Halo: Reach Video Game Review (Xbox 360)

After three years, and tireless work, Bungie’s love letter to Halo fans, Halo: Reach, is finally here. The fifth game in the series, this one is the developer’s last game in the series for the next ten years, as 343 Studios takes over the franchise. The game is bursting at the seams, and it isn’t a question of whether Halo: Reach is good – the question is how good?

In reality, Halo: Reach is two games: the main campaign and the online multiplayer, though Reach blurs the line much further than ever before in the series.

The campaign takes place just before the events of the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, and it’s not a spoiler to say that the game ends where the first game begins. Halo: Reach is the videogaming answer to The Battle of Thermopylae, in which a group of heroes make their last stand against a rampaging horde of vicious aliens, where it seems like every victory is answered by a bigger defeat. The question of whether you win or lose is moot: you’re going to lose. The question is how you survive, or in some cases, die.

You play Noble Six, and for the first time, Six can be male or female. If that weren’t enough, you completely create the protagonist from scratch, using meta-game currency to purchase armor options. In fact, the character you create for the campaign is the character you take with you into multiplayer, which has the effect of making you bond with your creation. When you check your profile on Bungie.net, your character is waiting for you.

Halo: Reach is a bit of a throwback in its campaign gameplay. There’s no big set pieces to speak of, just a relentless onslaught of Covenant with the occasional break for air. Instead, the game relies on its superior AI to drive the action – no gameplay run-through is ever the same because of the stellar reactions by friendly and enemy characters, and the improved physics engine as well. There will be tons of unscripted “holy shit!” moments because Bungie allows the game to play, rather than script every big moment as shooters like Call of Duty are wont to do. That isn’t to say there’s no surprises or set pieces; at one point, the game takes an unexpected genre shift and has Noble Six and company up in space, having the player play a little Wing Commander.

Additionally, the game harkens back to the first Halo in that players only have a single regenerating shield and non-regenerating health. Once the shield comes down, health damage has to be healed through the good old fashioned health box. Oh, and like Halo: Combat Evolved, there’s no dual wielding anymore, so the “energy + physical” weapon combo is not available anymore. On the other hand, there are new powers, including the highly anticipated jetpack, as well as the nifty decoy, in which you can send a doppelganger version of yourself running one way while you go another.

It isn’t just the gameplay that is relentless. As stated before, the story’s tone is bleak and ominous. The Covenant are ruthless monsters, even more so than the first Halo. Even the series’ major comic relief, the Grunts (aka the Unggoy), no longer speak English, let alone crack jokes. Any humor in the game is either black or just generated by the unscripted nature of the game. (That’s not to say there aren’t some hilarious easter eggs to be found.)

Fortunately, while the game may be dark, it’s never morbid. Rather, it emphasizes the heroism of the Spartans and humanity in general as they face down genocide and fight to survive. There’s plenty of moments that will make the hardiest Halo player shed tears from genuine human moments. Bungie managed to create a tearjerker that avoids being maudlin or sappy. The ending, which occurs after the game’s story ends, puts just the right coda on not only the game but the series as it stands.

As usual in a Halo game, though, the multiplayer dwarfs the campaign. While there are only eleven maps (and a few of them are remakes of popular maps), the sheer amount of multiplayer to be had is astonishing. Bungie not only has created a balanced, fun experience, but they’ve also once again proven they know how matchmaking is supposed to be. In addition to the usual deathmatching, capture the flag, and so forth, there are some new gameplay modes that will tickle the fancy of veteran players.

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One mode in particular, Stockpile, is delightful, in which players continually capture flags to stockpile in their base. The game forces players to decide whether they want to defend or snatch immediately. Headhunter is another fun new addition in which players collect skulls on their person – if they get shot, another player can grab the skulls. The best mode is a holdover from Halo 3: ODST, Firefight. It’s the same sort of Horde mode in which one to four players hold off an onslaught of wave after wave of Covenant forces, but now there’s a competitive option in which two players can be on the side of the Covenant. Firefight is also bolstered by the Reach matchmaking that was lacking in ODST. There’s also the co-operative campaign play as well.

There’s also a meta-game as well in which Bungie has various weekly tests for players to try to achieve, such as killing X number of enemies in Firefight, or X number of enemies with a particular weapon, or a certain level in a certain amount of time.

Playing the game, whether in single player campaign, co-op campaign or online multiplayer, is all a part of the Halo: Reach meta-game. Everything you do in the game earns you credits that you can spend on armor pieces, voices and special effects for multiplayer. While it’s purely cosmetic, there is a drive to make your Spartan look as badass as possible, especially when you are saving those credits to buy Master Chief’s voice or spend on the Birthday Confetti death effect. Halo: Reach is about community.

Nowhere is that more evident with Forge 2.0. The original Halo 3 Forge was a neat innovation, but it never struck a chord with gamers, primarily due to its limitations. If anything, it was the game video recording that was the highlight for that game (as the famous “Traffic Cone” will attest to.) Now, Forge 2.0 brings a giant map for people to build structures in, and the game rivals Far Cry 2 in some respects for its sheer power. Granted, one can’t change the terrain as one can in Far Cry 2, but the rest of the options are overwhelming. It’ll be interesting to see how the community utilizes it.

This is Bungie’s farewell to the Halo series, and it shows. There’s even a literal love letter to the fans from Bungie before the end credits roll. Halo 2 had devoted fans playing on Xbox Live 1.0 servers for six years before they were forcibly kicked off by Microsoft; it’s hard to imagine Halo: Reach not having the same fanaticism.

While it’s not a goodbye for Bungie, really, it’s hard not to feel a sense of finality of some sort. Bungie will be making a multiplatform game while the next Halo game will be developed by Frank O’Connor and company. Maybe in ten years, Bungie will announce Halo 4 – odds are gamers will still be rocking out to Halo: Reach by then.

Jonah Falcon is a blogger for TMRzoo and GameStooge.com and covers all gaming consoles and platforms including Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft XBOX 360, Nintendo Wii, Sony PSP and computer games designed for Mac OS, Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems. Jonah provides his readers with reviews, previews and up to date gaming industry news and rumors.

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