Also available on: N/A
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: First-person shooter
It's almost hard to believe that Bungie has been working on Halo for almost a decade, and more difficult still to realise that it's soon handing the reigns over to someone else. It's practically been the market leader of console shooters since the beginning, and the studio's last foray into the franchise is both a worthy addition and a homage to its own work, acting as grand culmination of its efforts to date. As always it's a far stronger multiplayer offering than a story one, and despite being a prequel - it's the tale of a planet falling to an alien invasion - it manages to complete the series in a well-rounded and satisfying way.
The opening half of Reach's campaign is lukewarm at best. While previous games in the series kicked off with back-to-back set pieces or teased exciting plot points, the objectives to begin with feel stale and rigid, requiring a switch to be thrown here or a generator to be defended there, with familiar narrow areas of cliff and concrete that open up to sandbox skirmishes. The rugged terrain of planet Reach is gorgeous, showing off the renewed engine in excellent light, and while each eventual destination is tightly designed as the objectives draw to a climax, there is little urgency to the story or pacing in its early stages. What should have been an epic rise to domination for the invading Covenant fleet is just a low-key reveal in the opening stages, and by the half-way point you could mix and match any of the previous sections together and probably not notice any change.
And then in the space of a single mission, it really takes off. Quite literally; a rocket ride into Reach's orbit sees you dogfight among the stars, and from thereon each mission has a clever hook on the standard mechanics that really makes you sit up and notice. Closed corridors are filled with suicide-squad grunts, the jet-pack has you hopping across platforms high in the sky, and one mission has you pilot a chopper back and forth between rescue missions as a city falls around you. It escalates and builds towards a reserved but remarkably satisfying finale, and throws in an interesting surprise for good measure. It's Halo at its best, and it's just a shame it takes so long to get there.
The feeling of overwhelming odds, often through a number of excellently directed first-person cutscenes and stunning vistas of destroyed cities, is something the game absolutely nails. But on the other hand it misses out a golden opportunity; despite actually beginning before the invasion takes place, it could have shown you what is at stake before everything gets turned to rubble. As a result, you don't really care for what eventually happens to the planet or your squad of rough-and-ready Spartans, despite what the abundance of emotional music and slow-motion cutscenes tell you. Of course story is very much take-it-or-leave it with a first-person shooter, but when it's been so heavily pushed as the centre piece of the campaign, you can't help but notice how half-baked it really is.
A switch in focus for Reach is the idea of being part of a squad with your fellow Spartans, or alongside regular soldiers who join you for the occasional mission. Although stressing early on that you aren't a lone wolf, it certainly plays that way, partly due to the occasionally stupid AI who walks into walls or sits and waits in empty vehicles. Although they certainly help out in combat, they don't change how you approach each mission. On-screen objectives are also surprisingly shaky, sometimes not telling you where to go or your next objective, which would be fine it is wasn't performed so flawlessly in previous editions. The planet is also populated with indigenous wildlife that is eagerly pointed out by teammates like some kind of alien safari, but is barely used as a means of aid or avoidance for enemies. There are plenty of ideas in the campaign that just don't come together.
The biggest gameplay addition, across the campaign and the multiplayer modes, are abilities. Instead of carrying items, you now have one equipped ability at any one time. Hunters and Brutes become more vulnerable when you can float above their heads with the jet-pack, and harder difficulty levels get more survivable by becoming invincible or through simply running away. There's even a neat Total Recall hologram which is perfect for fooling players online. While abilities thankfully aren't game breakers, they do provide new opportunities for tried and tested situations both online and off, and are just enough to keep the traditional Halo gameplay as solid as it's ever been.
For those who don't want players buzzing around like flies in their multiplayer matches, then there are playlists that drop the abilities altogether, and if you want something else entirely then there are new modes that flip existing ideas on their head. The most significant is Invasion, where Spartans defend against Elites as they take over parts of the map in search of a core, which must be captured and taken away to win. It takes the co-operative heavy heritage of the franchise to new heights, working together not only as a team but to ensure your designated wingman can spawn in on a regular basis. Headhunter, which drops skulls upon player death, feels slightly unbalanced as players tend to camp and wait for skirmishes to finish before taking all the spoils, while Stockpile scores flags at each team base on regular intervals, ensuring that home and defence forces are stretched to breaking point. Again, they are all neat twists on familiar ideas that really give experienced players something new to jump into.
Another feature that bridges the game's modes together is the Credits system. Completed matches and kills provide currency for ranks and unlockables, paving the way for enhanced customisation of your Spartan trooper. There are also ongoing, daily and weekly challenges to aim for, which do a great job of motivating players to go out of their depth and work towards a task they otherwise wouldn't. (As a result, multiplayer Achievements have taken a back seat in Reach, which may please quite a few.) Although this metagame component ensures that every every session is contributing to an overall goal, the removal of XP from Halo 3 removes the need to perform that much better in matchmaking, which was easily one of its most unique strengths. The whole system is also a bit of a fuss to navigate, with ongoing challenges buried deep under a stack of menus, and daily and weekly challenges not even designated clearly. It's an interesting take on the popular unlock system we've become so accustomed to, but it just comes across a little more clunky than the competition.
The list of adjustments and tweaks keep going and going; the health system and night-vision modes from Halo 3: ODST make a welcome return, and the weapon line-up has had a smart refresh. The fan-favourite Battle Rifle has been replaced by the single-shot DMR, a more powerful and equally enjoyable scoped weapon that you'll keep opting for, while Grenade Launchers, Target Launchers and Needle Rifles have their own strengths and weaknesses to learn over time. ODST's Firefight has had a huge overhaul, with matchmaking support and the ability to customise rules to the smallest detail, which sits nicely alongside the expanded Forge mode that can now support vast expanses of customisable terrain.
As with Halo 3 before it, the multiplayer components here are a formidable beast, and when it comes to the range of tactics available and the sheer scope in deploying them there is nothing that comes close in the online space. The changes provide experienced players what little excuse they need to pick up this release, while the rough campaign is most certainly enjoyable as it draws to its conclusion. Reach is more of a Greatest Hits than anything truly new or innovative, and as a final send-off from Bungie to its legions of dedicated fans, it'll more than satisfy for years to come.
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