Review / Halo: Reach (Xbox 360)

The argument could be made that no single game has ever had more of a profound and lasting impact on the industry at large than Halo: Combat Evolved. The sheer idea of an entire videogame platform being successful based on one game is downright ludicrous, but that’s exactly what the first Halo did in 2001. If it wasn’t for Bungie, the Xbox would probably be a long forgotten memory by now along the lines of the 3DO, and random discussions among game enthusiasts worldwide would start with “hey remember when Microsoft tried to make a console?” Ten years later, Microsoft is a gaming powerhouse, and it sure as hell isn’t because of Azurik: Rise of Perathia or Brute Force.

Microsoft’s gaming division owes a lot to Bungie, and September 14th, 2010 marked the release of the developer’s fifth and (for the time being) final Halo game in the form of Halo: Reach. While Microsoft got custody of the child in the divorce and have been planning Bungie’s departure for some time now, you’re fooling yourself if you think the software giant isn’t slightly shaking in their boots while watching their breadwinner walk out the door into the wild west of multiplatform development.

And when their final parting gift is as exceptional as Halo: Reach truly is, can you really blame them?

The first task at hand in Halo: Reach is to create your character. The accessories you have access to are limited when you first start the game, but you can fully customize the look of your personal Spartan from his/her color scheme all the way down to the kind of wrist guards they wear. Also, since you don’t play as Master Chief, your created character takes the lead role in Reach’s campaign as well.

The character creation tool is just a small sampling of Reach‘s greatest strength: customization. Nearly every facet of the game can be tweaked in some form or another. Want to make a custom Slayer game where everyone has rockets and jetpacks to help ease the pain of never getting another Tribes game? You can do that. Want to make Firefight a 2 vs. 2 competition? You can do that. While it doesn’t quite get as crazy as some PC shooters, the level of customization in Halo: Reach is flat out peerless on consoles.

Easily the most improved aspect of Reach is the Firefight mode that was introduced in Halo 3: ODST. For starters, you can now play a public game as opposed to ODST where you could only play with people on your friends list. The crazy level of customization that the rest of the multiplayer features is here as well, so if you want to play a Firefight mode where everyone has plasma swords and you fight nothing but brutes, you can do that. My own personal favorite new Firefight mode would have to be Rocket Fight, which is pretty self explanatory.

The biggest tweak to the core game comes in the form of the new armor abilities. You can only carry one at a time, and their effects vary from a simple yet surprisingly useful sprint ability to the new inclusion of jetpacks. There’s seven abilities total, and as you might expect, the jetpacks are currently the most popular online, which is great if you like to shoot sitting ducks.

In previous Halo games, your enjoyment of the competitive multiplayer hindered greatly on your ability to stomach the antics of other players. Lets face it: nobody likes playing alongside twelve-year-olds with mouths that would make Sam Kinison blush and Martin Luther King Jr. cry, but it’s unfortunately bound to happen while playing online games. However, Bungie might have created a solution in the form of your personal psych profile. You have the ability to set how chatty you like your group to be, what your goals while playing are, and the kind of behavior you prefer. Initial play tests have been positive so far, but it’ll take time to see how well this new feature is able to keep earlobes in tact.

These multiplayer improvements and tweaks will make you come back again and again, but it’s the the Campaign in Reach that might just be the game’s crowning achievement.

Reach centers the actions of Noble Team, and you play their newest recruit: known only as Noble Six. This isn’t the first time a Halo game has centered around a select group, as Bungie did this last year with ODST, where it was, unfortunately, done better. Buck’s squad was filled with personality and fun banter, but Reach‘s ragtag group of ethnic stereotypes just isn’t as interesting. There’s the jive talking black guy, the mysterious Spaniard, the crazy Brit, the tough girl, and the ever stoic white male Sargent. They lack the humanity of the ODST squad, which makes sense given that Spartans aren’t exactly human, however the game attempts to make you care about these guys at every turn don’t have the emotional punch Bungie was obviously hoping for.

Luckily, pretty much every other character you meet throughout the campaign is far more interesting, so it’s not a huge detriment to the game. In any narrative, it’s the journey that has the most impact rather than the outcome, so even though you know Reach gets glassed, Reach succeeds by showing the player just how important the incident is to setting up the events of the Halo trilogy. The game is able to strike some emotional chords due to the stunning visual imagery on display. It’s easy to tell why the majestic planet was coveted by humanity, as the massive backgrounds and luscious landscapes make Reach worth fighting for.

Longtime Halo composer Martin O’Donnell is back, and he’s hit another home run, as the game’s score is a eclectic mix of classic melodies along with some great new compositions. Reach continues the series’ tradition of fantastic sound design, as the game is full of those classic Halo sounds you know and love, and the voice acting is top notch all across the board.

At its heart, Reach is still a Halo campaign through and through, but the game does a great job of giving you new and interesting things to do while still feeling very Halo like. On top of the absolutely brilliant Wing Commander style level, you’ll be flying across a city in a helicopter, fighting through night clubs, and there’s even a tower defense style level near the end of the game to boot. On top of being the most varied campaign to date, it’s also the longest. While the other games in the series lasted around 6-8 hours on the first play-through, Reach could take you upwards of eleven depending on what difficulty you chose to play it on. Top that off with quite possibly the greatest post-credits coda in videogame history, and Reach becomes the most complete Halo campaign to date.

The debate is already underway as to if Halo: Reach is the finest entry in the series, but a couple of days after launch is hardly the time to be having this conversation. Only time will tell if Reach has the staying power and lasting effects of its predecessors, but it definitely is the most content heavy Halo game ever. Make no mistake: $60 is a drop in the bucket when compared to how much stuff is crammed into the disc, and Bungie has gone out of their way to ensure that Reach will be the last Halo game a fan will need for a very long time. Anyone with even the slightest urge to play some Halo would be wise to buy this game immediately.

+ The best Halo campaign yet
+ A true visual feast led by stellar art direction
+ The unprecedented level of customization gives Reach seemingly limitless replay value

– Occasional framerate hiccups
– Noble Team isn’t quite as endearing as, say, the squad from ODST
– Friendly AI leaves to be desired