Halo: Reach is a prequel, swansong, and denouement of the Halo universe. The story of planet Reach was told in the novel The Fall of Reach by Eric Nyland, and gamers have now been given an opportunity to live the tale that seems to mark the beginning of the end for humanity, but instead sets the stage for fanning the embers of hope.
In Reach, the player steps into the boots of a Spartan-III super soldier who, in turn, fills the shoes of a dead member of Noble Team, a Spartan special operations squad. Noble Six takes the job just as the religious alliance known as the Covenant is discovered on Reach, the seat of the human space navy and home to the Spartan program and other secret intelligence projects. The discovery of Reach by their genocidal enemy leaves humanity with no safe haven other than Earth. It is a portentous moment in the Halo canon, and from the outset we know the end of the story: Reach will fall.
Unfortunately, the campaign does not adequately take advantage of this tragic setup. It feels very similar to the issues with Halo 3‘s story, which was also hyped by a fantastic ad campaign and failed to deliver. The members of Noble team are more caricatures than characters, such that their deaths don’t hold much meaning. Some of them go off to heroic ends by way of common action-film tropes, while others die randomly, or their fate isn’t made clear at all. There’s never a tangible feeling of desperation to the humans’ position on Reach. This is a blank that the player has to fill through prior knowledge of the Halo games and the ruthlessness of the Covenant; but the fact that this serves as a prequel to a series in which humanity is ultimately victorious takes some of that edge away.
There are brief moments that could have been properly desperate and dramatic, like the evacuation of a human city under siege by Covenant ships, but the voice acting doesn’t entirely deliver, and the emotional impact is flat. This is a real shame, as Reach had the potential to be a tragically beautiful story. Reach also makes a startling alteration to the established Halo canon at the end of the game which may have been explained in the novels, but for those of us who only play the games the revelation is sudden and a little ham-fisted. The entire end of the game is handled rather poorly, because it gives itself away too early.
The gameplay is typical Halo for the most part – the same “30 seconds of fun” model that Bungie has used in all the Halo games. Short, hyper-frenetic bursts of gunplay are followed by enough space to get your breath before diving back into the fray. Covenant Elites are back to the same deadly adversaries they were in the original Halo: Combat Evolved, and they can be very difficult to kill for the average FPS player. They rarely sit still, and effectively take cover to let their shields regenerate, making them problematic long-range targets. The rest of the Covenant forces are familiar from the previous four games, with the addition of Skirmishers, who are best described as more aggressive cousins of the Jackals.
The first-person gameplay is much less forgiving and more challenging than Halo 3 or ODST, and for the more casual player there are some potential moments of real frustration at Heroic difficulty. Spartan-IIIs are not quite the walking tanks that Master Chief and the other Spartan-II models are, but they are much more hardy than the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers from Halo: ODST. Shields are back, but health does not regenerate. Health packs, which previously appeared in the original Halo: Combat Evolved and ODST, are a standard mechanic in Reach, and you will always want to have one in mind to keep in reserve before moving on to your next horde of enemies.
Some of the on-foot levels feel very strongly like an homage to earlier Halo games. The “Nightfall” mission in Reach absolutely wreaks of the mission “The Truth and Reconciliation” from Halo: Combat Evolved for example and ”Exodus” could have been taken from the hub sections of ODST. “Tip of the Spear” also reminded me of “Tsavo Highway” in Halo 3. This is not a criticism of Reach, rather the mission selection becomes almost a demonstration of what the preceding Halo games could have been if they were built in the tweaked and improved graphics engine Bungie built for Reach. This hodge-podge of levels unfortunately lends a disjointed air to the game’s narrative. Noble Team doesn’t always feel like it’s on a mission, but rather “goes where they’re needed,” which makes the transitions between levels feel rough sometimes.
As is to be expected there are some new weapons for the UNSC and Covenant. The humans get the Designated Marksman Rifle, or DMR, which allows for smaller-caliber sniping at a much faster rate of fire than the standard sniper rifle, and a grenade launcher. The Covenant additions are much more numerous. The Needler rifle has sniping capability and can super-combine like its Needler pistol cousin; the Concussion Rifle fires heavy, explosive rounds, like a smaller version of the Fuel Rod gun; the Plasma Repeater is a heavier version of the familiar Plasma Rifle; the Focus Rifle is a consistent-beam weapon; and the Guided Munitions Launcher fires high-energy, tracking projectiles.
Armor abilities add a little extra variety to the on-foot gameplay. Armor locks and Drop shields can give a player brief safety. Dashing finally brings tactical repositioning to the Halo universe. Jetpacks allow players to leap up to excellent sniper positions. The Hologram allows players to pick a position in line of sight and send a holographic projection running towards that location to draw enemy fire. The armor abilities don’t change the basic Halo formula, but they do add something different for what that’s worth.
Bungie mixes things up with some superbly-done vehicle levels. Reach introduces space combat to the Halo lexicon, and I found it so enjoyable that I hope someone at 343 Industries, who will be carrying the Halo torch into the future for Microsoft, is paying attention. Add a radar function, some ship variety, and a good mission designer and the human naval war against the Covenant is a game waiting to be made. The “New Alexandria” level has Noble Six piloting a Falcon helicopter and taking to the skies over the burning city, dogfighting with Covenant Banshee fighters and occasionally landing the vehicle to jump out and tend to some Spartan heroics before returning to the pilot’s seat and taking back to the skies. There isn’t nearly as much Warthog jeep or Scorpion tank use as in previous Halo titles, but the new vehicle levels more than make up for it.
This is all to speak of the single player campaign. The multiplayer aspect of Halo: Reach is best described as dense. There are so many different kinds of online matches now that the dedicated Halo player could probably spend four months with the existing map sets without getting bored. Kit loadouts allow players to select a specific armor ability paired with a weapon which is often different from kit to kit. Matches provide Credits which can be spent to purchase new armor pieces to customize the player’s Spartan or Elite, though these are only decorative. Players can also spend Credits to use famous Halo voices for their Firefight matches, including Cortana, Sergeant Johnson, and Master Chief himself. There are a few new game modes, Firefight is now a standard offering complete with Matchmaking, and the Forge tool is back.
The Reach multiplayer looks and feels like Halo 3‘s multiplayer with tweaks, additions, and the improved graphics engine…but it’s still Halo multiplayer, which hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s very different from the sort of multiplayer we get in other modern-day FPS titles which usually provide more cover, tighter maps, and much more mobility. Halo‘s multiplayer is its own animal, and you either like it or you don’t. Reach‘s multiplayer gives the fans more to love and a tremendous amount of depth, but isn’t going to enamor the lukewarm or engage the indifferent. Bungie was in much the same position as Blizzard and Starcraft II – a successful, popular formula doesn’t warrant many changes which the fans might not tolerate quietly anyway.
I have to single out the score for Reach because it’s not getting the attention it deserves. Martin O’Donnell’s music in the Halo games has always been as much a signifier of the series as Master Chief himself, and I think that if there’s any true sense of the tragic and bittersweet in Reach which the ad campaign promised, it’s the score and not the narrative which delivers. There’s a forlorn undercurrent to all the major movements of the composition, mixed with upswings of tempo and heightened mood. The music is one of the high points of any Halo game, and O’Donnell delivers again with Reach.
What I walk away from Reach with, finally, is the sense that it was indeed time for Bungie to move on. There’s only so much they could ever do with this formula, and I wonder if 343 Industries can really do anything with the franchise that will be noteworthy when it feels like the series originators themselves had almost run out of ideas. ODST was successful in my mind because it took risks, but also caught critical flak for daring to drive off the beaten path. Reach is as good a place as any for Bungie to leave the Halo universe behind. So ends an era.
The graphics engine is much improved, but still isn't of eye-popping quality.
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Reach is undoubtedly fun to play.
Martin O'Donnell's score delivers, and the effects design is of usual superb quality.
The depth of the multiplayer cannot be denied.
Reach is a solid title, but Halo gameplay is getting stale. Fans should purchase, everyone else could make do with a rental.