The uninitiated often ask what sets Halo apart from other games – what exactly is it that’s made it so popular over the last decade? Fans will disagree on what to tell them: Is it the “thirty seconds of fun” Bungie themselves often refer to, the half-minute battles that add variety and excitement to each player’s experience? Is it the galaxy-spanning story of humanity’s desperate struggle against a genocidal alien race that inspires the fanaticism of Halo devotees? Or is it the sheer number of choices presented to players through every facet of each game in the series?
The truth is, Halo is what it is for all those reasons and more. Halo: Reach succeeds absolutely as a Halo game because it expands on that epic narrative, that thirty seconds of fun, the dozens of choices around every corner, the guns, grenades and genocidal aliens, and everything else that makes Halo, Halo.
Reach is certainly Bungie’s most accomplished work. After a decade’s experience and experiments, they know what works, and they’re perfectly aware of what doesn’t. It’s as if for Reach, they trimmed away all the fat that Halo accumulated over the years, and what they were left with was the core game experience: Reach has no infuriating zombie Flood enemies, no extraneous campaign missions featuring secondary characters, no confusing equipment, no unnecessary dual wielding, no brokenly powerful weapons, and no interminable boss battles.
It’s a fresh start for a decade-old franchise. By peeling away all those extra layers, they exposed a core of pure Halo, freeing themselves to build upon that “thirty seconds of fun” in ways that enhance rather than distract. In doing so, Bungieâ€™s finally created an experience that feels like it belongs in this generation of games.
As players begin a new campaign, they’re greeted by images of the planet Reach as it will appear by the end of the game’s story: devastated by war, fires raging across its surface, and the belongings left behind by the Covenant’s victims – like a Spartan’s disfigured helmet – already appearing as relics on its surface. The screen goes blank, glaring white, and players are hailed with one word: “Reach.” Omission of the Halo in the title screen seems to be an acknowledgment that Reach very much stands on its own, apart from and above the rest of the series.
Throughout the first half of the game’s missions, players become acquainted with the members of Noble Team, a squad of Spartan super soldiers initially tasked with investigating a simple distress beacon, and, later, with investigating and attempting to thwart the Covenant invasion force laying waste to the planet Reach.
The newly redesigned alien races that together form the Covenant are fearsome and, at times, unnerving. The broken English of minuscule Grunts, which served as comic relief in previous Halo games, has been replaced with unfamiliar alien chatter. Likewise with the savagely majestic Elites, unseen in battle since the first half of Halo 2, are making their triumphant return in Reach. Brutes, Drones, Hunters, Jackals, and the new Skirmishers fight with the bestial ferocity that one imagines Bungie was going for all along in the series.
ODST, Bungie’s previous Halo game, was the studio’s first departure from the Master Chief. The iconic character’s absence allowed them to craft a set of characters with actual personalities, and the same goes for Reach. Each of the six members of Noble Team, including Noble 6, the faceless, player-controlled character, possesses a personality, history and specialties. Hurtling into battle surrounded by five other Spartans is something fans have been clamoring after for years, and it truly feels exhilarating. The members of Noble Team live up to their name, and with each small tragedy, they endeavor ever harder, even as players are reminded that they’re fighting a losing battle.
Unfortunately, the actual plot doesn’t begin to take shape until around the sixth mission, when Kat, the female Spartan III with a bionic arm and a penchant for communications technology, devises a plan to destroy one of the enormous Covenant cruisers circling Reach. The missions up until that point, while gameplay-wise, dramatically, and aesthetically engaging, serve as mere buildup, plot-wise. The significance of the overall conflict is never effectively explained to non-fans. This structuring is one of the game’s few flaws; the first half has players investigating enemy forces, infiltrating dark zones, and generally feeling directionless, and it’s only when they begin to push toward Reach‘s conclusion that they’ll start to feel the sense of urgent purpose that should have permeated the entire game.
Still, the entire campaign is characterized by a wide variety of stunning environments, breathtaking vistas, huge, sprawling set pieces, and an acute sense of detail on an enormous scale. Nighttime reconnaissanceÂ gives way to noonday, desertÂ vehicular assault, visceral space combat, stealthy, low-gravity infiltration, urban jet pack skirmishes and a desperate, poetic final stand. Crackling thunder is accompanied by the sounds of distant battle and subtle electronic snarls, pounding drums and, when appropriate, shredding guitar. Hungarian settlers speak their native tongue, and indigenous wildlife run to and fro between flying bullets and plasma bolts. The planet feels more alive and real than any other in Halo‘s history.
Playersâ€™ freedom to tackle most situations any way they see fit is fueled in large part by armor abilities, a feature new to Reach. Sprint is the default ability on most levels, and while it’s undoubtedly the most versatile, Armor Lock, Hologram, Active Camo, Drop Shield, Jetpack, and, in multiplayer, Evade, can all be used to varying degrees in any number of situations. Players can activate their Active Camo, only to have their invisibility foiled when a paranoid Grunt panics and whips out two live, crackling plasma grenades in a last-gasp Kamikaze strike. Players respawn and try again, this time swapping that Camo for the glowing orange Armor Lock waiting nearby. When the smug bastard tries the same stunt, they’ll lock it down and admire the blue and orange explosion as it tickles Noble 6 inside his armor.
The choices don’t stop when the missions end. Though Halo‘s universe has many players hooked, multiplayer has always been the aspect that keeps them coming playing for years after each game’s release. Now, in Reach, players can customize nearly every facet of both versusÂ multiplayerÂ and players-against-CovenantÂ Firefight, thanks to the fully realizedÂ Forge WorldÂ and a comprehensive suite of new options.
In Halo 3, the Forge allowed players to dictate player and weapon spawn points, game rules, objective locations, map layout, and more. It was fun, but flawed. Thankfully, Reachâ€™s Forge World exponentially increases the potential for creativity with enormous blank slate levels and more objects, tools and options than ever before. Likewise, Firefight mode, introduced in ODST, has been upgraded and fleshed out to allow unprecedented input from players. Firefight amplifies that original “thirty seconds of fun” by allowing players to determine what and how many enemies theyâ€™ll fight, the weapons in play, physical variables for players and A.I., and more. The sheer enormity of potential provided by these modes is staggering.
To top it off, the same multiplayer modes players have known and loved for a decade are augmented by the addition of several new ones, the best of which is Invasion. Invasion pits players against one another in the roles of Spartans versus Elites in multi-tiered matches with increasingly complex objectives and powerful weapons. Player load-outs, weapon and ability combinations selected upon respawning, start out basic and grow more advanced as Invasion games progress. By the end of each match, Spartans with jetpacks and grenade launchers are battling Elites with Energy Swords, high-powered vehicles litter the battleground and air, and members of each team are frantically struggling to defend or assault their respective objectives.
Like the rest of Reach‘s new additions, Invasion is pure Halo. Even the spaceship dogfight, which takes place in orbit around Reach around halfway through the campaign, feels like Halo; in those infrequent segments where players have few or no choices, including the space mission, air combat and on-rails portions that require players to relinquish movement controls, the game becomes more about the experience than strategy or choice. Even then, it succeeds, and the ability to sit back and simply enjoy the role of Noble 6 as he (or she!) lays waste to Covenant Seraph fighters among the stars above Reach, or pilots the helicopter-like Falcon with three Spartan gunners, is a welcome change of pace.
Characters from Halo lore and past games make brief cameos that will leave fans grinning, and the one feature that’s sadly missing – multiplayer space combat – can easily be simulated in four player campaign co-op. Chock full of fan service, references to Halo‘s past and future, and countless new features, improvements small and large, and an attention to detail only Bungie is capable of, it’s a fitting developer swan song to one of the most influential series ever.
But despite its minimalistic title screen, Reach is still Halo, and for every feature that’s shiny and new, there are a dozen that remain virtually unchanged. Itâ€™s a love letter to Halo fans, written by Halo fans, and addressed personally and with great significance directly to our hearts. For us, nothing could be better. No studio but Bungie could have created it, and nothing in the foreseeable future besides their next project – whatever it may be – has any chance of outshining it.
Also check out ourÂ in-depth looksÂ atÂ Firefight,Â Forge World,Â Multiplayer, and the two campaign missions,Â NightfallÂ andÂ Tip of the Spear. Don’t forget our video interview with Bungie’s Brian Jarrard, PartsÂ oneÂ andÂ two, and thanks for reading Kombo!