definitely got the most ‘complete’ Halo campaign you could have hoped for.

Halo Reach Screenshot 4

This doesn’t mean that the campaign of Halo: Reach is without its problems. Problems like inconsistent checkpoints and saving, leading to lost time replaying chunks of the game after dying. Hitches such as unclear explanations of directions to objectives, leading to periods of aimless wandering. Issues like enemy and ally artificial intelligence dancing back and forth and around one another as they try to decide if they want to shoot, retreat, charge or take cover, making them look decidedly undecided (and making enemies kinda’ difficult to shoot).

Mission variety also suffers a bit towards the tail end of the game, probably around the last quarter or third of the campaign. While Halo: Reach will see you fighting on the ground on foot and in tanks, jeeps and quadbikes (and jumping around in low gravity), as well as flying in the air and in space (*gasp*), a lot of the objectives boil down to simple defend type missions, where you and a group of soldiers need to hold down or protect a certain area from waves of enemies for a set length of time.

The nature of Halo’s sandbox combat, too, can lead to issues where you as the player are able to ‘game’ the system, and turn what maybe should have been a difficult set-piece enemy encounter into a session of ‘hide and go seek’ with bullets – you hide, wait for players to find you, shoot them, and then go hide again. Or worse, you end up pinned in a room or corner while an enemy rains explosive death down on your location, forcing you to slowly and methodically creep out and chip off his health.

The thing is, the combat and moment-to-moment gameplay on offer in Halo: Reach is generally more than enjoyable and satisfying enough to pull you through tough spots and times when you feel a bit weary of a certain kind of encounter. That, and the need to continue the intriguing story of Reach will also act as a motivator to push through.

And even if you get bored of solving the Halo sandbox combat puzzle, there’s always multiplayer to go to. But before we move on to that, let’s have a short break:

Halo: Reach - Review Intermission

Matchmaking and More

In short, the multiplayer options available to you in Halo: Reach are staggering, with game types and setups for every taste including cooperative players, competitive players, competitive co-op players, and those who just want to jump in and have some fun for five minutes.

Once you get into multiplayer, or Matchmaking, you can choose from three sections – Competitive (comprising deathmatch, team-deathmatch and objective type games), Cooperative (comprising Firefight and Score Attack), and Arena (which is Halo: Reach’s seasonal multiplayer offering).

Each section then has different playlists that include their own map rotations – these maps determine the kind of game you’re going to play (deathmatch, or team-objective, or example), and when you choose to play, you’re very quickly entered into the waiting lobby. Once there, you’re matched up with a suitable number of online players, and from my experience, this usually takes no more than 30 seconds at the most, although there were times when I was waiting an awful long time to get into Firefight…

Once everybody’s matched up and in the lobby, you can very quickly and easily vote on the map you want to play – the most votes will determine which map you play, and then off you go!

Halo: Reach MP Beta Screenshot 13

Again, in my experience, playing online in Halo: Reach is generally very smooth with not enormous cases of lag. There will, at times, be instances of your actions being delayed and other players jittering around the maps, but these have so far been few and far between, which is highly impressive given my previous experiences with Halo 3 and ODST, where lag was a huge issue for me.

As expected, the multiplayer maps in Halo: Reach are superbly designed and really encourage conflict and movement. Even larger levels with few players results in a good time as participants actively hunt each other down and try to scrounge around for new and better weapons – this as opposed to players getting lost in a labyrinthine maze of halls and passageways, only occasionally catching glimpses of opponents.

And what will you be doing in these multiplayer maps? In Firefight, you’ll be facing off against waves of the Covenant horde with a group of your online cohorts. In Score Attack, you’ll be trying to rack up a higher number of points than your multiplayer buddies by killing more Covenant aliens more quickly (and more efficiently). In the more deathmatch- and team-deathmatch-oriented modes, you’ll simply be required to gun down as many online players as possible, with rewards for creativity.

Halo: Reach MP Beta Screenshot 9

For sure, there’s a lot of shooting to be done in the world of Halo: Reach multiplayer, but with the depth and range of options available to players, this game will surely quickly replace Halo 3 as the online Halo game of choice, and last for at least as long as that old standard has (going on three years now!).

Not only all of this, but you can play through the Halo: Reach campaign in cooperative mode with up to four players. Neat!

Halo: Reach multiplayer, as is becoming the norm, has active rewards and medals for you to earn, as well as rotating, renewable challenges for you to overcome with actions performed during your time online (and offline), and upon completion, you’ll earn currency, or cR. This cR is also earned at the end of every multiplayer match, awarded for your performance during that match. This all leads neatly to a great new (completely cosmetic) feature in Halo: Reach – armour customisation.

For the first time, players will be able to customise the look of their Spartan by buying new accessories, colours and armour effects, so for example you’ll be able to purchase different helmets with varying add-ons, new shoulder, chest and arm accessories, a new visor colour, as well as different voices for your character. None of this comes for free, though, and you’ll have to earn enough cR by playing the campaign and continuing to play online in order to afford the finer armour upgrades.

Halo: Reach Player Investment Screenshot 1

Do you want lightning effects to shoot out of your body as you run around the battlefield? You’ll be playing for a good few months straight before you can buy that one…

When you can afford it, though, it’ll look great in your own Halo: Reach videos and screenshots captured in the game’s Theatre mode. Returning from Halo 3 and ODST, in Theatre you’re able to watch automatically captured replays of your time in the campaign and multiplayer, and then fast-forward, rewind and pause the action. You can even record and save off your own sections of the replay, all from viewpoints of your choosing, either from a free-roaming camera or attached to another player. Once saved, you can upload them online for others to see.

And the features don’t stop there. In Halo: Reach’s Forge mode you’re able to set the rules of the world, as well as tweak and change any level already in the game to your liking, all in an effort to build a custom gametype or level variant. Once built, you can save that off and share it with your friends. Magic!

Halo: Reach MP Beta Screenshot 6

Halo: Reach is fit to burst with all of the features that Bungie has packed into the game, with an excellent campaign, a deep, rich multiplayer component, and all of the additional extras like Forge, Theatre and armour customisation. All of these features are knitted together to form a complete, cohesive whole, and a very complete, well-rounded game.

As Bungie’s last Halo title, Halo: Reach is the perfect end to the studio’s involvement in the franchise, and the team has managed to make use of its extensive and collective years of experience to create the most complete, most perfect Halo title ever produced.

Those curious in the Halo experience would do well to start their journey here, but fans of the franchise need to play Halo: Reach.


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