Halo: Reach – XBOX 360 (game review)

It’s pretty safe to say that without the support of Master Chief, Microsoft never would have soldiered this deep into the console wars. Bungie’s much-lauded launch title, Halo, arguably did as much to evolve the console-based first person shooter as Goldeneye did for the prior generation, and it helped put the Xbox in a nice strategic footing. While Microsoft wouldn’t win the last round, Bungie’s expert blend of run-and-gun shooting with cinematic narrative beats had many gamers looking at the beloved PS2s and for the first time, giving serious thought to defecting to the other side. Two sequels, a side story, and an entire cottage industry later – Bungie has returned to send their beloved property off with a fitting swan song. Halo will continue but under new guardianship. As these forerunners take their show on the road, pointing their eyes towards multi-platform development, the talent at Bungie offers one final take on the mythos – plunging headfirst into the Reach.

Halo: Reach tells a tale that diehard fanboys know all too well. A prequel, the game brings us to the beginning of the end for Reach – one of humanity’s far flung interstellar watchtowers that stands guard for the rest of us kicking up our heels on planet Earth. With the Covenant menace prowling the cosmos, unleashing a scorched earth holy war upon any unlucky humans to cross their path, Reach exists as a strategic vantage point from which humanity can strike out at the Covenant. To lose Reach is to teeter on the edge of collapse and as fans of the surrounding fiction know, the fall of Reach is pivotal to the story’s canon. Knowing this, players begin a campaign of hard-fought battles and skirmishes for survival in which the stakes have never seemed higher…nor more hopeless.

As this is a prequel, Master Chief sits this one out while players are fitted into the helmet of Noble 6 – a new member of the storied Noble Team, an elite band of Spartans stationed on Reach. Early on, the game’s story echoes the real life drama at Pearl Harbor, with the citizenry of Reach awakening to an improbable threat one fine morning. As Noble Team engages in an investigation of supposed rebel uprising, there are whispers that something alien is on Reach. That’s all Noble Team needs to hear to set them loose on a dizzying array of battles that takes them from the picaresque beauty of Reach to the dizzying heights of space and back again.

The 10-level campaign (which can be played alone or with up to 4 players) is just one course in this buffet Bungie has cooked up. Making a pleasant return from Halo: ODST is Firefight, which allows players to battle alongside 3 fellow companions in an escalating series of attacks against the Covenant forces – with the added bonus that Firefight is supported by online matchmaking and features an impressive suite of customizable options. And then there is the multiplayer, which marks another evolution of Bungie’s unique blend of online mayhem. The company’s proprietary matchmaking system returns and the sheer number of game types available are staggering. In addition to the tried-and-true Slayer, Capture the Flag and Assault (bomb-the-base) modes; all with their assorted variants and mind-blowing customizable options; Bungie has co-opted some fan-built mods from prior games – including the ever popular zombie variants (Infection) and even racing mods (Reach Racer). On top of all of this, they have augmented the Forge mode; which allows players to build their own unique settings and game scenarios; with Forge World – a massive environment set on a classic Halo ring world – which allows for some mammoth battle environments.

Suffice it to say, this is an absolutely huge package – with more game variety than a simple review can do justice to. In the two weeks that I’ve owned the game, I’ve sampled all areas and yet still feel like I have barely cracked the surface. The sheer number of ways one can tackle the campaign (alone, with buddies, on Legendary, with Score Attack, etc.) is indicative of the massive amount of content housed in this game.

On the multiplayer front, players who crave gunning down human competition have found their next multiple year obsession. The new armor variants, which add special abilities such as jet packs or on demand health restoring bubble shields, add a whole new level of strategy for players who feel they have mined every exploit in prior titles. Enough elements have been tweaked that Bungie has truly provided a game changer to almost every phase of the game.

For those gamers who want to play with their friends but bristle at getting tea-bagged by every trash-talking teen with a Needler, the multiple variants of Co-Op campaign and Firefight will keep you in the hunt for a long time. And that’s not counting the progressive experience system – which rewards everything from head shots to attacks on leader enemies – with points going towards increasing military rank and credits to spend in the robust armory. While the goodies found there are purely cosmetic, the assortment is so varied that you’ll be hard-pressed to come up against a doppelganger anytime soon. Bungie feeds this obsession for leveling by offering daily and weekly challenges (i.e. Kill 200 Grunts in Firefight) which cough up large sums of credits – providing more incentive to check in every day.

Bungie got knocked a bit last year when ODST launched, for offering up a side story that felt too much like a greatest hits compilation. It’s obvious now that the full strength of their forces were devoted to developing Reach as the greatest Halo title released. From the multiplayer perspective, they have re-affirmed what I have been preaching for years. When Halo and Call of Duty do this sort of online warfare so well, why does anyone else bother appending online multiplayer to their games? These two series are on a completely different plane from their shared competition and while Halo always has its haters; those who stand above the pack will always make for easy targets.

When you are so very good at what you do, it brings forth the rocks and venom from the select few, while bringing the rest of us mere mortals to our knees. What they have crafted here is an epic action-adventure that by bringing us back to before it all began, reminds us why we joined forces with Master Chief in the first place.

From the measured, chilling start of its opening moments to the final, haunting images that bring the story full circle, Bungie has produced their most confident and mature narrative yet…and one of the best games of this console generation.

[game 5.0]